Thursday, October 2, 2014

Dropping Out Means You Need a Plan Too

"Outside, at the main gate to the Drop City ranch, there was a plywood sign nailed clumsily to the wooden crossbars: NO MEN, NO WOMEN-- ONLY CHILDREN."

"All the communities he'd been a part of, or tried to be a part of, had fallen to pieces under the pressure of the little things, the essentials, the cooking and the cleaning and the repairs, and while it was nice to think everybody would pitch in during a crisis, it didn't always work out that way."

Beyond Haight-Ashbury is there a greater physical space symbol of 1960s counterculture than the hippie commune? A place in the country, back to the land, grow your own food, no Mr. Jones looking over your shoulder with his taxes and laws and bourgeois habits and what's that you're smoking, man, pass it along this way, you hear? And that was what did in nearly all the utopian experiments of the Aquarius Hair era: loafers, parasites, and dropouts not doing their share of the work while enjoying a disproportionate share of the sex and drugs. Living off the land and thus outside the realm of The Man is a romantic idea, Thoroueu-ian American, but self-sufficiency doesn't come easy. And what begins as egalitarianism collapses often enough into hierarchy with all the social pressures and personality conflicts so redolent of the outside world. This might be inevitable whenever human beings try to assemble a new social organization, no matter how noble their original intentions. An autonomous society where everyone is equal and which also values individualism and hedonism is going to have a rough go at it. "This time it'll be different," is one of the great lies we tell ourselves.

T. C. Boyle's novel, Drop City, about a 1970 California hippie commune in trouble with the law and relocating to Alaska's wild frontier is one part adventure yarn/ one part anthropological fiction/ one part human comedy. Of the many dropouts who make up the Drop City roster, there are four principle characters, each one representing a paradigm of communal life. Norm, a chunky dude in overalls and body hair is the guru, the Big Daddy, whose inheritance and money make Drop City a reality. His charisma keeps spirits high and hopeful, but he is not necessarily competent nor sensible. Pan (or Ronnie as he was known in the straight world) abandoned the suburbs to reinvent himself as a stoned sexual primitive in beads and hair, who would much rather get high, screw, and lay in the sun than dig septic fields for overflowing latrines. Marco is a bit of a drifter, in trouble with The Law for burning his draft card-- he can't go home, not with an arrest warrant in his name. More than anyone else Marco wants Drop City to make it; he indulges in the hippie rhetoric and aesthetic but his puritan work habits makes him a vital member of the Drop City community. He is also monogamous with Star, a flower child with a "million-kilowatt smile" who, along with the other "chicks" bear the soul of the community; the women doing most of the cooking and cleaning while some of the men work and others lounge. Originally, she came out west with Pan, but like many of the other girls of the community, she got fed up with free love and accusations of "bourgeois hangups" when refusing to indulge in sexual demands: "Free love was just an invention of some cat with pimples and terminally bad hair and maybe crossed eyes who couldn't get laid any other way..."

The novel begins in the commune, high summer. Work progresses slowly in the California sun (as Ronnie says, "he didn't come all the way out here to dig sewers." Tourists and weekenders come by to participate (i.e. get high, get laid) or gawk as they would at a circus. Some "cats" taking a too liberal interpretation of sixties sexual politics rape a runaway and there is some dissension about what to do, as Norm has an open door policy called "LATWIDNO, Land Access to Which Is Denied No One." Shortly thereafter, things come to a head on Druid Day, better known in the straight world as Summer Solstice, in which Drop City indulges the longest day of the year with pitchers of LSD-laced orange juice for communal tripping. That day both of the commune's young children, Che and Sunshine, also dosing, are almost killed in drowning incidents. Moreover, Norm totals the VW bus in an accident involving the community's stray mare and two other vehicles. He flees the scene (he is tripping after all and this is heavy, man, dig?) and an arrest warrant is issued. Worse, the county authorities licking its lips over numerous safety code violations and unpaid debts finally have the catalyst it needs to call in the bulldozers and raze the commune once and for all. But Norm has an uncle who'd recently retired from Alaskan trapping and has abandoned a working cabin and land no one is using.  "Are you fucking crazy?" Star wants to know, speaking on behalf of nearly every concerned hippie. Norm, who spent a few sentimental summers in Alaska twenty years past, responds with a confident huckster's speech worth quoting in full:

"...The cabin is ours, people, fully stocked and ready to go, traps, guns, snowshoes, six cords of wood stacked up outside the door, pots and pans and homemade furniture and all the rest, and it's going to be an adventure, it is. We're going to take down some trees, because that's the way you do it-- lumber is free up there, can you dig that, free-- and we're going to build four more cabins and a meeting house and we're going to build right on down to the river because the salmon are running up that river even as we speak and they're running in the millions. You dig smoked salmon? Anybody here dig smoked salmon? And the blueberries. The cranberries. You never saw anything like it. You want to know what we're going to eat? We're going to eat the land because it's one big smorgasbord. And there's nobody-- I mean nobody-- to stop us."

When? Where? How?  But logistics can wait-- it is Druid Day after all, and Norm leads the hippies dancing around a wild bonfire. Within a few days Norm has purchased an old school bus (a la Ken Kesey), and over the ensuing days, the bus is outfitted for the long trip (supplies and provisions packed, most especially Drop City's rock and roll record collection and the house speakers). Within a week they are gone, on their way up through Canada and most of Alaska to the very frontier, beyond civilization altogether, to establish Drop City North.

T. C. Boyle

Before the hippies arrive, Boyle has set up a parallel storyline in Boynton, the last town on the road. Most of the inhabitants are "coots"-- anti-social survivalists, almost universally male. Cecil "Sess" Harder is not as wealthy as some of the others who are involved in exploitation of the land and misery (either in resources or tourism or the running of contraband). Sess grows his own herbs and vegetables, hunts moose and bear with his rifle, and runs an extensive trapline with his dogs. Entirely self-sufficient, constitutionally and psychologically he's well-built and adaptable for Alaska's long, dark winter, but would prefer having someone to share the cabin with. After a disastrous relationship in which his last girl left him with severe cabin fever, he discovers Pamela in the classifieds. She wants out of society with its druggies and crimes and governmental overreach. She's beautiful, blonde locks and blue eyes, and a hard worker and Sess really is lucky when she chooses to marry him. Sess and Pamela live in a cabin out by the river called the Thirtymile-- but often go into Boynton or beyond for supply runs or a bit of "civilization." The only problem in his life is Joe Bosky, a psychotic asshole rich from running whiskey crates to alcoholic Eskimos. Their vendetta is brutal, the stakes growing more vicious with each retaliation.

Into this sleepy community, the hippie bus pulls in with its rock and roll, its groovy argot and its birthright naivety. The bus breaks down for the umpteenth time just a couple miles outside Boynton. Fixing it they meet Sess and Pamela walking up the road and they go into town together to the Three Pup, the local drunks' watering hole. Soon as they arrive, Sess knocks the weepy honky tonk ballad off the needle and chooses three plays of Van Morrison's Mystic Eyes. Flabbergasting the local rustics, "the hippies had caught on and kept feeding the jukebox quarters and the only song they played-- the song of the night, the anthem-- was Mystic Eyes. It was a joke. Hilarious. Fifteen times, twenty, twenty-five. They danced and pounded and threw back beers and shots of peppermint schnapps and whatever else they could lay their hands on. All was movement and noise and the swirling interleaved colors of the dancers' shirts and jackets and the flapping wind-propelled cuffs of their pants."


On the road, Norm, slumped over the school bus wheel, pops some uppers and points out some trees leaning willy nilly, "the drunken forest... What happens is the trees can't put down their roots more than maybe twenty-four inches or whatever and then the wind comes along and gives them a shove. And don't think there's anything wrong with them. They're alive and thriving. It's just that they're never going to grow straight. Or much."  Is there a better description of the hippie drifter? Soaking up a scene and then bailing when the vibes go bad? Half the season is over by the time Drop City North chops down its first tree. It's too late for the growing season and hunting and skinning a moose, laying traps, and building log cabins is not exactly an intuitive knowledge, not anymore at least in our consumeristic society. The pleasure of Boyle's novel is wondering whether Drop City will make it to the winter, and if so, how the hell it will deal with its noon-time moon and 40-below nights. The barriers are not only physical or mechanical, but psychological and spiritual as well. How that plays out with a clan of dropouts who never saw themselves in the Alaskan wilderness in the first place is the sort of vicarious thrill that inspires the thrill of reading in the first place.

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