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Home Free Home: A History of Two Open-Door California Communes

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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25

Chapter 10
First Ridge Settlers

Upon the Ridge, the influx of people wrought sudden and shattering changes in Bill and Gwen's life. Bill and Gwen made an honest attempt to be open and understanding, but at times they just wanted everyone to go away. Their garden was raided for vegetables, cars roared through to the back of the land, shit was left everywhere and, along with the people there came dogs in increasing numbers. Dogs! It was only a matter of time before they raided the neighbors' sheep.

Beatrice and Willie B. moved over from Morning Star with their boy André, two dogs and two horses. Beatrice leveled off a place for their tent while Willie B. watched. He never was one for doing work, but he made up for it with his music. Thor, his stallion, soon became impossible to control. He kicked or bit anyone who tried to interfere with his daily raids on campsites, destroying tents in his efforts to get to the grains and oats. Finally he was given away because no one had the heart to castrate him.

And of course, along with the gentle flower children there came the Impossibles. Nevada drove in one day monstrously drunk, weaving on and off the road, taking out the fencing as he came. He ended up in Bill's studio, haranguing him on Jesus, Morning Star and his single-handed conquest of the North Koreans. If Bill didn't listen and agree to everything he said, Nevada threatened to punch him out.

On May 10th, the temporary injunction against Morning Star was made a permanent injunction which continued to forbid Lou or any of his agents from operating an organized camp, living in any structures except Lou's studio, exposing private parts, etc, etc. Also Lou was ordered to tear down all illegal structures - which now included the Upper and Lower houses - and clean up the place.

Aware that the permanent injunction would bring even more refugees to the Ridge, Bill tried to establish some minimum rules: bury your shit, no open fires in the fire season, no building in the open meadows - the cows have to eat too. Some people cooperated while others just laughed.

"We didn't come here to be told what to do!"

GWEN: "To put in a toilet according to the county's regulations would have cost each person six hundred dollars. Inasmuch as this was out of the question, we evolved a human waste disposal method acceptable to almost everyone who came to live with us. When one's bowels began to move, one took a shovel in hand and a brief walk in the fresh country air to select the perfect spot for a donation to Mother Earth. Afterwards, the hole was refilled with dirt and the shovel replaced. Some people with children preferred to dig a larger hole in advance, using it until it was full. I chose to have a different view from my toilet every day. But some people who came either did not understand the importance of burying their feces, did not care or could not find a shovel in time."

By June, 1968, there were thirty to fifty settlers on the Ridge and word was spreading fast. On June 17th, Bill's birthday, Bill and Gwen returned from town to find the studio decked out in crepe paper, banners and balloons. Musicians were playing, and food had been laid on the table. Whatever misgivings and reservations they had been feeling melted at this open expression of love from their new brothers and sisters. On that day, Bill realized that all the difficulties triggered by the influx of refugees were worth it. His decision to open the land, no matter how hard to maintain, was RIGHT ON.

GWEN: "The land was choosing its settlers. No one ever said who could or could not stay, but the natural course of events often caused people to move on. Some left feeling bitter at their inability to fit in to the budding community, but most left with a loving attitude towards the Ridge. Of the thousands whose lives crossed on the paths of the land, only one person was there from start to finish - Bill Wheeler. Two or three others were there most of the time, and hundreds were there for periods of less than one year. For many, the Open Land experience was like attending a school."

BILL: "The land was open only insofar as the people on it were themselves open. When they committed 'closed' acts, they closed the land to themselves. When a person couldn't accept the lines of communications and trust of the Morning Star consciousness, when they did violence of one kind or another, they did not remain but returned to the greater society which offered specific remedies for amoral and asocial behavior - prison or the hospital. In the first five years of Open Land, during which time many thousands from every stratum of society passed through the Ridge, I did not have to tell anyone to leave of remove them myself more the five times."

One day Beatrice came to Bill and suggested they close the gate to newcomers. But Bill, already committed to the Open Land ideal, had no intention of turning back. The challenge to make a workable community was tremendous. He had much the same feeling as when as a painter he confronted an empty canvas - a mixture of fear of the unknown and the exhilaration of an infinite potential.

BILL: "The flow of immigrants waxed as the summer passed. Open Land became the ultimate absurdity, as crazy as New York City's subway rush hour. The magician poured milk in a neverending stream into a tiny glass. The Grand Hotel remained open and never filled."

One day a black man with an intense gaze appeared at the studio door. He asked permission to settle his group on the land. This took Bill by surprise, inasmuch as permission was seldom asked. Ultimately a sign was posted on the front gate that read, 'Land permit to live on not required.' That man, Ray, and his four male disciples settled down near Bill and Gwen's garden. Bill gently suggested they might find another campsite further from any immediate neighbors. Moving behind the goat pen, they built a large plastic dome with a tiny entrance to crawl through. The walls, covered with photographs and religious decorations, were dominated by a large photo of Gurdjieff whom they considered their guru. Women or sex seemed to have no place within their tightly disciplined existence. Once settled into their 'monastery,' as they called it, the 'Gurdjieff Boys' proved extremely energetic and a fine addition to the community.

O.B. Ray came that first summer as a permanent fixture. Sufi philosopher, father figure, lover, superlative good-karma marijuana farmer (he gave away all he grew), his large tent was always available to anyone needing a place to sleep. After surviving three bloody landings in the Pacific with the Marines during World War II, O.B. had been assigned to guard a desert island with two other soldiers. The other men went crazy, but O.B. loved it so much that he asked for an extension of duty. On that island he discovered the purpose of his life - to do nothing. That is what made him the happiest. After the war, he was, in his own words, 'forced into slavery' driving a cab in San Francisco for seventeen years before getting turned on to Zen by Suzuki Roshi. He retired to Mt. Tamalpais for a year to meditate, take acid and write a book about his religious experiences. O.B.'s laugh was a wonderful thing, and could be heard from one end of the land to the other. He was a font of wisdom and mellowness at all times, a great sage and much beloved tribal elder.

O.B.RAY (excerpted from his book): "The basic nature of things is inhuman, impersonal, impartial, indifferent; it is neither cold nor hot, neither soft nor hard, neither good nor bad; it has no particular color, no particular form, no particular texture; it has no emotions, no feelings, no thoughts. It is not made up of such things as molecules, atoms or electrons. It appears as a brilliant light, vibrant, modulating. (It seems to be pure energy). It is not seen as if there were a light and someone was looking at the light. The light is experienced immediately, without the object-viewer relationship. The seer becomes the light and all characteristics vanish or become meaningless. The basic nature of things never stays the same for two consecutive instants. It is in a constant state of flux, changing, vibrating, undulating, concentrating and then melting away; forever active, even at rest, reverberating, moving, waving. Yet this basic nature appears to take the form of an infinite variety of things. These forms appear to be hot or cold, soft or hard, good or bad, etc. It was never born nor was it created, and it will never come to an end.

"There is no ego. There is no soul. There is no self. There is nothing which I can call O.B. Ray."

Curly-haired Chuck arrived from Morning Star and became Bill's first spiritual teacher. A God-intoxicated person, Chuck practiced the deepest meditation for hours on end, totally oblivious to his surroundings. He spent many days fasting and in service to others, his sole possession the tattered dress he wore. His curly hair formed a bush around his head, his body well-browned by the sun. One day he came and sat in the studio, working on a piece of paper with Bill's drawing pencils. After he had labored for over an hour, Gwen looked over his shoulder to see the word WONDER carefully drawn and elaborately colored.

Chuck had enlisted in the Army, had gone through basic training and received his orders for Vietnam. One day he looked in the mirror as he was about to shave and said, 'What am I doing? I don't want to go to Vietnam and kill or be killed.' He put down his razor, got a weekend pass and went to the Haight-Ashbury. From there he caught a ride to Morning Star and, when the arrests began, moved to the Ridge. He slept in the barn or out-of-doors and ate whatever was offered him. Chuck was loved by everyone. Later, when he went to New Mexico with the Morning Star exodus, he became a Christian, cut off his hair, put on shoes and turned himself in.

Cliff and Ellie camped in the Pine Grove below the studio, They had no income, but managed to survive with the help of their neighbors. The Los Angeles police wanted Cliff for jumping bail on a dope charge. They lived quietly, Cliff using his leisure time to learn southpaw guitar. Barely knowing a note a music when he arrived on the Ridge, he evolved into a fine musician. Whenever he was around, there were always good sounds happening.

Charlotte and Bryce moved on the land, magical and highly evolved people. They built a home behind Hoffie's Hill which was a masterpiece of hippie architecture. An interior photo of Bryce sketching a pregnant Charlotte was later published in The Whole Earth Catalog, and the Ridge received many hundreds of letters in response. Bryce was a genius at watercolors, meticulously recording all the indigenous wildflowers. Also for six months he painted each dawn and sunset from atop Hoffie's Hill. The first indication Gwen had of Bryce and Charlotte's presence were the wilting poppies in their garden. They used to come and carefully slice the flower to extract the sap, which they said got them high.

John and Sue and their four kids drove in one day, followed by Errol and Sarah and their three children. They all set up camp at the back of the land. The presence of the children was a delight, but because their parents were on welfare, it brought political pressure on the ranch.

David and Joann were another couple, David egotistic, opinionated, energetic. He and Bill had severe disagreements, especially about his police dog who was getting into the neighbor's sheep. After their baby Covelo Vishnu was born, they moved to the top of the land and built the Chapel out of lumber salvaged from the ruins of Morning Star houses. He managed to save a mural of David Pratt's for a wall of his home.

BILL: "Dennis was a beautiful black man, a jive hustler inside a labyrinth of lies, with a jungle instinct for survival and a charming but deadly smile which hissed through gapped front teeth. He claimed to be a doorstep baby, abandoned by his mother, but it could have been an exaggeration. He was badly hung up on white women, hating them and obsessed by the need to rape them even if were willing to submit voluntarily. When confronted with his deeds, he said, 'Oh, that white bitch! I saw her going around balling all those guys. She's a whore. She asked for it. She didn't want me 'cause I'm black.'

"I reminded him that other Blacks on the land did not have his trouble. In fact, many white women preferred going with them. Also, within the community a man was neither black, tan or white but just another brother. Most of the Blacks who lived with us worked through any hang-ups they had about their race and made a positive contribution.

"But Dennis, if he was able to lure women to his house, attacked them and ripped off their clothes before unromantically possessing them. If they resisted, he smashed their faces in true ghetto tradition. For that matter, anyone who disagreed or crossed him invited violence. Although the women he raped were bitter about it, most of them took it philosophically - not experiencing it as a life-threatening situation, only an unpleasant one."

Dennis was also involved in stealing, both on the land and off. He and others like him, black and white, had stored up great anger against society and focused this anger on the Open Land community, a pasture of 'sheep' they could fleece with no danger of being busted.

When the patterns of his behavior became clear and his alibis evaporated in the light of numerous complaints, Bill and others tried desperately to communicate with him. Under all the rage they could see a beautiful person struggling to emerge. Dennis's pride, however, did not let him admit his trespasses. Not once did he confess his wrongdoing.

Steve was another 'tester.' Short and stocky, extremely strong with knotty football player's muscles, he had an open, cherubic face coupled with a soft voice which inspired trust and affection. Even neighboring ranchers hired him for odd jobs, for which Bill loaned him his truck. That summer, a series of thefts occurred in the neighborhood. When Bill saw a brand-new battery in the old truck Steve had acquired, his suspicions were aroused. He walked over to where Steve lived on 'The Knoll' and found a path leading down the hill. In the midst of a clump of trees, he found a large tarpaulin covering something. Under it, he found the damndest collection of axes, saws, auto parts, tires, garbage pails full of foot-long salamis as well as a friend's toolbox with his name neatly printed on the top.

BILL: "This was the first real crisis on the Ridge, the very thing I had hoped to avoid. Whereas Morning Star had acquired an outlaw reputation, I was trying to build a more law-abiding image. If Steve was ripping off society, then he should be returned to it to be made accountable, and stopped from using us as a shelter. Moreover, beneath that 'Boy Scout' exterior lay a very sick boy who needed professional help. I set it as my task to convince him to turn himself in and seek treatment. After a dramatic confrontation and many hours of talk, I was successful in doing so. Needless to say, we blew a few minds at the courthouse when we showed up and Steve turned himself in.

"With Steve in custody, several deputies came out to the land the next day to retrieve the loot. After loading their van with the hardware, one of them said to me, 'I didn't see the food.' Since it would not have been worth it for the grocery stores to reclaim the food, it was a nice gesture for the police to give it to us. In those days before food stamps, there were many hungry people on the Ridge who appreciated it."

GWEN: "A half-acre was fenced off in the middle of the ranch for a community garden where anyone could work or pick at any time. Due to a devout belief in abstention from organization, the garden went through alternating periods of abundance and scarcity. It was not uncommon for one tomato plant to get weeded, watered, mulched, pruned and staked by as many as three people in one day and then be totally ignored for two months. But there was never a time when vegetables for dinner could not be found by a serious seeker. The garden also served as a social gathering spot. Mostly naked people could be seen lying in the sun, one hand gently weeding the radish patch, smoking dope and rapping with friends.

"Across the road from the community garden was Bill's and my personal garden which was half its size. It was my life. I lived in it and shit in it and worked in it about three hours a day. I knew every plant and every inch of soil as well as I knew the stitches in a sweater I had knitted. Bill did the heavy work and I did the lighter tasks, the supervising and the daily responsibilities. I was possessive of the work and the harvest of the garden, and wanted everything done just the right way. It provided the main part of our vegetarian menus, and there was plenty over to be shared."

In July, a sleek-looking sedan inched down the rutted right-of-way through Jack O'Brien's ranch to Wheeler's front gate. In it were two well-dressed and mild-mannered men with benign expressions on their faces. They identified themselves to Bill as FBI agents, and showed him a score of wallet-sized photos, carefully watching his face for reactions. How much Bill's new neighbors had changed since they left the military! Curly-haired Chuck without his natural! Gwen refused to even look at the snapshots, angered by the thought of helping the military in any way to fight their corrupt wars. The agents muttered something about harboring fugitives, jail and breaking the law. There was a tense moment before they turned to leave. Masters of the soft sell, they had collected their information from parents who had patriotically ratted on their children. "Better in Vietnam than on Open Land!"

Back at Morning Star Ranch, life see-sawed between the hilarious and the impossible. John Butler returned from the Haight-Ashbury with two kilos of dynamite grass and six girls. As people crowded into the Lower House to roll joints, he magnanimously invited everyone into his room. 'Come on in, everyone! Let's get high!' It was a small room at best, but with thirty-five people it was "wall-to-wall hippie," as Lou used to say.

FRIAR TUCK: "Transit Harry was another Morning Star character. A bus driver for the city of Los Angeles, he played the game of falling down and getting hurt and then collecting thousands of dollars of insurance. He lived at the ranch for a year and a half. Harry was the only affluent one up there at the time. He had the American mentality of 'You've got that? Wellll, look what I've got!' He had this great black hearse, a BMW motorcycle, a parachute for a tent and a waterbed. And a dog that everyone wanted to kill because she was so crazy.

"Anyway, he decided he was going to put up this waterbed, but he couldn't figure out how to do it. He didn't want to put it on the ground where something might puncture it, so he decided to hang a bedspring about five feet off the ground between four redwood trees and put the waterbed on that. Well, it didn't quite pan out. He got the bed about half full of water before the S-hooks holding the bedsprings straightened out. The fucker took off down the hill like a giant amoeba, almost flattening someone sitting downhill in the woods, stoned out of his mind. But darned if Harry didn't patch up the holes and try again!"

RAMON: "In July I visited Olompali Ranch, a new Marin County commune where Lou and Near paid frequent visits. The 750-acre ranch and its elegant mansion had been rented by Don McCoy, a wealthy businessman, who opened it up to his friends. School was being taught there by Mrs. Garnett Brennan who had been fired as the principal of a nearby school for saying she had smoked marijuana for eighteen years. Twice a week, one thousand loaves of bread were baked in a large commercial oven set up outdoors. They were distributed free to the city communes."

FRIAR TUCK: "Near said to me, 'Come on up to Olompali!' When I got there, the people were really strange to me - really weird. McCoy had just run through his money at the time - his family had seized his bank accounts. Louis Kuntz went there with me, going crazy as usual. The only friendly vibes we got came from Sheila USA and Near, who was getting it on with Michael Morningstar. One day I was just bopping around, and I went up to the cabin called Deer Camp to see Don McCoy. He was really freaked out at the time - I mean, he was just completely gone. I walked into that Deer Camp house, and he had himself set himself up on this huge bed like a king sitting on a throne. Near was in the kitchen with Michael. They were lying on one of the tables in the '69' position, giving each other head. And I said, 'Oh, sorry!' And they said, 'No, it's all right! Come on in, we'll be through in a minute. Don't worry about it, sit down and talk a while!' And so, between slurps we talked and bullshitted, having a good visit while they sucked each other off. It was my first encounter with good old abject sexuality - just right out in front - and it blew my mind. I really thought it was hilarious!

"Louis Kuntz and I were getting up at four in the morning to bake bread. They had a great set-up, a beautiful kitchen. We must've baked thousands of loaves during the time we were there. Olompali was a trip! I think everybody there was screwing everybody else!"

RAMON: "While visiting Olompali, I decided to move to Berkeley to be with Betty, someone I had met during '67 and just remet again. But first I had to return to Morning Star and pump up the tires of my 'cave.' So I accepted a ride from Ira Einhorn, a young psychiatrist from Philadelphia who told me he had set up some supportive environments for schizophrenics, following R.D. Laing's blow-out center concept. I gave him the whole Open Land rap as we drove up, extolling the therapeutic virtues of not telling anyone to leave. When we arrived, his curiosity was piqued and so I took him on the tour. Lou was away somewhere.

"In the orchard we were approached by three winos, one with a linoleum knife, one with a drawn revolver and the third, Duke, currently the baddest motherfucker on the place. Both his arms had been placed in plaster casts because of some deep cuts received in a knife fight. I don't know who they thought we were in their alcoholic haze, but they came after us, Duke swinging his casts like clubs, yelling and screaming. The only thing that kept us from getting hurt was that the Mother Force stepped in again, this time in the form of 'Mama,' Duke's black womanfriend. She stripped off her blouse and jumped between us. 'Get away!' she shouted, and we didn't have to be told twice. We turned and started walking up the path. I didn't want to run, because I was afraid it would excite 'Tarzan,' the guy with the revolver. Later I learned that Mama suffered a fractured jaw for her big-hearted act.

"We went down the road towards Lou's studio to find John Butler by the well holding a six-foot African spear. He had heard the screaming and was on his way to save us. John was so beautiful! To see him, the gentlest soul I had ever known, standing there like Huey Newton! Right behind us came the three bandidos. John's spear and stern demeanor cooled them out enough for Ira to jump into his VW and burn rubber out the back driveway. I didn't blame him. His initiation to Morning Star had been too intense. Years later I was amazed to read in a New York newspaper that Ira had been named as a prime suspect when his womanfriend's body was discovered in a trunk in his closet.

"Attempting to defuse the scene at Morning Star, I finally convinced Tarzan to exchange hugs, although I couldn't talk him into handing over the pistol. That night I slept in the bushes planning my escape while I listened to Tarzan firing at random as he walked around the place. I felt the spirit of the land was mad at me for leaving again, and that this had been the reason for the freak-out.

"The next day I pumped up the tires of my truck with a bicycle pump. That took a while! I hadn't turned over the motor since the previous spring, so I coasted down the newly reopened front driveway - someone had cut down the cross Don King had placed there as a roadblock. The motor wouldn't fire up! Was I going to be stranded with Tarzan and Duke for another night? I coasted onto Graton Road, fiddling furiously with the choke, the throttle and every other knob in sight. The radio was on and I turned it off. With a backfire or two, the engine caught and I was on the road again."

That summer a large exodus to New Mexico took place. Pam and Larry Read, Beatrice, David and Penny Pratt, Superman, Cindy and many more. Gina and Katy the Dog toured with the Hog Farm for a few months. It felt like the Class of '67 had graduated. Newcomers arrived in their stead, such as Choctaw Eddie who came with a totally equipped VW camper and three spider monkeys who ran around under the apple tree by the well, much to the delight of the stoned onlookers.


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