The Ridge Tribalizes & Lou Finds His Guru
In August the Ridge was again visited, this time by two somber
building inspectors answering a neighbor's complaint about 'hammering.' It was their job
to enforce the building codes, and none of the structure on the Ridge were up to code.
Inspector Lotspeich, who later became a good friend, was quite sympathetic and asked
permission to inspect the ranch. Since not much was visible from the road, Bill agreed.
The inspection consisted of driving from one end of the land to the other. Returning to
his office, Lotspeich reported seeing a tent or two, but that was all. Camping without a
permit at that time was still legal, although later, in response to the 'hippie menace,'
local politicians passed a law making it illegal.
In mid-August, Bill prepared for further visits from county
officialdom. He was in the attic of his studio one day doing some repair work when he
heard someone enter. He shouted downstairs asking what the person wanted, annoyed at
another interruption. The person introduced himself as Corbin Houchins, an attorney whom
Lou had sent over. He had spent some time at Morning Star, and one day in the orchard had
enjoyed a profound religious experience which changed the course of his life. The Open
Land movement interested him, and he had come to help the Ridge in its impending struggle
with the authorities. A Harvard graduate and former public defender, young and idealistic,
he seemed perfect for the job.
BILL: "Some people have criticized me for not retaining a
local attorney. There is an advantage in a lawyer who personally knows the judge and is a
part of the local political picture. But I elected to retain Corbin, a brilliant speaker,
who was good at reminding the judge of our constitutional rights, which were our only
defense. So much of what was happening on the Ridge was indefensible. Also I saw the
foolishness in attempting to defend myself as Lou was then trying to do."
On September 8th, another Morning Star Matinee enlivened the
courthouse. For the tenth time or so, Lou was ordered to show cause as to why he shouldn't
be held in contempt of court for his failure to comply with the permanent injunction.
Building and health inspectors took the stand and testified in crisp phrases to the
continuing myriad of violations. In his own defense, Lou called on a contractor-friend who
described his efforts to get the bath house functioning. This did not impress Judge Mahan.
Don McCoy from the Olompali commune then stood in the audience and asked the judge for
permission to speak. His Honor told him to shut up and sit down or he would be thrown out.
"I notice the complaint reads 'The People versus Louis
Gottlieb," Don continued in spite of the warning. "Well, I'm the people - "
"Throw him out!" the judge screamed, turning purple.
Still within earshot of the court, Don began chanting "God
bless all the people, God bless Judge Lincoln F. Mahan" in the corridor. That tore
it. He was ordered back into the courtroom and sentenced to five days in the slammer.
Mahan then turned to Lou, found him guilty on thirty-seven counts of contempt of court,
fined him fifteen hundred dollars and sentenced him to two weeks in jail.
Visiting hours during Don McCoy's and Lou's sojourn in Sonoma
County's jail were no doubt the most colorful it had ever seen. Carloads of freaks from
the two communes showed up to play music and dance while Near handed out free Morning Star
apples and slices of apple pie. Lou's wife Dolly visited one day along with their two
children. Dolly was having a hard time accepting Lou's philosophy, especially now that
Near was living with him. The following are excerpts from Lou's letters to Near from his
LOU: "I am pretty sure that Mother put me and Don together
for our mutual benefit. I feel certain that whatever happens at Olompali, it won't be Don
who denies its advantages to the next person who comes along. And if Don doesn't, who
"The level of religious talent in the cell is phenomenally
high - the 'crimes' of these boys are all connected with consciousness and their attempts
to alter it. Amazing how young these kids were when they discovered they were Alternative
Society. We have simply got to stumble onto more land to open.
"Corbin Houchins was here, and gave me a couple of new
phrases to ponder: 'salutary neglect' and 'non-prosecution of victimless crimes.'"
Later that same month, a party of officials searched the Ridge on
the pretext of looking for runaway juveniles. Bill happened to be away that day, and no
one challenged their presence. They had a good look at the property, cameras snapping,
their worst suspicions confirmed. In spite of Governor Reagan's 'No more Morning Stars'
statement, here was another one just ten miles away.
Inspector Lotspeich requested permission to make a more thorough
inspection. Bill denied him that right, but told him that the studio, which Lotspeich
thought was pre-code, had actually been build a year earlier. Instead of arguing about a
few shacks, all that existed on the Ridge at that time, Bill suggested the studio be made
a test case of the building codes. He wanted to resolve the question of whether a man had
the right in a rural environment to build a house for his own use which he had no
intention of reselling.
BILL: "It seemed to me that the right of a man to build his
own house as he saw fit was a basic, constitutional right that had been usurped by
arbitrary laws designed to enrich the building industry. Since only the rich could afford
to build under these laws in rural areas, the code was used to keep poor people in the
city ghettos. The code was also responsible for the increasing architectural mediocrity.
America was beginning to look like a cookie sheet. Although I was endangering my studio by
doing this, I felt it was worth it. The building code laws were being used to close
Morning Star and were a threat to every New Age community in California. I had to fight
them for our survival."
GWEN: "Lotspeich sat quietly drinking coffee with us before
returning to his office. Soon afterwards, we learned he had applied for and received a
transfer to a job as inspector of auto trailers in another county. He was replaced by Zack
Shaw who had already shown his great distaste for Alternate Culture by his efficient
inspection and destruction of Morning Star homes."
Conservative ranchers, who disagreed with Bill about everything
else, sympathized with his views regarding the building codes. Many of them had been
frustrated in their own building plans and hated the codes as much as the Ridge people
did. All their lives they had been able to build as they pleased. Now suddenly they were
being told they must pay for building permits and architectural plans subject to the
county's approval. As respected members of society, they were not about to break the law
or rock the boat - they had too much to lose.
BILL: "It was up to the younger generation to confront the
deterioration of basic freedoms for which this country fought so hard. The importance of
building your own nest was central to the Open Land philosophy. Those who did it - both
men and women - found it one of the most exhilarating experiences of their lives. Good,
solid homes, tight and fit, have been built on the Ridge with used lumber, second-hand
nails and old roofing. The county condemned them as a threat to health and safety, but we
knew that the sterile, ugly, uninteresting tract houses which were 'legal' were much more
of a threat to the people inside them."
The Ridge was forming a tribe, a village, a community in a truly
organic way. Neighborhoods sprang up on the land: The Front Gate, The Knoll, The Yacht
Club, The Community Garden, The East Canyon and The Back Of The Land. Each evolved its own
personality, its own 'canyon calls,' its own architectural character.
The Knoll was of the earth; the hunters, meat-eaters and outlaws
hung out there. More green and lush than the Ridge proper, the Knoll's shady paths and
oaken glades hearkened back to what the land was like when the Pomo and Miwok tribes
roamed the area. The Yacht Club took its name from a rowboat someone left by the side of
the road near the Front Gate. People often gathered there to socialize, drink wine and
play music. Karma Korners, the house where the Zen Trail from the Knoll met the Ridge
Road, was another favorite spot. The Middle Of The Land with its gardens lent itself to a
more sedate scene. The Back Of The Land attracted families. And for those who wanted to
get away from it all on a hermit trip or a religious retreat, there was the isolated East
Thankfully, the fall rains came in August that year, relieving
the fire danger and putting people on notice that winter was coming. More substantial
structures would have to be built if they were to survive the cold weather. during this
time some hectic building went on: the Chapel was built by David, now known as 'Crazy
David,' the Log Cabin and the Triangle House also dated from this period. Lou graciously
offered building materials from the Morning Star houses which all were under destruct
orders from the county. In this way, the Ridge was born from Morning Star both on a
physical and a spiritual plane.
BILL: "One day while I was visiting Lou at Morning Star, one
of the bikers who used to hang out by the well came to me and asked to borrow my truck to
chase after some people who had just ripped him off. I refused. When I turned my back, he
went to the truck and attempted to start it. I ran over and pulled him out. In response,
he picked up a hammer and came after me. Somehow I wrestled it away from him, but in the
meantime he had his teeth in my upper arm and was chewing away like it was a t-bone steak.
I looked over at Lou as this monster munched my biceps.
"'My God, Lou, do something!' I shouted.
"Lou just stood there with an amused Gandhian-Morning Star
expression on his face. 'Don't worry, Bill,' he told me. 'He's never hurt anyone.'
"I finally wrenched myself away, jumped into the truck and
split. That was the extent of my pacifism that day."
LOU: "The motorcycle thing was kind of interesting, because
those guys never did understand anything about what was going on at Morning Star. One time
I asked this Gypsy Joker - he had on a leather jacket and all these chains, 'Why don't you
take off your clothes and get a suntan?' And he said, 'I never take off my colors.' They
kept their motorcycles running all the time! They'd sit on their machine and
talk to you for half an hour, the motor running but not going anywhere. God, that was
"One night the Gypsy Jokers came up, but this was after they
had phoned for permission to visit. They camped around the well, and the police came and
shook down the whole crew. They took this one guy and really searched him. The
suits they wear have a million pockets, and he started pulling out this, that and the
other until the whole top of the police car was covered with stuff. But he was clean, see.
So the police left, and his old lady, another leather queen, sat up from where she had
been lying in a sleeping bag about six feet away. She had, oh, about a pound of pot in
there with her. But this guy was arrested later for a concealed weapon. He came back and
asked me to write a letter to the police saying he had been invited to the ranch. And that
got him off. Of course it was unnecessary for them to ask permission to come, since I
never gave nor withheld it.
"But these motorcycle groups operate on a funny kind of
basis. Once I was talking to Paul Stefani, the head narc, and said, 'I just don't
understand this motorcycle trip.' And he said something really profound. He said, 'They
think they are us.' They are expressing a militaristic, solemn,
warrior-caste impulse and kind of march around with a military attitude. But it's an
impulse hard for me to understand, and it played a very small role at Morning Star
Shortly after Lou was released from jail, Near was arrested while
taking a shit in the woods. The judge told her, "Either get a job or we'll hold you
for psychiatric observation." So Near worked briefly at a job in the city and lived
at Olompali until Lou got permission for her to accompany him and a group of Olompali
friends on a guru-shopping, temple-hopping jaunt to India.
LOU: "I had been attracted by everything Indian for about
three years before Near and I went to India. I went with the specific intent of seeing my
guru Mother Mira at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. She was over 90 years old at the time I saw
her. It was a silent Darshan (sitting with the guru). She just looked into my eyes,
and I had the impression of someone working really hard to pop me up to a new level in my
spiritual evolution. It was a feeling of indomitable will and endless tenacity, a niagara
of energy in this tiny lady who was an avatar in our day. I then went back to my hotel
room and cried for two hours.
"I saw many other high people in India, but imagine my
surprise when right in the Oberoy Grand Hotel in Calcutta I encountered Parashiva teaching
immortality! Well, I found myself jumping up and down, bouncing up and down. That first
eyelock with Chiranjiva I never will forget even if I live to be 164,000 years old. We
went from the Grand Hotel to his mud hut in Sonarpur, a suburb of Calcutta, and in the
next 48 hours he did what the traditional guru would have been very happy to accomplish
with a gifted pupil in twelve years, namely, he brought me to what the Zen people call 'no
mind.' Unless you have experienced it, you cannot know what a tremendous help this
Chiranjiva was an impoverished refugee from Bangladesh, an
extremely handsome Bengali with a flowing white beard. Together with Lou and Near, he
returned to Calcutta to buy extra mattresses so that everyone could stay at his hut. After
buying several mattresses and blankets, he bought Lou a first class ticket to ride in
comfort with the mattresses while he and Near rode in the suffocating third class to save
When they arrived in Sonarpur, Chiranjiva insisted on carrying
all the mattresses and blankets. He didn't want Americans, whom the Indian villagers
considered at least royalty if not gods, to be seen carrying a load. Lou relinquished the
mattresses but Near, to Chiranjiva's great annoyance, insisted on carrying one.
Near liked to do her hatha yoga every day. Her first morning at
Sonarpur she went outside naked and stood on her head. Then she went down to one of the
many mud ponds, still naked, and went swimming. All the villagers hid in their huts,
although some peeked out their windows. Chiranjiva's family scolded her. The women showed
her how to wrap her sari so that she could stand on her head without exposing her crotch
to the neighborhood. She agreed to wear the sari while practicing yoga, but insisted on
swimming nude. A few weeks later Don McCoy and Sheila USA went swimming naked and almost
caused a riot.
Meanwhile Ramón toured New Mexico with his friend Betty. They
visited a number of communes, meeting Morning Star folk who were busy settling in and
looking for a piece of land. David Pratt had become good friends with some men of the
an unusual Catholic sect who met in secret to perform self-flagellation and other strange
rituals. Cindy was waitressing at the Thunderbird Bar in Placitas, a small suburb of
Albuquerque while other brothers and sisters were staying at the Domes, a nearby commune.
Shortly after Ramón returned to California, they found some land north of Taos on an
arid, waterless plateau. Backbreaking efforts were required to survive there, but David
Pratt began drawing up plans for the pueblo they ultimately built and named Morning Star
Back at Wheeler's Ranch, that first summer demonstrated that the
land could be open and still retain some semblance of security for the inhabitants. As the
raw edges wore off, the tribe began to gel, the vibrations rose, and a group consciousness
evolved. The community began to show itself capable of dealing with crises as a corporate
body. The flow of immigrants continued daily, despite the relative isolation of the land
and the miserable access road.
BILL: "One day I looked out the studio door and saw a car
drive past, windows rolled up and cameras pointed at me, clicking away. I realized that
the land had become notorious, politically hot. Visits from the FBI and county inspectors
seemed like black clouds of the impending storm which would threaten our existence but of
whose fury, as of yet, we had no hint.
As attorney for the Ridge, Corbin Houchins was laying the
foundation for a legal defense which proved difficult for the county to break. But
ultimately Bill's legal fees and expenses nearly equaled the amount Lou paid in fines.
However neither of them questioned its being worth every penny.
By the end of 1968, Morning Star had become her own worst
advertisement. Most people found it unlivable, unworkable, impossible and dangerous
because of the outlaw tribe living there. In contrast, fewer troublemakers found their way
to the Ridge because of its isolation. A nucleus of responsible community members carried
the burden of keeping things going, cleaning up the land, maintaining the water system and
encouraging a quiet atmosphere. The inhabitants wanted to create an example of Open Land
which was safe, happy, prosperous and a healthy place to rear children.
The county understood from the start that the Ridge was different
from Morning Star. In their dealings with Bill, the authorities found him a more
recalcitrant personality than Lou. He was less of a pacifist, more eager to fight. But
when they realized the Ridge was as open as Morning Star, the same injunctive
procedures were started to close the place down.
The District Attorney filed suit (The People vs Wheeler and Does
One through a Hundred) seeking a court order by way of a temporary injunction forbidding
any further non-code building and requesting the removal of the people from the land. The
suit was based on a series of inspections made after a search warrant had been obtained.
During these inspections, all the non-code buildings and any garbage was carefully
recorded and photographed. The inspectors were particularly looking for shit which they
carefully bottled for the judge's delectation and introduced as exhibits.
The Ridge's legal problems were compounded by a lawsuit filed
against Bill at this time by their neighbor, Jack O'Brien, who sought to close the access
road which ran through his land.
GWEN: "Jack O'Brien, his wife Clara and his son lived in a
large house in Santa Rosa, the county seat, and kept a 950-acre ranch that bordered the
Ridge for tax purposes and a quiet place to spend the weekends. When Bill and I lived
alone on the Ridge, we only saw the O'Brien's a few times a month, and always exchanged
friendly greetings and waves. Bill and Jack talked to each other as two,
strong,independent landowners, and Clara and I smiled sweetly at each other. But when the
Ridge population began to grow, they began to cast worried, suspicious glances at us. And
when Clara, aided by high-powered binoculars, spotted nude people walking on Bill's land,
they became downright angry. Bill and Jack's meetings began to be marked with displays of
temper and intolerance. Clara only scowled.
"Jack O'Brien saw everything that he had worked for so hard
in his life threatened by this budding bohemian community that used his ranch as a
right-of-way. He was prepared to use all his strategy and power to protect his interests.
Bill came from a wealthy, secure background, and did not share O'Brien's desire to
accumulate capital. He felt he had an absolute right to do whatever he wanted on the
Ridge, and that O'Brien was close-minded for not accepting it.
"Within the Open Land community, disagreements could always
be settled by just working it out. But the disagreement between O'Brien and Bill, caused
by the crossing of two incompatible life styles, shared no common language. Although
O'Brien threatened to organize a vigilante committee to wipe us out, he knew his values
would be well protected by the legal establishment because they epitomized the American
Way. Thus he turned to the District Attorney to rid himself on what he referred to as 'the
human garbage' next door. And the District Attorney followed the same course of action he
had evolved to deal with the Morning Star inhabitants."
BILL: "O'Brien was everything I was not. A Catholic Irishman
from Dublin, he came to this country at the age of eight, plucked chickens in Petaluma
during the Depression, went into the mortgage racket and made a million dollars. In 1960
he bought Sugarloaf Ranch between the Ridge and the county road. He did not like the idea
of our access road, but since only a minister and his wife used it, he tolerated it. Clara
O'Brien, a middle-aged woman with blue-tinted hair, imagined the Ridge as Sodom and
Gomorrah. She dedicated herself to closing the community down by exerting constant
pressure on the authorities. She once said to me, 'How many of them do you have
living down there?' and then, on another occasion, 'We were here first. You have to
leave.' She seemed to derive pleasure out of taking photos of Ridge residents with her
Instamatic whenever we went past, which I suspect she showed off with giggles to her
girlfriends at tea parties. The O'Brien's wanted us to leave our only home so they could
enjoy weekends in solitude at their tax write-off ranch."
The O'Brien's complained about the gates being left open, the
traffic at all hours, and the hordes of barefoot, unkempt no-goods who stole from them.
They referred to the Ridge inhabitants in the most derogatory terms. When they placed a
lock and a 'No Trespassing' sign on the gate, both were torn off. At the urging of the
O'Brien's, the District Attorney filed charges of Malicious Mischief against Bill. The
judge threw it out of court, but it was merely the first skirmish of a long legal battle.
BILL: "Corbin Houchins and I shared mescaline at the
Olompali commune in Marin. It was a far-out trip, a kind of marriage, in which we formed a
partnership which allowed the Ridge to survive those legally difficult times with a
minimum of harassment. He left his job with Berkeley Neighborhood Legal Assistance and
went to work defending us full-time. The courts became my second home in 1969 and 1970. I
felt like Public Enemy No. 1, a hippie gangster. They were after my ass."