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Home Free Home: A History of Two Open-Door California Communes

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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25

Chapter 11
The Ridge Tribalizes & Lou Finds His Guru

In August the Ridge was again visited, this time by two somber building inspectors answering a neighbor's complaint about 'hammering.' It was their job to enforce the building codes, and none of the structure on the Ridge were up to code. Inspector Lotspeich, who later became a good friend, was quite sympathetic and asked permission to inspect the ranch. Since not much was visible from the road, Bill agreed. The inspection consisted of driving from one end of the land to the other. Returning to his office, Lotspeich reported seeing a tent or two, but that was all. Camping without a permit at that time was still legal, although later, in response to the 'hippie menace,' local politicians passed a law making it illegal.

In mid-August, Bill prepared for further visits from county officialdom. He was in the attic of his studio one day doing some repair work when he heard someone enter.Swiss Replica Watches He shouted downstairs asking what the person wanted, annoyed at another interruption. The person introduced himself as Corbin Houchins, an attorney whom Lou had sent over. He had spent some time at Morning Star, and one day in the orchard had enjoyed a profound religious experience which changed the course of his life. The Open Land movement interested him, and he had come to help the Ridge in its impending struggle with the authorities. A Harvard graduate and former public defender, young and idealistic, he seemed perfect for the job.

BILL: "Some people have criticized me for not retaining a local attorney. There is an advantage in a lawyer who personally knows the judge and is a part of the local political picture. But I elected to retain Corbin, a brilliant speaker, who was good at reminding the judge of our constitutional rights, which were our only defense. So much of what was happening on the Ridge was indefensible. Also I saw the foolishness in attempting to defend myself as Lou was then trying to do."

On September 8th, another Morning Star Matinee enlivened the courthouse. For the tenth time or so, Lou was ordered to show cause as to why he shouldn't be held in contempt of court for his failure to comply with the permanent injunction. Building and health inspectors took the stand and testified in crisp phrases to the continuing myriad of violations. In his own defense, Lou called on a contractor-friend who described his efforts to get the bath house functioning. This did not impress Judge Mahan. Don McCoy from the Olompali commune then stood in the audience and asked the judge for permission to speak. His Honor told him to shut up and sit down or he would be thrown out.

"I notice the complaint reads 'The People versus Louis Gottlieb," Don continued in spite of the warning. "Well, I'm the people - "

"Throw him out!" the judge screamed, turning purple.

Still within earshot of the court, Don began chanting "God bless all the people, God bless Judge Lincoln F. Mahan" in the corridor. That tore it. He was ordered back into the courtroom and sentenced to five days in the slammer. Mahan then turned to Lou, found him guilty on thirty-seven counts of contempt of court, fined him fifteen hundred dollars and sentenced him to two weeks in jail.

Visiting hours during Don McCoy's and Lou's sojourn in Sonoma County's jail were no doubt the most colorful it had ever seen. Carloads of freaks from the two communes showed up to play music and dance while Near handed out free Morning Star apples and slices of apple pie. Lou's wife Dolly visited one day along with their two children. Dolly was having a hard time accepting Lou's philosophy, especially now that Near was living with him. The following are excerpts from Lou's letters to Near from his cell:

LOU: "I am pretty sure that Mother put me and Don together for our mutual benefit. I feel certain that whatever happens at Olompali, it won't be Don who denies its advantages to the next person who comes along. And if Don doesn't, who will?

"The level of religious talent in the cell is phenomenally high - the 'crimes' of these boys are all connected with consciousness and their attempts to alter it. Amazing how young these kids were when they discovered they were Alternative Society. We have simply got to stumble onto more land to open.

"Corbin Houchins was here, and gave me a couple of new phrases to ponder: 'salutary neglect' and 'non-prosecution of victimless crimes.'"

Later that same month, a party of officials searched the Ridge on the pretext of looking for runaway juveniles. Bill happened to be away that day, and no one challenged their presence. They had a good look at the property, cameras snapping, their worst suspicions confirmed. In spite of Governor Reagan's 'No more Morning Stars' statement, here was another one just ten miles away.

Inspector Lotspeich requested permission to make a more thorough inspection. Bill denied him that right, but told him that the studio, which Lotspeich thought was pre-code, had actually been build a year earlier. Instead of arguing about a few shacks, all that existed on the Ridge at that time, Bill suggested the studio be made a test case of the building codes. He wanted to resolve the question of whether a man had the right in a rural environment to build a house for his own use which he had no intention of reselling.

BILL: "It seemed to me that the right of a man to build his own house as he saw fit was a basic, constitutional right that had been usurped by arbitrary laws designed to enrich the building industry. Since only the rich could afford to build under these laws in rural areas, the code was used to keep poor people in the city ghettos. The code was also responsible for the increasing architectural mediocrity. America was beginning to look like a cookie sheet. Although I was endangering my studio by doing this, I felt it was worth it. The building code laws were being used to close Morning Star and were a threat to every New Age community in California. I had to fight them for our survival."

GWEN: "Lotspeich sat quietly drinking coffee with us before returning to his office. Soon afterwards, we learned he had applied for and received a transfer to a job as inspector of auto trailers in another county. He was replaced by Zack Shaw who had already shown his great distaste for Alternate Culture by his efficient inspection and destruction of Morning Star homes."

Conservative ranchers, who disagreed with Bill about everything else, sympathized with his views regarding the building codes. Many of them had been frustrated in their own building plans and hated the codes as much as the Ridge people did. All their lives they had been able to build as they pleased. Now suddenly they were being told they must pay for building permits and architectural plans subject to the county's approval. As respected members of society, they were not about to break the law or rock the boat - they had too much to lose.

BILL: "It was up to the younger generation to confront the deterioration of basic freedoms for which this country fought so hard. The importance of building your own nest was central to the Open Land philosophy. Those who did it - both men and women - found it one of the most exhilarating experiences of their lives. Good, solid homes, tight and fit, have been built on the Ridge with used lumber, second-hand nails and old roofing. The county condemned them as a threat to health and safety, but we knew that the sterile, ugly, uninteresting tract houses which were 'legal' were much more of a threat to the people inside them."

The Ridge was forming a tribe, a village, a community in a truly organic way. Neighborhoods sprang up on the land: The Front Gate, The Knoll, The Yacht Club, The Community Garden, The East Canyon and The Back Of The Land. Each evolved its own personality, its own 'canyon calls,' its own architectural character.

The Knoll was of the earth; the hunters, meat-eaters and outlaws hung out there. More green and lush than the Ridge proper, the Knoll's shady paths and oaken glades hearkened back to what the land was like when the Pomo and Miwok tribes roamed the area. The Yacht Club took its name from a rowboat someone left by the side of the road near the Front Gate. People often gathered there to socialize, drink wine and play music. Karma Korners, the house where the Zen Trail from the Knoll met the Ridge Road, was another favorite spot. The Middle Of The Land with its gardens lent itself to a more sedate scene. The Back Of The Land attracted families. And for those who wanted to get away from it all on a hermit trip or a religious retreat, there was the isolated East Canyon.

Thankfully, the fall rains came in August that year, relieving the fire danger and putting people on notice that winter was coming. More substantial structures would have to be built if they were to survive the cold weather. during this time some hectic building went on: the Chapel was built by David, now known as 'Crazy David,' the Log Cabin and the Triangle House also dated from this period. Lou graciously offered building materials from the Morning Star houses which all were under destruct orders from the county. In this way, the Ridge was born from Morning Star both on a physical and a spiritual plane.

BILL: "One day while I was visiting Lou at Morning Star, one of the bikers who used to hang out by the well came to me and asked to borrow my truck to chase after some people who had just ripped him off. I refused. When I turned my back, he went to the truck and attempted to start it. I ran over and pulled him out. In response, he picked up a hammer and came after me. Somehow I wrestled it away from him, but in the meantime he had his teeth in my upper arm and was chewing away like it was a t-bone steak. I looked over at Lou as this monster munched my biceps.

"'My God, Lou, do something!' I shouted.

"Lou just stood there with an amused Gandhian-Morning Star expression on his face. 'Don't worry, Bill,' he told me. 'He's never hurt anyone.'

"I finally wrenched myself away, jumped into the truck and split. That was the extent of my pacifism that day."

LOU: "The motorcycle thing was kind of interesting, because those guys never did understand anything about what was going on at Morning Star. One time I asked this Gypsy Joker - he had on a leather jacket and all these chains, 'Why don't you take off your clothes and get a suntan?' And he said, 'I never take off my colors.' They kept their motorcycles running all the time! They'd sit on their machine and talk to you for half an hour, the motor running but not going anywhere. God, that was annoying!

"One night the Gypsy Jokers came up, but this was after they had phoned for permission to visit. They camped around the well, and the police came and shook down the whole crew. They took this one guy and really searched him. The suits they wear have a million pockets, and he started pulling out this, that and the other until the whole top of the police car was covered with stuff. But he was clean, see. So the police left, and his old lady, another leather queen, sat up from where she had been lying in a sleeping bag about six feet away. She had, oh, about a pound of pot in there with her. But this guy was arrested later for a concealed weapon. He came back and asked me to write a letter to the police saying he had been invited to the ranch. And that got him off. Of course it was unnecessary for them to ask permission to come, since I never gave nor withheld it.

"But these motorcycle groups operate on a funny kind of basis. Once I was talking to Paul Stefani, the head narc, and said, 'I just don't understand this motorcycle trip.' And he said something really profound. He said, 'They think they are us.' They are expressing a militaristic, solemn, warrior-caste impulse and kind of march around with a military attitude. But it's an impulse hard for me to understand, and it played a very small role at Morning Star Ranch."

Shortly after Lou was released from jail, Near was arrested while taking a shit in the woods. The judge told her, "Either get a job or we'll hold you for psychiatric observation." So Near worked briefly at a job in the city and lived at Olompali until Lou got permission for her to accompany him and a group of Olompali friends on a guru-shopping, temple-hopping jaunt to India.

LOU: "I had been attracted by everything Indian for about three years before Near and I went to India. I went with the specific intent of seeing my guru Mother Mira at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. She was over 90 years old at the time I saw her. It was a silent Darshan (sitting with the guru). She just looked into my eyes, and I had the impression of someone working really hard to pop me up to a new level in my spiritual evolution. It was a feeling of indomitable will and endless tenacity, a niagara of energy in this tiny lady who was an avatar in our day. I then went back to my hotel room and cried for two hours.

"I saw many other high people in India, but imagine my surprise when right in the Oberoy Grand Hotel in Calcutta I encountered Parashiva teaching immortality! Well, I found myself jumping up and down, bouncing up and down. That first eyelock with Chiranjiva I never will forget even if I live to be 164,000 years old. We went from the Grand Hotel to his mud hut in Sonarpur, a suburb of Calcutta, and in the next 48 hours he did what the traditional guru would have been very happy to accomplish with a gifted pupil in twelve years, namely, he brought me to what the Zen people call 'no mind.' Unless you have experienced it, you cannot know what a tremendous help this experience is."

Chiranjiva was an impoverished refugee from Bangladesh, an extremely handsome Bengali with a flowing white beard. Together with Lou and Near, he returned to Calcutta to buy extra mattresses so that everyone could stay at his hut. After buying several mattresses and blankets, he bought Lou a first class ticket to ride in comfort with the mattresses while he and Near rode in the suffocating third class to save money.

When they arrived in Sonarpur, Chiranjiva insisted on carrying all the mattresses and blankets. He didn't want Americans, whom the Indian villagers considered at least royalty if not gods, to be seen carrying a load. Lou relinquished the mattresses but Near, to Chiranjiva's great annoyance, insisted on carrying one.

Near liked to do her hatha yoga every day. Her first morning at Sonarpur she went outside naked and stood on her head. Then she went down to one of the many mud ponds, still naked, and went swimming. All the villagers hid in their huts, although some peeked out their windows. Chiranjiva's family scolded her. The women showed her how to wrap her sari so that she could stand on her head without exposing her crotch to the neighborhood. She agreed to wear the sari while practicing yoga, but insisted on swimming nude. A few weeks later Don McCoy and Sheila USA went swimming naked and almost caused a riot.

Meanwhile Ramón toured New Mexico with his friend Betty. They visited a number of communes, meeting Morning Star folk who were busy settling in and looking for a piece of land. David Pratt had become good friends with some men of the Penitentes, an unusual Catholic sect who met in secret to perform self-flagellation and other strange rituals. Cindy was waitressing at the Thunderbird Bar in Placitas, a small suburb of Albuquerque while other brothers and sisters were staying at the Domes, a nearby commune. Shortly after Ramón returned to California, they found some land north of Taos on an arid, waterless plateau. Backbreaking efforts were required to survive there, but David Pratt began drawing up plans for the pueblo they ultimately built and named Morning Star East.

Back at Wheeler's Ranch, that first summer demonstrated that the land could be open and still retain some semblance of security for the inhabitants. As the raw edges wore off, the tribe began to gel, the vibrations rose, and a group consciousness evolved. The community began to show itself capable of dealing with crises as a corporate body. The flow of immigrants continued daily, despite the relative isolation of the land and the miserable access road.

BILL: "One day I looked out the studio door and saw a car drive past, windows rolled up and cameras pointed at me, clicking away. I realized that the land had become notorious, politically hot. Visits from the FBI and county inspectors seemed like black clouds of the impending storm which would threaten our existence but of whose fury, as of yet, we had no hint.

As attorney for the Ridge, Corbin Houchins was laying the foundation for a legal defense which proved difficult for the county to break. But ultimately Bill's legal fees and expenses nearly equaled the amount Lou paid in fines. However neither of them questioned its being worth every penny.

By the end of 1968, Morning Star had become her own worst advertisement. Most people found it unlivable, unworkable, impossible and dangerous because of the outlaw tribe living there. In contrast, fewer troublemakers found their way to the Ridge because of its isolation. A nucleus of responsible community members carried the burden of keeping things going, cleaning up the land, maintaining the water system and encouraging a quiet atmosphere. The inhabitants wanted to create an example of Open Land which was safe, happy, prosperous and a healthy place to rear children.

The county understood from the start that the Ridge was different from Morning Star. In their dealings with Bill, the authorities found him a more recalcitrant personality than Lou. He was less of a pacifist, more eager to fight. But when they realized the Ridge was as open as Morning Star, the same injunctive procedures were started to close the place down.

The District Attorney filed suit (The People vs Wheeler and Does One through a Hundred) seeking a court order by way of a temporary injunction forbidding any further non-code building and requesting the removal of the people from the land. The suit was based on a series of inspections made after a search warrant had been obtained. During these inspections, all the non-code buildings and any garbage was carefully recorded and photographed. The inspectors were particularly looking for shit which they carefully bottled for the judge's delectation and introduced as exhibits.

The Ridge's legal problems were compounded by a lawsuit filed against Bill at this time by their neighbor, Jack O'Brien, who sought to close the access road which ran through his land.

GWEN: "Jack O'Brien, his wife Clara and his son lived in a large house in Santa Rosa, the county seat, and kept a 950-acre ranch that bordered the Ridge for tax purposes and a quiet place to spend the weekends. When Bill and I lived alone on the Ridge, we only saw the O'Brien's a few times a month, and always exchanged friendly greetings and waves. Bill and Jack talked to each other as two, strong,independent landowners, and Clara and I smiled sweetly at each other. But when the Ridge population began to grow, they began to cast worried, suspicious glances at us. And when Clara, aided by high-powered binoculars, spotted nude people walking on Bill's land, they became downright angry. Bill and Jack's meetings began to be marked with displays of temper and intolerance. Clara only scowled.

"Jack O'Brien saw everything that he had worked for so hard in his life threatened by this budding bohemian community that used his ranch as a right-of-way. He was prepared to use all his strategy and power to protect his interests. Bill came from a wealthy, secure background, and did not share O'Brien's desire to accumulate capital. He felt he had an absolute right to do whatever he wanted on the Ridge, and that O'Brien was close-minded for not accepting it.

"Within the Open Land community, disagreements could always be settled by just working it out. But the disagreement between O'Brien and Bill, caused by the crossing of two incompatible life styles, shared no common language. Although O'Brien threatened to organize a vigilante committee to wipe us out, he knew his values would be well protected by the legal establishment because they epitomized the American Way. Thus he turned to the District Attorney to rid himself on what he referred to as 'the human garbage' next door. And the District Attorney followed the same course of action he had evolved to deal with the Morning Star inhabitants."

BILL: "O'Brien was everything I was not. A Catholic Irishman from Dublin, he came to this country at the age of eight, plucked chickens in Petaluma during the Depression, went into the mortgage racket and made a million dollars. In 1960 he bought Sugarloaf Ranch between the Ridge and the county road. He did not like the idea of our access road, but since only a minister and his wife used it, he tolerated it. Clara O'Brien, a middle-aged woman with blue-tinted hair, imagined the Ridge as Sodom and Gomorrah. She dedicated herself to closing the community down by exerting constant pressure on the authorities. She once said to me, 'How many of them do you have living down there?' and then, on another occasion, 'We were here first. You have to leave.' She seemed to derive pleasure out of taking photos of Ridge residents with her Instamatic whenever we went past, which I suspect she showed off with giggles to her girlfriends at tea parties. The O'Brien's wanted us to leave our only home so they could enjoy weekends in solitude at their tax write-off ranch."

The O'Brien's complained about the gates being left open, the traffic at all hours, and the hordes of barefoot, unkempt no-goods who stole from them. They referred to the Ridge inhabitants in the most derogatory terms. When they placed a lock and a 'No Trespassing' sign on the gate, both were torn off. At the urging of the O'Brien's, the District Attorney filed charges of Malicious Mischief against Bill. The judge threw it out of court, but it was merely the first skirmish of a long legal battle.

BILL: "Corbin Houchins and I shared mescaline at the Olompali commune in Marin. It was a far-out trip, a kind of marriage, in which we formed a partnership which allowed the Ridge to survive those legally difficult times with a minimum of harassment. He left his job with Berkeley Neighborhood Legal Assistance and went to work defending us full-time. The courts became my second home in 1969 and 1970. I felt like Public Enemy No. 1, a hippie gangster. They were after my ass."


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