Headed into the Wind
A personal reflection of the evolution of counterculture in the U.S. and the Southwest
BY JACK LOEFFLER
I was a seventeen-year-old senior in high school when I received news that I had failed my aptitude test. The test had revealed that my career preference was bifurcated between being a jazz trumpet player and a forest ranger. According to those who were purported to know better, I was assailed by conflicting absolutes. One cannot want to be both a jazz trumpet player and a forest ranger. It was that notification of failure that began to confirm what I had long suspected—I didn’t fit in. My aspirations didn’t coincide with cultural expectations. This was in 1954 in Manchester, Connecticut, where my family had moved from Columbus, Ohio, immediately following the end of World War II.
It took two more years before I decided to drop out of college, volunteer for the draft (every American male was conscripted to serve in the armed forces), and spend the next two years as a trumpet-playing army bandsman. After sixteen weeks of basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, I was shipped out to Fort Lewis, Washington, where I became a member of the 21st Army Band. A few days thereafter, alone in the barracks, I was running some jazz riffs through my horn. A black sergeant sat down on a nearby cot and listened for a while.
“Hey, man. You wanna join my group?” he asked after a few minutes.
I knew that he was the lead clarinet player in the military band, that he was known as Steve, and that he outranked me by five grades. I didn’t know that he was also a fine jazz alto sax player.
“Well, thanks. What kind of group is it, Sarge?”
“Cool it on the ‘Sarge’ bullshit, man. My name’s Steve, and we play jazz.”
“Yeah. I’d really like to join your group.”
And I began to play real jazz with a quintet of fellow jazz musicians who were all in the army. My jazz trumpet hero was then—and remains—Clifford Brown, a jazz genius who had died in a car wreck on the Pennsylvania Turnpike less than a year earlier, when he was only twenty-five years old. He has now inspired three generations of jazz trumpet players.
Then it was over. The 21st Army Band was suddenly disbanded, and we were all sent to different points on the military horizon. I never saw Steve again, but I remain grateful for his fine jazz tutelage to this day.
In July 1957, I was sent to Camp Irwin, in the Mojave Desert about thirty-seven miles from Barstow, California. I had just turned twenty-one and been promoted to private first class. I checked into band headquarters, was assigned a bed in the airconditioned barracks, was issued short sleeve shirts, Bermuda shorts, and a pith helmet, and thus became a desert rat, which I remain to this day.
My first gig with the 433rd Army Band was to travel by bus to a place called Desert Rock at the Nevada Proving Grounds, not too far from Las Vegas. The following morning before dawn, our band was assembled, and we began to perform Sousa marches from memory. Suddenly the sky lit up brighter than the sun, and we all watched as a great mushroom cloud unfurled skyward displaying an array of colors I cannot describe. As I watched the aboveground detonation of an atomic bomb a scant seven miles away, I had my great and enduring epiphany. I came to realize that I was sane in a culture gone deeply awry. The atomic bomb, designed to kill many thousands of fellow humans in a single blast, also took out every iota of life in the immediate habitat and rendered the habitat itself unlivable for many years. And thus I became and remain what we now call a counterculturalist, though the term was only coined a dozen years later by Theodore Roszak.
I got out of the army in 1958 and went first to Santa Barbara and then to North Beach in San Francisco. I had a little bread in my pocket from my army discharge pay. I had my horn, and I had a short—a 1952 Pontiac sedan that I could sleep in. I found a place called the Coffee Gallery where I could jam with fellow jazz musicians. I could eat my one big meal a day—a five-course Italian dinner with a half-carafe of wine at the Green Mountain Restaurant for a buck and a quarter. I could listen to poetry being read in any of a number of coffeehouses and hangouts, including both the Caffe Trieste and the Co-Existence Bagel Shop. And I could browse endlessly in the City Lights Bookstore, owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
While still in the army, I read “Howl,” by Allen Ginsberg, and was blown away by his condemnation of contemporary society. In North Beach, I listened to a poet named Philip Whalen read from his own work. Philip was one of the five poets (the others were Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, and Allen Ginsberg) who had read at the Six Gallery poetry reading in October 1955 that ushered in the West Coast Beat literary movement. I became enthralled with the literature of the Beat Generation, a phrase coined by Jack Kerouac eight years earlier, and a culture of practice in which I felt mostly at home— except that I was in a city and missed the countryside.
As time wore on, I lived both in Big Sur and in Marin County, where I made friends with whom I would ingest peyote, a small cactus plant native to the Chihuahuan Desert, which opened my mind to the sacred nature of our planet. On occasion, we would travel as a group to the north end of Pyramid Lake, north of Reno, Nevada, where we would build a fire in a cave Darrell Grover had found and hold our own version of peyote meetings through the night. In the morning, we would go skinny-dipping in the lake, where a hot spring emptied into the cool waters. We were a group of young men and women and kids (only the adults ate peyote), ridding ourselves of the taint of modern culture and investing ourselves with a sense of spiritual relationship with the Earth. High adventure in the Great Basin Desert, a vast empty landscape where one could roam free and listen to the wind.
Peyote greatly influenced me, opening me up to a sense of the sacred. The only other experience in my life that ever came close to peyote was life as a fire lookout camped atop a slab of sandstone surrounded by Ponderosa pine trees for a hundred days and nights a year beginning in the mid-1960s in northern New Mexico, where I would scan the forest for wisps of smoke that indicated a fire had broken out, where I would become one with habitat, where I would play my trumpet in concert with wild turkey and coyote, all of us performing a jazz sonata as part of the chorus of wildlife.
In 1961, when I was still in Marin County, Jimmy Hopper and Randy Allen joined us at Larkspur, in the foothills of Mount Tamalpais, for Christmas dinner. We smoked some pot, ate well, and decided that it was time to head toward New Mexico, which I had passed through in 1958 when hitchhiking across America. New Mexico had laid claim to me. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. The Colorado Plateau and environs are a paradise of canyons, piñon-juniper grasslands, ponderosa pine forests—red-rock country that was home to ancestral Indians for millennia. The Intermountain West, that arid landscape between the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Cascade-Sierra Mountains to the west, beckoned me to explore it, to go adventurin’, to run its waterways, to sleep beneath the stars.
In 1962, some of us began to trickle into New Mexico. Jimmy and Randy got gigs at the Three Cities of Spain in Santa Fe, where they played and sang folk music. I got a gig as a waiter and sometime bouncer in Claude’s Bar. Claude, a lesbian who loved to sing, became a dear friend to me. One night she came to the bar in a beautiful gown (her normal garb was trousers, shirt, and sport jacket). As the evening progressed, she signed to the piano player that it was time. She sang her favorite song, “La Vie en Rose.” As she finished, the crowd cheered her on, except for one slightly wasted gent who put her down for wearing a gown, for being a lady. She put her cigarette out in his ear, and I ushered him out into the cool of evening on Canyon Road.
John and Marie Kimmey came to town, and John founded the American Church of God, a chapter of the Native American Church. Eventually they opened an alternative school, and later they would move to Arroyo Hondo, north of Taos. Peter Ashwandan came to town and distinguished himself as a master illustrator for such books as John Muir’s classic How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. I had sold John the VW that he used for his book. In Rolf Cahn’s presence, John told me that Rolf, a fellow musician, had been the “compleat idiot” for whom the book was written. I once bought a bass viol for 125 pesos from John that he said he had played while performing with the great cornetist Muggsy Spanier.
By the late 1960s, many in our Marin County community had migrated to the Southwest. Rick and Sue Mallory moved to Mancos, Colorado. They were central to our early community and were among the finest people I have ever known. Dark Dick Brown already lived in Santa Fe and opened many doors to us. Alan and Joan Lober moved to Santa Fe and opened the Morningbird shop, which specialized in Indian artifacts and jewelry. For years the Lobers employed many of the Marin County gang of peyoteros. Yvonne Bond moved to New Mexico. She had grown up in California and had befriended many of the Beats in the Bay Area, among them Michael McClure.
Earlier in 1960, a Greek artist named Jean Varda, who lived on a barge/houseboat in Gate Five in Sausalito, invited us to go sailing on his beautiful sailboat. It was there that I met Stewart Brand, a skinny blond fellow newly graduated from Stanford University with a degree in biology. Over the next few years, Stewart and I became friends. At one point in 1963, Stewart invited me to join him in a project with the title America Needs Indians. Thus it was that my first wife Jean and I came to live in a forked-stick hogan at Navajo Mountain, Utah— the remotest part of the Navajo Reservation—for several months. Stewart roamed Indian Country from top to bottom, while we remained in our hogan trying to absorb Navajo culture, though neither of us was an anthropologist or fluent in the beautiful and difficult Navajo language. I did learn a lot about Navajo life, and this experience made it clear to me that indigenous culture is largely shaped by habitat. This, I realized, is why America needs Indians: traditional Indians regard homeland as sacred. This realization has influenced the way I have since chosen to live my life. I had dropped out of a culture with which I was out of sync, a culture where success was measured in terms of money, where consumerism was the reason to be, a culture now the militarily mightiest in the world, a culture driven to secularize habitat and turn it into money by mining its minerals, developing the land with little or no regard for the landscape or its denizens.
It was the following summer, in 1965, that my wife and I first became fire lookouts in the Jicarilla Ranger District of the Carson National Forest in northwestern New Mexico. We manned the lookout from mid-April till late July. On July 3, 1965, late in the afternoon, Stewart Brand and Lois Jennings arrived in their VW bus from San Francisco. Steve and Barbara Durkee and their daughter Dakota, known as Koby, arrived in their van from New York. They were all expected. Unexpectedly, Jimmy Hopper, John Kimmey, and Dick Brown showed up from Santa Fe. We decided to have a peyote meeting. Everyone except Lois and me sat in a circle around the fire and ate peyote through the night. Lois abstained because she was the daughter of an Ottawa shaman and peyote was not part of her cultural lifeway; I abstained because I was a conscientious fire lookout.
The following morning was Koby’s birthday, and her parents, Steve and Barbara, asked me to baptize her. I dipped my eagle feather in water from a nearby spring, combed Koby down from top to bottom, and pronounced her a Human Be-in.
The Durkees moved to New Mexico the following year and over time located the land north of Taos where, with help from Jonathan Altman, they founded the Lama Commune, which endures to this day. Barbara Durkee’s brother, Hans von Briesen, known as Siddiq, and Sylvia Rodríguez, a high school girl from Taos, both helped build the first structures to be raised at Lama. Both went on to successful careers as respected educators.
In January 1966, Stewart Brand, Ken Kesey, and Ramon Sender Barayón produced The Trips Festival at Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco. This was the very first of the great hippie gatherings that graced San Francisco over the next few years. It featured light shows, performances by the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company. LSD-laced punch elevated the consciousness of thousands of attendees. Some regard the Trips Festival as the preeminent bridge between the Beat scene and the hippie scene. It was a fireball of hippie consciousness that later transmogrified into enormous hippie gatherings in San Francisco such as the Human Be-In in January 1967, just before the Summer of Love. A related hippie moment occurred a few years later in New York State at the Woodstock Festival.
By the mid-1960s, Stewart Brand was deeply engaged in his great enterprise, soon to be published as The Whole Earth Catalog, which became the basic minimum-technology handbook for an entire generation of counterculturalists. The catalog won a National Book Award in 1972.
The Haight-Ashbury became the hippie neighborhood of choice in San Francisco, while Taos County became a mecca for communards and back-to-the-landers in northern New Mexico. One of the greatest of the communards was a Beat poet and former jazz alto sax player named Max Finstein. Max was one of my first friends in New Mexico in 1962. We had both spent quality time in North Beach, and we both recognized that New Mexico was one of the planet’s most beautiful and evocative landscapes. Max teamed up with a young man from Pennsylvania named Rick Klein, who had come into an inheritance. Together Rick and Max founded the New Buffalo commune, one of the most celebrated of several communes in Taos County. After traveling to Israel to work on a kibbutz, Max returned to Taos County to help found the Reality Construction Company.
In an interview that I conducted with Rick Klein in 2008, he talked about New Buffalo.
I was going to be a literature professor, and then I took LSD and saw that there’s more to it than just this. There’s being with your friends. Culture was very exciting at that time. I had an inheritance, and I bought land in New Mexico and got involved in New Buffalo. The first thing we did was have a peyote meeting, and Max [Finstein] was the roadman. Ultimately, I got very involved with Little Joe Gomez from the Taos Pueblo, with his brother John and all those old men up there. The last one just passed away last year. He was a hundred years old. . . . They were all exceptional people.
A young man named Arty Kopecky moved to New Buffalo, where he remained for seven years working the farm. He went on to write two books about his tenure there, New Buffalo: Journals from a Taos Commune and Leaving New Buffalo Commune, both introduced by actor/anarchist/author Peter Coyote and published by the University of New Mexico Press.
Situated at the western base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a major range of the southern Rockies, Taos lies east of where the Río Grande bisects the vast sagebrush plain, creating a sense of space where anything wonderful is possible. This landscape, as seen from the side of Lama Mountain, was regarded by D. H. Lawrence as one of the most beautiful in the world. The Taos Pueblo is an ancient Indian community of Tiwa-speaking people. For centuries, the village of Taos was a center where Hispanos, Comanche Indians, and others met to trade goods and hold fiestas. It was once home to Kit Carson, the controversial US Army Scout. Taos is beautiful and fascinating and not to be trifled with. It can lure you in or spit you out depending on the circumstances.
Just as the Bay Area had been a haven for bohemians long before the arrival of the Beats and hippies, so had Taos been an artist colony since the arrival of Mabel Dodge Luhan early in the twentieth century. At the urging of Tony Lujan, Mabel’s Taos Pueblo husband, Mabel constructed a large adobe home just south of the Taos Pueblo that became a center for intellectual and artistic life for half a century. Her visitors included D. H. Lawrence, Jaime D’Angulo, Robinson Jeffers, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, and many other celebrated artists, writers, and thinkers.
That art colony endured and took on a life of its own even as Mabel grew old and infirm. A new generation of bohemians became part of the Taos milieu in the 1950s and early ’60s with the arrival of spiritual wanderers Jay and Liz Walker, artists John DePuy, Rini Templeton, Malcolm Brown and his wife, the weaver Rachel Brown, and author/environmentalist Edward Abbey. Craig and Jenny Vincent had been in Taos since the early 1940s. He was an old-time communist, and she was a great folk singer. Craig founded a weekly newspaper, El Crepúsculo de Libertad, and hired Edward Abbey to be the editor. Ed was an avowed anarchist, and he and Craig had troubled chemistry.
It was during this time that billboards began to fall in New Mexico as the result of human volition. There were inklings of a new kind of activism responding to the corporate military industrial complex that America had spawned, a complex about which former President Eisenhower had warned his fellow Americans.
In Llano, not far from Taos, yet another mobile commune, the Hog Farm, settled in for a spell. Its charismatic founder, Hugh Romney, aka Wavy Gravy, moved it there from California. Wavy is a direct cultural descendant of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Wavy and Tom Law kept order at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969. Lisa Law became a well-known photo-documentarian of the celebrated hippie scene from coast to coast. Tom Law and Reno Kleen Myerson brought Yogi Bhajan to New Mexico. The Yogi set up an ashram near Española on land found by Bill Steen, who went on to become the business manager for the ashram for several years thereafter. The ashram is still there.
At Lama, the Durkees invited their old friend Ram Dass, formerly known as Richard Alpert, to join their commune. Ram Dass authored one of the great hippie publications, the very successful 1971 book Be Here Now, published by the Lama Foundation. Before he became Ram Dass, Alpert had worked with Timothy Leary at Harvard, and both lost their jobs because they had administered psychedelic drugs to students. In Be Here Now, Ram Dass wrote about being thrown out of Harvard: “Everybody, parents, colleagues, public, saw it as a horrible thing; I thought inside, ‘I must really be crazy now.’ . . . And yet, I felt saner than I’d ever felt.”
Ram Dass went on to found the Hanuman Foundation, parodied by the novelist John Nichols in The Nirvana Blues (1981). An avowed Marxist, Nichols arrived in Taos in the late 1960s, just in time to witness the social upheavals that resulted from the arrival of the hippies and their conflicts with the resident Hispanos. His 1974 novel The Milagro Beanfield War, one of the great novels to emerge from New Mexico, chronicled and invigorated grassroots reaction to developers determined to capitalize on northern New Mexico’s landscape. John Nichols remains an independent counterculturalist quite different from the communards.
Dennis Hopper’s 1969 film Easy Rider portrayed two hippie buddies (Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda) who rode their motorcycles across America. The movie includes their visit to New Buffalo. Hopper became enamored of Taos and bought the Mabel Dodge Luhan house and guest house, where he lived for several years thereafter. His presence contributed to the aura of celebrity that permeated the Taos atmosphere.
It was also in 1969 that my friend Karl Kernberger and I set out to travel the length of el Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, from northern New Mexico to Mexico City. Karl and I were part of a loose band who called ourselves “The Four Brothers Adventure Company.” We made many side trips off the camino, including one to San Miguel de Allende, where we stayed in the home of John and Eve Muir. Later, in Mexico City, we met Victor Fosado, owner of a gallery of contemporary and pre-Columbian Mexican Indian artifacts, some of which I purchased for the Center for Arts of Indian America. Victor invited Karl and me to visit his macrobiotic nightclub, where his avant-garde musical group would be performing that evening. Karl had his cameras and I my tape recorder, and I recorded this novel group performing strangely beautiful music on contemporary and pre-Columbian musical instruments. Two of the members of this group performed as actors in El Topo, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s classic 1970 cult film about a gunfighter’s quest for enlightenment.
From there, Karl and I went into the mountains of Nayarit and Jalisco to the Huichol Indian village of San Andres de Cohamiata, where we camped for a month and witnessed the annual Huichol peyote fiesta. I learned an enormous amount about these indios and how their beautiful habitat had influenced their cultural evolution. I came to see them as an endangered species and to understand that the eradication of indigenous mind by a capitalist monoculture could toll the death knell for our species.
When we returned to Santa Fe, a group of us known as Earthlings United for Better Life (EUBL) held our first and last meeting at John Kimmey’s Santa Fe Community School, New Mexico’s first alternative school. It was there that I first met Tom Law and Reno Kleen Myerson. I also met Bill Brown, the chief historian for the southwestern branch of the National Park Service. Bill, Jimmy Hopper, John Kimmey, and I thereafter founded the Central Clearing House to look at environmental problem areas around the Southwest. Harvey Mudd gave us a generous grant. Bill Brown had heard on the Department of the Interior grapevine that an enormous coal mine was to be built at Black Mesa, a great landform sacred to both Hopi and Navajo peoples. Bill and I took off for Black Mesa and spoke with a few Indians in the area, who knew nothing of the impending strip mine.
In April 1970, I drove to the Hopi village of Hotevilla to speak with my wise friend David Monongye about what Bill and I had learned. David called for a meeting of traditional Hopi elders to be held the following day on Second Mesa. I told what I knew, that the strip mine would be located in the heart of Black Mesa, that water would be pumped at the rate of 2,000 gallons per minute from the Pleistocene aquifer that lay below in order to slurry coal to a power plant near Bullhead City, Nevada, and that the rest of the coal would be shipped via an as-yet to-be-constructed railroad across the Kaibito Plateau to a soon-to-be-constructed, coal-fired electrical generating station near the southern shore of Lake Powell.
The Hopis were outraged that their tribal council, then chaired by Clarence Hamilton, would dare to sign contracts with the US government to result in this great sacrilege to their sacred homeland. The traditional Hopis, represented by David Monongye and Mina Lansa, asked me to help them make their case to the American public. On April 10, 1970, just twelve days before the very first Earth Day, Jimmy Hopper, Bill Brown, and I founded the Black Mesa Defense Fund. We were soon joined by photographer Terry “Más” Moore and thereafter by a small band of concerned citizens, and we worked as hard as we could for two and a half years to try to thwart the strip mining, but we ultimately lost to the Central Arizona Project. The corporate world and the political machine had conjoined, and it would take more than a handful of hippies to stop them.
In 1968, on a day off from my fire lookout, I found a new book in a small bookstore in Durango, Colorado. The author was Edward Abbey, a guy I’d met in Claude’s Bar in Santa Fe several years before. I recognized his picture on the dust jacket. The book was entitled Desert Solitaire. It was one hell of a read, and I realized that Abbey was a kindred spirit. A couple of weeks after we opened the Black Mesa Defense Fund, I found him on his fire lookout on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. John DePuy was there visiting him, as was a woman named Ingrid. That evening, Ed and I took a walk, the first couple of miles of thousands of miles that we would hike over the next decades. I told him about the Black Mesa strip mine, the Navajo Generating Station, the whole sorry mess. By the end of the evening, we both had fires in our bellies that no six-packs of beer would ever quench. We were at war.
Ed Abbey followed his own convictions even if they went beyond the law. Suffice it to say that we fought those gangsters who tore up the landscape, who stole huge quantities of water, and who laid spiritual and physical waste to two beautiful indigenous cultures—all in the name of economic progress. And there were others who fought the good fight, almost to the death. I think here of the Black Mesa Defense Fund, of EarthFirst!, of Greenpeace, of the Big Mountain Support Group, and many others who shall go unnamed.
Here was a cadre of counterculturalists composed of artists, writers, musicians, intellectuals, outdoors people—activists all against the corporate/political hierarchy that had the nerve to call us ecoterrorists.
My great friend Edward Abbey was the spiritual leader of the modern radical environmental movement. The term counterculture does not come close to defining this multifaceted movement, still actively fomenting.
When Edward Abbey died, on March 14, 1989, four of us took our fallen comrade to a remote desert and buried him in his sleeping bag as he had requested. We loaded him into the back of my pickup truck, and as we started across an arroyo, we got stuck in the sand. Never in our scores of camping trips together did Ed and I fail to get stuck in mud, sand, or quicksand. On his last journey through his beloved Southwest, we got stuck yet again, only this time Ed couldn’t help us get unstuck. But he had a good excuse.
Gary Snyder was one of five poets featured at the Six Gallery in 1955. Born in San Francisco, he grew up in rural Washington. Of his parents he said, “My father was involved in an organization called the League of Unemployed Voters . . . and he also did some union organizing work. . . . My mother was clearly and outspokenly antireligious, anti-churchgoing, highly critical of dogmatic Christianity.” Gary learned to do farm work as a youngster, graduated from Reed College, was a mountain climber and backpacker, and documents his extraordinary life in poetry.
Although Gary Snyder associated with the Beat poets, his poetry is far more in tune with nature. When he shared his cabin on the side of Mount Tamalpais with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, he introduced them to a more Nature-oriented perspective. Deeply interested in anarchist thought, he has been influenced by Pyotr Kropotkin, the turn-of-the-twentiethcentury philosopher exiled from Russia after the revolution.
Gary Snyder remains deeply interested in indigenous cultures and their relationship to home habitat. He became a Zen Buddhist in his youth and reads both Chinese and Japanese. Gary has contributed tremendously to the bioregional perspective. His essay “The Four Changes” has especially influenced the counterculture movement. He has been an enduring presence in the movement for over sixty years, as well as one of America’s great poets. His book of essays The Practice of the Wild offers an enlightened view of humanity’s place in Nature. He and Edward Abbey never met, but they were well aware of each other and shared a mutual respect. Their contributions to modern culture are profound. Great intellect alone is “insufficient unto the day.” It takes great perseverance to reshape cultural perspective.
The entirety of the 1960s and seventies was fraught with cultural unrest. I was playing jazz in Indianapolis briefly in 1960. In the main I was honored to play with black musicians, and the Black Panther movement was coming into its own, which made for many intense moments. The Black Panthers contributed greatly to the civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King was making enormous headway bugging bigoted bureaucrats, including Orville Faubus, a governor of Arkansas who had invoked the National Guard to keep nine black students from attending Central High School in Little Rock in 1957. The renowned jazz bass player Charlie Mingus wrote a jazz chart entitled “Fables of Faubus,” which is one of the hardest swingin’ charts of the era. Dannie Richmond played drums with Mingus for many years. Together, Mingus and Richmond composed one of the greatest rhythm sections of all time. They helped kick America into awareness of the racial inequalities that persist even to this day.
Before English Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, in 1621, a huge entourage of colonists led by Juan de Oñate had settled near the confluence of the Río Grande and Río Chama in what is today north-central New Mexico. The year was 1598, and the colonizing entourage comprised Spanish, Basque, Moorish, Sephardic, and other peoples seeking a new way of life. Over four centuries later, Hispano culture is deeply rooted in the Southwest; it is rich in history, tradition, and wisdom about the land. Gradually, much Hispano culture has been subsumed by the ever-growing monoculture of the rest of the continent, but a strong countercultural force had its genesis in the New Mexico Hispano culture. Hispano culture itself is a crystal of many facets that include lowriders, the Alianza Federal de Mercedes led by Reies López Tijerina, the Brown Berets, and la Academia de la Nueva Raza. Established by Tomás Atencio, a native of Dixon, New Mexico, la Academia comprised scholars, artists, writers, musicians—all activists who used their collective talents to reinvigorate a sense of cultural identity in their homeland. One of New Mexico’s great scholars in this tradition is Enrique R. Lamadrid, who grew up in Dixon and has used his many talents to nurture querencia, deep and abiding love and recognition of one’s place in homeland, a concept that does not have an English-language equivalent.
One of the great songs to emerge from this countercultural perspective is “Se Ve Triste el Hombre” composed by Cipriano Vigil. This song reflects the profound sadness experienced by many Nuevomexicanos that their land grants, forests, and waterways were taken from them by US government agencies. “My Name Is Popé,” a poem by la Academia’s own E. A. “Tony” Mares, tells the tale of how Popé, a Tewa-speaking Indian from Ohkay Owingeh, led a great revolt against the Spanish settlers in 1680, driving them out of New Mexico for twelve years.
In 1968, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was formed to fight social injustice and land rights violations against Indian peoples.
While much of AIM was carried out in the northern plains states, southwestern Indians became involved in response to the strip mining of Black Mesa in northern Arizona. Indians from throughout North America joined the effort, especially when the US Congress pitted Navajos and Hopis against each other in a dispute that resulted in the relocation of thousands of Navajos from their traditional homelands on Big Mountain, the southern extension of Black Mesa.
Throughout America, myriad subcultures rose to the surface to fight for social justice and preserve withering habitats. People of different cultural persuasions discovered a burgeoning unity of spirit. Native American scholar Vine Deloria wrote Custer Died for Your Sins. César Chávez and Dolores Huerta cofounded the National Farm Workers Association, which became the United Farm Workers. Edward Abbey wrote The Monkey Wrench Gang. Carlos Castañeda wrote The Teachings of Don Juan. Filmmaker Godfrey Reggio produced the Qatsi Trilogy. Musician Peter Rowan wrote “Panama Red” and “The Free Mexican Air Force.” These outlaw artists helped invigorate a new system of ethics embodied in Timothy Leary’s slogan “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.”
Counterculture wasn’t all peace, balance, and harmony. Parents lost track of children who had turned on, tuned in and dropped out, sometimes to oblivion. Drugs wiped out previously wonderful minds and spirits. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all died of drug overdoses within a year of each other, each of them just twenty-seven years old. But in spite of the downside of the counterculture, it led to a new level of consciousness and mindfulness that continues to permeate American and even global culture.
Almost a century before the Beat literary movement, Walt Whitman penned a phrase that spoke to many Americans: “TO The States, or any one of them, or any city of The States, Resist much, obey little; Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved; Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city, of this earth, ever afterward resumes its liberty” (“Walt Whitman’s Caution,” Leaves of Grass).
The father of young Ed Abbey read many of Whitman’s verses to young Ned, as he was known. Years later, Abbey would use Whitman’s words to further his own brand of anarchism by insisting that we “resist much, obey little.” Few of us have Abbey’s strength of character. Could you resist the enslavement of modern media by shooting the screen of your television set? Ed realized the degree to which modern American culture had settled comfortably into consumerism.
Abbey lived simply and frugally his entire life. His fellow writer and philosopher Gary Snyder took simplicity a step further by moving into the forested wilds of the Sierra Nevada, where he built his simple home heated by firewood that he himself cut. He eased himself off the grid by installing solar panels with an accompanying system of batteries to provide what electricity he required.
These two men stand as leaders of the counterculture that remains embedded in contemporary society. The face of counter-culture has changed since the man in the grey flannel suit was first juxtaposed with the bearded hippie. Many of today’s lifestyles began a half century ago when the counterculture was new. Food, for example, is now the subject of careful scrutiny by consumers who insist on organically grown fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy products, and candy bars. My old friend Gary Paul Nabhan, a highly regarded ethnobotanist who cofounded Native Seed Search over three decades ago, has since become a prime mover in modern attitudes toward food. He has contributed to understanding the significance of pollinators and is also a great defender of the rights of indigenous peoples. Shelter has become more efficient over the last half-century thanks to Lloyd Kahn’s Shelter Publications and Bill and Athena Steen’s Canelo Project.
Hair has long been associated with the hip population. Fifty years ago while still a fire lookout, I was told by my boss, the forest ranger in charge, to shave my beard on the grounds that it was a fire hazard. Today, half the working force of the US Forest Service wear beards. The other half are women, who have come into their own as archaeologists, rangers, and Forest Service supervisors—a change that is also part of the counterculture.
Although we have gained many footholds in various cultures of practice, including the arts and humanities, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the environmental movement, and various spiritual disciplines, we are losing ground, not just as a counterculture movement but as a species within the planetary biotic community. Since the movement began in its current incarnation around 1960, the human population of the planet has more than doubled, the planet’s resources have dangerously dwindled, and the climate itself is poised to change during the course of this century. Children born today will die in a far different world than the one into which they were born. Not only will climate instability prevail and global warming affect every corner of the planet, but also the human species may well be forced to turn against itself, to compete for what resources remain available—unless . . . unless . . . unless . . .
It has been well over half a century since I first came to northern New Mexico, now my beloved homeland. I had a sense of rebellion that I have never outgrown, but I trust and hope that I’ve evolved into a practitioner who continues to work for the well-being of homeland and its denizens regardless of species. I resist the interloper, the carpetbagger, the exploiter, in whatever guise one may appear, all the while realizing that I myself am an interloper, having blown in like a tumbleweed many years ago.
Intellectually I am pessimistic, but intuitively I am optimistic. One of the joys of living in this exquisite homeland is to sit of a winter’s evening well bundled against the cold and look into that spot the breadth of a hand span and a half beneath the constellation Cassiopeia, where with my naked eye I can see what looks to be a star but is in reality the galaxy we call Andromeda. Just think of that! That galaxy lies some two and a half million light years from Earth and is home to an estimated 1 trillion stars, or more than double the number here in our own Milky Way. According to cosmologists, in 3.75 billion years or so, that distant galaxy and our own will merge or collide as the case may be. There are at least 100 billion other galaxies in the observable universe. That’s roughly one galaxy for every human being who has ever lived.
Our solar system has spawned not only life but also at least one life form capable of evolving consciousness. It is profoundly sad to think that a species with our capacity for consciousness would squander such an opportunity. It doesn’t have to end so ignominiously. Rather, we can look at ourselves yet again relative to this home habitat and discern which of our characteristics and pursuits run counter to the continuum of life as we know it. Let’s use the new digital media that we’re spawning to help foster a more compelling system of ethics, to reeducate ourselves into a new system of standards, invigorate cultures of practice that are not only viable but also celebratory of the miracle of existence, and then muster both individual and collective self-discipline to proceed in beauty.
This essay is reprinted in its entirety from Voices of Counterculture in the Southwest, edited by Jack Loeffler and Meredith Davidson (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2017).
Jack Loeffler is an aural historian and author who has lived in the northern Río Grande watershed for well over half a century. He has published numerous books and essays, and has produced hundreds of documentary radio programs for public radio that address folk music and lore, cultural diversity, environmental awareness, and watershed consciousness.