It all started with a phone message. After listening to it, I had to replay it a couple of times to make sure I had heard it correctly. Sure enough, the voice clearly stated what I thought I had heard the first time.
It was from one of the directors of the Gabriola Historical and Museum Society who informed me that they were in the process of adding a new display to their museum and wanted my help with a survey. The display was titled “Free Spirits, Changing Times: Gabriola’s Hippies in the 1970s.” The survey was to be followed up with a phone interview, after which I was invited to be a guest for the official opening of the display at the museum a few weeks later.
At first blush, I felt elated that somebody finally realized the importance of my existence and wanted to document it in a museum. Perhaps I should have felt a little antiquated and resented the fact that my ‘70s associates and I were going to be put on display much like a Ming Dynasty vase.
Allow me to explain. Gabriola Island had been my home from the early ‘70s until 1984 when I relocated a couple of Gulf Islands south to Salt Spring. I was among the first wave of “back to the lander” hippies who arrived uninvited on the West Coast. As somebody once described it, “It was as if all of North America had been tilted to one side and all the loose nuts and bolts came rolling down to this end of the continent.”
Things did not go smoothly at first. The old islanders, who were made up mostly of pioneer stock, were about as welcoming to us as they would have been to immigrants wrapped in smallpox blankets. (Oh, I forgot, that’s how their ancestors had originally come to these shores.) Mind you, we did bring along little critters like scabies, herpes and head lice, as well as wonderfully infectious conditions such as staph and impetigo.
Music was an integral part of our existence and it seemed like everybody in the hippie movement had a guitar and knew how to play two or three chords (which was enough to play 90 per cent of the folk tunes we sang back then). Occasionally, somebody organized a “boogie” where the clan came together to “hippie dance” the night away.
A problem arose when the old-time pioneer family responsible for renting out the community hall came up with excuse after excuse for why the facility was unavailable for use by us hippies (actually, the word “hippie” was a derogatory word used by those who looked down upon us — we called ourselves “freaks”).
We solved the problem by stacking the next annual general meeting of the community hall society and voting enough of us onto the board of directors to ensure that we would never again be denied access to the hall.
Perhaps the seminal event that highlighted the melding of the two island solitudes, the old pioneer family homestead and the new hippie communal lifestyle, came in the form of the marriage of the daughter of Gabriola’s most prominent sheep farmer to a spaced-out, blonde Afro-coiffed love child from California. The formal tying of the knot took place at the venerable community hall and was the social event of the year, drawing islanders from all walks of Gabriola society.
Unbeknown to most of us in attendance, the wedding cake had been spiked with “the devil weed” and it was not too long after the ceremony that the bridal party (including the bride herself) were passed out on the front lawn of the hall grounds. Most of the rest of us still standing were stumbling about zombie-like trying to unravel the secrets of the universe (or attempting to figure out how doorknobs work so we could let ourselves back into the hall to listen to the live band).
Meanwhile, the aforementioned band, Medicine Wheel, a “loosey-goosey” amalgamation of free-willed island musicians, had blown a spiritual tire as a result of its members also having partaken of the potent wedding cake. As a result, the band was in the midst of producing a cacophony of unbearable sounds (as each band member was off in “la-la land” playing simultaneous rock solos) when the father of the bride marched into the hall, stomped over to the electrical panel, and unceremoniously slammed closed the circuit breaker, thereby cutting off all power and mercifully silencing Medicine Wheel for good. “Party’s over,” he bellowed, “Everybody go home!”
It took a while for the fallout to settle after that fiasco, but eventually the wounds healed. Even though the marriage did not survive the ravages of time, it did last long enough to produce a sandbox-full of beautiful children who went on to themselves repaint the zany island mural.
The hippie experience still warms this somewhat calloused heart: the potlucks (where everybody, it seemed, brought steamed millet); the tree-planting camps that took me all over this diverse and wondrous province; Gabriola’s very own Rainbow Faire (B.C.’s first, last and only nude music festival); the food co-op (where everybody competed with each other to prove who was more “organic” in their food consumption); the old Rolf Brun ferry where the first two vehicles at the bow had to be driven part way up portable ramps and angled about 45 degrees to the sky so that there was room for the other six vehicles on the deck; and the knowledge that if you missed the last ferry by about five minutes, you could flash your lights in the parking lot and it would turn around and come back to get you.
Nobody asked me, but sometimes a trip down memory lane can be soul quenching. Jane and I made the trip up to Gabriola, watched the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the museum, ate the ceremonial cake (no devil weed this time), and wandered into the beautiful building along with the other tie-dye T-shirted museum guests and patrons. We wound our way counter clockwise past the First Nations exhibit, the pioneers and stump farmers, and the brick factory displays.
Then, sure enough, there it was: Gabriola’s Hippies of the ‘70s. And there, among all the hippie artifacts, was a photo of me in my youthful glory. As we stood there soaking in the history, someone tapped me on the shoulder, pointed to the photo and said, “You sure were a good-looking young man.”
I know what she was thinking: “What happened?”