The Road to Santa Fe

by Gershon Siegel

ong-term planning has never been my forte. Flying by the seat of my pants is more my style, and I understand how those more methodical with their choices might accuse me of allowing my life to be ruled by a loony, pie-in-the-sky, and possibly even risky attitude. However, one must consider those faraway times of my youth that helped shape my character.

The 1960s’ counterculture, with its attitude of breaking with past traditions and questioning all the old models for behavior was gaining force even before I had entered college. Leaving the mainstream path and exploring uncharted waters, whether in relationships, lifestyles, career paths, values, substances -- whatever -- had become the new modus operandi of the times. It was against this backdrop that the long and winding road that eventually led me to Santa Fe began.

If there are themes to my story, "experimentation" must surely be one of them and "media influence" another. For it is an actual Hollywood movie, a national glossy magazine and a local weekly alternative newspaper that propel this plot.

Throughout most of the 1970s I had been a hair cutter in the Bay Area and had always felt self-conscious about it. Catering to people’s vanity had never felt like my "real" destiny. Fortunately, fate took a hand. After seeing the Warren Beatty movie Shampoo, I noticed that staring back at me from my bathroom mirror were the same vacant eyes of Beatty’s character, George, a Beverly Hills hairdresser. I was shaken and knew the time had come to "get serious" and begin my "real life." The very next day I went to a pawn shop and purchased a used typewriter in order to chase my, as yet, unpursued dream of being a "writer." Any kind of writer.

Later that same day I picked up a copy of the free alternative newsweekly Berkeley Barb, still out on the street but long past its venerable incarnation as a leading counterculture voice. On that issue’s cover was a headline screaming "What Do Men Talk About When Women Are Away?" and the article was a thinly disguised feminist man-hating screed then quite popular.

The author’s slurs upon the masculine gender rubbed my chaps a bit too hard, and she had challenged any man to write in to counter her list of snide innuendoes against my perhaps clueless yet, to my mind, still-noble gender. I rose to the challenge and sat down with the secondhand IBM Selectric, taking up the gauntlet for men everywhere. Determined that my "letter to the editor," even snider than the article inciting it, be published in the next week’s Barb, I walked into the weekly’s office to hand-deliver it.

And there, in the converted warehouse offices of the newspaper, is where I first laid eyes on the tall, blonde and beautiful Barbara Ann, who would, much to my surprise, consent to marry me not too many months afterward. An attraction sparked by our opposite colorings -- hers Nordic-light, mine Semitic-dark -- was all the more piqued upon discovering that we shared a love of unicorns, a bit of astrological knowledge, an interest in the tarot and I Ching, and a general sense of magical thinking. What more did I need to know? At the age of 29, my destiny was revealed at last. Like purchasing the typewriter, deciding to marry Barbara was all a part of getting serious about pursuing my real destiny.

Part of that seriousness was a coinciding Saturn-return interest in anything related to survival. Loads of books about catastrophic "earth changes" were becoming popular, the most compelling containing maps illustrating the soon-to-be reconfigured North American continent. Those of us paying attention knew the big California earthquake was on its way and that those who survived would be those who were prepared. Barbara’s friend Jeff, who was selling some of those gloom-and-doom books, told us of a man named Richard who had "inside" knowledge regarding these changes. Jeff had a Birkenstock shoe business on College Avenue. He was solid. He was a Capricorn, like me. If Jeff said this Richard knew something, then he was worth checking out.

A middle-aged, bald-headed, cigarette-smoking, pressed-slacks kind of white guy, Richard alleged to be the former chief investigator for "Operation Blue Book," the U.S. Air Force’s famous collection of anecdotal stories gathered in the 1950s from hundreds of eye witnesses claiming to have seen UFOs. Within three months, a group of about 50 or 60 of us were meeting weekly in Jeff’s store to hear Richard talk about Solar Cross, an intergalactic confederation of extraterrestrials who were organizing Earthlings to establish "base camps" across the continent that would serve as "light centers" after the "earth changes." From there, we chosen humans would "hold the light," thus helping to calm the chaos. Before we knew it, Barbara and I had purchased 500 pounds of food sealed in nitrogen-gassed buckets. Once alerted through the Solar Cross phone tree, we were to pack up our vehicles with our survival gear and head north toward Santa Rosa to wooded land donated by one of our members.

Before that fated time, however, Solar Cross did a kind of weekend practice exit from the Bay Area, and our group drove to the future "light center." The special enticement of direct contact with the "brothers" was promised. What was not mentioned before was that the direct contact would be channeled through Richard. Thus did we hear a message of love and light from Kadar Mon-Ka of the Saturn Tribunal. However, Kadar’s message via Richard smacked to me of manipulation. At that point Barbara and I decided to sell our buckets of survival food and seek our fortune elsewhere.

Not long afterward, we checked out Sunrise Farms, another California UFO survivalist group that seemed more "credible." It had already been established for many years, founded by a fellow who had once been Paramahansa Yogananda’s right-hand man. Yogananda fan that I was, any group associated with the Indian saint could have no better spiritual pedigree. Sunrise Farms had thousands of acres of coastal farmland on which they raised organic produce and goats. In common they owned an impressive number of thriving enterprises: several retail health food stores, a large roadside restaurant, a coffee shop/bakery.

Our arrival at Sunrise was inauspicious, to say the least. As we learned on the second day of our visit, a week earlier the commune’s charismatic leader had gone into the desert on "retreat" after declaring himself the "Second Coming" of Christ. A severe shake-up/wake-up had occurred within the community, and half of its two hundred members had left en masse.

I was offered a job working in the avocado orchard grafting Hass tops onto Fuerte rootstock, or maybe it was the other way around. For Barbara, it was suggested that they could use her skills with the herd of goats that grazed up in the canyon. There was a purity required of all collective members. Vegetarian meals were shared and everyone meditated together each morning. They believed in sex only for procreation.

Desperate as I was to change my life, Sunrise Farms seemed fine to me. Barbara, however, didn’t feel comfortable with the requirements of the community. She suggested instead that we move to the Claymont School for Continuous Education outside of Charles Town, West Virginia. There she would be a member of the residential community while I would attend a nine-month course, as she had done three years before, based on the consciousness teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff, an Armenian-Greek mystic and one of the unsung "founding fathers" of what was then known as the "human potential movement." At the time, however, I had no real knowledge of him, and the idea of attending a "mystery school" seemed too short-term. The course would be over and then where’d we be? We’d have to decide all over again what to do with our lives. I wanted finality.

My resolve to join the Sunrise commune strengthened; Barbara refused. We argued. A month later we had a giant "lifestyle liquidation" sale, keeping not much more than my ’75 Honda, in which we loaded our few remaining belongings and headed east to West Virginia. Not before, however, I had saved my dignity by having Barbara pledge that after Claymont our next destination would be my decision and mine alone.

The 600-acre Claymont property had once been the estate of George Washington’s great-great-grand-nephew and boasted a colonial-era mansion in various states of disrepair. A number of buildings required maintenance, and these jobs fell to the course students as part of their "practical" work. Added to this upkeep was kitchen duty, gardening, stall mucking, various classes and mastering the "sacred gymnastics," as Mr. Gurdjieff had called the consciousness-raising dancelike "movements."

Our days were filled from morning to night "working on ourselves." To break the intense pace, about every two weeks all students were given an "exeat," allowing them to leave Claymont proper for 12 hours. This usually meant driving into tiny Charles Town for real coffee and food from the greasy-spoon diner. After satiating those basic desires, I might end my media "fast" with a quick gulp of the magazine racks in the 7-Eleven. How could I know that my destiny lay in those racks?

Claymont traditionally ended its course with a seven-day silent mediation retreat lead by Bhante, a 90-year-old Cambodian Buddhist monk. Preceding the arduous week we students were given one last exeat. As usual Barbara and I headed for the diner, followed by a trip to the 7-Eleven, where I could scan the headlines. And there in the magazine rack was the May 1981 issue of Esquire magazine. Pictured on its cover was a smiling, handsome, well-groomed man sitting at the wheel of a top-down convertible Jeep with an endless Southwest landscape behind him. The headline read: "Yes, there is ONE last place to go!" In that instant I knew with utter certainty that whatever place was named in that cover feature was where Barbara and I were going to start our new life.

The table of contents open, I scanned for the story. No city’s name peeked from the teaser line under the article’s title. Turning to the beginning of the piece and restraining my eyes from reading any of it, I ran my finger down the lines of type, looking for the giveaway proper-noun capital letters revealing our next destination. And there in the third paragraph was the city’s name: "Santa Fe, New Mexico."

Determined not to spoil the moment with any details about our new home, I deposited Esquire back to its place and shouted across the store, "Barbara, we’re going to Santa Fe."

"Where’s that?" was all she asked.

"Somewhere in New Mexico," I answered. And that seemed to settle the matter.

Back at Claymont, following the silent meditation retreat, people spoke of what they planned to do after the course. The talk came round to Santa Fe. Someone said, "Bhante says that Santa Fe has the second-highest vibratory rate on the planet." Juneau, Alaska, as it turned out, scored number one, but the warm Southwest won out in our minds.

Leaving Claymont, off we drove westward and southward into the sunset, ending up in the "Land of Enchantment." Within a day or two we had lined up a charming guesthouse in Tesuque to rent and promising job prospects for the both of us.

In the 27 years since arriving in Santa Fe, I have worked as a hair cutter, construction day laborer, freelance writer, furniture and frame maker, ceramic-studio production manager, playwright and producer of children’s musicals, writer of sales proposals for a corporate training company, downtown Santa Fe bus driver/tour guide, and, for the last dozen years, until January 2008, copublisher of and editor/writer/sales rep/business manager for Sun Monthly.

Almost three decades later, the circle of my life continues to come around on itself. A publication first led me to a wife who altered my path, which led me to another publication that propelled me to Santa Fe, where yet one more magazine, started in partnership with my second wife, Linda, sustained me until recently. Was it destiny?

Whatever twisty route got me here -- preordained, accidental or otherwise -- most days I’m grateful to be in New Mexico. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to find family, friends and a growing tribe who’ve connected with me and Sun Monthly, whether staff, advertisers or readers. So accuse me of a pie-in-the-sky attitude if you will. But I find the heavens above Santa Fe to be bigger and bluer than almost anywhere. And if you know of a better place to practice magical thinking, please drop me a line.

The previous was adapted and excerpted in part from Santa Fe Stories, a collection of 60-odd accounts from various Santa Fe residents telling of their trials, tribulations, synchronicities and obsessions as to how, why and wherefore they came to call this high-desert capital "home." Published this year by Pennywhistle Press, it is scheduled to appear in local bookstores by May 2008.
Barbara Doern and Gershon Siegel’s wedding-announcement picture from the summer of 1980 as it appeared in the Berkeley Barb, a publication where they were both employed. Although no longer married, Barbara and Gershon still love each other and work together for Sun Monthly.
A month later we had a giant "lifestyle liquidation" sale, keeping not much more than my ’75 Honda, in which we loaded our few remaining belongings and headed east to West Virginia.
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