Twilight of Hippiedom
Twilight of Hippiedom -
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Author: Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer
Published: Sunday, March 2, 2003
Copyright: 2003 San Francisco Chronicle - Page A - 27
Contact: [email protected]
Farm commune's founder envisions return to the fold as ex-dropouts age.
Lewis County, Tenn. -- Stephen Gaskin, founder of the largest hippie commune in America, had finished his tofu burger, eaten his stir-fried veggies and was digging into a bowl of soy milk ice cream.
The former San Francisco State lecturer and freelance philosopher then pushed back from the lunch table in his Tennessee home, glanced over at his wife, Ina May, and issued a bold prophecy:
Millions of '60s idealists who "sold out" in the 1980s and 1990s -- the ones who went out and got real jobs -- are poised to turn on, tune in and drop out once again.
And they're all going to need some place to live. Gaskin has a dream, and knows that if he builds it, they will come.
Get ready for Rosinante, a retirement village for aging hippies.
"When they write the '60s history centuries from now, the hippies will have a name like the Renaissance or the Reformation," said Gaskin, who named his latest dream after Don Quixote's horse. "We did change the world, and we're not finished changing the world."
To understand the dream, one must understand the quixotic journey.
Those of you who were hanging around in the late 1960s and early 1970s may recall Gaskin, who led hundreds of hippies on an infamous 1971 bus caravan across America.
Hippiedom had blossomed in the cool gray city of love, and Gaskin's eclectic lectures on mysticism, politics, alternative lifestyles and LSD took on a life of their own.
It was called the Monday Night Class, or "tripping instructions," and as many as 2,000 stoned seekers followed Gaskin as he took his show to the Straight Theater on Haight Street, the Oddfellows Hall and finally out to Playland by the Beach.
The tribe eventually landed in the green rolling hills of southern Tennessee, a magical place where the rednecks learned to love those shaggy survivors of the '60s.
Dubbed the tie-dyed Amish, Gaskin and flock wound up in one of the poorest counties in Tennessee, where it was easier to find cheap moonshine than Orange Sunshine, where hillbillies outnumbered hippies.
But the land was $70 an acre, and the locals didn't shoot them on sight. So they stayed and founded the Farm.
It didn't start out well. Gaskin and a couple cohorts got busted for growing pot and did a little time in the Tennessee state prison.
Meanwhile, back on the Farm, there were some very lean, very cold winters. But by 1977, the commune had grown in to a functioning experimental community of a thousand men, women and children.
They had their own school, flour mill, cannery, medical clinic, publishing business, and even their own telephone system -- "Beatnik Bell."
They all contributed to a communal treasury, giving them the same tax status as a Catholic monastery.
But the Farm was not just an economic and ecological experiment. It was a spiritual community, forged in many cases by the bond of shared psychedelic experiences.
"We were water brothers," Gaskin said. "We were collective in a spiritual sense."
He said the same connection inspired some of the "four-marriages" and other group living arrangements on the Farm.
"Some of the double couples were sort of a fallout from LSD. People who tripped together bonded. Then we'd say, 'Let's just get a house together.' "
Gaskin became a licensed Tennessee cleric, married many Farm couples and led Sunday morning services.
They'd meet in a meadow on the commune or inside the schoolhouse. Gaskin would draw from the mystical teachings of various world religions -- a synthesis he called "the psychedelic testimony of the saints" or the "totality of the manifestation."
The population peaked in the early 1980s with 1,500 commune members. And then it all collapsed.
Faced with too much debt, radical poverty and too many mouths to feed, the Farm stopped being a true commune where everything was jointly owned and all took from a common treasury.
It reorganized itself in 1983 into a collective, where members were forced to pay monthly dues and only the Farm's 1,700 acres were held in common.
Most people here call those bitter days "the changeover." Gaskin calls it "a coup d'etat followed by a downsizing."
Group homes and group marriages dissolved. Many members wandered off, unable to make it in a community where they suddenly needed real money to survive.
"As the kids got older, it was obvious that there wasn't the money living communally that we needed for braces or other things you need when kids got older," said Barbara Bloomfield, one of the surviving members. "We were so busy being in community -- but that wasn't generating any money, and we needed money to pay the bank for the land."
Those who remained paid off the debt. Today, there are only 80 to 90 voting members in this land-rich, cash-poor enterprise.
Gaskin, 67, is still here, but he's no longer seen as the leader of the tribe. But he's still got one vote, lots of energy and even more ideas -- including Rosinante, a kind of Sun City for the '60s set.
Yet even that master stroke had some quixotic detours. In 1996, he published a book titled "Cannabis Spirituality," an ode to wonders of getting high on pot. He said he hasn't taken LSD since before the caravan left San Francisco.
"We don't do acid on the Farm," he said. "Peyote and mushrooms are a matter of personal conscience."
A few years ago, Gaskin took the politics of pot national. He tried to become president of the United States, running against Ralph Nader in an unsuccessful bid for the Green Party nomination.
That didn't work, so it's back to Rosinante.
"When we first started talking about Rosinante, collectivity was not interesting to people. They were in their peak earning years," Gaskin said. "When they get a little older, collectivity will get interesting again."
Donnie Rainboat, an aging hippie, is building one of Rosinante's first homes.
"It ain't gonna just be a bunch of people just comin' 'round here to hang out and smoke dope," said Rainboat, who is 58 and recovering from a recent stay in the hospital. "If you want to come in here, start building a house and show us you have some incentive to stay."
For his retirement village, Gaskin bought 100 acres of land adjacent to the Farm. He has plans (but no money) to build an octagonal community center with a clinic, kitchen, Laundromat and media room with computers and Internet access.
Community residents -- like Rainboat -- build their own cabins on the property, and agree to turn them over to the community when they die.
Other longtime Farmies don't put much stock in Gaskin's latest project.
"Stephen likes to dream," said Joel Kachinsky, smiling. At the same time, Kachinsky turned 60 last year, and suddenly, retirement and its mixed blessings don't seem so far away.
Three decades have gone by since Kachinsky, a former Vista volunteer, came to San Francisco and stumbled on Gaskin and the Monday Night Class.
"There were a lot of gurus around, and he billed himself as the American guru," Kachinsky said. "He was saying heavy stuff that needed to be said.
"When we were communal, our level of trust put us in an extraordinary level of consciousness," he said. "There are about 4,000 members of our tribe, folks who took the vow of poverty and were seriously doing this thing. That body is our church, or group soul.
"Since the changeover, we've been in a dysfunctional state and back in ordinary consciousness. We originally came here to decondition ourselves from our capitalist conditioning and recondition ourselves for a better society."
Now that the Farm is no longer a commune, all kinds of questions arise about why it exists, who really "owns" it, and who can come back or join up.
"We have to deal with that before we hand this over to the next generation, " Kachinsky said. "If we don't, it could be a real mess here in another 30 years."
Of the thousands of communes that formed in the 1960s and 1970s, the Farm is one of the relatively few that survived -- albeit in an altered economic arrangement.
And Rosinante, which may never be more than a collection of cabins built by a spaced-out band of aging, unrepentant hippies, is something of an inside joke to those who've watched the rise and fall of a quixotic rebel.
Webster's defines quixotic as "foolishly impractical, especially in the pursuit of ideals marked by rash lofty romantic ideas or extravagantly chivalrous action."
That's Stephen Gaskin.
While he no longer calls the shots on the Farm, he's taking one more shot at the dream.
His eyes twinkling behind his spectacles, Gaskin tells it like it is.
"I guess I wasn't quite done running something," he said.
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