¿Paradise found?

The hippies’ search for utopia in Taos County

By David Lerner
Posted 9/28/18

For a high, fleeting time beginning around 1967 and lasting until the early 1970s, dozens of hippie communes dotted the sagebrush mesas and river valleys of Northern New Mexico. Almost all of them …

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¿Paradise found?

The hippies’ search for utopia in Taos County

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For a high, fleeting time beginning around 1967 and lasting until the early 1970s, dozens of hippie communes dotted the sagebrush mesas and river valleys of Northern New Mexico. Almost all of them were located in Taos County. Hundreds of hippies came here to follow Timothy Leary's advice to "Turn on, tune in and drop out." According to one estimate, there were 27 communes in Taos County alone during the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Most of the members were under age 25.

Though their physical sites are now either gone or significantly transformed, the communes left behind a legacy so ubiquitous as to be hidden in plain sight. Natural building programs, alternative learning centers, meditation and yoga retreats, sustainable farms, sliding-scale medical clinics, underground newspapers and even health food store bulk sections can all trace their roots back to the dreamers and visionaries who came to Taos and built the commune scene.

Intentional communities, cults and communes and have been a part of American life since the 19th century. Famous utopian experiments such as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Brook Farm, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands, New Harmony in Indiana and Oneida in upstate New York may have come and gone, but interest in alternative living arrangements is very much alive. The runaway hit Netflix series “Wild Wild Country” chronicling the fiasco of Rajneeshpuram in central Oregon speaks to this abiding fascination, as do recent books such as Ryan Walsh’s “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968,” which investigates the creepy saga of Boston’s Fort Hill Community, led by folk musician turned guru Mel Lyman. 

Here in the high desert, the Aquarian Age encounter between a huge wave of hippies hailing from every corner of the continent and the traditional-leaning, though fairly cosmopolitan (for a remote, isolated town of a few thousand) people of Taos made for a curious dynamic. Former residents of New Buffalo in Arroyo Hondo recall neighbors looking on quizzically as longhairs labored, usually in the nude, at tasks locals associated with their grandparents: baking abode bricks, hauling water, digging irrigation ditches and trucking endless loads of firewood for cooking and heat. Those looking to sell rusty farm equipment or old kerosene lamps found in the communes an endless source of inexplicably enthusiastic buyers. Rural New Mexicans were quite willing to forego junk and chores to join the same middle class the hippies were opting out of in droves, although some have gone on record to express regret at what in hindsight appeared the piecemeal selling off of a way of life.

Presumably less enamored of the hippie influx were struggling landowning families, the majority of which were of Hispanic or mixed descent and had been in town for generations. Due to decades of predatory practices in ranching and farming, many landowners were cash-poor and needed to sell. According to one realtor who recalls the time, this situation resulted in what we might now call gentrification: over half a million dollars of prime land was eventually sold to hippies, many of whom had an inheritance or trust fund to burn. Though drugs, nudity and poor hygiene created a rift between hippies and locals, this underlying disparity in privilege was arguably more to blame for the resentment and flashes of violence the longhairs met on multiple occasions.

The more outré hippies must have appeared a foreign species, and many of them were treated as such. Stern nuns at Holy Cross Hospital denied medical treatment to hippies, citing fear of contagious disease. This led to the establishment of La Clinica, a free and sliding-scale facility that treated everyone. Indeed, cleanliness, or lack thereof, became a recurring cultural wedge. For Spanish-speaking people, cleanliness was a matter of pride. By contrast, the mostly Anglo communes were notorious for their lax to non-existent health standards. Today, they would be shut down immediately for countless health and building code violations. 

This was particularly true of Morningstar. Lou Gottlieb owned the Sebastopol, California ranch that became Morningstar, but was forced off the land after complaints from Sonoma County neighbors about unsanitary conditions resulted in a police action. A classical pianist and former member of folk-revival group The Limelighters, Gottlieb truly relished his commune’s dirtiness, even framing “filth” as an ideological weapon against the sterile middle class. On this front, little changed when the commune moved from California to New Mexico. Though Morningstar began as an outpost of hip Haight-Ashbury culture affiliated with the Diggers and early taper and polymath Ramon Sender, it sadly devolved into a place known for its squalor, machismo and nudity. Even sympathetic observers dismissed most of the later Morningstar residents as a little thick.    

New Buffalo was more refined. Like many who flocked to New Mexico in the early 1960s, founders Max Finstein and Rick Klein came of age in a post-war counterculture loosely informed by the Beats, LSD, “Whole Earth Catalog” creator Stewart Brand’s study “America Needs Indians” (an important early work of Native American advocacy that sparked interest in the ceremonial use of peyote), the radical ecology of writers like Gary Snyder and Edward Abbey, and Eastern spirituality. Galvanized by opposition to U.S. militarism and the Vietnam War, the counterculture rejected capitalism in favor of a back-to-the-land ethos and preferred native handcrafts to industrial products.

Finstein soon tired of New Buffalo, left for Israel, then returned to found Reality Construction Company, the most politically radical of the communes. Reality courted Black Panthers and activists of color while eschewing peace and love. They told hippies to stay home and distanced themselves from “games of friendliness, unity, one humanity, cosmic cowboy bullshit.” Their militant, gun-toting ways were starkly out of step with a prevailing nonviolent ethos. Unsurprisingly, Reality did not last.    

Subsequent waves of hippies gravitated to communes to explore a simple agrarian way of life, spirituality, drugs and free love — though not necessarily in that order. The Family, a commune occupying a rambling structure on Ranchitos Road, strongly believed in a polyamorous arrangement they called “group marriage.” A sizable contingent, including many women, looked to the communes as a place to raise healthy children outside the stultifying mainstream. Young families typically exited the communes quickly, frustrated as their hard work benefited freeloaders only around for the party, or for lack of anywhere else to go. Then as now, Taos was a place transients drifted in and out of, seemingly with the wind. The communes welcomed all comers with three meals a day, whether or not people worked for them.

Area tourist maps guide a steady stream of visitors to museums and landmarks such as the D.H. Lawrence Ranch, San Francisco de Asís Church and Taos Pueblo. Not so for the communes. Though they beckon us with evocative names like Hog Farm, Lila, Lorien and Magic Tortoise, these places are now mainly accessible through oral history. The notable exception is Lama Foundation, a drug-free spiritual community started by Stephen and Barbara Durkee in 1967. Despite a devastating fire in 1996, Lama is the only organization born of the original commune period that is still a going concern. For a quick detox from electricity and screens, the rustic hermitages at Lama are well worth an overnight stay, and more extensive retreats are offered as well. 

For those wishing to learn more about Lama, New Buffalo and the other communes from this colorful period of Taos’ history, Iris Keltz’s “Scrapbook of a Taos Hippie,” and “Voices of the Counterculture in the Southwest” (edited by Jack Loeffler and Davidson Meredith) are both excellent places to start. 

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