In 2004, I went on a road trip with —— to the Deep South.
I was half excited, half reluctant to go along on what was originally intended to be a solo trip. Excited because I love road trips, and I love adventure. Reluctant because ——’s entire reason for wanting to go on this very long journey was to drop in on and stay for a while at a leftover—but apparently still “operating”—hippie commune called “The Farm.”
The Farm itself promised to be a memorable experience, but going with —— made me nervous. This person was young, idealistic, from a wealthy Los Angeles family, sure that a hippie commune would be a kind of naturalist nirvana full of enlightened people, like Whole Foods only bigger and more authentic. To ——, the fact that all of the information that could be found about The Farm said that it was “open to all”—drop in whenever, come as you are—meant that it was an open and tolerant place of love.
I hadn’t been there, but I imagined the opposite. It was, after all, a political commune founded in the ’60s, in the South. I imagined a lot of aging, strident, remnant leftists with no place else to go, forgotten by the calendar and colored by countless seasons spent in America’s rural racial crucible. To me, the fact that The Farm claimed to be “open to all” meant that in all likelihood the press on the place hadn’t been updated in decades, and so few people ever actually tried to visit that nobody had thought it worthwhile to bother. I suspected they might not know what to do with us if we turned up out of the blue.
By the time we found ourselves driving through the South, I had seen interesting things on the road that felt more promising. I realized that I was losing interest, and tried to talk —— out of it, hour by hour. There were so many other other places, places not rooted in what was fringe mythology even for the ’60s, to stop and look at and explore. The Farm—remote, all but lost to contemporary history, radical in its day, way off the beaten path—now seemed like a risky bet. But —— wouldn’t be dissuaded and became increasingly frustrated at my alternative propositions.
“What the hell,” I finally thought to myself. “I’m game. It’s not me I’m worried about anyway.”
So turn up out of the blue we did, which, —— was sure, was the spiritually proper way to make such pilgrimages.
— § —
We pulled in very late in the afternoon after another long day of driving. It wasn’t much to look at; there really wasn’t any “there” there. Not that I was expecting a gift shop and amusement park rides, but we spent a certain amount of time trying to figure out which dilapidated door to knock on and even whether, in fact, we were actually there at all. A little collection of criss-cross dirt roads ran here and there around us, and we explored a few of them by car, me at the wheel. In ——’s impatience, they kept nagging me that we should “Get out, come on, come on, let’s go!” but it was unclear to me just where —— wanted me to stop the car, and what —— expected us to do once we did.
At length we spotted a thirty-something Mestizo-looking guy working on some sort of large mud-and-straw construction by himself, raising dust everywhere. He was covered from head to foot in grime and sweat and he hadn’t shaved in a long time. I parked the car and we got out to introduce ourselves.
He listened to our introductions, didn’t say much, and didn’t stop working. As he continued to move back and forth between piles of straw and wheelbarrows of mud, shovel in hand, he told us that we could stay “in the house” for the night, and that he would take us there in a moment. The moment became ten minutes, then thirty minutes, then forty-five minutes as we watched him work. Sometimes we’d try to start a conversation about what he was doing, but he never did say much.
Finally, after about an hour, sun going down, he put the shovel down and started to walk. We started to walk behind him, and he told us to get in our car to follow. So we did. He walked us back to a two-story house a few hundred meters away along a dirt road. We parked the car in the middle of some wild grass and brush, got out, and went inside.
— § —
There was no particular welcome at The Farm.
As we got through the door, the Mestizo fellow disappeared into another room. We stood there, in a dim sort of common area, in silence. A very large, muscular, forty-something African-American man in colorful sports gear, with broad (but short) dreadlocks sat on a table in the corner, arguing about Marxism with an older white man that looked like a vagrant version of Neil Young.
A heavy-set, middle-aged white man with a straw hat entered the room, then left again, then entered again, then left again, doing something that was keeping him busy—I didn’t have the presence of mind at the time to observe what.
Nobody seemed to notice us at first.
We finally sidled over to the African American man and the old white hippie arguing in the corner and introduced ourselves. The big man grunted and said a few short words that basically came to, “Just stay out of my space, that’s all I ask.” The old hippie started to try to fill us in on the discussion, but his LSD-founded stream-of-consciousness channeled Dustin Hoffman in Apocalypse Now and didn’t make sense to me.
We didn’t have any food on us, and it was late. Fact was that —— had been positive of a warm, bountiful welcome, a feast amongst friends to celebrate our arrival. I had secretly purchased a few supplies at our most recent gasoline stop, but they were stashed outside under the seat of our car. When, after a number of minutes, it was clear that even for those to whom we’d addressed ourselves we might as well be invisible, I suggested that we go get the food I’d bought, eat, then ask where we could sleep. In response, —— became furious that I’d insult the hospitality of our new friends.
We sat down at an empty picnic table at the center of the common area listening to what was becoming a heated argument in the corner about Lenin and Trotsky, and that somehow involved Seventh-Day Adventism as well. For a while, we did and said nothing, each looking off in our own direction. I was hungry and tired, but didn’t want to press the issue for fear of making things uncomfortable. I don’t know what —— was thinking at that precise moment.
Just as I was about to try to strike up a conversation with —— that would somehow fastidiously avoid anything related to Marxism, hippie communes, food, or sleep, the Mestizo guy came back into the room, now cleaner (though strangely, still not entirely clean) and asked if we had anything we could eat. I said that we didn’t, but that we also didn’t want to impose. He said it was no trouble at all and disappeared through a door on the far side of the room.
He came back carrying two grocery store granola bars and two ancient plastic cups full of water, set them on the table in front of us, and left again.
I opened mine and began to eat. So did ——, in silence.
— § —
Minutes of quiet chewing and two-thirds of the way through my granola bar later, the African American man suddenly stopped talking, stood up, and walked heavily and quickly toward us.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he asked.
“Just eating,” —— replied.
“I mean the tension,” he said. “I can sense your tension from here, from both of you. Why the fuck do you think it’s okay to come and eat our food and bring that tension shit in here with you. I don’t need it, man. I don’t need your fucking tension.”
From the corner, the hippie called out, “I don’t think they’re aware, man. It’s probably not their fault. They don’t know.”
“You,” he pointed to me, “and you,” he pointed to ——, “need to cut that shit out right now. Did you hear me? I told you I didn’t need that shit. You understand? Go outside. Take that tension outside. Come back inside when I’m asleep. Because I don’t need your fucking tension.”
“Sorry, man,” I said. “It’s not intentional. But I hear you. I’ll try to relax.”
“Thank you,” he said, satisfied. “That’s all I ask.”
And with that, he walked back over to the table in the corner, sat on it once again, and resumed his discussion with the old hippie. And strangely, with his thanks in hand, I did feel myself start to relax. Still looking for a thesis topic at the time, I decided that maybe we could play at being anthropologists and crack this nut yet, or at least turn ourselves into ersatz journalists, learn a thing or two, and write something interesting about The Farm for posterity. I was beginning to feel gritty and adventurous once again.
But I turned to find —— crying. “Let’s go,” they said. I paused, struggling for a moment to keep up with reality. There was nothing at all for miles and miles around.
“Did you hear me? I said let’s go!” Now —— was grabbing me by the arm.
I said a quick, loud goodbye to nobody in particular. The African American man stopped talking once again, turned his head toward me, and nodded in agreement. I’ll never forget how grateful he looked. The old hippie saluted. And out the door we went.
— § —
We climbed into the car, drove twenty miles out into the middle of nowhere in silence (a rather larger middle of nowhere would have to be crossed to reach civilization again, and we weren’t up for more that night) and slept by the side of the road. It was cold, but starry.
The next day, we hit the road and went back the way we’d come—all the way back, in one straight shot.
And The Farm was never mentioned again, until now.
— § —
Don’t know why this particular apocryphal memory came back to me the other day, or why I feel inclined to write about it. But here it is.
Do I regret going? Not at all. Sometimes you have an experience that teaches you things that can’t be put into words, and in which you meet people that you’d never have otherwise met, and that expand your horizons in strange and inexplicable ways.
It’s a memory, knocking around somewhere inside my skull. A memory of people that I now have to remind myself were and are real. With pasts, stories, hopes, and sadnesses.
I hope they’re all well, and that at least one or two of them is as mystified by me as I am to this day by them.