How We Became Country Hippies

foto by Stanley Knap, from New West, July 4, 1977
          from our front porch  (by Stanley Knap from July 4, 1977 New West)

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Is that enough?

Judy was pregnant.  I was burned out or maybe just bored.  Hillary’s Mariposa house was falling into ruin.  Nixon had just been reelected. The hippy dropout idea was very current in 1973.

Judy and I both had solid, desirable jobs In the city, and it gives a lot away to admit that we walked away from them without a thought. Like we did a lot of things we did those days — impulse. Quit the jobs, bought a pickup, packed up and moved the the country.  It was to be for a year, after which we would be normal again.  Jobs and stuff.  It lasted ten years and changed everything.  I mean, everything.

* * *

It is nothing less than arrogance that allows educated, city-bred, soft-handed, professional joes & janes to believe that worn jeans and long hair are sufficient qualification for Country Life.  I have no excuses for myself at all.  Judy, better schooled and experienced, at least was a teacher.  They have teachers everywhere, including the country and in time she found her way to teaching again.  I, on the other hand, oh my… I had not one single skill of the set any fool would know was needed.  I was not even wise enough to be worried. 

So we did it, the whole hippie disaster.  Goats, chickens, naked children, no money, big gardens, old cars.  We spent the first year doing what we had imagined — building a small house to live in and fixing the driveway, fences and porches.  Judy organized a brisk weekend of help to paint the house. I learned to maintain Danny’s swimming pool.  We confronted the realities of very limited water supplies.  Coyotes or a lion or something ate the sheep.  A skunk ate the chickens. Gophers ate most of the garden.  Bugs ate the fruit, and also the fruit trees.  The depth of my ignorance was clear within a year, I think, although my public admission — an article in New West — was published when we’d been up the hill for four.  In summary, we were about as equipped to live at the end of a mile-long unpaved road with a party-line telephone, as most of my country neighbors were prepared to live on the Moon. Not.  At.  All.  

We made it there because people took care of us.  Generous neighbors in the country and especially Danny and Hillary who owned the house and loved us in spite of our — mostly my — cluelessness.  For all the good that came out of this, I will always owe.  Neighbors — some slightly more experienced hippies and others county-wise locals — helped us learn to keep animals, grow vegetables, shoot varmints, drive on ice, put up wooden structures that didn’t leak or fall down.  These people made it possible for us to hang on while we figured out how to live, and while we turned ourselves into people we wouldn’t otherwise be.  For Danny & Hillary, I will just never be sufficiently grateful. 

Cash money the first years came from savings, construction jobs, and fire fighting.  One summer I fell into a cannery job down the road in Planada.  Ten million cans of peaches and figs, working all through the hot months. It was a Teamsters’ job, decent pay, and qualified me for unemployment. I am mentioning several of the most physically hard jobs I ever had, and interestingly, the cannery job (second worst after fires) was a major step up from field labor for the Latino people who were nearly all of my co-workers. 

But Judy and I prevailed. The children got older, Judy got paid jobs, I learned that I was a better journalist than cannery worker. I got short hair, we wore clothes all the time, but we kept the goats, chickens, and the gardens. Judy got elected to the Mariposa school board, and on that day I was on the air at the CBS TV station in San Francisco doing straight election coverage reports. 

We lived the Country Life for ten years, nine more than the plan. Toward the end I was traveling most of the time, coming home to visit and sometimes to write. I was professionally successful but failing as a husband and father. So we moved back to town, to Oakland. City streets, city schools, city jobs. 

So it all happened. With our whole open hearts we did the entire trip. We, adults and children, are different people for it. I mean, once a hippie, and all. And besides, decades later, at this very moment, I am sitting in my Mariposa home, on the same rutted road, just a few dozen yards from where it all was.

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