Mommy Buddha is grousing again, hitching up his skirts and planting his big, black Chuck Taylors into the rutted mud of the road. His backpack rests heavy on my shoulders—he is done with carrying it, he’s insisted with a snap of the finger and a waggle of the head that isn’t, here in 1987, yet a cultural marker that’s moved far beyond the drag community.
“Fucking hippies,” he says as we reach the end of Bus Village, where the old naked guy at the hard road had told us we would find Hippie Hollow, the part of the Rainbow Gathering where we intended to camp. “There isn’t anything here. It’s just a dead end.”
I cajole him into moving on, the way one might a small child, with promises of a warm, dry place to pitch our tent and get some sleep. Mommy Buddha is not a small child; he’s a six foot three, three hundred pound Philosophy student and a man tough enough to wear housedresses and a blond topknot to class at the University of Alabama. But he’s also not not a child, with his tantrums and his quivery lower lip and his life-is-so-unfairing. I don’t want to spend the night in the muck of the road, or the swampy dead end of it, and I am able to keep him moving because he is a creature of comforts.
So we trek down the road again, and up another branch off it for a while, Mommy Buddha muttering under his breath. And then, as if there actually was something to this Rainbow Family magic, to this once-a-year-moveable-magic-love-in, I hear a voice I know. And that voice is telling a story I know, the one about Thanksgiving at his parents’ farm, his father grousing at the words we’re using on the Scrabble board, words he doesn’t know, words like textual and orality which he says don’t sound like good Christian words to him, and talking about don’t talk that college talk in my house son, and talking about too big for our britches, and talking about getting above our raising. I know this story because I was there.
So Mommy Buddha and I stop.
And it turns out that the voice belongs to Terry-who-was-my-boyfriend-before-that-awful-business-with-the-cops-and-the-weed, and he says, “Okay, then, you can sleep in my tent,” to Mommy Buddha and “Here, take this” to me and I do take this, which is a cup of hot tea that turns out to have mushrooms in it but I don’t know that, I think it’s just a cup of tea at the end of a long journey.
And then I’m sitting by the fire listening to stories about people I think but am not sure that I knew once, a long time ago, even though I’ve never met the people who are telling these stories before, and Terry-who-was-my-boyfriend-before-that-awful-business-with-the-cops-and-the-weed is braiding my hair into a hundred tiny braids down my back, weaving in pieces of embroidery thread and tiny silver bells and vine. And because I don’t know that there are mushrooms in the tea, for the next couple of hours I think maybe the warm feeling in my belly, the loveliness of the faces of the familiar strangers around the campfire, the joyful tinkling of the bells in my hair mean that I’m still in love with Terry-who-was-my-boyfriend-before-that-awful-business-with-the-cops-and-the-weed. That maybe this whole magical Rainbow Gathering moment is meant to show me that he is my soul mate and that I should say everything is forgiven and forgive me and we should try again. But right before I make a fool out of myself, I notice that I’m getting tracers off the joint that the familiar strangers are now passing amongst them and I ask, “Was this tea dosed?” “Just ‘srhooms,” says a girl in a Ramones t-shirt and a The Cat in the Hat hat, and I realize I’m just buzzed, and not still in love with Terry-who-was-my-boyfriend-before-that-awful-business-with-the-cops-and-the-weed, which is a relief, because the friends who lived through that-awful-business-with-the-cops-and-the-weed would not be pleased to hear that he was once again Terry-who-is-my-boyfriend. And, really, they’d be right.
Besides, it would have created pretty significant problems with Dogman-who-is-my-boyfriend-now.
In the morning Mommy Buddha and I take our backpacks and find Hippie Hollow proper. We camp among some students from Kent who are here on a sort of combined peace mission/drug run that never fully makes sense to me. Mommy Buddha spends much of the time running into town to buy fast food; he has Crohn’s Disease and can’t take the whole-grain, raw-vegetable, everything-spiced-with-garlic-and-hot-pepper-sauce food that is served up at the free kitchens around the gathering. So he wakes up, walks the few miles to the car, drives into town, and sits at McDonald’s during the heart of the day, and then drives back in the evening. He’s already disgusted with the dirt and the lack of queer boys with ponytails who he’d hoped would want to have sex with him.
I spend the days wandering around just staring at stuff: the giant spider webs woven into jungle gyms by the noncompetitive play folk, the painted elephant that the Krishnas brought from New Vrindaban, the jugglers and giant bubble blowers and dervishes whirling in the dust.
At night I lay in our borrowed tent and listen to the echoing, sing-songy we love yous that float through the hills. I call back until Mommy Buddha tells me that if I don’t shut the fuck up and let him sleep he’s going to show me how much he does not love all this hippie bullshit in his mean voice, and then I just lay there quietly feeling all that echoing love wash over me. Because, although I know it’s hokey and more than a little played out, I actually believe in the power of love, organic vegetable curry over brown rice, dreadlocks, and drum circles to change the world. I believe those strangers up in the hills when they holler into the night we love you the way my Christian friends believe Jesus loves them.
I’m twenty-one and have just figured out how alone I really am in the world, that I don’t belong to my parents any more, that I will make it or not based solely on what I can and choose to do. That it is, in fact, possible not to make it, to auger in and fall apart and wind up spending most evenings alone in your apartment eating green beans out of the can and listening to Joni Mitchell before just going the fuck to bed at nine o’clock because there isn’t any reason not to and you have to work tomorrow anyway.
So, I really want to believe that these strangers love me. And they want me to believe it, too. I know they do. Which is why I stay away from Krishna Kitchen, even though they have the most reliably potable water. I recognize that I am, at this moment, lonely in a dangerous way. In a maybe-it-wouldn’t-be-so-bad-to-move-to-New-Vrindaban-in-spite-of-the-rumors-of-drug-running-and-underaged-sex-scandals way. Well, that, and there is a persistent rumor that they put salt peter in their food to help folk avoid the temptations of illicit sex, and I’m pretty okay with giving in to that particular temptation under the right circumstances. Though it might explain why Mommy Buddha is having such a hard time finding pony-tailed boys who want to have sex with him.
We stay through the Om ceremony on the Fourth of July, joining in the chanting of thousands of tie-dyed, shaggy-haired peaceniks in Main Meadow and then erupting into hoots of joy and dancing. Or, at least, I erupt. Mommy Buddha sits with our packed gear and waits for me to get the hell over it so that we can get on the road. On the way to the car, we pass a small booth passing out copies of AllWays Free, a sort of newsletter/crash pad guide put together by the Rainbow Family. High on love, and possibly hash from a brownie handed to me by a passing woman in Main Meadow that tasted like dirt and happiness, I put down my name and my address. “Rainbow family all ways welcomed!” I write underneath.
We pile our dirty selves and our dirty gear into Mommy Buddha’s old, broken down Volvo on which we had painted My Car-ma and glued plastic dinosaurs in preparation for our journey. Car drag. I’m dressed in an ugly brown and orange dashiki that I found in a pile of give-aways at one of the kitchens, Mommy Buddha’s wearing one of his customary housedresses. So, of course, we get a flat tire. In Alabama. And equally of course, Mommy Buddha doesn’t have a jack, though at least he has a spare.
“I’m pretty certain that this is where we get murdered,” I say, as we sit by the side of the road. We get flipped off and honked at, but for a very long time nobody is inclined to stop and help.
“Shut up,” says Mommy Buddha. “Just shut the fuck up, okay?”
So I do. We’re both scared. The only thing worse than having nobody stop to help would be to have a state trooper stop to help and—because I’m wearing a dashiki and he’s wearing a housedress and there are plastic dinosaurs glued to the car which most certainly all add up to probable cause—take a little look-see at what all we have in the car. Which, along with all our smelly gear and a week’s worth of fast food wrappers, is a sheet of blotter acid and some mighty fine marijuana. The blotter acid is half the reason I went to the gathering, and all the reason Mommy Buddha agreed to come along. Well, that and the ponytailed queer boy sex I’d promised him that had turned out to be a lot harder to find than the drugs. We would throw it away, but there isn’t any place to throw it. No woods. Not even any kudzu. Just a flat expanse of concrete and dry packed clay.
And after about an hour I start praying for the murderer to show up before the southern policeman because I’m pretty sure I’d rather be dead than a Jewish hippie chick locked up in a rural Alabama jail.
Also, I start to wonder how long it takes to die of thirst.
And at pretty much that same moment it occurs to me that maybe I should have looked for Terry-who-was-my-boyfriend-before-that-awful-business-with-the-cops-and-the-weed before we left, and at least said goodbye.
Finally, after we’ve been sitting in the road dust for a good two and a half hours, a trucker pulls over and changes the tire for us. Actually, he makes a u-turn and comes back to change our tire, because he’d been driving the other way. He makes it known up front that he didn’t want to stop, doesn’t really like our kind and thinks we’re pretty much fucking idiots, but he also either never figures out that we aren’t both girls or he does figure it out and has no idea what to make of Mommy Buddha so just pretends to still think we’re both girls, and he says he just couldn’t feel right about leaving two young girls stranded by the side of the road. He tells us a little bit about what Jesus means to him, but in a way that’s lovely and explains why he stopped, not in a way that makes it seem like he might fix the tire and then murder us for being abominations of nature or something. So, we’re grateful.
As he pulls away, he says “Jesus loves you, you know.” He brakes to give us one last looksee. “Even people like you,” he adds.
And after he’s gone, I call out in that sing-songy Rainbow way, “We love you!” Mommy Buddha rolls his eyes and pulls out into traffic.