Note: Most of this piece was written during the events described, on pink card stock remnants from the print shop where my then husband Owen worked.
What’s happening, people? Where are we?
-a traveler’s perceptions
I want to understand. There are some fairly major changes going on in our time and no one seems to understand them. I believe I have to in order to live my life fully. But I don’t find anyone who can satisfactorily explain to me the meaning and significance of all that’s going on, so I have to try to interpret it for myself.
We are on a trip. Specifically, Owen and I are traveling for three weeks in a VW camper we fixed up ourselves. We are encountering the world beyond our home. We do not really understand our world at home and are seeking enlightenment.
In Portland, we visited Ruth and Owen (also known as Unk), two old and beautiful people who are practically Owen’s only family. One night Ruth and I got into in a real argument. I cried a lot and she was adamant. It seemed she was fighting me for what she thinks I represent. Her ideas of hippies and radicals have been developed by Huntley and Brinkley, local news, and a few encounters in their neighborhood. She believes they are ungrateful wretches who have been given everything by their parents and their society and respond by destroying things and being disrespectful. So she can’t see me—and she can’t see them as I do. Why do we see what’s going on so differently?
In Portland and along the road we were disturbed by people’s stares. No matter where we went (outside of the San Francisco Bay area), people saw us as something unusual. Many small children gave us the peace sign and older children smiled at us, but adults either shook their heads or just openly stared. We obviously represented something to them. We were the far out hippies they had heard so much about on TV and in their newspapers and magazines. All but the youngest viewed us with suspicion, mingled with curiosity,
Some people seemed confident they knew all about us. In Berg’s, a department store in Portland, the saleslady was anxious to show me all the most far out clothes she was sure I would like. I obliged by buying a poncho on sale. Later Owen was carrying it for me when a lady stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and stared at him with mouth wide open in utter disbelief!
Then we encountered the sellers of a local hip paper and they told us, “Go to the Buffalo Party Convention!” When we read the paper, we learned that the next weekend in Eatonville, Washington, there was a rock festival disguised as a political convention in order to sidestep a state law prohibiting rock festivals. We were very curious about rock festivals, had seen the movie “Woodstock,” and talked with people who had been to two festivals in our area.
We admitted we were on a search, partly to discover where we fit into this world, and so far had found ourselves stared at or argued with. Coincidentally, I was reading an article in Today’s Health I had borrowed from Unk which analyzed rock festivals with surprising objectivity and advised parents to let their kids go to them and not to worry too much.
So we decided to buy tickets and drove to Seattle for a day, planning to head out for the festival on the next. Then we heard on the radio that there was a court injunction against the festival. We were disappointed and a little mad that we had paid $10.00 for an event that might not take place. The promoters of the festival were fighting the injunction, but no final decision had been made.
Our plans were thus up in the air when we pulled in to Saltwater State Park, a half hour south of Seattle. We were greeted enthusiastically by the campers next to us who invited us to come right over and join them. They were also from California and we all immediately felt at home with each other.
Owen and I went back to Seattle for awhile but didn’t like it much. We visited the World’s Fair Center, where I had been in 1962, but except for a lovely fountain there were mostly only tourist attractions. We bought a couple of hip papers, but the sellers seemed hard and unfriendly, and the papers were like distant revolutionary voices from the 30s. So we were glad to get back to our new friends at the campground. We joined a warm and friendly campfire, where we shared fairy tales and ghost stories and felt secure.
In the morning we moved on, still uncertain about the festival. We decided to go to the university area in Seattle, an area that felt familiar to us—a cross between San Rafael and Berkeley. The people looked hip, but hip shops were mingled among more usual stores. We found the Buffalo Party Headquarters closed for the weekend. In the head shop next door we met a girl whose husband had a booth at the convention. She had talked with him on the phone and he said everyone there was acting as if the thing was happening for sure. We checked around with others and picked up a wide divergence of views on what would happen. No one could say for sure, but everyone had an opinion. We finally sat down in a tavern over a beer to make our decision. I wanted to go but didn’t want to force Owen. Finally he said we ought to go, that if we didn’t we would always wonder what it would have been like.
So we bought groceries and headed out for Eatonville. The radio continued to blare out uncertainties which we had by then decided to ignore. We saw no one else headed in our direction until we were practically there. Then the gathering of the clan began. Another car full called out to us, “Do you know the way?” And some long-haired boys standing on a corner in town pointed down a road saying, “It’s that way!”
We gave our tickets at the gate and were directed to a spot to park our van. Everything seemed most friendly and perfectly in order. So we began to set up camp and went in search of water. The closest water supply seemed to be a waterfall and stream which could only be reached by sliding down a rather treacherous but beautiful path, where we found clear, cold water. As we struggled back up the path, we heard the police had set up roadblocks and no one was being permitted in or out of the ranch.
It looked like the festival was defeated. Surely no bands could get in now, and no more people could join us. What would happen now? Soon we heard the police were allowing people to leave, but it was already near evening so we decided to stay the night. We moved our camper closer to the lakes where people were enjoying the freedom to swim however they wished. It had been a hot dusty day, and we too went to wash ourselves in the lake. Then exhausted, we fixed supper and collapsed into bed.
In the morning we thought we would probably be moving on, since we had given up hope that anything resembling a rock festival would actually take place. But the other people there seemed unconcerned and no one else was leaving. We decided to at least go for a swim before we left.
The two lakes were already bustling with activity. People were frolicking in the water or lolling about on the shore in all sorts of attire or nude. No one seemed to care whether you wore clothes or not—whatever was comfortable for you was right. The air was full of the sweet smell of marijuana smoke. Surely this was another world. There were definite rules, but they were much different from those on the outside.
During the night and all morning people had continued to work on the construction of the sound stage and on setting up the sound system. (Here ends my writing from 1970.)
Eventually the authorities in charge of keeping folks out relented and the gates were re-opened. Port-a-potties were delivered, which was a big relief as up till then we had to make do with a trench dug on the spot when folks realized there were no facilities--an example of the cooperative spirit of the people there.
Finally the music began. Exactly who played is still a bit of a mystery, but according to other remembrances I discovered online, the James Cotton Band played late into the night, and there were local groups like The Walters, Don and the Goodtones, and The Sonics. Crowd estimates ranged from 10,000 to 30,000. The local area still remembers the festival, mostly with fondness, surprised at how polite and well behaved the longhairs were. All agree it was good for business. Before the weekend was over, local stores ran out of beer, wine, ice, cigarettes, and most of the food they had on hand.
My favorite moment in the festival happened late one night while the music was playing. Probably in honor of the Fourth of July, someone launched a huge flare into the sky above us. Suddenly the sky was bright. We could see those around us and those at a distance, giving us a sense of the whole gathering. At the time, I had never seen a flare and was unsure what was happening. I’m sure we were stoned, which added to the mystery of the experience, but it seemed like some kind of miracle. While the light lasted, we stood smiling at each other, loving the thousands around us. Were we a new society? Could we maintain this wonderful, peaceful feeling of connection with all who were there? Maybe it was enough just to know that for that one shining moment we could see ourselves in a new light as a new culture. This was what peace and freedom looked like.
I am grateful that our journey in search of enlightenment led us to this experience. Given what I had written earlier on our trip about wondering where we fit in to the world, was this rock festival an answer? The clan that gathered there welcomed us as family, and the way people interacted seemed far better than other situations we encountered in our lives. But still, this wasn’t quite it, although some of the elements were there. I knew I had still not completely found my culture.