After living on the fringes of suburban
In the beginning, life at Barker’s strengthened our bond. We played nightly and our music got better. We began teaching the girls to sing harmony. Though Charlie was always the lead vocalist, everyone got involved in the music. Brooks and Clem played the guitar. When Bobby was around, he played too and sang background. I alternated, playing the horn and the flute. We spent hours practicing—refining old songs, writing new ones, rearranging medleys. Some of my fondest memories are of afternoons we spent under the cottonwoods surrounded by the mountains, singing—a natural cathedral, sculptured out of granite and sandstone. Nothing brings people closer together than their own voices in song. And our music, at least for a while, was good. Charlie was certain that we would eventually be recorded by a major record company and that our songs, like those of the Beatles—the soul—would be an inspiration to what he called “the young love,” the youth of
When we weren’t singing or working around the ranch, we took small expeditions into the mountains and down the ravines, exploring the interminable maze of grottoes, fissures, passageways, and deep winding canyons. At night we often hiked up to Meyers ranch and built a fire before gathering around to listen to Charlie rap. More and more he preached that there were no leaders, no rules, that all we needed was to submit to the cosmic vibrations around us.
“Out here, we are free. We’ve come to the void to listen to it speak. Now, we have to listen. There ain’t no obstruction…nothing to learn on or hang onto. We got our music and our love and we just listen to that.” Charlie usually sat in front of the fire with his legs crossed in front of him. He was often clad in Levi’s, a plaid shirt, and heavy wool socks, his hair invariably curling around his head in tiny ringlets.
“Here, we have no leaders,” he said. “I’m not the leader…how can I be the leader when I have to wipe your asses and get you a blanket? The leader is the slowest one among us…the slowest is always the leader ‘cause we have to wait for him…he sets the pace. Pooh Bear and Zezos are the leaders, dig, ‘cause they got us waiting on them…and that’s the way it should be, for now, ‘cause they can teach us…they can teach us not to think and to do what we feel and be on the point of what love is.”
During the first month, we all felt good. Somehow the very act of coming to the desert as a Family was proof of a certain destiny. There was a genuine grandeur about it, which gave us a sense of our own grandeur. It seemed that all our preparation and programming had been for a reason. We saw the desert as a reward; it was like coming to a new land, a new planet. It seemed inevitable. And somehow it validated Charlie even more. Like many spiritual leaders, he had led his followers to the desert. It seemed right. We had been through some of the heaviest group-therapy sessions imaginable; we had worked for months at “submitting,” “letting go,” shedding our egos. It had been easy. These sessions continued in
Our initial euphoria, however, was short-lived. Gradually, things on a spiritual level began to degenerate. The group sex sessions became more strained and self-conscious. The very fact of being in the desert, where we anticipated such good results, made it worse. We all wanted so much to “make it” that we created further anxiety. Brooks, for example, just couldn’t function. At Spahn’s he could always go down to the corral, and his absence wasn’t conspicuous. But at Barker’s there was nowhere to hide; he had to take part in the sessions. It made him feel so overwrought at times he’d roll up into a fetal position and just lie there quivering.
One morning he and I were standing by the woodpile talking. I was about to reply to a question he’d asked when suddenly his eyes rolled back in his head and his body stiffened. Seconds later he dropped, facedown and rigid, like a felled timber, striking his forehead against a log. Blood gushed from the wound, and Brooks didn’t utter a sound. I thought for an instant that he might have put his lights out for good; but he finally managed to stagger to his feet and within a couple of hours was back at work chopping wood.
“Letting go of the ego” to Brooks was literally like dying; perhaps on an unconscious level, being in “Death” Valley made this death wish even stronger. Since there was no shit to shovel at Barker’s, he assumed another “discontent” chore—chopping wood. From the day we arrived to the day we left, he was always at the woodpile chopping and stacking logs.
Another problem was supplies. It soon became apparent that with so many people to feed, it was hard to keep enough food on hand. Charlie was continually sending contingents to
While everyone professed to love the desert (partly to please Charlie), it became clear that many were getting bored. Even Charlie seemed listless and irritable, and contented himself much of the time with lounging about in a hammock he had strung up behind the ranch house. In retrospect, I see it as a time of profound transformation. While Charlie appeared languid during the day, his nightly raps were animated and inspired, their intensity augmented, it seemed, by the silence, the cold, and the intimacy we shared while huddled around the fire. Like everything, it was a paradox: in one sense Charlie became our source for entertainment. The longer we stayed in the desert, divorced from outside stimuli, the more convincing he became; the more we submitted. He had always preached the virtue of doing nothing. In time, we fell into a tempo of doing just that. A limbo.
We became as vacant as our surroundings. At night we sat around the fire watching him. There were moments when he seemed almost demonic, pacing like a caged predator before the flames, his hair long and scraggly, his eyes bright. Perhaps by submitting so totally we were trapping Charlie in a vacuum of his own creation. In the absence of everything, he became everything: wind, sand, sun, the cosmos itself. Yet, without feedback, he was completely alone.
He continued to proclaim the “beauty” of the Family; that we were all beautiful spiritually; that we had been guided to the desert to preserve that beauty and to strengthen ourselves for what was to come; there was a destiny at work which would see to it that our purpose was fulfilled. The desert, he said, would further purify our love and our bond, but at the same time would make us more vulnerable to evil. Society, he insisted, feared love and purity. “It’s like that cat Billy Budd…he was beautiful but his love was too pure and they snuffed him.”
If we were to survive the viciousness of the outside world and retain our purity, Charlie said we had to remain alert, stay hidden. I didn’t really appreciate Charlie’s application of this notion until one afternoon I hiked down
“Duck down, Paul!”
“What’s going on, Snake?” I knelt beside her.
“They might see you,” she said, pulling me toward her out of the light.
“Huh…who might?” I looked around, then at her. Her red hair was pulled over her face; she looked like a frightened child.
She pointed to the sky. “If they find me, Charlie said they’d kill me…he said I was too beautiful and that they wouldn’t let me live.”
It took me more than a half-hour to coax her out of hiding and get her back up to the ranch. While the incident struck me as absurdly comical at the time, I realized that Snake was genuinely frightened. The next day she seemed in control once again, and I didn’t think much of it. Snake was always a tough one, resilient both emotionally and physically. I figured Charlie was just bored and trying to amuse himself at her expense. But what was happening became clear to me in retrospect. Charlie was playing his games of fear manipulation, the same number he had tried to put on me. Once Charlie had instilled fear in someone, he devised a mechanism that triggered that individual’s fear, then he used it to control that person and to titillate his own demonic power fantasies.
I saw even more dramatic evidence of this a short time later; this time with Squeaky. It happened one afternoon when Charlie and I took Brenda and Squeaky up to the Meyers ranch to make love before dinner. It was windy and the sand blew down the ravine and against the ranch house, sounding like rain. I was on one side of the fireplace with Brenda, and Charlie and Squeaky were a few feet away. They had just finished making love when Squeaky started to moan and convulse on the floor as if she were going into an epileptic seizure. I flashed immediately on the freak-out scene at Spahn’s when she had berserk in the woodpile. I was curious to see how Charlie would handle it.
“Charlie! Charlie!” she whimpered.
Charlie straddled her and grabbed her wrists. “Okay,
Lyn’s face was flushed and contorted, her breath came in short wheezing gasps, as she tightened he fists, still whimpering, her head thrashing from side to side.
“Okay now,” he grunted, “just relax them…just a little…yeah.”
The instant she began to relax, he told her to tighten them again. “Good. Now relax, tighten, relax…Tighten…good,
By alternating commands he was gradually able to calm her down and work her out of the convulsions. Then he had her follow the motions he was making with his hands, until, finally, they both moved like one person. There is no doubt in my mind that Charlie had the knowledge to deprogram
Two months passed. The games continued: games of concentration, submitting to the motion; letting go. I’d been in the Family half a year, and Charlie was still testing people’s loyalties, manipulating their fears. Near the end of November he put me through another test.
It happened when Bobby Beausoleil came to the ranch with Sweet Cindy. Cindy was eighteen and extremely attractive, with reddish-blond hair and a curvaceous, compact body. Her large green eyes looked like a pair of Koh-i-noor diamonds. It was clear from the onset that she was not going for Charlie’s rap. And this was unusual. Generally when Charlie laid his trip on a visitor, the person would wind up agreeing with him wholeheartedly (with twenty-five other people agreeing, it was hard to do otherwise). It got to be automatic; we’d all joke about how long it would take for the visitor “to fall into the hole,” meaning to accept Charlie’s trip without reservation. “Hole,” in this case, meant a “hole in the infinite.” It also had the connotation of “whole.” Ironically, it had never occurred to us that falling into a hole could be considered a misfortune.
Cindy wanted to return to
The hike through
“Jesus,” he exclaimed, “it’s freezing up here!”
“Yeah…it’s a bitch,” I concurred, trying to decide whether or not we should even try walking out. I looked at Cindy and she smiled. I could sense her relief to be on her way home.
“How far is it from here?” she chirped cheerily.
“A long way…let’s get going.”
We set out at a good pace, three abreast, along the valley floor, talking little to conserve our energy. The soberness of my attitude seemed to rub off. They knew we were not in for an easy time of it. A chilling wind banked off the canyon and funneled in off our backs. More stars appeared. It got colder, and gradually Cindy fell behind. We waited for her, then took off again, swinging our arms to keep the circulation active. Again she dropped behind and we waited.
“Come on, Cindy,” I urged. “It’s cold standing still…you have to keep up.”
“Sorry,” she gasped. “How much further is it?”
“We just started.” I gave them a swig of water and we proceeded.
Within twenty minutes, Cindy was fifty yards behind us. Bobby was getting pissed off. We waited, leaning against a rock, beating our shoulders with our hands.
“Hurry it up, dammit!” he shouted when she came within hearing range.
“I have to rest,” she panted. “God, I’m not used to this.”
“Look,” I said, “we’ll slow it up and walk at your pace; the main thing is we stay together. How fast do you want to go?” We started off. “Come one, you set the pace, Cindy…and we’ll stay together.”
For the next two hours we maintained slow but steady time along the alluvial fan, our feet crunching against the scree-encrusted floor of the valley or sinking intermittently into the softer sand. We’d covered about a third of the distance when an ass-kicking wind boomed out of the canyon, flinging up sand and blotting out the sky. It was ice cold, howling like some demented being. We clung together with our arms across our faces and pushed on.
“I don’t know how much further I can go,” Cindy whimpered.
“You’ll make it,” I told her.
A short time later she slumped to her knees. “I just have to rest. Can’t we please rest?…” Bobby and I pulled her to her feet. Her teeth were chattering; her arms hung limply at her sides. I rubbed her arms, but my own hands were so numb I could hardly feel sensation in them.
“How fucking cold is it, you think?” Bobby marked time with his feet, keeping his head down to protect his eyes from the swirling sand.
“Come on, Cindy…you can make it…just keep moving.” I pushed her into motion. “Just one foot at a time…we’ll get there.”
We moved on. My hands and feet were completely numb. As we walked, I began to experience my own fatigue, and when Cindy again lagged behind, I gave up trying to hold onto her. Within an hour we had all separated and were walking single file—me, then Bobby, and finally Cindy. At a bend in the valley I turned around and looked behind me. I could barely make out Bobby’s form against the desert floor. I lay down on a flat rock to rest, putting my hands to my face. Then I sat up quickly and began clapping my hands together while kicking one foot against the other. When the wind churned up again, I lay down on the rock and closed my eyes.
For several minutes I lay there shivering, my flesh icy, the rock digging into my body. Unconsciously I began muttering to myself. “This just isn’t worth it. I might as well just hang it up…let it go.” The more I talked, realizing it was a game I was playing with myself, the more relaxed I became, the more I submitted to the cold. “Submission is a gift…” I chuckled to myself. The rock seemed softer. My body began to warm up. It was as though someone had opened me up and poured hot honey-rum into my veins. I felt the presence of death like a warm blissful whisper, as thought the cold hard night had turned into a caress. Charlie had rapped about death being nothing more than “a release of love,” and that’s how I felt. Yet, I was using that state to restore my own energy. I knew I would not fall asleep. What prompted me to move was the appearance of Bobby and cindy; instinctively and without a word I got to my feet and we continued our trek to Ballarat. On the outskirts of town we built a fire inside a deserted miner’s shack and watched the sun come up.
COPYRIGHT PAUL WATKINS AND GUILLERMO SOLEDAD