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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 13
County Inspection & God Receives a Present

In late April, Corbin Houchins told Bill that the Ridge's legal situation was no better than Morning Star's. He offered no hope that the ultimate destruction of the community by the county could be stopped. The experiment was doomed unless the Ridge made an attempt to become legal, either through becoming an organized camp or by building code houses with flush toilets for everyone. Bill told Corbin to stall them any way he could, to fight them every step of the way, hopefully providing time for the community to develop and for the revolution to catch up with the advance troops.

But the authorities would not be put off any longer. They went to court for a search warrant based on information they had acquired on their previous raids and informed Bill when they were coming. Corbin made careful preparations, even persuading Bill to hire two Burns guards. If any controversy arose in court over an issue, the jury would be more likely to believe a Burns guard than some absent-minded hippie.

On Inspection Day, April 25th, a giant white slug with red eyes on its forehead crept slowly down the access road, the Sheriff's four-wheel-drive Carry-all. Waiting at Wheeler's front gate was Corbin, a slim young man wearing a dapper but mussed suit, two elderly Burns guards in blue-gray uniforms, two photographers and a small cluster of Ridgefolk. A dumpy man in a short-sleeved white shirt emerged from the vehicle and stared in wide-eyed amazement at the reception committee before announcing his intention to enter. It was Mr. Amaroli, Chief Building Inspector, carrying a large sheaf of papers the search warrant.

"I have here an inspection warrant," Amaroli began. "I want to make a routine inspection of Mr. Wheeler's property."

"Mr. Amaroli, on behalf of Mr. Wheeler, I'm telling you that you do not have permission to come on this land," Corbin replied.

Fluctuating between anger and relief, Amaroli continued. "Then I'm not coming on the ranch. If I understand you correctly, you are denying me access to the land."

"I do not give you permission to come on the land," Corbin explained.

Amaroli returned to the vehicle, contemplated for a moment before returning to the gate.

"I feel that I've executed my warrant, and I give you a copy," he said. "You agree that you've denied me the privilege of coming on the land?"

"I'll repeat one more time, Mr. Amaroli," Corbin replied. "I do not give you PERMISSION to come on this land."

They went around like this another six times before Amaroli lifted the chain holding the gate shut. The officials, challenged but not resisted, drove in. More Ridgefolk gathered, including Ramón playing his accordion. Zack Shaw, another building inspector, was also there. During the early Morning Star days he had seemed friendly, but his son wrote a letter to the Press Democrat saying he thought hippies were animals. Inspector Logsden, also there, did not look very happy as once again he poked around in likely piles, scraping old turds into bottles for the judge. Oh, the fascination with feces!

Photographer Bob Fitch had been living on the Ridge for some time, ultimately compiling a file of over four thousand photographs. He ran backwards in front of the inspection team, catching on film their expressions of anger and embarrassment. Gwen was mixing a batch of yoghurt when they reached Bill's studio. She didn't bother to answer Amaroli's knock, so Corbin entered. Amaroli knocked again, his own camera clicking. Meanwhile Zack Shaw nailed a 'condemned' notice on the studio's outer wall. Whomp! Whomp!

"You don't have permission to touch this building!" Corbin shouted.

But a neutral atmosphere was maintained until Amaroli returned outside and pulled a protective rubber skirt off the drainpipe to photograph the studio's sink outlet. Bill charged across eight feet of space and, without touching Amaroli, stood menacingly in front of the drain.

"It isn't fair!" he shouted. "He's destroying it! Leave it the way it was!"

"Are you preventing me from carrying out my inspection?" Amaroli asked with a bland expression.

"I'm not preventing you, but you are destroying my property!" Bill insisted. "Put it back the way it was!"

Corbin stepped in. "That's enough," he said to Bill. And to Amaroli: "It would be helpful if you would refrain from actually doing damage to the building."

Once away from Bill's studio, the only structure specifically named in the warrant, the mood of the procession relaxed. As each campsite was inspected, the people there joined the procession. A trio of children ran ahead like a flight of warning angels. Anyone could have escaped into the woods to avoid association with obvious code violations, but most remained on their doorsteps.

"What's happened to the Bill of Rights, the right of a man to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?" John of 'John and Sue' asked.

"They're just like Eichmann, just doing their job," Tommy Terrific commented with a sneer.

Crazy David came up with a song:

"They come in white shirts, they come in brown,
We're here just to write it all down,
We're going to sing, we're going to dance,
We're gonna take off our shirt and pants,
This ain't the city, this ain't the town,
We're here just to write it all down.

In front of an empty army surplus tent, John made a whimsical comment. "Not only does the army make you live in these, they do it under coercion."

"Forceful coercion," a deputy replied with a reminiscent sigh to everyone's laughter.

"If you want to live in one, they tear it down!" John added. More laughter from everyone.

The inspectors must have covered ten miles by the end of the day. They departed wearily by mid-afternoon. Amaroli's white shirt-tail was untucked, his pants sagging, his movements more of a shuffle than a walk. An equally exhausted Corbin returned to the studio to discuss events and future strategies. He advised Bill and Gwen to move out of the studio. It would demonstrate their willingness to comply with the law, he explained, suggesting they rent a room at a local motel something totally repulsive to them. Bill wanted to remain in the studio, and Gwen also did not want to move away. But she did not feel relaxed living there any more. When cars drove up to their door at night, she would stiffen with fear.

GWEN: "I learned to fog my concern for the legal dealings and place it second in importance to the more rewarding everyday experiences of Open Land. All growing plants are beset with a certain amount of blight, insects and varmints. In the course of nature, those plants with the strongest genetic plan and the best environment will survive to bloom. Our genetic plan was Open Land, and our environment the astoundingly beautiful California coastal countryside."

No farm was complete without a cow, so Bill bought Bonnie, a large, old, whiteface family milk cow. Later she was joined by Claudia, a full-blooded Jersey, the Elizabeth Taylor of the cow world. The two supplied many thousands of gallons to milk, improving otherwise deficient diets. Mornings and evenings became natural gathering times for the community to share the milk and milking equally. For city dwellers, milking offered a real country experience and gave a feeling for the realities of food production.

One day the Hare Krishna devotees visited. With shaven heads and in their saffron robes, they chanted beside the community garden while the corn waved its leaves in appreciation. Afterwards, they reverently watched the cows creatures they regarded as holy being milked. Several devotees gingerly took a teat and squeezed, giggling all the while. They returned to the city with a container of fresh, whole milk and placed it as an offering on their temple's altar.

When Claudia Cow had her calf, John, Sue and their children objected to having the calf removed from its mother. Bill explained that despite the emotional pain the separation produced, no other option existed. For centuries the cow had been bred to produce much more milk than the calf needed. If the calf remained with the mother beyond the first few days, it often drank itself to death.

Moreover, the mother was apt to hold back her milk, saving it for the calf, and could develop mastitis, a sometimes fatal disease. Also, the only way to tame a calf was to bottlefeed it. Once accustomed to humans, it would become a gentle milk cow later. John and Sue could not understand this line of reasoning, so Bill suggested they discontinue drinking the milk. They did this for a while, but when they saw how the calf was prospering under human care, they began coming to milking times again.

A few chickens lived in the barn. They lay eggs here and there, which people occasionally found. Sometimes a hidden nest yielded twenty-five eggs, and on more than one occasion a hungry individual made a dinner out of one of the laying hens.

"How would you like me to eat you?" Bill would shout in righteous vegetarian wrath when he caught them.

On May First, the cross on Hoffie's Hill was transformed into a maypole. Eating and dancing continued all afternoon. Everyone knew there were hard times ahead and that the Ridge stood in imminent danger of being closed. These celebrations, especially the music, helped everyone forget these problems. The feeling that 'this may be the last time' added a certain poignancy to the gatherings.

RAMON: "Gina and I lived on the Ridge for a year and a half. During that time we saw the Open Land movement prove its thesis: deny access to the land to no one, and the land will call the right folks together. More and more people came, to visit, to settle in, or just to stay for a while before moving elsewhere. Throughout that summer, the flow of visitors remained intense, but we accepted it as the price of educating others to the new life style. So many people eager to find new ways to live, to relate to one another and to bring up their children! American society labored under a heavy burden of problems crying out for solution. The Ridge became a research and development center for trying out new ideas.

"I tended to look for solutions in terms of some kind of new organization instead of just 'flowing with it,' but I was learning. As Old Ray at Morning Star pointed out, the older you are, the more truths you have to unlearn. Gina and my combined ages put us well over the sixty mark, among the two or three oldest couples on the place. We learned a great deal from the young people on the Ridge."

The media gradually awoke to the Ridge as news. The community welcomed the exposure, feeling that the coverage might bring the troubles with the county to a wider and more sympathetic audience. Surely a discovery as simple and harmless as Open Land would strike the heartstrings of the nation. To Bill, it seemed a conscious step into history with heavy political implications.

Photographer Bob Fitch had been the first to arrive. Former photographer for Martin Luther King he took the famous shot of Coretta King at Dr. King's funeral which made the cover of LIFE he also was an active support of Cesar Chavez and the farm workers. Tall and blond, with a couple of Nikons slung around his neck and a cassette recorder hanging by his side, Bob ran on pure nervous energy. Ridgefolk grew to trust him and he roamed about freely. He hoped that Esquire or LIFE would buy the article he assembled, but Esquire showed no interest, and Life had their own team covering a 'secret' commune in Oregon.

BILL: "The cover of that LIFE issue showed an intense-looking commune family, the men in overalls, the women in granny dresses and the kids neat and clean. The beauty of it all brought tears to our eyes. Their way of life was described, along with sumptuous color photos, but the article declined to disclose their location, obviously to prevent hordes of people from visiting. As we read it, we felt that the commune movement had come of age, that America was ready to accept alternate life styles.

"The following week the Manson story broke and the bubble burst. Interest in communes waned, and Bob had trouble selling his articles. A liberal Catholic paper finally took it, nude photos and all."

After Bob Fitch left, the community decided to have a completely open policy in regards to the media. It would have been hypocritical to let some people in and exclude others while extolling the virtues of Open Land. Wheeler's and Morning Star were among the few communes to follow this policy. They felt that the good will of society must be promoted, and that one way to achieve this was through an open door to the media. Reporters were frequently amazed at the hospitality they encountered. They got their story, and in almost all cases it was favorable.

The San Francisco Chronicle published an article entitled 'Where Did All The Hippies Go?' by Maitland Zane. It was a reasonably objective story, slightly skeptical to be sure, but he refrained from being snide. The best spread was in the now-defunct magazine Scanlans which likened the Open Land movement to the Populism of the early nineteen hundreds.

Sara Davidson, a tall, dark-haired woman, appeared to write an article for Harper's Magazine. Gruesome Gulch claimed her car, and she spent the night in the back seat, terrified of O'Brien's cows. In the morning she pushed on determinedly on foot. After a few days on the Ridge, she wrote a somewhat skewed story: dope and sex predominated, while Open Land received second billing:

"Our culture has absorbed so much of the style of hip clothes, language, drugs, music that it has obscured the substance of the movement with which people at Morning Star and Wheeler's still strongly identify. Being a hippie, to them, means dropping out completely, and finding another way to live, to support oneself physically and spiritually. It does not mean being a company freak, working nine to five in a straight job and roaming the East Village on weekends. It means saying no to competition, no to the work ethic, no to consumption of technology's products, no to political systems and games... They took up what Ramon Sender calls 'voluntary primitivism,' building houses out of mud and trees, planing and harvesting crops by hand, rolling loose tobacco into cigarettes, grinding their own wheat, baking bread, canning vegetables, delivering their own children. They gave up electricity, the telephone, running water, gas stoves, even rock music which, of all things, is supposed to be the cornerstone of hip culture. They started to sing and play their own music folky and quiet."

A number of international journalists came, one a Persian correspondent who, to show her unity with the cause, interviewed Bill topless. Coincidently the sheriff was on the land that day. When she saw the uniforms and badges approaching, she quickly put on her shirt and ran out of the house in a panic yelling, "I am not one of them!" In spite of this interruption, she wrote a strange and inaccurate article for the London Telegraph which was republished in Germany.

On May 6th, 1969, Lou deeded Morning Star Ranch to God, causing a sensation in the courthouse. Snicker, snicker, went the little mousetrap mentalities. "Transferring the title to the rightful owner takes a big load off my mind," Lou said. After all, God's help was requested daily in every courtroom in the land. Who would have the audacity to judge whether He was a qualified grantee? It made headlines around the world. Even people in India heard about it and understood. Lou even found a precedent under Moslem law which for centuries had allowed for donations of property to Allah. Such a gift was known as a "waqf," and could be made by Moslem and non-Moslem alike.

Lou envisioned a statute-free sanctuary where the naked, nameless, homeless and harmless could find refuge. He believed that nothing new could take place on a piece of land as long as it remained in human hands because the people would be living there by artificial and not divine selection.

LOU: "The only thing about deeding Morning Star Ranch to God which was not perfect insofar as far as I was concerned was the fact that the idea did not manifest itself until there was a permanent injunction on the land. So it looked like an attempt to evade the regulatory grasp of the court on religious grounds. I did try to donate the land during the preliminary injunction, but the important thing is that since then there have been other pieces of land deeded to God which don't have this messiness about it. By the way, the whole thing the idea of deeding the land to God is distinctly not my idea. It came from Mother Earth through one of her forms Gina. And she herself can't remember if she thought it up or if somebody told her."

Shortly thereafter, God was sued by a Mrs. Penrose who claimed He acted "with malice and ill will" when he caused her house in Arizona to be struck by lightning. She would graciously accept Morning Star Ranch in lieu of $100,000 damages. As if that wasn't funny enough, a man doing time in jail claimed to be God and answered her suit, at which the judge stopped laughing and threw it out of court.

Some months later, Judge Eymann finally ruled that "Whatever the nature of the deity, God is neither a natural or artificial person capable of taking title under existing California law." This decision was sustained in the California Court of Appeals. Simply, it meant that God could not own land in California because he couldn't sign his name to the deed.

RAMON: "Since the sun, as I believed, was God as 'Nearest and Dearest' to us planetside (since matter was merely slowed-down light, and light was merely slowed-down consciousness, and consciousness was merely slowed-down God), then all one needed for an appropriate signature was to place a magnifying glass between the diety and the document. I pointed this out to Lou, but he seemed to think it would only muddle the already murky legal waters."

Since that time, land has been deeded to God in other states of the union as well as in California itself, so perhaps this issue has not yet been thoroughly tested. Lou began to spend long hours in the law library, preparing additional memoranda providing that deeding Morning Star to God was actually a donation for public use, but ultimately his arguments fell on deaf ears.

That May, Nataraja Guru arrived at Morning Star looking like a saffron-robed Santa Claus. Olompali and Wheeler's people convened at the half-wrecked Upper House to eat the meal which Nataraja Guru cooked while stoned hippies sang and danced around him.

LOU: "Nataraja is Shiva, the kind of the dance. Nataraja Guru was sent here by Shiva, and the day he visited us was also the day Near and I conceived our baby Vishnu. The night before, Nataraja had been slipped a little STP in his tea since he was staying with some hippies in the Haight-Ashbury. You must remember he was seventy-two years old, and had spent the last sixteen of them without an address, which is called 'Sannyasin' in India. I asked him what was the result of the STP, and he replied, 'It has shown me rooms in my Father's mansion that I never knew existed.' So he understood completely what was happening. Also, he accompanied me, Near and Hari to a court hearing at which he positively zapped the judge."

Old Ray Karam lived at Morning Star throughout that summer. After a few arrests, the cops accepted his presence as the 'caretaker,' and he slept unmolested in the closet of the now defunct bath house.

LOU: "When the Divine Will begins manifesting on the level of group action, it's amazing to watch the casting. One of the most amazing actors in the Morning Star myth was Ray Karam. He was of Lebanese extraction but, since his parents first came to Mexico, he really was bilingual. When I heard him speak English, it seemed that I was listening to a Mexican."

RAY: "I know I was led to Morning Star by the Spirit. When I got there, I felt those high, spiritual vibrations and a deep, true amount of love between the people, no matter who. Every person, animal, place or thing was loved for what they were. There I also learned to love and to know we are all brothers. That prompted me to write this small poem:

Fading night,
Dawns the Morning Star the light,
To light the earth below
And guide humanity to go,
To go where all in one brotherhood gladdened are,
At a ranch called Morning Star.

"I am a man of fifty-two years. I came to Morning Star when I was fifty. I stayed there about one year and three months. Since I was an older man, I had to stay there longer because I had more untruths to decondition out of my mind. Most of the truths I have discovered there came from the young people. The other day I saw a big headline in the newspaper, that the politicians were concerned about the youths' mental health and say they are crazy. Well, I am not a young man. I am glad I am just as crazy as the youth of America, and I am glad that I like ann think as crazy as they do. If I had known it was this much fun and love and peace to be crazy, I would have gone crazy much sooner. As it is, it took me fifty years to drop out of that same world of hate and war sadness to this crazy world of joy, peace and love. And I learned it there at Morning Star Ranch from those crazy, beautiful, young hippies. I am the oldest hippie that ever came to Morning Star, and I'm just as crazy as the youngest hippie that ever came there. And I love it! I am sorry I don't know how to write well or even spell well, but I hope this does help in some way in the writing of the book about Morning Star Ranch."

FRIAR TUCK: "One night about three a.m., my old lady and I were lying in the tipi, getting ready to fall asleep. I was three-quarters asleep when I heard BANG! BANG! 'Ahhh shaddup!' BANG! BANG! 'Goddamn motherfucker!' Bullets were whining over my head! Suddenly I was up, you know boom! I'm up and screaming, man. I had a twenty gauge shotgun under my bed, so I grabbed it. Obviously Nevada was in a Korean frontline frame of mind. By this time my neighbor Steve had pitter-patter'd up to the tipi. 'Tuck, Tuck! Are you all right?' 'Yeah man,' I answered. 'But this crazy motherfucker's got a gun!'

"Well, next thing I knew Nevada had his foot in the door which had a canvas cover hanging down and pow! I hit him with the gun butt through the canvas. He went stumbling back and landed on the ground. I went running out and, man, I had that shotgun loaded and cocked. I was pissed off! I swung the muzzle right into Nevada's stomach, and then Steve came running over and put a twenty-two right up against Nevada's nose ha-ha-ha-ha!

"We started talking back 'n forth whether we wanted to off him or not. And Steve said, 'Well, we could bury him down there across from the ranch. Don't worry, nobody'll ever find out. Just pull the trigger, man.'

"Nevada sobered up just like that. He was really freaked! We almost killed him there and then. I must've beaten on him for about ten minutes. Crazy motherfucker! He shot three fuckin' holes in my tipi, that bastard! Three fuckin' holes!"

Don McCoy moved to Morning Star and built a small house for himself and Sylvia, who took many excellent photographs of that era. Don had been through some hard times at Olompali, and for a number of months his moods were unpredictable.

RAMON: "I visited Lou at his studio one evening. Near had a pot of beans cooking on the hot plate, and Lou and Don were there along with Don's rabbit who was hopping around on their mattress, leaving little turds behind him. Finally Near said, 'Listen, I don't mind having you guys in here, but the rabbit has got to stay outside. Open Land isn't Open House.'

"And Don McCoy freaked out. 'What do you mean the rabbit has to stay outside?' he shouted. 'This is God's land, isn't it? Open Land for people is Open Land for rabbits!'

"He started screaming and shouting. Finally he went outside, took the garbage cans and threw them on the roof of the studio. Frankly I was kind of scared. The whole scene went on for about fifteen minutes while Lou just lay on the mattress, reciting some prayer in Latin.

"Another day, two friends of Lou's arrived. Bob had visited before. He immediately took off all his clothes and stood on his head while Lou greeted Lincoln, a pianist from Los Angeles. Finally Lou walked over to upside-down Bob and said, 'Hey, it's considered very high in India to piss standing on your head.' And so, with a little more encouragement from the guru, Bob let go a stream. And he pissed up his nose, he pissed in his eyes, he pissed in his beard. All the while, Lou kept saying, 'Very high, very high. Golden showers of bliss!' Well, it turned out Lou had never tried it for himself. He claimed to have been working up to it for a couple of weeks.

"What he had been able to do was piss while playing Bach at the piano. 'It's great!' he reported. 'It's fantastic! It's the let-go of the century. But the only thing is, it's turning the pedals green.'"

FRIAR TUCK: "Another time I remember Lou pacing furiously up and down the garden path. Don McCoy, Chief and a few others had decided that Lou should be liberated from hating loud music. In their alcoholic stupor, they had taken Don's stereo and set it up next to Lou's windows at about five o'clock in the morning. They stuck the speakers right up against them and turned up the volume full blast. It blew Lou right out of bed, but he wouldn't turn the damn thing off. Finally he went out to the garden and started walking back and forth, back and forth for about an hour or so. I was sitting up in the meadow watching him. Nobody went close to him, nobody went anywhere near him, because he was gritting his teeth, shaking his head and growling like an animal.

"Finally I got up the courage to go down and talk to him. 'Lou, what's wrong?" I asked. And he said, 'I don't want to be talked to!' 'Hey man,' I said. 'Whatever happened is over, and there's nothing you can do about it.' 'Don't talk to me,' he said. 'Don't come near me! Go away! I'm crazy!' And I said, 'All right, that's neat.' But by that afternoon, he had cooled down."


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