A signature story.

When I first walked onto Wheeler’s Ranch in the late afternoon, I saw two buxom blonds feeding livestock near the barn. Their hair was tied in pony tails. They were each wearing a velour jumper and nothing else, not even sandals. For a Baptist boy from the suburbs of LA, this was the promise of the 60’s made flesh. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I wasn’t far wrong. Someone almost died that night.

I was hitching north along the Pacific Coast Highway, not going anywhere so much as leaving someplace behind. I spent a rain-soaked night sheltering in the burnt husks of redwoods in the Sur woods, bought a rucksack in Haight Ashbury, and crossed the Golden Gate in the back of an old pickup truck. The last ride left me on the roadside, miles from nowhere.

On the far side of the road was the relentless Pacific; on the near side, a sea of grass rolling in the wind. Sheep grazed behind rusted barbwire tacked to split-rail fence posts. A hawk circled overhead. A dirt road led up the ridge to Wheeler’s Ranch.

For all I knew such things were common at a commune. They might be sacrificing a goat.

At the time I knew nothing about communes except what I’d heard rumored by Republicans, all of it slanderous. Wheeler’s Ranch was the real thing—an Open Land community. Anyone was welcomed to live on the 300 acres; no one was refused. Bill Wheeler, the man who bought the land and freed it, was co-founder of the archetypal California commune, Morningstar.

Bill Wheeler at the ranch. Behind him, the studio.
Photo attribution:
Sara Davidson

By the time I had walked several miles to the ranch, it was late in the afternoon. Shadows had pooled in the ravines. I camped on the side of a hill with a fairly steep pitch. There was nothing flat within sight.

It was a dark night, a moonless night. There was no electricity on Wheeler’s ridge. It was remorselessly dark.

And it rained that night. The small tent I’d bought from the war surplus store in the Haight kept me snug. I was reluctant to leave the tent when I heard people shouting from the ridge top above. For all I knew such things were common at a commune. They might be sacrificing a goat. I heard the clanging of a bell, then saw fire reflected on the leaves of the surrounding trees, as if the trees themselves were on fire. I was sufficiently motivated.

On the ridge, the house that Wheeler had built himself was burning. It had become his studio when the county condemned it for code violations but it contained many of the commune’s musical instruments and art supplies. It was an amateurish, slack-jawed construction but it was the most substantial building they had and it was burning beyond control.

A bucket brigade had already formed and disbanded. The fire was too hot to approach. A crowd of a few dozen people in various degrees of undress stood and watched. The building burned maniacally.

At some point the crowd began connecting cause and effect; it became a mob. Someone remembered a speed freak with a penchant for fire. He had tried to burn the studio before, hadn’t he? The bastard!

A skinny, ragged guy was dragged in front of the mob and thrown on the dirt. He had the look of a deer caught in approaching headlights. Someone had already punched him a few times, encouraging his cooperation. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. The crowd closed around him, their faces illuminated by fire. They were in a vengeful mood.

"String him up," someone shouted. It was an archetypal line I’d heard in countless cheap Westerns. "String him up." The mob agreed.

They manhandled him under a big tree with branches stout enough to bear the weight of strange fruit. Someone went to get a rope. The speed freak lay curled like a fetus in the dirt trying to protect himself from occasional kicks.

It could have gone either way for him—his life literally hung in the balance—until Wheeler pushed his way to the front of the crowd. He looked like an Old Testament patriarch, his long hair and beard in disarray, his eyes bright with fire.

"No," he shouted and kept shouting until the crowd quieted enough to listen. It wasn’t a long speech but a lot of years have dimmed my memory. The gist was that he had formed the commune on the principle of land owned by no one and free to all. He wasn’t going to violate that principle for a burnt-out speed freak and a bunch of angry yahoos. They would cast the sinner out of the garden, "And if you ever come back," Wheeler promised, bending over the man lying in the dirt, looking in his face, "I’ll kill you myself."

So they hauled him down to the gate in the middle of the night and set him on the road to the coast that was strung with headlights like pearls. The locals had seen the fire on the ridge. Whatever they might think of hippies, fire was their common enemy. They had come to help. Too late.

In the morning I broke camp and moved on without a word, traveling north. Communal living was just too damned stressful.

Post script: Until I began writing this story and looked up Wheeler’s Ranch on the web, I had no idea it held such a prominent place in the history of communal living. It was a personal memory without a wider context, a single chaotic night on a windswept ridge. I wanted to confirm the few things I thought were facts but the disjointed history of the commune failed to mention the fire, much less the attempted lynching. I also remembered the commune farther north near the California border and the ramshackle studio as a Victorian farmhouse. So take this as a personal rather than social history. I believe the events happened as I remembered them but the details, maybe not so much.

Signature stories are those we continue to tell throughout our lives, the stories that define our history and shape our future.

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