by Rick Schmidt ©2016
Sometime in the summer of my marital breakup, mid-July of 1969, I got the powerful urge to hit the road. I had never visited the Space Needle in Seattle, I figured this was as good a time as any. One year earlier, I’d done a coast-to-coast round trip hitchhike in just eight days, so I was thinking I could just use my thumb to skate to Seattle in a day or so, enjoy the sights, and return before I was missed. I remember planning to leave on Monday, so I could be back on Friday in time to meet my little kids at their house –previously my house. I’d get back in time to stay in the “Dad” loop.
I stood with outstretched thumb at the corner of Ashby and 6th, near the entrance to highway 580/North – virtually the same spot from which I’d launched the previous year. Cars whizzed past, ignoring my plea for a free ride, but the boredom of waiting was oddly refreshing. No worries, no routines.
Can’t remember much about the first ride I got, but the first BIG ride was in an old 1/2 ton Ford pickup driven by a hippie kid in his mid-twenties. He wheeled north on 5 for a while, then turned west and headed toward the salt sea air of the coast. On the way over, we cut through some odd little one-building villages where even the English language took a beating when spoken by the locals. At a combination hardware store, feed store, gas station and snack counter, the old guy on the porch, corn cob pipe in hand, tried to give us directions to the beach. Yuh go thar tuple miles, curves left, and yuh stays ta dat. Not exactly Greek, but almost. The last 10 or so miles passed quickly, however, for we started catching glimpses of the ocean through the V of overlapping hillsides.
I remember the unbridled joy of being alive. It wasn’t just the distant sight of the water. It was the stream of moist air buffeting the hand I was dangling out the window. It was being in a pleasant place without having made any plans. Most vacations are a workout. You have to anticipate travel time, select accommodations, wonder about affordable restaurants (three meals a day!), get your vehicle ready–tune up, oil change, rotate the tires…With hitchhiking, there’s none of that. You just set out. Everything is free! And since everything is unexpected, your expectations are never dashed.
We arrived at the coastal road and turned north again. The Southern California sun & surf gave way to chilly fog and wind and crashing waves. Somewhere near the Oregon border, we stopped and climbed out of the truck and traipsed across the sand toward the lapping foamy tide. The water was freezing. Anyone crazy enough to jump in without a wetsuit deserved to die—but there was no one to do any jumping, no one to be seen for miles on that beach. The brisk wind cleared my head and heart. I was alive. I was out of Berkeley. Life was good.
In Oregon, near Grant’s Pass, my new pal and I parted ways. He was heading inland; I needed to keep going north if I was going to see the Space Needle. Back on the shoulder of the road, backpack in place, nothing but trees in every direction, I settled down for the usual wait. An hour went by. I must admit, the sign I was standing next to—a stern warning that hitchhiking on this highway was illegal—gave me pause. After awhile, I walked ahead a bit, just to stretch, and found myself 50 feet from a suntanned man—another hitchhiker. We maintained our distance from each other as several cars rejected us both. Finally I called out, “Hello” and he said Hello back. We joined up, talked a little, and decided to try hitching together, even though common sense told us this would not improve our odds.
The suntanned man told me he had been a millionaire recently. He’d gotten rich by investing in a housing development in Arizona, which then went belly-up, leaving him broke. In fact, he told me, he’d been a millionaire and gone broke several times. He went on to explain one of his financial secrets. Before Arizona, he took a job at a factory as an assembly line grunt. There, he saw some things the factory could do to cut costs. He approached management with an offer they couldn’t refuse. They could pay him 50Gs right then for his ideas; or pay him anything they saved over a million dollars. He’d done this several times, he said, at different factories. They habitually coughed up the lesser chunk of dough.
Looking at him as he told his bizarre story, I pictured him in an expensive Italian suit coat, a white shirt and a silk tie, his face tanned from a sun-tanning booth, and then his story made sense. Happily, his narration used up a good amount of time. Just as he finished, as if on cue, a young hippie guy drove up in a VW beetle. “Howdy brothers, need a ride?”
“Sure!” we said.
“Praise the Lord,” said our savior.
For a couple miles it was, “Brother” this and “Brother” that, with more “Praise the Lord” thrown in. Then he invited us to have lunch with him. No sooner had we agreed, then he pulled a sharp right onto a tiny dirt road, the entrance of which had hardly been visible. Soon we were bouncing along through dense woods to wherever it was he and his ‘brothers’ lived. After a mile or so we came to a wide, open expanse. There we saw little log cabins, a huge garden tended by several young (and attractive) hippie girls, and in the distance a much larger dome-like building – their lodge, I later learned. As it turned out, we had arrived at one of the biggest country communes on the West Coast.
Our driver, still praising the Lord, pointed to a guy chopping wood. Did we see that guy? He was building his own little free cabin, our host said. We could do the same. Free life, free food, if you want to join up (his eyebrows went up and down as he motioned toward the young women out gardening: maybe even free love, his wiggling eyebrows suggested…) “Everything you could want is here. What say you, brothers?”
Before we could answer properly, we were invited to partake of a lunch: many delicious homegrown foodstuffs; vegetables, nut-pastes, rice and baked bread, lusciously presented on a long table.
As I loaded up my plate, I noticed several little girls in white-but-soiled dresses, playing near a large tree. Someone said Life magazine had been there to take pictures of her and of the food we were about to eat. Uh huh. Sure, we thought.
During the meal one commune member explained how things were run out there in the woods. He said that no one did any work there and no one was the boss. People only did what their spirit moved them to do “and behold, there’s a well-tended garden. And behold, up the hill we have a world-class tall-beam lodge, built by everyone.”
I thought. This is how things in society should work.
The food WAS delicious. It even had almond butter from almonds they had grown themselves: impressive. The aroma of marijuana hung in the air from somewhere. Summer ’69 was in full tilt. A man was walking on the moon… I was eating with relish…
Then I must have passed out. When I became conscious I was lying on my side on the ground, head right against the dirt. And there directly ahead, seen sideways at first, was one of the little girls I’d spotted earlier, sitting a couple feet away. Her dirty face and dress made her seem like a mystical creature, a wood-nymph. She was admiring herself in a large, jagged piece of broken mirror. The Rip Van Winkle story came to mind. How long had I been out? I looked around and saw neither my new traveling companion nor the VW driver. It took a few minutes to realize I had gotten completely stoned from the meal.
Ultimately, the millionaire and I both declined the offer of free everything–we were too stupid to embrace this total shift of consciousness, I guess. The communards took us back to the highway and dropped us off with a last, hearty “God be with you, brothers.”
Right away, unbelievably, two attractive young college girls stopped for us, in another VW bug. GREAT! There was just one rub. After my companion squeezed into the back seat, pushing some stuff over to just barely fit in, there was no room left for me. I was told that, if I didn’t mind, I would need to let the second girl sit on my lap. Oh. Okay. Of course! No problem. At least I was hoping there would be ‘no problem.’ I had to hold her a little to keep her from harm as she rocked from side to side and sometimes forward and back as we navigated the curves of the highway. The bouncing up and down on bumps gave me a mental workout. And you know what I was trying so hard not to think about. Somehow I managed to not embarrass myself, we made it to Portland, and rolled up to an industrial building on the outskirts, the place they called home.
When they offered to let us sleep there for the night it seemed too good to be true. But one of these lovely, modern young women read our minds and in a completely straightforward manner, stated that there would be no sleeping together. Well…sure. OK. Fine. No problem. We never thought –
Her sensible pronouncement instantly diffused the dreams of two male hitchhikers. Drama gone. But we all did get a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, after breakfast, I asked one of the girls if she would take me back to the highway. She said sure, no problem. The Interstate ran right through the city of Portland. It was raining by the time we got there. The girl said that if I didn’t want to leave right then I could stay longer. Nice offer. Who knows what it meant. A life in Portland? Not in the cards. Did we kiss? We may have kissed. Just a simple friendly peck. Nice girls. I eased into the misty rain on a highway full of cars stuck in rush hour gridlock. As I adjusted my coat and hat against the downpour and waved goodbye, a nearby car waved me over.
“Where yuh headed?”
I found myself saying, “Berkeley.” Somehow, the Space Needle and Seattle no longer seemed so important.
When the guy said, “Get in.” It was music to my ears.
I curled up in his back seat, and I must have fallen asleep because all I remember of the trip back are dream-like images of a dark night, a loud wind wailing, tires spinning against wet pavement; and then the words, “We’re here” woke me up. The man had delivered me to within a block of my old house, where my ex-wife and my kids lived now. Toad’s crazy ride was over.
I walked in , pulled off my coat, and spotted a stack of mail on the kitchen table. Right at the top was a new copy Life magazine. The cover shouted YOUTH COMMUNES. The smaller print said, New Way of Living Confronts U.S. Right below the headline was a photo of the same little girl who had been holding the broken mirror. standing with her sister and parents.
I turned the pages quickly, and yes: they had photographed the meal served at this place, the very dishes I had devoured, the hallucinogenic properties of which had almost brought me into that fold. The magazine said they had made a bargain not to reveal the location of this place, so they would only say: It was somewhere in America.
Well, that much I already knew, didn’t I? The article did, however, fill in some blanks for me. For one thing, it revealed the name of that secret commune, which I didn’t remember anyone mentioning when I was there. From Life magazine, I learned that if only I had stayed, I could have had a free house, free food, and free love with my new Family of the Mystic Arts.
Rick Schmidt is an independent filmmaker whose works include Morgan’s Cake, Emerald Cities, and the collaborative feature Release the Head, among others. Schmidt is also the author of the classic indie film-making manual Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices, as well as Extreme DV (Penguin/Random House Books).