The world I saw through the cracked windshield of our VW bus was obscured by a Christmas Eve snow storm. Stephen drove confidently through Denver’s almost empty streets. I sat next to him, my eyes mutely focused on the expiration date on the inspection sticker that was glued to the windshield. April 1971. When I recall that night and the events that followed time would stand still. As frozen as the snow on the windshield. As frozen as Stephen’s emotions.
I stared through the windshield and wondered again why I had attached myself to a man I hardly knew. Stephen was running away from the draft. I was running away from my self when we ran into each other under a tree in a churchyard in Washington DC. He was skinny with long, thin, straight reddish blonde hair. He wore motorcycle boots, jeans and a sheepskin and leather vest without a shirt. A key-filled chain attached to his belt loop caused his jeans to sag in spite of the thick leather belt. His eyes burned inside his orbital bones. He had one facial expression – a scowl.
He had lost his student deferment when he dropped out of the Corcoran Art School. I had lost my mind – or that’s what everyone thought. Soon after I graduated from William and Mary, I ran away. I ran from my own expectations and the expectations of my family. I ran from student loans and other obligations.
We had left Washington DC in that hybrid bus/beetle. Stephen put the engine of a VW beetle into the body of a green VW bus. The beetle was an old junker he bought for parts. The bus belonged to a woman who had left it with Stephen for repairs. That bus became our home. Just enough owned to allow us to believe we weren’t really car thieves. Just enough stolen to make us feel like outlaws.
We headed west - running away together from a nowhere place we had both run to alone. We had stopped briefly in Hillsboro, Virginia where Stephen’s parents lived so he could pick up his motorcycles. Neither of the bikes ran, but he didn’t want to leave anything behind. We stayed there overnight but slept in the bus. The next morning Stephen strapped the bikes to the top of the VW and we were off again. At night we stopped in parking lots and warmed dinners of beans and bologna over a sterno heater then slept huddled together more for warmth than fondness. The bunk was narrow. We could lie together without touching. I usually work up first. I tried to lie perfectly still so I wouldn’t disturb Steve. The light was too dim in the bus to read so I would just lie there looking at the ceiling. After a few weeks on the road the bus reeked of dirty clothes, bologna and sterno.
The plan was to drive to California and make a life for ourselves among the artists and musicians that would befriend us there. We made it as far as Denver before we were brought to a standstill by a combination of bad weather and a shortage of funds. With no money for gas, we parked on a side street and spent our days walking around Denver. We ice skated at a downtown rink and panhandled and spent hours in the public library to stay warm. Once I even covered the uncontrollable blonde hair that encircled my head and floated down my back with a ratty brown wig and tried to get a job but I was unemployable. Homelessness cannot be hidden under a cheap wig.
We started going to the Zodiac Coffee House in the evenings to stay warm. Stephen and I sat there for hours drinking coffee supplied for free by the owner. Joe had taken pity on us. We played chess and listened to music. On really cold nights Joe let us sleep on the floor of the coffee house after he closed up. We used Stephen’s sheepskin vest as a pillow. We rewarded him by eating his whipped cream. We were always hungry
It was Joe who suggested we celebrate Christmas Eve by attending a midnight mass.
As I stood in the hot, airless church listening to the choir sing about the birth of the Christ child, I tasted the vomit that rose in my throat. I pressed my back against the wall of the crowded church, closed my eyes and swallowed hard. Tears filled my eyes. Some part of me knew then that there was a child growing inside of me as He had grown inside the Virgin Mary. The similarity stopped there. Or did it? I was a traveler far from home – far away in distance and in time.
I opened my eyes and I was still in Denver.
When we left the church it was snowing harder. The cold air revived me. I looked forward to returning to the coffee house, sipping free coffee next to the fire and allowing sleep to overtake me. But, when Steve tried to start the bus, it caught on fire. Even though the fire department got there quickly and extinguished the fire, there wasn’t much left. I spent Christmas day sitting in a cold, burned out VW bus, staring through a broken windshield, praying it was the whipped cream that was making me so sick.
We still had the motorcycles. Stephen put up ads in laundromats and carryouts:
Ariel Square Four and Harley Davidson.
Leave message at the Zodiac Coffee House
We ended up trading both bikes and the burned out VW for a 1959 Triumph. We panhandled, sold our blood, borrowed a little money from Joe and resumed our trip to California.
The trip was silent and unremarkable except for a one terrifying moment in Arizona when the hood of the TR3 flew off, cracked our windshield and sailed over our heads before nearly killing a family of four that was driving behind us. Relieved to be alive, they helped us tie the hood back on with the same straps that had held the motorcycles down.
We drove across California until we reached the coast, then headed north up Highway 1. I saw Big Sur for the first time, but it was dark. We arrived in San Francisco in the middle of the night.
We parked near the Cliff House and waited for morning. We did not talk. Stephen was too tired and I was too scared. It seemed everything I said was wrong so I had learned to say nothing. I was afraid if I made him angry he would push me out of the car and drive away without me.
The next morning we headed straight for Haight-Asbury but we were too late. The summer of love had gone leaving nothing behind. Stephen sized up the situation quickly. After an hour or so of walking around San Francisco he announced there was no reason to stay there. His new plan was to use the last of our money to buy tools and then drive to New Mexico where we could become useful members of a commune with our own hatchet, saw and hammer.
We panhandled a little to add to our dwindling funds. We stowed the tools in the back of the car and headed for New Mexico. As we traveled north on highway 68 the cliffs crowded me on the right and the Rio Grande Valley opened up on the left. Through the cracked windshield, beyond the river I saw a group of small cabins gathered around a larger building. I didn’t know it then, but I was looking at the place I would live – and nearly die – over the next months.
When stopped at the free clinic in Taos – not for medical treatment, but to find out where the hippies were. We learned that the hippies were everywhere.
We were directed to a small group living in what could only generously be called a commune next to the Rio Grande just south of Taos in Embudo. This wasn’t the kind of commune that is made up of idealistic hippies in geodesic domes, raising their own food and having mudding parties. There were communes like that - New Buffalo and Morning Star – but this was really a collection of cabins inhabited by a bunch of strangers with nothing more in common than empty pockets and a distrust of authority. There were ten of us. Most of the men all carried guns and they were kinder to their dogs than they were to their old ladies. Alan and Frank were the leaders. It took me a few days to get accustomed to the sight of Frank roaming around the grounds with a pistol in his hand. He was tall and wiry with long curly black hair and a beard. Alan was shorter but solid with close cropped blonde hair. He looked like he had just gotten out of prison or the army. Alan assigned us one of the small cabins behind the main house. There were 6 cabins connected to the main house by a wooden walkway. Our cabin had a narrow bed, a table with one chair and a stove made from an oil drum. The cabin was freezing in the morning. Since I woke up first I would get up and start the fire using brush and pinion wood. There was one window. It looked out on the rocky hills behind the commune. I passed the days wandering along the trails that ran behind the commune. On warm days when the sun warmed the rocks I would lie down on them and watch the clouds.
While Stephen struggled to get the Triumph running again I tried to keep busy reading, writing letters home that I would never mail. I washed our clothes in the Rio Grande and laid them out to dry on the rocks. I decorated our cabin with wildflowers that I collected on walks by the river. But my pregnancy and meager diet took their toll. I slept a great deal – sometimes in our cabin, sometimes on the sun warmed rocks behind the commune.
Stephen accused me of being lazy. He didn’t know I was pregnant. “Instead of lounging around all the time, why don’t you do something to help me?”
I was baffled. “What can I do to help you? Just tell me and I’ll do it.”
He threw a wrench against the already broken windshield. “For one thing you could figure out what we are going to do for a windshield.”
I wrote to Aunt Gladys telling her that we needed a windshield for a 1959 Triumph TR3. I walked to the Embudo Post Office and mailed the letter. In a few weeks she wrote back that she had found a windshield in a junkyard in Greensboro and that she was shipping it to me by bus. I could pick up the windshield at the Trailways depot in Espanola. I hitchhiked to Espanola alone. The windshield was there just as she promised. The only problem was going to be getting it back to Embudo. I stood by the highway for hours waiting for a ride. Finally a semi pulled over. The truck driver helped me lift the windshield into the compartment behind his cab and drove me to Embudo. It was dark when I got there.