Today, New Mexico seems to live only on the fringes, isolated and irrelevant to the great deeds and stirring currents that move the rest of the nation. It is the poorest of the poor, the trailing edge of everything good and useful, the leading edge of all that the country doesn’t want to admit to.
Most of that wasn’t true half a century ago. Then, New Mexico was so much at the forefront of national change and fervor that in 1970 the Baltimore Sun sent me out from their Washington Bureau to explore conflict in the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado, and subsequently published my three-part, 10,000-word series on the front page. If you were famous or infamous, sooner or later you found your way to New Mexico.
New Mexico then was about average in economic, social and demographic terms, ranking in the middle of most socioeconomic indices. With the pioneering work at the nuclear labs in Los Alamos and Albuquerque, famed art colonies in Taos and Santa Fe, some of the world’s greatest reserves of oil and natural gas, and an exotic mixture of Hispanic and Native American cultures producing some of the country’s most magnificent art and crafts, New Mexico was one of those rare places almost impossible to ignore.
New Mexico’s centrality to the national culture was not least due to the counterculture centers that set up shop in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and this countercultural world is the focus of a beautifully designed and intriguingly composed new book, “Voices of Counterculture in the Southwest,” a melange of anthology, anthropology, cultural history, memoirs, essays and interviews.
The contributors are a dozen essayists and 15 interviewees, all of whom helped create the counterculture. In those days, New Mexico was an important way station on the great countercultural trail between New York’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, a link between the beatniks of the 1950s, the political protesters of the 1960s, the hippies of the 1970s and the back-to-the land environmentalists who succeeded, and survived, all of them right down to the present day.
“Voices of Counterculture in the Southwest,” edited by Jack Loeffler and Meredith Davidson and published by the Museum of New Mexico Press (hardcover $34.95, 208 pages with 88 photos), is in its way a love song for those who traipsed the hippie trail and and a lullaby for their bygone day.
Not that all was beatitudes and peace in the hippie era, which was why the Sun sent me here as a reporter. Conflict irresistibly draws journalists into its maw. “There was real violence and conflict,” writes Davidson. She goes on to link the struggles of that time to our own: “We are also shaped by the stories we choose to engage with and explore. … By examining the roots of these passions in the counterculture of the past, we can better understand how to move forward today.”
Loeffler, who is now 80 and still lives in northern New Mexico, also links that era to our own. He writes that he was only 7 miles from a spectacular above-ground atomic bomb test in 1957 in Nevada. “I came to realize that I was sane in a culture gone deeply awry … and thus I became and remain what we now call a counterculturalist, though the term was only coined a dozen years later by Theodore Roszak.”
Famed communes like New Buffalo, Hog Farm and Lama Foundation are important in these stories. Occasionally the narrative is in danger of descending into namedropping. Celebrities of environmentalism and the counterculture—Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Edward Abbey, David Brower, Noam Chomsky, Gregory Corso, Ram Dass, Bob Dylan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Dave Foreman, Allen Ginsberg, Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey, John Nichols, John Muir, Kenneth Rexroth, Timothy Leary—cast outsized shadows.
Such a list betrays not only the breadth but also the limitations of the group that fancied itself the leadership of America’s intellectual avant-garde, for most had three qualities in common: They were males, caucasians and writers. Painters and artisans are as scarce as women, blacks and Hispanics, yet all of these groups performed key roles in the revolution sweeping the villages and the byroads of Northern New Mexico and the United States as a whole.
In an effort to rectify the imbalance, Loeffler writes a chapter called “Indian Tales” that includes interviews with five Native Americans. “By continuing to survive,” Loeffler says, “the Indian peoples remain America’s first counterculturalists.” I know Loeffler means well, but somehow I find the description patronizing and therefore offensive. In no vital sense has Native American culture survived intact the five centuries of “civilized” abuse.
In this book, most of the essayists and interviewees communicate a grit-their-teeth determination to reflect at least a modicum of optimism on the eve of the Trump administration.
“We may be more likely to see an opinion in a hashtag or an online rant than in an underground paper,” writes co-editor Davidson, “but it is my hope that by examining the roots of these passions in the counterculture of the past, we can better understand how to move forward today.”
Yet there is also something universal in these very individual views. “My wish is to leave something behind,” writes Lisa Law. She and her companions on the great hippie road did indeed leave something valuable behind, and this book makes a significant contribution to preserving it for posterity.