When the weather warms, birds fly north along the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico — swooping over the picketed steel towers on the mountains’ highest point, gliding up the mountains’ gray granite spine, dropping down the mountains’ northern end, and coming to rest among the green desert foothills of the village of Placitas.
This little village has a history filled with invasion and conquest — from centuries of Spaniards displacing the area’s American Indians, to Anglo miners stealing land from Hispanic locals in the mid-1800s — but, arguably, no invasion has been any stranger than the 1960s invasion of the hippies.
Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, hundreds of unwashed, longhaired youth from around the world descended on the open foothills around Placitas, and established multiple communal hippie settlements. These youth had read of the Placitas scene in national magazines and counterculture books, or heard about it from other hippies; they were idealistic types from all around the world, and they came to the area to try to raise their own food, escape The Man, indulge in free love and mind-altering drugs, and live communally in tents, geodesic domes, adobe shacks, and homes they built themselves out of plastic and scrap metal.
“Building this house was more of like feeling where you went as you started working with it, you know, the material and just playing it from there,” said one Placitas hippie interviewed for the 1973 book Shelter. “…It’s like three-dimensional sculpturing, you know, we just got into building a house out here that’s like jewelry. …OK, let me put it this way, the inspiration like as we move along through it, like I found it in [Stanley Kubrick’s film] 2001, where the dude had finally split out of the satellite and was heading towards Jupiter, just as he was coming in, what they had done was they had used different types of film, infrared for one, and just taken a plane and flown over Grand Canyon at a high speed, low, what is created you know, is in some respects synonymous to what the house is, you know, and certainly our cell structure in our body is synonymous with that….”
So, again, there was some drug use.
The communes of the Placitas area included the hippie settlements of Dome Valley, Lower Farm, Tawapa, and Sun Farm. These were established in the foothills around the town and even on the properties of reluctant locals. Some of these settlements would later be examined as successful experiments in alternate forms of community by books such as Communes USA and The Communal Experience, but they were not fated to last long. Drugs soon eclipsed idealism, and would eventually eclipse almost everything.
The anonymous hippie quoted above managed to leave the scene with his mind still in working order, and now has a very different perspective on the matter.
“The scene kind of started out purely motivated,” he said. “We professed great, altruistic motives, but in reality self-indulgence is what it was. It kind of deteriorated to the point where it was nothing but alcohol and drugs, just a place where people could go to get laid. The drugs gave you the illusion of inner completeness, limitless knowledge, and so on, but really there was a lot of darkness.”
At the front of those illusions, and in the midst of that darkness, was the communes’ unofficial leader, a man who believed himself to be the reincarnation of Ulysses S. Grant, whose life would take a very violent and very strange turn, and whose story merits at least one column of his own.