Fifty years later, what’s left to say about the legacy of the Summer of Love? Since 1967 and its aftermath, the long tail of the counterculture seems to have been thoroughly poked, prodded, and dissected by the “Me” generation and its progeny. As Peter Coyote writes in Voices of Counterculture in the Southwest (Museum of New Mexico Press) — the companion book to a large-scale exhibition of the same name opening Sunday, May 14, at the New Mexico History Museum — “the counterculture’s collective offering of what ‘better’ might look, feel, taste, and smell like has been iterated in every medium except perhaps scratch-and-sniff strips.”
But as we plunge headlong into the Trump era, a bumper crop of the same issues — global violence, environmental threats, and racial prejudice — that sparked the anti-war, back-to-the-land, psychedelic, environmental, and spiritual movements is baptizing with fire a new generation and galvanizing a fresh resistance. And from the epicenter of countercultural history that is Northern New Mexico, it might be time again to heed the words of the original grassroots radical Walt Whitman and “re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,” thereby placing the movement in a local, topical, and continuing context.
That’s one of the aims of the museum show, organized by Meredith Davidson, curator of 19th- and 20th-century Southwest collections, and Jack Loeffler, a writer and self-described “aural historian” who first made his way to the Southwest in 1962. Davidson said, “It was very apparent that the story we need to tell in New Mexico is not a Summer of Love story. It’s a much deeper back-to-the-land movement-based kind of story that made a lot more sense and would give us an opportunity to highlight what was unique here.”
Loeffler had other preoccupations with regard to presenting the history in which he was such an active participant. “My stipulation to everything was that it not be trivialized and not restricted to sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, but that many of the philosophic perspectives that constituted various aspects of the counterculture be included,” he said. Davidson said she brought Loeffler on as co-curator because of the diversity of his experience. “He’s been recording oral histories in the Southwest for over 40 years, with people interested in folk music and Hispanic heritage and Native American heritage and environmentalism. He really saw the movements happen in the counterculture scene from the mid-’50s on through.”
A multitude of perspectives is thus the dominant principle of the show, which stretches across much of the museum’s upper-level exhibition space. “The way Jack and I conceived how to approach the complex tapestry of what counterculture even means is to let first-person narrative guide it,” Davidson said. The audio-driven aspect allows viewers to hear 45 different voices across the entire exhibit, each one with a personal countercultural viewpoint. A colorful mix of art, clothing, pottery, and blown-up photographs from the era rounds out the visual experience, along with several constructed pods that attempt to recreate the diverse atmospheres of the region’s communes, including such iconic intentional living communities as New Buffalo, the Hog Farm, the Lama Foundation, and Libre.
Visitors enter the exhibit into an overview of nascent hippiedom in Northern California. Audio clips and panels outline the philosophy of the Diggers, a formative group of radical activists and actors, including Coyote, who sought an anarchist society free of money and capitalism. As directional microphones play reminiscences from locals like photographer Lisa Law, who made her way here from San Francisco in August 1967, the Monterey Pop and Trips festivals are also presented as countercultural influences, as well as the Beat scene, the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park, and the freewheeling vibe of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Other alcoves delve into the horrors of Vietnam and the effects of the protest movement, as well as the ideals of a free-thinking generation that was catalyzed by a restless dissatisfaction with post-World War II American consumerism and conformity. As Coyote writes, “It was a fairly universal assumption in our vague counterculture models of how life should operate in our country that being an employee was very low on nearly everyone’s list of personal desires, somewhere below syphilis.”
A fully restored 1971 VW Transporter bus owned by Michael Canfield of Albuquerque sits on a bed of Astroturf, underscoring what Davidson called the Southwest Circle, a migratory trail that young people drove on expeditions from the Bay Area to the Southwest to Mexico and sometimes back again. “There was a lot of this circular movement that was happening that was in some ways media-driven, in some ways word-of-mouth driven,” Davidson said. “I think there was a real urge to get out of urban scenes, and New Mexico provided the same kind of pull that it had for generations of artists and creatives before theirs. The open landscape and the connection to Native American communities in particular was a really big reason that I think a lot of Anglo visitors ended up coming here and staying here.” Photographer Douglas Magnus’ footage of Santa Fe and its surroundings, shot between 1971 and 1973, plays out of the bus windows to provide a feel for the terrain encountered by these first-time visitors to the state.
Elsewhere, audio from Whole Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand emphasizes that publication’s influence on the commune and back-to-the-land movements. The Lama Foundation pod — which is complete with a 16-foot structure built in tribute to the spiritual commune’s recognizable dome north of Taos, constructed in 1968 — features five never-before-displayed original drawings that Lama residents made for 1971’s Be Here Now, the bestselling spiritual guide written by Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert, who devoted research to LSD with Timothy Leary at Harvard in the early ’60s). Other sections on the work of Japanese poet Nanao Sakaki, who spent time in Taos, round out the story, as well as panels on the use of peyote, marijuana, and the 1969 summer solstice Bus Race in Aspen Meadows. The Bus Race was attended by luminaries such as Ken Kesey, Yogi Bhajan, and Hugh Romney (Wavy Gravy), whose Hog Farm communards would supply order and food to the Woodstock festival later that summer.
The show shines a light on New Mexico’s most distinctive contribution to the counterculture — its legacy of communal and back-to-the-land lifestyles. In her 2004 book Across the Great Divide, Roberta Price, whose photographs are featured in the show, emphasizes a typical resourcefulness in the construction of the house she and her husband built at the Libre commune in Colorado’s Huerfano Valley: “We bought green pine two-by-fours in Raton for ten dollars a truckload and pulled up tongue and groove oak from an abandoned mining dance floor to use as our flooring. Our enamel cookstove was ten dollars in a junk store in Walsenburg. The total cost of materials for our house was about five hundred dollars.”
Dia Winograd of Eldorado, who came out from the Haight in the summer of 1970, said the main choices for back-to-the-land-style resettling were Tennessee, Vermont, Northern California, Oregon, or New Mexico. As she had friends in New Mexico, she bought a piece of land, sight unseen, in Ojo Sarco, that cost $1,800 for eight acres and a cabin. Another early local communard, Brooke Tuthill, said she worked with others one summer to make 17,000 adobe bricks in order to build a 12-room house at the Reality Construction Company commune near Taos. “We brought the vigas down from the mountain by hand, and the latillas, and we scavenged windows. You could tear up old gyms from old schools and have hardwood floors,” she said. Of the short-lived commune’s vibe in general, she said, “There were blacks, there were Jews, there were Wasps, and there were Chicanos ... whereas I would say New Buffalo was fairly white. The main fight was about food. It was about tortillas, whether the tortillas should be made with butter or lard or Crisco. We ate lots of beans and rice and government cheese.” Tuthill had three rules for communal living: “Always park so you can get out, and that’s in case you have to jump-start the car. If you see something that needs to be done, you do it. And remember your brothers and sisters at the end of the line, so you just don’t eat all the food before they get there.” She said life at Reality was fraught with hardship — “the diversity wore on everybody” — and that she ultimately left after she became pregnant. “It was easier for me to take care of myself than it was to take care of everybody. We were at the end of the mesa, and there was no place for us to go but over the edge. Geographically and emotionally.”
As Davidson said, “Something to keep in mind is that this story is not all rainbows and butterflies and flower power.” A section of the exhibit details the simmering stew of cultures, inflamed by the turmoil in Vietnam and the rising Chicano movement, that led to frequent outbreaks of violence in the Taos valley and neighboring counties, as locals clashed with the hippie newcomers. Sylvia Rodríguez, professor emerita of anthropology at the University of New Mexico and a Taoseña who was involved with the Lama Foundation for three years in the late ’60s, draws a through-line from the early Taos bohemianism of Mabel Dodge Luhan and artists in the 1930s to the later hippie infestation. “The Hispanos were scandalized by them,” she said of the Great Taos Hippie Invasion that began in the summer of 1967 and continued into the ’70s. “A lot of the women of the pueblo were too. It was just this wild scene and these people were really everywhere. There were people taking drugs out in the open, they were copulating on the banks of the rivers.”
A separate strand of radicalism was forming in Northern New Mexico at the same time. The exhibit details the impact of the incident in which itinerant preacher Reies López Tijerina led the activist group La Alianza Federal de Mercedes to a raid on the Río Arriba County Courthouse in 1967. Their aim was to bring attention to the ways in which the government and Anglo settlers had usurped Hispanic land grant properties. The aftermath of the courthouse occupation, which made national news, saw the governor bring in the National Guard and hold many family members of the gunmen captive while the perpetrators were in hiding. Rodríguez called the event “a tremendous watershed in New Mexico history from the standpoint of long-term nuevomexicanos.” Of the Anglo arrivals to the Taos area at the time, she said, “I think, with very few exceptions, they were totally oblivious to the historical backdrop, and I think that’s true of a lot people who arrive today. They don’t realize this deep colonial history. What they are heir to, in a way, is this ‘Land of Enchantment’ image of the noble savage — you have this stunning landscape and these adobe buildings — and a sort of dream that I think Mabel Dodge was really the first to articulate in her memoirs. ... The hippies thought they were coming to this kind of paradise where they could learn, you know, from the Indians how to take peyote, and I think it was a rude awakening. I don’t think they were at all prepared.” She noted that Taos Pueblo had a history of factionalism around the use of peyote. “Peyote-user families were outcasts,” she said. “They were looked down on, and yet they were the ones who the hippies made common cause with. When they partied together, that’s when things could get violent. There were gang rapes, there was arson, there were beatings.” Hispanic and Chicano locals were unsure of their place in the new landscape populated by strangers. As University of New Mexico distinguished professor emeritus Enrique R. Lamadrid writes of the racial tension between hippies and locals, “They were self-chosen children of the earth, but everyone was from somewhere else. Extranjeros todos. My amazement was tinged by misgiving. How could la gente, local nativos, fit into this vision? As smoothly as Jerry García?”
Rodríguez mentioned anthropologist John J. Bodine’s 1968 paper “A Tri-Ethnic Trap: The Spanish Americans in Taos,” which took up a philosophy, as she put it, “in which you have this Anglo almost-deification of Indians, and at the same time, part of the whole American attitude toward Mexicans is that they’re a bunch of dirty greasers who don’t have a culture that’s worth saving — and furthermore, look what they did to the Indians. I think this still is there today, you know, it’s like, ‘Love the Indian, hate the Mexican.’ And so what Bodine described was the resentment that this created by the longtime nuevomexicano, who saw the Pueblo land and water issues being sort of sanctified by this Anglo elite.” This notion is borne out by Anglo activists’ quick adoption of Taos Pueblo’s fight for the U.S. government’s return of the sacred Blue Lake, which was helped along by the early efforts of Mabel Dodge Luhan and her husband Tony Lujan, then taken up by later arrivals to Taos, including actor Dennis Hopper, and finally achieved in 1970.
The show mentions the struggle to regain Blue Lake, as well as other environmental legacies of the region’s counterculture that highlight the continuing fight against current ecologically destructive policies. Author and activist Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench flag is featured, along with a discussion of Loeffler’s work with the Black Mesa Defense Fund, which fought strip-mining efforts on the Navajo and Hopi reservations — timely reminders of the power of eco-activism in the age of fracking at Chaco Canyon and the continuing threat to national monuments under the Trump administration.
The disparate threads of Voices of Counterculture in the Southwest can be overwhelming in their scope and digressions, but perhaps that’s the point — after all, the counterculture was by no means uniform, and it was at its most diverse and chaotic as it began to take seed in the New Mexico landscape. Lama co-founder Barbara Durkee points out in an audio clip from the exhibit that for thousands of newcomers, the idea of taking care of the land became a spiritual practice — a countercultural tenet specific to the Southwest that, of course, really began with the Pueblo Indians the hippies so admired and emulated — as well as with earlier proponents of Native culture like the 16th-century Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, whom Loeffler said his friend, poet Gary Snyder, has called “the first counterculturalist.” These strands from the past are as relatable and relevant as ever to today’s tumult. After all, as Davidson put it, “History is not a static little moment; it is a trajectory.” ◀