Monday, May 16, 2011

The St. Paul hippie

Pseudo-hippie at Oregon Country Fair 2003
NoteAlthough this story is (more or less) true, I've used fictional names.

What's a hippie?  Anybody know? 

I've been called a hippie before; I've even described myself (in jest) as a hippie.  But I'm no hippie.  Granted, years ago, when I had long hair, wore tie-dye tee-shirts and sandals and tied a peace sign around my neck, I might have looked like one.  A little bit, anyway.

But, although I'm all on board with the counterculture values of peace, love, and understanding, even if I wanted to be a hippie, I couldn't make the grade.  Hippie-ness is a mindset; it's something wired into one's DNA.  Hippies are born hippies.  And, here in the Willamette Valley, hippies rise up out of the rich, black soil of the valley floor, as natural and inherent as oak groves.  We've got whole tribes of them.  We're lucky that way.

St. Paul, out in the middle of the Willamette Valley
In the summer of 1997, I undertook to ride my bicycle from my home in southwest Portland to Eugene to attend the Oregon Country Fair.  It was a good long ride (about 120 miles) which I planned to do in 2 days.  I would ride along the rural back roads and highways that meander through the Willamette Valley and arrive at Brother Eric's house on the day before the Fair opened.

I had barely got out of Portland, my saddlebags heavy with clothing, sleeping bag, and camping equipment, when a construction staple, part of the detritus that litters the sides of our highways, punctured my front tire. And me without a patch kit!  So, there I was, with a punctured tire and no way to repair it, out in the middle of the vast Willamette Valley farmland.  Nothing for it but to start walking.

I walked several miles before I saw a church steeple, a grain silo, and some sleepy buildings sitting in the July sun.  The little village of St. Paul was up ahead.  There didn't look to be anyone about; it was a hot day, and I imagined most folks were indoors, staying out of the sun.  I wondered if there would be anywhere I might be able to get my bike tire patched.

As I approached town from the north.  I passed a ramshackle, old house on the side of the highway.  It had at one time been a fine, old manor, but was now a dirty white house with a cluttered and unkempt front yard.  There were chickens hunting and pecking in the grass, a dog or two asleep in the shade, and cats prowling around the periphery.  As I walked past, a screen door on the side of the house banged open to produce a wiry man with light, curly hair, dressed in a tatty shirt and short khaki trousers.  He looked to be in his mid-forties.  I knew him for a hippie the minute I saw him.  He glanced at me curiously as I passed. 

I had gone only a short way further down the road when I heard the clatter of a rattletrap VW bus behind me.  As it came alongside, it slowed.  I looked to see the St. Paul hippie in the driver's seat.  The passenger window was down and he kept pace with me as I walked.  "Wanna race?" he asked, grinning.

"You know someplace I can get my bike tire patched?" I asked.

"Prolly have to go to Salem," he said.  "Nothin' here in town for ya."

This was not welcome news.  Salem was another 15 miles at least.  My disappointment must have shown.

"I'm going to Salem, now," said the hippie.  "Whyn't I give you a ride?"

"That'd be great!" I said, much relieved.

He pulled the VW over and jumped out.  "Let's get you loaded up," he said.  There were several dogs asleep in the back of the van.  One of them, a puppy, yelped in indignant protest as we wrestled my bike inside. "You're alright.  Go back to sleep," said the hippie.

We got things arranged and I hopped into the passenger seat.  "Name's Willard," he said as he sat at the wheel.  We shook.  "Good thing I saw you," he said.  "St. Paul's a one-hippie town and I'm it."

We kept the windows down as we drove toward Salem.  Willard drove slowly.  He talked a lot.  The dogs napped indifferently in the back.

"How is it for a hippie out here in St. Paul?" I asked him.

"Took a while," he said.  "But they're used to me now.  When I first came here, they didn't like me much.  There's an ol' boy here, Kenny Gills.  He's what some might call a redneck.  He's the toughest guy around.  He used to give me grief, 'til I stood up to him one night in the bar.  He asked me if I had any leaf, which, of course, I did.  When I showed it to him, he grabbed it out of my hand and put it in his pocket and tried to ignore me.  But I kept after him.  'You gonna do me like that, Kenny?' I asked him.  'You really gonna do me like that?' 'I don't know what you're talking about,' he kept sayin'.  So I said, 'Kenny, go f*ck yourself.'  Don't remember much else from that night.  He cleaned my clock good, but I saw him the next day.  He had a mark or two on his face from where I'd tagged him.  Nobody gave me sh*t after that."

"What is it you do out here?" I asked him.

"That's my ol' lady's house where you saw me," he said.  "She's retired military.  We've got a big garden, and a whole bunch of animals that we take care of."

"What kind of animals?"

"We got a couple goats and some pigs.  Chickens.  Cats.  Dogs."

"You like animals, eh?"

"Love 'em," he said.  "That's our family.  My ol' lady's a special gal.  Folks around St. Paul come to her when their animals get sick.  We take 'em in, get 'em healthy."

"Is she a vet?"

"Naw.  Just gives 'em love.  Lotta times that all they need."  He went on, "She's a giver, my ol' lady.  There's some of the kids around town come hang out at our place.  Kids who don't fit in well, or are just lookin' for something different from what they know.  Most of 'em never seen anything like us."

"There's a lot of hippies in the Valley," I protested.

"Not in St. Paul, there's not," he said.  He smiled his crooked smile.  "Like I said, it's a one-hippie town.  Little smoke?"  He produced a joint, held the steering wheel steady with his knee while he got it lit.  He took a toke and passed it to me. 

Eventually, we arrived in Salem.  Willard pulled into a gas station to fill up.  He pointed out a bike shop nearby as we pulled my bike out of the back of the van.

"Well, thanks, Willard," I said.  "Want some money for gas?"

"Sure, if you want to give me some," he said.  I handed him a five.

"Keep the faith, brother," he said.  Grinning.  He was always grinning.

We shook hands and I set off on my way.

Hippies.  There are hippies; and there are people who like to hang out with hippies.  Willard, whom I have not seen since that one short encounter 14 years ago, is a hippie.

Me?  I just like to hang out with them.

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