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

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Introduction
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
Afterword

Chapter 21
The First Death & The Mighty Avengers

By the fall of 1970, the Ridge had acquired a fifty-passenger yellow schoolbus. Instead of riding like cattle in the truck, people now could go to town in style, sitting on cushioned seats. On the day of the particular community run, Ridgefolk gathered by the front gate early in the morning. When it was time to start, the volunteer driver announced that everyone who was able to walk should follow the bus on foot to the top gate, a distance of about a mile. Muttering complaints, the participants began the uphill climb while the bus crawled, heaving and groaning, over the ruts, holes, gulches and rocks of the access road. At the top gate it waited for everyone to catch up. At last, loaded with people, kids and bags of laundry, it pulled out onto the county road. Generally every seat was filled and then some.

In Occidental, the bus pulled into Jerry's gas station and a hat was passed for gas money. Folks trundled off to the post office or store to buy a goodie before loading back in again. The next stop was the laundromat in Sebastopol. Townsfolk would look up in amazement from their magazines as the place filled with long-haired, naked children and huge bags of very dirty clothes. Once the machines were filled, the bus proceeded to the organic grocery store. Some folks stayed in Sebastopol to do errands or just stand around Main Street to inject a little groovy atmosphere into a very bland environment. With all the errands accomplished and the laundry folded, everyone piled back into the bus and headed for the fruit stand on the way home. The fruit stand owners always were thrilled by the sudden influx of customers but equally terrified of possible thefts. At last, packed with boxes, bags of food, laundry, jugs of kerosene, packages, babies, the bus started off on the final leg of the journey home.

Community runs were always long, and everyone was exhausted by the time they rolled through the front gate of the ranch. There were those few who went along just for the fun of it, but for the average person it was a necessary ordeal. Inevitably some kerosene spilled or a baby had the shits or somebody complained bitterly about a particular stop that hadn't been made. Grapefruits and oranges whizzed over heads in exchange for candy bars. Often everyone broke into song on the home stretch while the bus maneuvered the curves of Coleman Valley. Once on the ranch proper, the bus drove the length of the land to let off people with their bags and boxes at the beginning of the trails to their houses.

Those who had planned the trip carefully would not have to go on another run for a while. Others would suddenly find they had forgotten something critical and would have to go on the very next one. But the day after a run was a good day to stay home in the quiet countryside with clean sheets and a full cupboard adding to the joy.

As Thanksgiving rolled around, Ramón and a Gina prepared to leave the land with little Sol Ray.

BILL: "Ramón had become an enormous energy center, someone to whom everyone went for help and advice. He began of feel the constant stream of visitors as a rip-off, taking him away from family, music and writing. So they moved in with the Fowler family near Morning Star, old friends with whom they had stayed before moving to the Ridge."

RAMON: "It was very hard to leave the land, but something was pushing us on. Partially it was a desire to have a few more of the amenities such as hot water now that we had a baby. Also, what with Bill and Gwen's breakup, we began to feel like the only stable couple left on the Ridge. I did not enjoy playing the old and stodgy conservative in the bubbling life-style experiment which the ranch had become. Whatever the reasons, we did move before Christmas only to have Sol Ray contract pneumonia a few weeks later. He and Gina spent a week in the hospital, Gina sleeping on the floor beside his crib until a nice nurse moved a chair into the room for her. We spent the balance of the winter in the southern California desert to give Sol Ray time to regain his strength away from the dampness of Sonoma County."

Alicia Bay Laurel returned to the Ridge that winter, a celebrity because of her book "Living On The Earth." The media followed her to the ranch, both The New York Times and Life sending reporters and photographers. Life sponsored a slam-bang Sunday feast, and the Ridgefolk put on the dog for them with a sauna and the Sheep Ridge Band. Alicia strummed along on an acoustic bass guitar which was her only garment. But it was all too funky for Life, who scrapped the article in favor of a slick, mid-western hippie wedding where everyone looked clean and were dressed in the photos.

That spring, Alicia returned to New York to promote the Random House edition of her book. An incredibly talented and perceptive person, she more than anyone else communicated the alternate culture to middle-class America in a pleasing form. She was a hard worker for the revolution.

BILL: "We all felt that the idea of Open Land had to be communicated. For once, America had something besides war to export. We had no fear of revealing our location, identity or activities to anyone who would listen. Good news! Open Land!"

Stephen Gaskin returned to San Francisco from the caravan bus tour of the United States to start up his Monday Night Class meetings once more. The community bus began taking people to the city every week for these high, spiritual get-togethers. Everyone who attended benefited from the experience, but Stephen was preparing to go on the road again. During the final farewell meeting, someone came up to Bill and whispered that the nude body of a young boy had just been found on the Ridge, supposedly dead from a drug overdose. In Bill's mind, this spelled immediate trouble, because the authorities and newspapers would have a field day.

BILL: "It was just the sort of thing that gave moms and dads nightmares about us. My first reaction was to keep the thing quiet, but the Ridge had a total inability to keep anything secret - it just wasn't part of our way of doing things. When I returned home that night, I felt compelled to check out the rumor. It was wet and cold outdoors, with thick blankets of fog rolling over the land. The body was supposed to be under a fir tree on Hoffie's Hill, but no one was too sure exactly which one. The hill seemed like a set for a horror movie, the darkness and mist barely pierced by the feeble ray of my flashlight. Ghosts, demons and monsters stalked me at every turn. I felt as if the corpse was going to reach out and drape a chilling hand over my shoulder, but I stumbled on through the wet bushes looking under every tree, morbidly fascinated yet terrified that I would be successful in my search."

As it turned out, Bill's ghoulish pilgrimage turned up nothing, and he had to wait until morning to be guided to the body by the original discoverer, David Poole. David had recently come to the land after being evicted from the Open Land beach settlement in Bolinas. On the west side of Hoffie's Hill, where hardly anyone ever went, the body lay bruised and battered, with a slight tinge of green growing on him and a faint hum of insects around his head. David explained how he had been smoking his morning joint down at O.B.'s tent. Suddenly he got up and walked some three hundred yards directly to the body, as if it had communicated with him.

The corpse did not seem as young as had been rumored. He looked about twenty, probably just released from the service since he was clean shaven. But what to do with the body? Bill's first inclination was to bury him then and there, because it was obviously long overdue. But there was the problem of the authorities finding out. The body would then be exhumed and embarrassing questions asked. Also, it seemed strange to bury him without any idea of who he was. Someone suggested dropping him off at a street corner, but apparently he had been dead for a couple weeks and would not have - ugh - held together for the trip. The last alternative was the best: let the dead bury the dead and call the coroner.

Out they came later that day in a funeral procession, two deputy sheriffs, a camera man, a coroner who wore rubber gloves the whole time, and an undertaker who told Bill he had chosen his profession because it was the closest he could get to being a doctor. The investigating officer assured Bill that he would do little with the case, adding with a big wink that he know how the fellow had died.

Eventually the story was pieced together: the deceased came onto the Ridge with several friends, camped up near the crest of Hoffie's Hill, dropped something they thought was acid, and went on an extended three-day trip. His friends deserted him as he became increasingly weirder, and he spent the next three days atop the hill hugging the cross the Crazy David had erected there. A few people saw him and thought he was pretty strange. But there had been a lot of rare, religious behavior by visitors before, so they shined it on. On the third day, he took off his clothes, walked down to the fir tree, crawled up underneath it and died of exposure. From the expression on his face and the thrashing around he had obviously done, it had been an agonizing death.

This was the first human death on the land since it had opened, and it reminded everyone of their mortality. The vibrations on the Ridge were mute and moribund that evening when everyone gathered on Hoffie's Hill for a wake. Holding hands, they formed a circle around a huge bonfire. After a silence, a long 'om' rang out. Drums gradually joined in to reinforce the chanting, and someone with a lute inspired the guitars to begin. The group sang and sang, singing every song they knew, and the music seemed to revive everyone's spirits. Death was understood as a part of the natural flow of things, and not as a portent of impending doom for the community.

GWEN: "Less than two months later, the community experienced its second death. This one passed with hardly a ripple, because it was of a life not quite born. Annie had given birth prematurely in the hospital where the baby was kept in an incubator for a month. The day the baby was released, Annie moved up to the Ridge, took off her clothes and the baby's clothes, and came walking down to the steambath. When I first saw her, I had to look again. It seemed she was holding a miniature, very old man on the verge of dying. I didn't want to stare, but my eyes kept turning in their direction. Annie wore the expression of a very proud mother, but my God the baby! Could it be a member of our species? Was it old or young? Dead or alive?

"The following morning the baby didn't awaken, and Annie buried it beside her house. A few days later I watched her sitting cross-legged on the hillside throughout the day, staring out at the horizon. Her body was getting burned by the sun. I told her I thought she should move into the shade. 'There's nothing that matters,' she answered, her smile showing her embarrassment at the pain shooting from her eyes."

A tribe formed on the Knoll who named themselves The Mighty Avengers after the Marvel Comics superheroes. 'All hail to The Mighty Avengers! Right on, brothers and sisters!' They worshipped a local species of woodpecker whom they called The Badaba, and used 'Badaba' as a greeting and a mantra. Mostly they seemed dedicated to excessive living through alcohol and drugs, although on a number of occasions they provided a service to the community.

COYOTE: "I remember that right after I went up to Hoffie's Hill one day I was walking with Funkdog and Paul-Terry, and for some reason, I dunno, I fell flat on my face. Then I woke up and started laughing my ass off. Everybody looked at me and asked, 'Are you all right?' And I said, 'Well, I'm Captain America, you're Sargeant Paul-Terry, and you're Private First-Class Funkdog. We're The Mighty Avengers! And Bart's Black Bolt, leader of the inhumans!' And they said, 'Wow! All right!' And we tripped around and found Bart and said, 'Hey, Bart, you anna be in the Mighty Avengers?' And he said, 'Wow, that's a good idea! If we're all superheroes, we won't have any more hassles about war or anything!' So we joined forces that day.

"Later I sobered up and forgot I even said it, but Bart kept saying, 'That's a pretty good idea, you know,' so we began walking around telling everybody we were superheroes. Maverick and Steve Weinstein joined us, and then we formed the Ladies' Auxiliary. At one of the church meetings on Hoffie's hill, the Ladies' Auxiliary unit went to Bill Wheeler and told him to announce there was going to be an orgy at Snakepit Eddie's. Then they just snatched us, and we were just fucking all over the place, Just prior to the orgy proper, Chick Johnnie came over and snatched me, and we wanted to fuck on top of the Community Truck. It was filled with horseshit, but instead we went over to the meadow where the Maypole was and started getting it on. Then later than evening we all met over at Snakepit's and had a big old orgy. A wonderful time! Most people were shy. Nobody wanted to take their clothes off, but we were just fucking and sucking all over the place. Some guys couldn't get hard-on's, but the girls were pretty understanding. They'd just entice 'em there and get 'em in their clutches and just do them under! I got the clap righteously along with everybody else. The Community Hospital was blown away when we pulled up in the schoolbus with forty people all coming in to get shots."

Maverick, tall, blond, handsome, was born in Kentucky. His parents abandoned him in the Appalachian Mountains when he was three years old. He lived with the animals, eating bugs and mice, and learned much woodlore. His clothes were made of animal skins and he exuded the aura of an incredibly healthy, strong person. Many myths grew up around him, and his high, spiritual qualities made him a nature god in the eyes of the women on the Knoll.

AMBRIELLE: "There was another orgy where I just fell in love with everyone there. We all started drinking wine, and I was kind of freaked out because I had a bunch of lovers there of both sexes. I had been with Maverick and this other guy too, but Maverick just took me to him and said, 'Make love. It would be wonderful.' Then all of a sudden everybody in the room started making love. But a couple of people showed up who we weren't in love with, some real crass macho types who walked in and said, 'Oh, an orgy.' It was like people had to have a certain consciousness of giving or else it would suck up the energy fields."

Cats had become a problem on the Ridge, breeding profusely and many going wild. When hungry, they raided people's food stashes. The mighty Avengers' attitude was, "Eat my food and I'll eat you." As a result, a number of cats ended up being cooked in pots for dinner. This took care of the surplus cat population as well as a few personal pets that wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time. Jughead, one of the favorite barn cats, met such a fate.

BILL: "A myth grew up around the cat-eating on the Ridge, confirming suspicions about our weirdness in the eyes of some neighbors. Yet The Mighty Avengers' solution to the cat overpopulation problem seemed more sensible to me than taking them to the SPCA to be gassed, the most common alternative. I myself cannot imagine eating one, although I'm told they are quite tasty, a bit like rabbit. Also it must be said of the cat eaters that they used the whole animal, eating the flesh, wearing the fur, and fashioning jewelry and roach clips out of the bones."

It became Maverick's job to kill the cat. First he would stroke it as it lay on his lap purring, thanking it for the use of its body which was to become food. Then he delivered one sharp blow to the base of its neck, breaking its spine before cutting its throat and skinning it.

During 1971, Snakepit Eddie became president of the Ahimsa Church. As the people's representative, he went to the county authorities and demanded food stamps for the people on the land. Up until then, food stamps had been denied the residents since the time the land had opened. It was the official policy of those administering the food stamp program in Sonoma County not to feed hippies. During his meetings with the food stamp board, Snakepit dressed immaculately, with a pressed suit, tie and polished shoes. His indomitable will reduced the bureaucrats to submission, and finally the board awarded food stamps to everyone on the land who qualified. The forty dollars a month of food stamps made the difference between wealth and poverty for many. What the government spent in food stamps, it saved in hospital expenses for malnourished people. Also it eliminated a lot of ripping off from the local stores.

In general, the Ahimsa Church functioned as an organ of communication, allowing the members to be heard in the politics of the county. Since Bill was no longer the legal owner of the land, the courts could not fine or imprison him as they did Lou. Relief from that burden allowed Bill to relax and enjoy life once more, now that he was no longer the officials' target.

COYOTE: "The Mighty Avengers got real heavy one time because we were getting sick and tired of people laying their no-tobacco-smoking trips on us. All the people who smoked tobacco were supposed to sit at the back of the bus, but one day Diane sat in the middle and lit up a cigarette. Instantly Cliff and a couple of others jumped on her for smoking, and told her to get off the bus. So all the cigarette smokers immediately fired up in sympathy with her. I heard about it, and got mad as well as a few other Avengers. So we went into Occidental the next day and bought something like four cases of beer and four gallons of wine and hitched back to Wheeler's. By that time we were roaring drunk. We got to the land, and who should be meet but Cliff and O.B. When we saw Cliff, we all got on his shit for the trip he laid on Diane. We all lit up cigarettes and blew smoke in his face and told him if he didn't like tobacco he could just move out of the way.

"O.B. was going, 'You want some acid?' And we said, 'Yeah, we want some acid.' So he started giving us acid. Bart and Quiet Steve showed up, and we were all getting drunk and eating acid. The next thing I know, we're all down at the house and we heard the chain saw go off. So Ross and I took off down the hillside with an ax handle. It was Today cutting firewood for Bill Wheeler. And we said, 'Unh, cutting firewood for Bill Wheeler again, huh? Whatsa matter? You like kissing his ass or something? Boy, every time we see you people, you're so grateful for being here, aren't cha? How come you're doing all these trips for him and how come you never do anything for anybody else? Look at all these ladies around here, man. They need firewood too, you know. Why don't you cut wood for them?' And he just went, 'duhhh.' So then Ross hit him with the ax handle on the hand, and Today went 'Arhh!' and started yelling at us, and we're laughin 'at him and jumpin' around.

"We came down on all the people who were acting like Bill Wheeler was God. So we pulled Today out in the open, and the next thing we knew everybody's crowdin' around. And Bart said, 'How's it going to be, Today. One at a time or all together?' And he said, 'I give up. I surrender.' And he went out and cut firewood for the ladies.

"Then we went back to the house and put an ax on the ax handle. We heard some yelling, so we walked over to check it out, and there's Quiet Steve standing and yelling at Bill Wheeler, calling him an asshole. Gwen Wheeler came out with a bucket of water and splashed it over Steve's head. So one of us went over and started chopping on Bill Wheeler's private water tank with the ax. Wheeler came out, roaring indignant. 'You deserve this!' he shouted, and the next thing I knew Funk Dog was pickin' me up and layin' me on the bed. I don't know how I got there.

"We even collaborated with Lou on a lot of our projects we did towards Bill Wheeler. We went over to see Lou one time while we were tripping, and we told him about how all the people flocked around Bill, like putting Bill at the head, you know, saying, 'Oh far out, Bill,' or 'Yeah, Bill, yeah,' but we just ignored it. 'Shit, it was just Bill Wheeler, another person, you know. But when the shit came right down, he carried the ball. I was amazed. He had a lot of heart. We even talked about makin' him an honorary Mighty Avenger later on."

"So anyway, Lou asked us, 'Well does he smoke dope?' And we said, 'No. he's not smokin' dope. He gave it up.' And Lou said, 'What you should do is go over there, tackle him, pin him down to the ground and blow some pot smoke in his face.' And that's exactly what we did! All these people were worshipping him all the time. We just stood there for a few minutes and took in all in, and then we dashed over and jumped on him and gave him a great big bear hug. I sat on his shoulders and said, 'All right, Bill, this is it, man, and - poof! ' we gave him a supercharge! And this story is in dedication to Steve Weinstein, formerly known as Supersteve, who just perished. He was a friend to all. Whew, so many of the Avengers have bit the dirt. There's a lot of them that are gone."

BART: "Steve Weinstein, third in command of The Mighty Avengers, dropped dead in July, 1976, in front of the Gurneville post office due to malnutrition and exhaustion. He had been on the road for two years, and he always said he was going to be a martyr for Open Land. He had just come across the country with a sixty-pound backpack, and he wasn't a very big guy. He was on his way to see us and a sister in the area. Also, he was into downers and had some in his system, but he wasn't O.D.'d or anything like that. But he hadn't been eating, and it was on that really hot day we had. He was on his way up to Wheeler's, but he was killed by the system, the freeways and all the pollution."

COYOTE: "Flash! Flash! Superman's alive and well, merely south of the border, all rumors to the contrary! But the way all these people went out, there were no two deaths alike."

When the rumors about Superman were sorted out, the truth was that he had died of a brain hemorrhage in San Francisco General Hospital. A Morning Star brother of unknown ancestry, sparechanger extrordinaire, Superman will always be lovingly remembered by those who knew him.

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