Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | November 3, 2016

THE COMMUNE Carlotta, CA – 11/30/1973-12/01/1973

The sun had gone down right around the time the gentle rain started and there I was on the side of the road, route 101, north end of Arcata, near the intersection of 17th & G streets, Humboldt County, California – headed south. This was a great place to hitchhike back then, 1973, one never had to wait too long for a ride. That was before the freeway bypass was built burying the spot under tons of concrete and rebar.  But still with the darkness and the rain I was getting worried. The rain was a kind of heavy drizzle that I have since learned simply constitutes the atmosphere of far northern California for much of the winter. Other hitchhikers were pacing back and forth, stomping at the ground trying to keep warm since there was no way to keep dry. The guy closest to me had just wandered off to the nearest market to dry out and get something to eat when a station wagon pulled over and stopped in front of me. The back door opened and without hesitation I passed in my backpack and climbed in the back seat which already held two other guys.  Everyone in the car looked like hippies so I felt safe, Charlie Manson phantoms aside. We pulled away.

1973-11-30-oregon-by-danny-d

Photo shot by Danny Dickerson just as I was getting out of the car at the Smith River Agricultural Inspection Station at the Oregon/California border to start hitchhiking south – November 30, 1973

The driver said they were only going about 20 miles further down the road, which ended my fantasy of a ride all the way to San Francisco. Then one of the guys in the back spoke up. He said they all lived in a commune couple miles off the main highway and since it was raining and getting late I was welcome to come and spend the night. He said we should get there in time for dinner and they could fix me up with a place to sleep and then one of the guys heading off to work in the morning could take me back to the highway. I’d heard about hippie communes and had a little experience of them myself, mostly with the one Dickie and I stayed at in Roxbury, Boston back in 1971. I knew that visiting might be interesting but moving in could be a pain in the ass – the often complex commune politics had a tendency to get nasty from time to time. So I thought that a single night stay at one could be a lot of fun. I figured there would probably be alcohol of some kind, and dope to smoke, and I might even get laid. I was young and seeking adventure and this seemed like it might fit the bill.

I looked outside at the darkness and the rain and told him I would be happy to accompany them to their commune for the night. They all got a little looser once I’d acquiesced. There were four of them I could see and there might have been another one sleeping in the way back next to my pack. Mostly guys but one chick riding shotgun. Now that I’d been seduced into going with them their conversations turned more to each other and I didn’t pay much attention. We turned off of 101 just south of Fortuna onto a road I would years later identify as Route 36. For the first time I began to get worried, leaving the main highway behind. But then something happened that really gave me something to worry about. The increasing references to Jesus gradually made me all too aware that I had once again been picked up by a group of Jesus freak hippies, this time in a station wagon. That van full in Virginia wasn’t enough I guess, God wanted another crack at me. They had carefully waited until we turned off the main highway before they started preaching to me. I’m sure they knew I would probably have asked to get out if they’d begun on the main highway.  And I would have, rain or not. There would clearly no sex and drugs and rock-n-roll at this commune.

We drove on that dark, winding, two-lane blacktop for what seemed like miles and miles before coming to a town. A very small town, in fact not really a town so much as simply a place with a post office named Carlotta.  We turned onto a dirt road and drove a bit further. This is where the commune inhabited a big old house they just called the Mansion. By the time we got there the rain was coming down pretty steady, with occasional strong wind-driven gusts, no longer the drizzle it had been when they picked me up.

They hustled me inside and I found that we were, like they said, just in time for dinner. There had to be 30 or 50 of them, hard to tell as they were moving around a lot and dinner was split between two large rooms to accommodate everyone.  They were mixed male and female and even a few kids running around. There were big long tables with benches in each room and I was introduced to the other believers by one of my deliverers as having been guided to them by the hand of God.  As we sat down to eat I realized they’d begun doing a kind of tag team preaching on me. One would have at me for a while and then when he tired another would take over. Apparently the idea was to wear down any resistance I might throw up in the face of their revealing The Lord’s Word to me.  But resist I did.

After the quiet saying of grace sprinkled with many references to the Bible, the rooms became loud as a high school cafeteria at lunchtime. Dinner was a hearty if not particularly gourmet affair, filling and tasty enough for a traveler grateful for a roof over his head on a rainy night. There were so many people talking at once and always one or more talking to me about The Lord that it was hard to concentrate on food. Being as young as I was then, 21, I tried to respond from time to time. Get my two cents in, so to speak. It did no good of course. They had the moral certainty of their beliefs and I was on their turf as well as being grossly outnumbered. There was no one I could look to for support for my essential atheism. They kept feeling around for a chink in my armor but of course I didn’t really have any armor. All I had was a complete lack of faith, which I held onto doggedly as though it were itself a religion.

I tend to be, or at least think I am, somewhat logical about things even if my logic is often hard for someone else to follow. So committing myself to something which is based entirely on unprovable belief is antithetical to who I am. There have been many times when I’ve wished I could throw myself into a religion, even a cult of some kind. Times when I grow tired of having to make every decision for myself. Times when I might doubt my own determinations of what is right and wrong. At such times I long for a system I could surrender myself to which would tell me, without hesitation, what is right and what is wrong and what I should do in any given situation. But I just can’t swallow any of them. Why should I believe in any one particular religion out of the many available from which to choose? Each one of them asserts with certainty that they are the only true one, that all the others are wrong. Yet they are all basically the same, only the details differ. What makes one any better than any other? And what makes any of them real? Why should I believe any of it?

Even these days, as I grow older, I am sometimes envious of those who possess the certainty of an afterlife, who have the comfort of a deity and a community of worship. But no matter how much or how often mortality slaps me in the face I just can’t turn myself over to any system of faith. They make no sense to me. And that’s not a challenge. It’s a simple fact, part of who I am.

With dinner over I wanted nothing so much as a cigarette. In fact I hadn’t had a cigarette since they picked me up in Arcata and so was getting somewhat desperate. I’d had no opportunity earlier because there was no smoking in the car and we went straight into dinner when we arrived. So I pulled out my tobacco can at the dinner table to roll one up. I was promptly informed that there was no smoking in the house. No surprise there and I had no problem with that. I explained to them that I would smoke it outside. They said I didn’t understand. I could not even roll the cigarette in the house. They wanted nothing to do with tobacco in God’s house. At least they didn’t make me leave the can outside the door.

Since I was their guest and I was outnumbered I agreed without further protest and got up to go outside and do my dirty deed. However when I opened the door I was reminded with a kind of slap from the storm that it was pouring down rain out there. I turned back in and asked if I could please just roll the cigarette in the house. I would be glad to then take it outside and smoke it in the rain. But they would not back down. So I went outside in the wet dark. I found a relatively protected place under a tree with low branches and with great difficulty, wasting more than a few papers, I managed to roll a cigarette using the brim of my baseball cap to shelter it from the rain. Then I had what had to be one of the most satisfying smokes of my life. These Jesus freaks had forced me to figure out how to roll a cigarette in the rain and I was going to savor every last puff.

After my cigarette I went back inside, hung up my wet coat and went into the kitchen to help with dinner cleanup. The tag team preaching continued unabated. I was clearly that evening’s group project. For the most part they were not rude about it, with a few exceptions. It seemed that someone or ones was keeping an eye on the hitchhiker conversion project and when somebody started getting too aggressive would send someone more sensible in to replace them.

It had been a long, emotional day for me.  I hadn’t wanted to leave Oregon at all but felt obligated to return to Cleveland and explain why I wanted to stay in Oregon. I know, that doesn’t make much sense, but it seemed to at the time. Then there was the slow-going hitchhiking since morning and the constant preaching since I’d arrived at the commune. I only got relief from the preaching when I went outside for another soggy cigarette. One time one of them came out to keep me company, at least he brought an umbrella with him which made it easier to roll. I thought that he probably wanted to bum a smoke and I offered to roll him one.  He seemed to want it too, but politely declined for fear, I believe, that one of the others might catch him. I felt sorry for him until he started filling the umbrella with the Word of God.

Eventually I inquired of one of my hosts where I might stretch out my sleeping bag for the night. People had been disappearing for a while and it was getting late. I was hoping to get an early start out of there in the morning. My companion made inquiries and then told me to gather my stuff and he would show me to my bed. The Mansion was a three-story house and I was taken to a large bunk room on the second floor. Single men and women were segregated into separate bunk rooms. The several married couples had individual rooms on the third floor. The long room consisted of a series of bunkbeds with some mismatched dressers in between them. I was guided to an empty bunk with a bare mattress. As I unrolled my sleeping bag and prepared for sleep the guys on either side of me and on the bunk above began to take turns preaching. Clearly this would go on all night if I didn’t fall asleep, which I finally did. I don’t know how long they kept preaching after I fell asleep, but I hope it was a long time.

I woke the next morning with sun shining in the windows and an empty bunk room. I found the bathroom and then gathered my things together and went downstairs to catch my ride back to the highway. I was just in time for the last of breakfast but first I had to go outside for a quick cigarette, relieved at being able to roll it in the dry air of morning.

After breakfast, while I was helping clean up, I asked when somebody would be heading down to the highway so I could get a ride. I was told that everyone who worked had already left. They seemed surprised that I wanted to leave. I kept being told how welcome I was and that I should stay at least another night to give the commune a fair chance. But I really wanted to get out of there. My patience had been worn to a frazzle by all the preaching and I didn’t know how much longer I would be able to remain polite in response. I’ve often wondered if the determination of such people to keep bringing in new recruits might not have to do with an essential doubt in their own faith. Do they need a constant flow of converts in order to validate their own belief? To give the irrational a semblance of reason?

Later, while I was outside grabbing another smoke and trying to figure out what to do next, one of the young women came out and offered me a tour around the extensive gardens. The original owners of the Mansion had brought plants from all over the world and this woman knew them all and wanted to introduce me to each one. The under-tended garden was getting fairly weedy and seedy and was pretty muddy from all the rain but you could still see in that bright morning light how magnificent it must once have been. With a little imagination and her vivid descriptions I could see how magnificent it might be again. This was the only part of my time at the commune that I can honestly say I enjoyed. She seemed pleased and proud to be able to show off her knowledge of the garden and was so into it that she did very little preaching.  I’m sure she had been sent out to try and distract me from leaving. Maybe she thought it would tempt me to stay with them if I could see what a beautiful garden there was amidst all that mud. If so, it didn’t work, but I did enjoy my brief time with her.

After that the tag team preaching continued as they assigned me small jobs to do and tried to convince me that I really didn’t want to leave. They were convinced that God had guided me to them and had a purpose for me. They told me how wonderful life in the commune was. How the duties were all divided. And that they had another location in a lighthouse not too far away. “Would you like to see that?” I was asked. “Maybe you would like it better there, next to the ocean.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was definitely losing patience, my response to being preached at was growing sharper. I asked somebody in which direction the freeway lay? I wanted to get to San Francisco by that night so I could crash with my friends Jim and Tim. Then I could continue on to Orange County in a day or two and eventually back to Cleveland.

Everyone I spoke to seemed uncertain as to whether or not they should tell me how to get to the freeway. Finally, just before lunchtime, I hoisted the pack on my back and told them I was going to start walking. I figured I could find my own way to the road and hitchhike back to 101. At that point one of them took mercy on me and told me that after lunch he would drive me back to the freeway on his way to the lighthouse. I kept my eye on him so he couldn’t disappear on me, even eating lunch with him. When lunch was over he proved as good as his word and after some discussion with a few others we loaded my pack in his car and headed out. The preaching on the drive was kept to a minimum. The driver tried halfheartedly to convince me that I was making a big mistake. He kept talking up the lighthouse and how beautiful the ocean views were from there but I think he knew it wasn’t going to do any good.

After a while he dropped me off in Alton at Rt. 101 and said goodbye. I was finally free of the Jesus commune and its oppressive faith. They had been kind, in their way, and generous, they fed me well, but their single-minded obsession with converting me made the experience highly unpleasant.

There was nothing much around the intersection in Alton except for a truckstop with diner and gas station not too far away that I could access if need be. I stuck out my thumb and did not have to wait long for a ride. It was by then a beautiful, warm, sunny afternoon. I was finally back on my way and the guy who picked me up didn’t mention Jesus the whole ride. By that night I was safely in San Francisco telling Jim and Tim the whole story of my adventure in the Jesus commune.

I don’t know if my two experiences being picked up by Jesus freaks while hitchhiking in the rain (see the earlier story “Jesus in a Hippie Van”) were unusual or if that sort of thing happened to most people who hitchhiked back in those days. I’m just glad it only happened to me twice.  Who knows what might have happened if there had been a third time? I might’ve finally cracked and given in. I might have ended up trying to convert you right now and the focus of this story would have been completely different.

***

When I got back to Cleveland I wrote the following poem about the Jesus commune experience (part of the “Moving West” series):

 

a wooden cross stands at the end of the drive

dirt road, fields flooded from early winter rains

the mansion rises out of the mud, old and dignified

trees and plants from al1 over the world

dot the weedy once glorious gardens

people from all over the country

picked up from hiways, city parks, beaches

anyplace and no place

all of them here to spend their lives in

blind service to a god

none of them seems to know

acting out their loneliness

replacing fathers and lovers

with an omnipotent figure or authority who

asks no questions and accepts no excuses

they eat well, big meals

with 50 of them the mansion is kept in fit repair

and their kindness is great

surpassed only, perhaps, by their persistence

in seducing others into their beliefs

they do not understand that each man can

only believe.

that which is feasible to him

all religions are the same

each claims to be absolute

each denounces the others.

and out of it all the only things that make

any concrete sense to me

are the things they all seem to be missing

the mountains, trees, animals, seas

these are my god

and I must worship in my own way

without pressure

without crowds and display

listening to the song of the wind

the natural incense of the forest bathing my senses

in peace and freedom.

 

 

Poem written 12/22/1973

Cleveland, Ohio

Prose section begun Sebastopol, CA, date unknown

– additional material & revisions 10/29/2016-11/02/2016

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Responses

  1. Har! That’s Rte 36, by the way, not 37. I lived across the street from this Estate in the early 80’s. The jesus freaks were gone and the building was derelict. It was a popular spot to explore and Party in. Remnants of the Garden were still amazing to explore. Always seemed a bit haunted, though. Weirdest thing I saw was a hypodermic needle stuck into an apple, still on the tree.

    And the psycho Jesus freaks have left the Lighthouse Ranch, as well, 15 years ago. The barracks have been torn down and the property is up for National Monumenthood.

    • Of course it was route 36 – route 37 goes to Vallejo – guess I’ve been away from Humboldt County for too long – I will fix it – thanks – was there a nightclub or bar in there for a while in the early-mid 80s? I seem to recall going there to hear a friend’s band play – good to hear that the Jesus freaks are gone from the lighthouse as well – it will make a good national Monument –

  2. On my bus trip to my Draft induction physical in Portland, OR,1969, I saw a gorgeous man with long blond hair. I thought, “Well, surely he be a draft dodger!,” so I chatted him up just to find out that he was living his life in the image of Jesus. 😦 Some hippies became Jesus freaks, some needlers, some gay, some rainbows. Was there ever a true “hippie?”

    • I don’t know, Stefen, maybe there were no hippies after 1968 – I think there are still hippies in Garberville, and Arcata, and Occidental and San Francisco – but hippie was always a pretty nebulous term – and for me it was kind of empty because it seemed like the hippies created no literature – music and visual art, but no literature – then there were the Jesus hippies – a whole other thing – thank you for reading my humble story –


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