When I Was a Hippie (Part 1 of 5)

It was 1980. Janet and I were hiding out (from my creditors) at Shasta Abbey, a monastery in northern California, where we had ordained as Zen postulants. Suddenly, out of the blue, I became very ill, and when the illness worsened, I handled it as I had handled everything in the past — I ran!

We bussed down to the Bay area and squeezed into a small apartment in some non-descript building in Lafayette, California. Janet went to work at a stationery store while I tackled a job at Radio Shack, where I knew that I couldn’t stay long before someone tracked me down. We both either walked or bussed to work since driving a car was out of the question, even if we had one. The lingering sensitivity that we developed at the Abbey, which was only exacerbated by my illness, precluded any aggressive activity. And in the Bay Area, driving was an aggressive activity! In order to function in the world again, I had no choice but to desensitize my mind in some fashion, a desensitizing that had the unfortunate results of impeding any further insights from arising for the time being. I needed somewhere to cool out.

The Zen sickness wasn’t improving, and I was getting bone-tired of looking over my shoulder for bill collectors. I knew that I had to change things up, so one afternoon I found myself writing Janet another note and boarding my trusty Greyhound, this time headed to Tennessee. With only a few bucks in my pocket, I only hoped they would take me in at “The Farm,” the famous commune headed up by the original San Francisco hippie-refugee, Stephen Gaskin.

As I boarded the Greyhound, I noticed that the smell hadn’t changed — diesel fuel mixed with . . . humanity?

I finally made it to Tennessee and hitched from the bus station to walking distance of The Farm, and in the midst of a wild anticipation of the great new experiences ahead, the Zen sickness mysteriously disappeared. This was always my reactions when leaving a monastery, I seemed to take all the accumulated introspection and blow it on the world again!

A couple of miles later I was still walking and I wondered if I might have taken the wrong road — again. But then ahead I could see a rundown garage-type building in the middle of nowhere. God! This wasn’t The Farm, was it?

Oh no! A longhaired hippy was guarding it! Yep, it was The Farm all right. I had arrived at the gatehouse.

While mentally kicking myself for not doing my homework before spending my last few dollars on a bus ticket, the skinny gatekeeper invited me in. With strict instructions not to go beyond the gatehouse, I remained there for the better part of a week sleeping in a loft with people from all over the world, and being interviewed by a constant stream of hippies asking unusual questions.

The Farm, I was to discover, was chock full of women and kids, thus, newcomers were screened vigilantly. I must have answered all the questions more or less correctly because one morning I was escorted to the main compound about a half-mile from the gatehouse, and from there on to a small three-bedroom house with an attic loft, located a little further — my new home which I would share with 6 men, 10 women, and 11 kids.

About fifteen hundred folks had settled on the two thousand acres that made up The Farm — thirteen hundred women and children and about two hundred men (who worked their tails off to support the women and kids. Some things never change!) The Farm routinely put out the word to young women all over the country that if you have a kid and no old man, you are welcome on The Farm! I reminded myself again to do my homework before traveling cross-country!

The soy dairy (my first assignment), the bakery, and the kitchen fed the whole community, and were the centers of activity. At the dairy, we would soak hundreds of pounds of soybeans every night in gigantic stainless steel tubs, to process them the next day into tofu, tempeh, miso, soymilk, and soy ice cream that the Farm moms lined up for at the windows with their five-gallon buckets

After a short career at the dairy, I helped the farming crew hand plant fifteen acres of tomato plants, then landed a job on the masonry crew that trucked every day to the Nashville area, sixty miles to the north, to build solar houses.

The Farm was extremely active with cottage industries; home building, tie dyed T-shirts, professional bands that toured the country, nuke busters (small, hand-held devices to detect radiation from clandestine government trucks illegally transporting nuclear materials), and other ingenious entrepreneurial endeavors such as a vegetarian restaurant in Nashville. These all helped support the commune, bringing in about a dollar a day per person which we lived on by eating lots of soybeans, baking our own bread, growing many of our own vegetables, and most of all hoping that some of the folk’s parents would kick in some money — or at least some peanut butter and Hershey bars.

The Zen sickness never returned, at least as long as I was at the Farm. I didn’t know at the time how the spiritual world worked, and that this was only a brief respite from past karma that would eventually have to be faced . . . big time. So I had the privilege of becoming acquainted with many kind folks, each spiritual in their own special way, from my skinny, scarred friend who lost his scalp when he tangled his long hair in a potato-picking machine, to the women friends I had scattered here and there all over the commune.

We had doctors and attorneys, a few dentists — and lots of love. Everybody took a vow of poverty when entering the commune, giving up all of their worldly possessions (easy for me to do), so everybody was in the same boat, and all seemingly in the same house — mine! The married folks and their kids slept in the three bedrooms downstairs while the single people slept in the loft (where one would never know with whom they would end up, and in whose sleeping bag)!