The marriages of our two partners in the Rabbit Gulch Commune collapsed and we all agreed to sell the communal house. A deal went through in March of 1972. My then wife and I sold everything we owned at a series of weekend flea markets. I left the keys to my Austin Healy in the ignition and it was gone three days later. I used the insurance money to buy a 1958 Chevy pickup. We loaded the Chevy until the springs were flat and then crammed stuff into a trailer until the hitch almost touched the ground. When I ran into snow crossing the Tehachipie mountains, the window on the drivers side wouldn’t close and I discovered the heater didn’t work, but what the hell, wasn’t I a pioneer reversing the manifest destiny of America, heading east on highway 66 with the songs of Woodie Guthrie ringing in my head? The rear bearing began to give out in Needles, but I kept nursing the pickup forward.
I drove into our mountain valley on a wing and a prayer, with oil dripping on the clutch plate, which kept slipping on the mountain roads. It was shockingly beautiful. The land was saturated with unnaturally intense light, giving everything an extra dimension. Our land was on a raised plateau, a llano, above the old Spanish town of Penasco that lies in a long green valley on the Western slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The valley is surrounded by forests of piñon, juniper and pine. Jicarita mountain, a majestic Queen Victoria, sits five thousand feet higher at the end of the valley. To the West across the Rio Grande two thousand feet below, mountain ranges shimmer into the distance.
It began snowing the day after I arrived, and it continued to snow for another week. My then wife and kid were down with the flue and we were camped in a tiny house with people we hardly knew. But we had a vision and I threw myself into getting our new home ready to live in. We knew where we were going. We had read the inspirational literature and we had an idyllic picture of the life we would forge, although the image was fuzzy around the edges.
Our original plan was to buy land in Vermont where we knew others who had been successful at subsistence farming. That fell through when the couple we hoped to buy land with lost interest. After we sold the commune, we had to find a new destination immediately. We had friends who lived near a Hog Farm commune in Llano, New Mexico, and we drove by to see them on our return from Vermont. It was beautiful. Land was for sale — sixteen acres for $16,000. My then wife’s friend would buy half. We could have an eight acre piece of land with a three room house for $8,000. With the sale of the commune, we would have enough to live on for a few years while we figured out how to survive.
I never really questioned the possibility of raising enough food on that piece of scenery at 7,500 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A careful, considered examination of the possibility of sustainable farming in Llano would have convinced me to look elsewhere, but at the time it never occurred to me. I was mesmerized and completely confident of success.
My city friends said our subsistence life was “a noble experiment” or “basic and romantic.” Euell Gibbons, a respected naturalist and advocate of wild plants as food sources, dismissed all of us as “the new generation of dewey-eyed amateurs pouring from the cities into the country-side longing to raise apple trees and honey bees and snow white turtle doves.”
Henry Jacobs and I were having a Japanese lunch when I told him I was leaving the Bay Area to live in the country. He popped a sushi morsel into his mouth and asked me what I’d do for good food. Henry was typical. Everyone thought I was crazy. Leave Berkeley with its saunas and book stores, its live music (Brownie McGee and Sunny Terry or Commander Cody at Mandrakes), everything accompanied by a steady supply of drugs and a decent job?
In New Mexico, to the local Spanish we were hippies, part of an influx that began in 1967 when the Hog Farm bought 13 acres of land there. Hog Farm founder Wavy Gravy (born Hugh Romney) said the iChing admonition “the Southwest furthers” had drawn him to New Mexico. Jean Nichols, who came at the same time and still lives there, explained in more detail: “We were rejecting the American Dream as it was. We thought that it was hypocrisy, the whole capitalist thing. So we were going for peace, equality, and justice in practice. We’re all one family—everyone in the world is connected. We were trying to stop the war machine by creating a culture of peace—that was a big part of it. We were also having fun. The stereotype of the Sixties is “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.” There was that, but there was a lot more—good hard work. A lot of us had rejected the social mores, where you go out and get a career and live a comfortable life. So living communally was a real practical thing. We didn’t want to compete and have more than our neighbors. We wanted to live simply and with respect for the earth.”
The Hog Farm had a large commune in the Bay Area and one along the Canadian/Vermont border. In 1969, the Hog Farm provided medical services (and much more!) at Woodstock for the 400,000 who attended. Hundreds of these young people later descended on the Llano farm. There was no way these inexperienced young people could make it through a harsh Llano winter and Wavy Gravy and most of the campers went back on the road.
The core that stayed and made it through the winter were tough, and some of them started playing outlaws in the Spring. For several summers they lived on horseback in the national forest, only coming down every few weeks for supplies. Bearded, long haired single men and women dressed in homemade leather clothing, fishing, hunting out of season and occasionally frightening normal campers. Local law enforcement was frequently after them, but in those days the “outlaws” knew the mountains better than the rangers. Some of the outlaws were still around when we arrived a few years later, and they would play an unexpected role in our lives.