Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

The Last Glimpses of California's Vanishing Hippie Utopias

Half a century ago, a legion of idealists dropped out of society and went back to the land. Here, the last of those rogue souls offer a glimpse of the tail end of a grand social experiment.


Read when you’ve got time to spare.

abandoned structure in

An abandoned structure at the Nonagon commune in Humboldt County.

There was an aphorism in the movement: “Bad roads make good communes.” And the road we're on today is bad. Several miles inland from California's foggy coastline, we're driving down a single lane hemmed in by 50-foot fir trees and then turn onto a rocky dirt path, joggling our rented SUV. Photographer Michael Schmelling and I are in Mendocino County, about a three-hour drive north of San Francisco, looking for what remains of perhaps the most famous of the hundreds of rural communes established across Northern California in the late '60s and '70s: Table Mountain Ranch.

The entire expanse—which once was a kind of American Arcadia, home to scores of hippies who'd fled San Francisco to live a new, idealistic kind of life—now looks deserted. We pass tree stumps, logging equipment, and mounds of dirt. The only sound is the chirping of birds. Eventually, in the middle of an open field, we come upon a peeling wood building where a lone man is perched up a ladder. Ascetically thin, with long red hair and a patchy beard, he tells us that he's one of Table Mountain Ranch's last remaining members. Now in his mid-70s, he's wary of supplying his name, wary of being somehow “on the map” after so much time off the grid, so I tell him that I'll refer to him as Jack Berg. Attempting to set the foundation for a second-story balcony, he struggles to balance on the ladder while positioning a two-by-four, an unlit roach in his fingers. As we look on, he brusquely puts us to work, chastising Michael for snapping a picture instead of immediately helping with the load.

Berg is restoring the Whale Schoolhouse, a progressive academy founded in 1971 that became the pride of communards across the Albion region of Northern California. Fifty kids, from elementary to high school age, were enrolled here, but it's sat unused for decades—and now Berg is moving in. “Nobody cared about this building,” he says. “It was disintegrating.” He takes us inside. It's a single room, the size of half a tennis court, with old class pictures on a corkboard. A circular window overlooks an empty field that had long ago been a playground.

One of the last remaining residents of Table Mountain repairs an old schoolhouse.

At one point in 1970, Table Mountain had over a hundred residents, some living in tipis, some in cabins, some crashing in the open air. It appears that before it became a commune, the 120-acre property had been a dude ranch, and the cabins and outbuildings were constantly being expanded in an endless ad hoc construction project. Residents scavenged materials from an abandoned hotel in nearby Fort Bragg and chicken coops from a Jewish communist chicken farm a few hours' drive south, in Petaluma. The living was primitive: There was no electricity or telephone lines, and the toilets were compostable. Residents shared their money and meals. This was the vision of one of Table Mountain's founders, a former Navy pilot named Walter Schneider, who discovered the deforested property from the air and, according to Berg, purchased the plot with cash he made trafficking pot via plane—and with his friend's inheritance. Countercultural luminaries moved up from the Bay, like Allen Cohen, founder of Haight-Ashbury's foremost underground newspaper, The San Francisco Oracle. A close friend of Timothy Leary's, Schneider brought the famed professor for weekend visits. “Walter and Tim came up here looking for a place to drop acid,” Berg explains, “to retreat from the city and do their thing.”

Berg first came to Table Mountain Ranch to visit his sister, then a resident, and never left. He doesn't remember precisely when that was, just that it was around the time Schneider finally got arrested for smuggling weed. Berg didn't know it then, but when he joined the commune he became part of the greatest urban exodus in American history. From the late '60s to the mid '70s, nearly a million young people went back to the land. Nowhere was the urge to reconnect with nature more keenly felt than in San Francisco, where droves of young people were suddenly fleeing a city overrun by heroin, speed, and bad vibes. Cops were shooting down Black Panthers in Oakland and the military was tear-gassing students in People's Park in Berkeley. Vietnam veterans were looking for a salve for their PTSD. Faithful Marxists aimed to put their ideals to the test. Some just wanted to get high in the woods.

This movement found its epicenter in a sunny swath of Northern California between the Bay Area and the Oregon border, a region where plots of land were going cheap, decimated by a century of logging and an economic downturn. Thousands of cooperative communities like Table Mountain Ranch sprouted up along the coast and the inland forests. Residents taught themselves to farm, practiced free love, and built their own homes.

A deserted cabin at Table Mountain Ranch.

It was a grand social experiment, but the promise was often rosier than the reality. Most found the grind too hard going and the poverty too bleak, and within a few years returned to the city and more conventional lives. But a small number stuck it out for decades, long after the Summer of Love had dissipated, and a handful of them still live in communities scattered across Northern California. These flinty souls remain a study in principled self-reliance and human ingenuity, having supported themselves and their families for years through subsistence farming and sundry side hustles: ceramics, teaching, salmon fishing, instrument making, firewood hawking, and weed growing.

These residents are now in their 70s and 80s. For some, the isolation has become challenging due to medical needs, yet they continue to remain, some living like hermits, others as community activists. Although the last holdouts within these fading utopias are all uniquely compelling characters, it's the question of what they'll leave behind that has drawn us here. Living in strange homes of their own creation, forever fearful of building inspectors and outsiders, they've kept these structures hidden and shrouded in mystery. Will these dwellings languish as ruins of a lost civilization, relics of a long-obsolete 20th-century idea? Might some, like Berg's current project, be outfitted for new uses? Many seem on the brink of collapse, and before they're gone, I want to know what lessons they could teach us.

As the light begins to fade, Berg walks us into the woods on a tour of the property's most neglected structures. We trek down a damp glen, which becomes darker and colder as we walk under a thick canopy, and in a small clearing come upon a shack with a mossy dome and triangular windows. The foundation is sinking into the earth. This would have been a sunny spot 50 years ago, when the land was newly decimated by logging. Still, Berg thinks the builders were foolish for choosing this side of the hill. He struggles to remember who they were, mouthing names to himself as we continue. Deeper into the woods sits a cabin with walls aslant, its windows knocked out. “The design is impractical,” says Berg. “I think it's humorous architecture.” He pauses, considering the structure's design. “Some are really beautiful, though. This is beautiful.”

Both structures are beyond repair. Berg has long planned to burn them down, following in a tradition among communards of destroying properties they've abandoned so that the state doesn't have the chance to condemn and bulldoze them. But he hasn't brought himself to do it yet.

A cabin at Table Mountain Ranch with a geodesic dome.

It was at a used-book store in San Francisco that I first developed an interest in these strange structures. I'd been thumbing through an issue of the Whole Earth Catalog, a compendium of self-help advice and product reviews, founded and edited by Stewart Brand, that became the bible for back-to-the-landers when it was first published in 1968. (Steve Jobs would later call it “Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along.”) What struck me most was the opening statement: “We are as gods and might as well get used to it. A realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.”

I found a particularly unshakable fantasy in the “Shelter” section, which told the stories of people who had built their own homes and, in some cases, formed their own societies. Did I need to continue grinding away in the city in hopes of one day maybe owning my own home? Was I going about my existence all wrong? A generation had already put this alternative lifestyle to the test. I wanted to meet those who were still living the fantasy.

On a Mendocino community Facebook group for back-to-the-landers, I found a man named Ron Blett, who lives on a five-acre plot a short drive from Table Mountain Ranch. In April, Michael and I visited him at his cabin, a simple structure he has continued to renovate over the years, and which features a stained-glass window salvaged from an abandoned church. Blett is 78 years old now; tubes from an assisted breathing apparatus dangle from his neck into his knapsack. After dropping out of Western Michigan University, during his final semester, in 1968, he headed to California, borrowed $1,200 from friends, and built the house he still lives in. The commune never had a name; he just started letting friends live on the land. At its peak there were 16 residents in cabins that he'd built. Now those original tenants are gone, and all that's left are the cabins, some shake-shingled, fitted with odd, mismatched windows. The homes' chaotic design reminds Blett of an experiment he'd read about where spiders were dosed with various drugs. “If you look at a normal spiderweb,” he says, “then you look at a spiderweb on acid, that's how these homes appear to me.”

It's common in Northern California to find people who abruptly dropped out of society, never to return. Monty Levenson lives 50 miles from Blett, up a winding mountain road outside the town of Willits, on the northern edge of California's redwood forests. His home is a minimalist, pragmatic structure that befits his no-nonsense personality. He came out here with little more than his books, 500 of them, and an intent to focus on his doctoral thesis. But he soon abandoned his studies and began to pursue a different kind of knowledge. “I felt I didn't know anything, really,” he says. “After going through the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war movement, I started thinking, Do I really want to be a professor training other professors who will in turn train other professors?”

Levenson sought to move beyond talk of revolution; he wanted to embody it. “My impulse was to do something with my life, that just by being here, I would be making it a better place,” he says. “That's what came out of the '60s, the sense you could create your own reality. In 1968 in Paris you'd see the phrase ‘Be realistic but demand the impossible’ spray-painted on walls. I needed to manifest that.”

Archival Images: Courtesy of Harriet Bye, Monty Levenson, and the Fischbach Family.

Archival Images: Courtesy of Harriet Bye, Monty Levenson, and the Fischbach Family.

Levenson, who's in his mid-70s, has a short white beard and the same intonations as Bernie Sanders—a contemporary of his at Brooklyn College. The curriculum there hadn't prepared him for building his own dwelling. “The only wood I ever held in my hand was a pencil,” Levenson says. “This thing where we're going to change the world? I didn't know how to wipe my ass.” His methodology was “trial and error—mostly the latter. You make a lot of mistakes, and if you survive them and you have half a brain, you figure it out.”

When Levenson arrived, the land had been ravaged by loggers. “It was ecocided,” he says. “Destroyed. Deemed worthless land that was being sold to unsuspecting hippies. And it backfired.” He expanded his home, where he lives with his wife of 37 years, Kayo, and reared four children, three of whom moved to Brooklyn as adults—an irony not lost on him. He's recently built a meticulously crafted sauna and a Japanese-style bath house, both straight out of a high-end eco-retreat. Unlike many back-to-the-landers, Levenson never cared to live on a commune and has always resided in a private abode with his family. “I don't like going to meetings and I'm still that way,” he explains. “If you want to do something, sometimes the most efficient way is to do it yourself. I wanted to make my own decisions, and if I made mistakes, then I dealt with them myself.”

For all his plucky gripes, Levenson is a student of Zen and has become a world-renowned craftsman of the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute that dates back over 1,200 years. A big break came when he was personally invited to include one of his instruments in a 1971 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog. Ever since then he's been backlogged with orders. At one point, he refers to a Japanese saying: joshaku shushaku—mistake upon mistake compounds to become the sum total of one's knowledge. Then he blows the flute for us, eyes closed. It's a pure, swelling sound that fills the room and seems to transport him to another place.

“We were kindred spirits forging a world we wanted to live in, connected to the earth organically and spiritually.” - Richard Evans

The audacious confidence of building one's own house according to one's own vision tends to be reflected in back-to-the-landers' other creative pursuits. Laird Sutton is an artist, Methodist minister, and sexologist who has spent his life intermingling these disciplines. For years he commuted into San Francisco from his ranch in Bodega, an intentional community about an hour-and-a-half drive north of San Francisco. He built his home there in 1968 and has continued to tinker with it over the years. His front window, made of curved plexiglass, like a cockpit, overlooks the hillside; it once displayed a collection of ancient erotic art. One of a handful who remain on the community's land, Sutton lives with his 15-year-old Labrador, Maggie (whose bloodline he has traced back to J.R.R. Tolkien's own dog), and a library of sexological literature.

With his long hair—he hasn't cut it since 1967—bushy eyebrows, and hoary beard, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Gandalf, and speaks with no less gravitas. He felt a deep connection with the land, and he pledged to never leave, despite the commute. An intentional community requires harmony not only with its members but with the earth itself, he explains. The land, Sutton says, “can decide that people aren't good and drop a tree on their house.” He tells the story of a troublesome member who woke up in such a scenario. The woman was unhurt but rattled enough to leave. “The land spoke,” Sutton says. “I won't say divine intervention, because when you say that, you're talking about somebody up there. We're talking about the intervention of the living ranch, because everything here is alive.”

Richard Evans poses beside a geodesic stained-glass window he made for Tommy and Karen Hessler’s home in Humboldt County.

The back-to-the-land movement consisted of predominantly white heterosexual youth from middle-class backgrounds. And so Richard Evans, who is Black and gay, found himself a double anomaly, not just on the commune he lived on near Garberville but in the broader Humboldt County region. In his 20s he'd spent time at a pansexual urban commune in the Haight, Kaliflower, that was known for creating the elaborate costumes worn by the legendary avant-garde drag performance troupe the Cockettes. But Evans had always loved nature and wanted to be nearer to it. In the early '70s, he found some friends willing to pool their finances to purchase land up north and was dispatched to find a parcel for the crew. For six months he camped and fished, scouring territory all the way up to Oregon. “I never met another Black kid hitchhiking,” he says, noting that times haven't become any more encouraging. “Nowadays I don't see women hitchhiking, either. It's unimaginable.” In San Francisco, he says, “the Summer of Love was a huge heart opening. What changed?”

When Evans finally found a fitting plot, he called up his friends and they established a commune there named Narnia. For his personal living quarters, he built a geodesic dome with wood salvaged from a demolished school. Domes were frequently found on communes, their technical experimentalism and trippy look symbolizing a certain lifestyle.

Evans beside the same window in 1972. Archival Image: Courtesy of Richard Evans. 

But living in his dome alone meant that there was a part of Richard Evans not being expressed. Narnia's other residents were three heterosexual couples, and with the exception of a few lesbian communes, he knew of no queer communes so far up north. He was on his own, in a sense, and came to develop a deep sense of self-reliance, one he still retains. The first thing to look for on new land, he tells me, is a stream: You can't live without drinking water. And so Evans taught himself how to dowse for underground springs by reading an article in the Whole Earth Catalog.

Lloyd Kahn, the former editor of the “Shelter” section of the Whole Earth Catalog, still lives on the half acre he and his wife purchased in Bolinas, a coastal community in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, in 1971. Now 86 years old, with bushy white hair, he is, after Buckminster Fuller, the most famous proponent of geodesic domes. His Domebook, volumes one and two, sold hundreds of thousands of copies before he pulled them from print, renouncing geodesic domes as impractical—they can't be sealed against wind and weather, and barns were simply better structures. His agent couldn't dissuade him. “I didn't want any more domes on my karma,” he says.

Kahn now largely espouses simple stud houses, with vertical walls and simple roofs, inspired by the conventional farm structures he would see on the side of the road. “I had to admit I was wrong in front of a quarter of a million people,” he says. “It was great. People are so disinclined to admit mistakes. That's part of learning. If you're experimenting, there are going to be failures. You acknowledge them and go from there.”

Laird Sutton, a Methodist minister and sexologist, at home.

He runs his own press, Shelter Publications, out of an office he built with recycled lumber from an old Navy barracks. He's published dozens of books on alternative and mobile living spaces and he maintains an Instagram account where he features examples of spaces he finds captivating. Every day he gets emails from people gushing about how his work inspires them. On YouTube you can find his tutorials—how to shoot and vacuum-pack squab, for instance, or ferment pickles.

Kahn disapproves of the sloppy construction typical of commune dwellings. “I thought those places were abominable,” he tells me. “You could build anything you wanted, so terrible stuff got built. Those loose anarchistic ones are probably gone now. Good riddance, I think. I was into building and growing food—other people were into communicating with dolphins.”

To Harriet Bye, another Albion settler, the Whole Earth Catalog and other similar publications enforced gender stereotypes. Even the catalog's introductory statement catered to a male perspective. So, with a collective of other local women, Bye created a female-oriented magazine called Country Women in 1972, mailed out from Table Mountain Ranch. “We had to do [a publication] that directly spoke to women being able to take on a lot of these things that were considered men's work,” she tells me. Country Women had themed issues like “Women on the Land,” “Anger and Violence,” and “Sexuality,” but it also offered advice for, say, how to deal with an outbreak of white cabbage moths. The magazine was launched the same year as Gloria Steinem's Ms. and found a similar audience, with its distribution at one point hitting 9,000 copies.

The attic of Laird Sutton’s cabin in Bodega, California.

We're sitting outside her wood-shingled home, a short drive from the commune. Bye first bought land in 1969, on her 26th birthday, securing an acre and a half with a $750 down payment and a $40 monthly mortgage. She built this house herself, affixing the shingles in a pattern that wasted the least amount of material, initially using a cookie sheet as a T square. In those days, she says, everyone salvaged material. Part of this was principle, part of it was practical. Most new settlers didn't have a ton of money, Bye among them. At one point she came upon a house in San Francisco where the windows were being removed and the contractor offered them to her for free. Bye launched a reused-window business that her husband still runs. A good portion of all the hippie homes in the area got their windows from her. There are fields of them stacked across her property. “It's obvious now that we have limited resources,” Bye says. “They are beautiful things, so who wants them destroyed?”

A few roads over lives Ted Thoman, a tall, soft-spoken man with a long white ponytail under a Greek fisherman's cap. He designed his seven-sided, single-room house around the windows he'd scored, the biggest one from the side of a gas station. “Windows are cheaper than a wall,” he tells me over a breakfast of eggs and coffee inside his light-filled abode. After we eat, Thoman sets down a metal tube used to tighten nuts and bolts. In the small opening at the top are hefty buds of weed grown on his property. “An after-meal digestive?” he offers.

Up a ladder is a 12-windowed attic loft, once the bedroom for two kids and now webbed with wire for drying weed. Back-to-the-landers started cultivating marijuana for their own consumption in the mid '70s, and in the ensuing decades, their isolation, dedication to the crop, and general disregard for the law would turn Humboldt County into one of the epicenters of America's illegal cannabis industry. By the 1980s, former hippies who had once disavowed materialism were turning hefty profits; some built private “pot palaces” and became disconnected from the communes that first brought them into the countryside. Not Ted Thoman, though. He grows for himself and his friends. When we leave, he hands me a full baggie for later.

The steam room on Monty Levenson’s property in Mendocino County.

Constructing a home with next to no money demands feats of creative resourcefulness. Back in the 1970s, free building materials were everywhere—if you knew where to look. Jon Turner's house, a two-story, gable-roofed structure in Mendocino County, is fabricated from 2,000-year-old redwood logs he pulled out of the Albion River. His ceiling is the height of a gymnasium because he couldn't bring himself to trim the ancient logs, he explains. He never put a single architectural sketch on paper.

Turner wears a leather jacket and a white handlebar mustache; in an adjoining garage, he rebuilds Harley-Davidsons. When he first moved here, from San Joaquin County, just east of San Francisco, he eked out a living as a commercial fisherman. But he found that a century's worth of logging detritus made it hard to navigate the river. So one day he put on goggles, dove into the muck, and discovered buried treasure. The detritus was actually the butts of redwood logs, called “sinkers,” that nearby mills had discarded over the past century. Turner was savvy enough to know that this was the best part of the best lumber on earth, wood with a tight grain and no knots. And the logs were killing the river—redwood is toxic to the river ecosystem, and the logs trapped silt, contributing to the depletion of the local salmon population.

Turner was determined to extract the logs, but not even the California Fish and Games Commission had figured out how to do so without ripping up the riverbed. At a junkyard he scored four military-surplus fiberglass pontoons, which he says were used during World War II to clear land mines from rivers. These pontoons each held up a custom-fabricated steel A-frame, from which he dropped a winch line affixed to a pair of century-old logging tongs he'd sink to the bottom of the river in the hope of latching onto a submerged log. With luck, tiny bubbles would emerge. “Then you'd get this whiff like raw sewage,” Turner says, “and you knew it was starting to break loose.”

“That's what came out of the '60s, the sense that you could create your own reality.” - Monty Levenson

Turner has piles of the logs in his front yard, the biggest of which, he says, is 11 feet in diameter. With about 96 percent of old-growth redwoods in California already plundered, it's illegal to touch one today. Turner has never intended to sell his materials, but he collaborates with an architecture firm near Lake Tahoe specializing in chalets. He shows me a magazine featuring one of his projects, for which he'd constructed a two-story wine cellar and a redwood slide that goes from the upstairs into a game room. Turner fabricated the slide himself, bending the wood by creating incisions in the top, a technique he perfected on a piece of celery.

After a few years on the property, Turner faced every back-to-the-lander's worst nightmare when a building inspector showed up at his home and cited him for a host of infractions, including a lack of grade stamps on his lumber. He says he'd searched for a grader to approve the quality of his lumber but, with the mills long gone, was unable to find one. So he researched the qualifications required to hold the position, which appeared to be the possession of a rubber stamp used for this purpose. Turner had one made up. He claims the inspector came back round and checked the infraction off his list. That was the easy one, he says. For years he fought other alleged violations. Known as getting “red-tagged,” these coding citations became a means of harassing the community. In 1974 state inspectors deployed low-flying planes to search out illegal structures across Mendocino County. A task force patrolled the hills, tagging premises with notices that deemed them “unfit for human occupancy.” The fines were unfeasibly high, frightening many off the land. I was told of a Vietnam-veteran neighbor who was so triggered by the planes he ran screaming for cover each time.

Correcting the building code infringements led to absurd alterations. Inspectors told Ron Blett that two doors were required between a bathroom and a kitchen. So he installed a wall made of two doors. “The inspector counted the doors and checked the box,” he recalls. “Not everything made sense.” Ultimately a group of Mendocino commune residents fought back against the capricious regulations in court, helping to establish a new code designed for owner-builders who sought to live inside their homes.

Monty Levenson still grows angry when he thinks back to the inspectors' regulations. “They were trying to put people away for exercising a fundamental human right: to create shelter and manifest their personal freedom,” he says. “It's a money game. I couldn't afford to go to a lumberyard. And the quality of that material was inferior. It's bullshit. It's ironic that the state destroyed the entire area, and then when we move onto it they're like, ‘Oh, let's play fair here.’ But they underestimated us.”

Levenson’s wife, Kayo, displays her work mending his jeans.

Levenson plays one of the shakuhachi flutes made in his workshop.

The movement wasn't about living in isolation. Residents of these communes didn't seek an escape from society so much as the chance to create it anew: a generous, civic-minded, highly social culture with regular potlucks and solstice blowouts. “We were kindred spirits forging a world we wanted to live in,” Richard Evans explains. “Connected to the earth, sustainably and organically.”

Michael and I are driving Evans through Humboldt County to visit some old friends, blasting a reggae show on KMUD, the community-funded radio station he helped found. Evans didn't get rich growing pot, but at times he made enough to survive, and rallied those who were better off to support a range of community initiatives, from the radio station to a volunteer fire brigade to local schools. He now serves on the board of a community center organizing camping trips for at-risk kids.

We're headed to see an example of his three-dimensional stained-glass-window installations. To build them Evans tweaked the mathematical principles he loved in geodesic domes, reimagining them in multicolored glass dodecahedrons and polygons. Over the decades, he's created scores of these windows for hippie homes across California, but he's only aware of a few that remain intact.

Evans was inspired by similar windows at Druid Heights, a communal outpost formed in 1954 in the Muir Woods National Park that he loved to visit. It was known for its extravagantly experimental hand-built architecture, for low-key performances by musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, and for being the final home and resting place of the philosopher Alan Watts, credited for popularizing Eastern thought and spirituality within the American counterculture. Evans found that sculptural stained-glass work was a natural fit in this pocket of strange organic forms, inspired by mandalas and the dwellings of Pacific Islanders. But when Michael and I later trudge through the ruins of the structures, now overgrown with nature, we can't find anything that looks like his artistry. All the glass has been smashed. It feels like the remnants of a lost alien civilization.

Evans left Narnia in the late '70s and returned to San Francisco. “Being the only gay person for 2,000 miles was no fun at all,” he admits. In the city he fell in love and soon persuaded his partner to move up to Alderpoint, in Humboldt County. They built their own house, where they lived happily for 13 years, until his partner died of complications from AIDS. The disease was poorly understood back then, and particularly dire in rural areas. Evans is now a volunteer counselor in a Bay Area support group for those diagnosed with AIDS.

Late in the afternoon, we arrive at the home (and weed farm) of Tommy and Karen Hessler, who've been close friends of Evans's for more than 40 years. The three rarely see one another these days, and they hug excitedly. Tommy dresses like a farmer: cowboy hat, shirt tucked into jeans. He and Karen built this rambling home themselves in 1972 and has kept it off the grid, installing solar panels—back-to-the-landers were early adopters—and watering crops from a well on their property.

The Hessler family is soon to launch its own prepackaged weed brand on the market, called Amaranth Farm. Tommy claims to be one of the first weed farmers in Humboldt County, having started his operation in 1969. It's just one of many successful crops they've farmed over the years. Their vegetables have been found in plenty of local restaurants and grocery stores. Now he's dedicated to passing on his knowledge: A recent college graduate is working on their farm, learning how to cultivate crops. “Once you teach a man how to shelter himself and feed his own face, then fuck you,” Tommy explains. “You can say that to everybody. It's a powerful thing. They don't want to teach you that. In fourth grade they should put seeds in your hand. They want control. But nobody else is in control—you are.”

Yet the obtuseness of weed laws drives him nuts. It took the couple years to get the necessary permits. Karen had to use her iPad to navigate the intricacies of “track and trace,” the process by which each individual plant receives a barcode and can be followed from seedling to dispensary shelf. It's all too much for Tommy, who rarely even uses his cell phone. Luckily, the Hesslers' adult children help them run the business. The farm supports the family, and the kids are committed to keeping it alive.

At the front of the house is one of Evans's stained-glass window installations, looking like a giant purple chrysanthemum. Inside, new colors appear as the sunlight streams through: blue, maroon, and orange. The Hesslers have looked after the artwork over the decades, and it's still in near perfect condition, a mark of its craftsmanship. Evans beams as he looks at his handiwork: “The integrity of color on the glass tints hasn't dulled over time.”

The collapsing roof of a structure at the long-abandoned Nonagon commune in Humboldt County.

When members trickle out of a commune but retain their stake in the property, ownership can become a tricky issue. Often co-owners will refuse to sell their share because of ideological reasons—many members of Northern California's communes acquired land to liberate it from logging and developers. This is why large, expensive swaths of land sometimes remain uninhabited even after all members of a commune have long since decamped.

On a cold and foggy morning, we set out to explore one such abandoned commune, based on a tip and vague directions. It's said to be located many miles up and down twisty, muddy logging roads and over streams with plywood bridges in an area of Humboldt County that's recently come to be known as Murder Mountain. The moniker isn't for the treacherous roads. Since the 1990s, the burgeoning cannabis industry has brought cartels and gang violence to the region. We're nervous about taking wrong turns. Popular wisdom here says you should never go down a dirt road you don't know.

As the sun pierces through the gray sky, we turn a sharp corner to come upon multiple structures frozen in time. The commune was once known as the Nonagon, named after the nine-sided main house. We step inside the decaying abode to find it empty and surprisingly pristine but for mouse droppings and an antique fridge. A spiral staircase has a raw branch as a handrail; the door latches are out of The Hobbit.

Deeper in the brush, we find a smaller cabin, its roof sagging so low its collapse seems inevitable. This home is literally about to go back to the land. Few know it exists here, and I wonder whether Michael and I will be the last to see it standing. As I walk through the door, Michael starts taking pictures as if it might collapse then and there. Inside, a few volumes on hermetic philosophy and a soggy copy of Ram Dass's Be Here Now still sit on a shelf. Some kind of animal has left a nest in the closet. A mandala tapestry is pinned to the ceiling. There's a rocking chair in the corner. The original members of this commune have moved on or passed on, and much as I'd like to know their stories, there's nobody here to tell us what happened.

David Jacob Kramer is a writer based in Los Angeles. This is his first story for GQ Style.

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for GQ

This post originally appeared on GQ and was published September 9, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

Subscribe to GQ Now for Just $15 and Get Free Swag.