· The Entire Pacific Sun Interview
Both versions of my interview with Steve Heilig, and printed as feature artices in the Marin County Pacific Sun, and the Anderson Valley Advertiser of Mendocino County were edited and rearranged. Please read this one for the entire context, the heart of it, and lost humor - thank you, Ananda
The Unabridged interview with Steve Heilig:
Steve Heilig: When you arrived in California as a young man in the early 60s you were admittedly far from being a 'hippie", but then wound up on the "hippie trail." What main experiences set you on that path?
· It was mid 1966 when I arrived in Santa Monica from Kansas. I was just shy of 21, so girls and sunny beaches were about all that was on my mind. But things were just beginning to heat up in the mainstream medias about these strange young people who were portrayed like – the pinnacle of debauchery, or the children of the corn, you know, scary, scandalous stuff – but interesting! So I watched from the wings with a wry cynicism like most of America until one day I read some article in the LA Free Press, or maybe the Oracle from up in San Francisco, and suddenly it hit me that what was going on was a religious or spiritual movement, on a Biblical scale! That was the first step, the switch from jeering to receptivity. The next one was 'wading in', getting wet, shedding naiveté – that was easy with pot and Jimi Hendrix, but the complete 'Experience' – the loss of virginity of the mind – was acid, you know, LSD. It was like a black hole that sucked you all the way in, but full of light and wonder – most of the time. There were casualties, because like anything we humans do, it can be dangerous. My friends and I didn't fool around with it carelessly like some did, because that's what gets you into trouble. We made sure we were in a safe environment and with trusted people around us, and being in a reverent state of mind – yes reverent! That's why we saw 'God' and had 'Spiritual' experiences.
· But you wrote about taking acid in a jail, in Costa Rica!
· I was afraid you'd bring that up! What can I say? I was a lucky fool that night.
· Do you still take drugs?
· I'm a total tea-totaler, no pot, beer, wine or anything for the past fifteen years. I'm very boring.
· So you don't recommend drugs to the kids?
· Ha! are you kidding? I don't recommend anything I did – to the kids or to anyone else.
You write that you "defected" from mainstream American life and culture - what were you defecting from?
· Short hair.
Why do you think so many people of that generation and time set off to travel the world, so much so that a distinct 'trail' was developed? Was it mostly a 'tune in turn on, drop out' dynamic, or something different?
· Well yes, and I'm glad you put it that way. I think that along with all the stuff we've already heard plenty of, there was the mysterious undercurrent of India. There are many stories out there from people who'd had deep interior callings to India. That country was extremely important to us for its teachings, far beyond what the medias raved on about concerning the Beatles, or with any number of 'gurus' that made the news. Many of those guys were charlatans, not all, but enough to make India a laughing stock – well, it is that too – but India's like an iceberg, with most of it hidden. And it's an infinitely deep well of living wisdom that I'm sure I'll never properly find the words for. There's nowhere on this planet that's anything like India, and it reached out to us in our dreams, to put it poetically - but - India did arise in me telepathically if you care to believe that or not. For one example, I expounded half a night to some friends about the process of choosing our birth, our parents, our life-situation etc., and how our indwelling karmic imprint affects the outcome – I'd never heard of such a thing before, but a few days later I came across a book by an Indian author that had it all laid out just as I'd remembered telling it, as if I already had studied it.
· Were you high on acid at the time?
· Absolutely. And that's attests to some of its powers. But in many varied ways, India became suffused into my DNA and I wanted nothing else in life but to get there.
· You start with a tribute to J Kerouac - how much did his writing influence your desire and decision to travel?
· That's an interesting question, because I don't remember any of his books floating around in my particular crowd, in Topanga Canyon during those times. Rather we were reading more Alan Watts, or Yogananda, or The Hobbit. Or Winnie the Pooh. But Kerouac was a three-syllable mantra that carried the whole world with it whether we'd actually read him or not, like, “Yeah man, I'm gonna hit out on the road, you know man, like Kerouac!” And everyone knew what that meant. So the very first time I ever read On The Road was a few months before I published my book. And I read Dharma Bums, too. That poem at the beginning of my book fell out during the middle of night in practically one swoop. It was during the brief period when I had cheekily decided to name the book
· and I'm infinitely glad that sanity prevailed and I didn't do that. But I thought at the time that I should give him some credit, if I was going to steal his titles. The poem is trying to say that he certainly was an enormous influence in spawning the hippies on the trail.
You note that you set off at age 25 with no resources and no real plan. Was that frightening, exciting, both? Where did this sense of adventure and risk-taking come from? How did you support yourself on the road?
· With a good bamboo walking-stick. But seriously, yes – especially in the first month, it was frightening. While I was still in Southern California I'd tried to find work-passage off the continent aboard the proverbial tramp-steamer, but failing that I dropped down into Mexico, just to get out of the country. I didn't know anything about a 'Hippie Trail' at that time, I happened upon it later because many points south of the border was the western hemisphere's major part of it. But I was way off the beaten path in those first weeks, and all alone. I was really doubtful but just kept going and was way down in Vera Cruz when all my traveler's checks were stolen, leaving me completely broke.
· What happened then?
· It's in the chapter called 'Emotional Rescue,' Chapter One, right after Chapter Zero.
· Chapter Zero?
· Yes, Chapter Zero. So I had to figure out some way to make money, and it took awhile, it was quite some time after my checks were stolen, but a great idea came to me one morning, after I'd ground up some peanuts the night before in a hand-crank corn mill, and made some peanut-butter. Even though my friend and travel-mentor Gypsy Jerry had been a master smuggler, I'd decided not to get involved with any of that, to find other ways of earning a living. So I started in, a few pounds a day, and became a peanut-butter pusher instead of a drug pusher. No joke – Americans are peanut-butter addicts and had to have it. Couldn't get it where we were. Sometimes I'd get a knock on my door at midnight by a munchie-addled guy, or a couple who couldn't make it through the night without it. That was down on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, where I first became self-sufficient. Concerning money, I've had a very checkered career – still do.
· The Vietnam War was raging as you left on your travels and continued for years. How did that influence you and your traveling?
· It certainly was a factor in my decision-making process to abandon everything as I did – going to war is a complete renunciation for a cause and my reasoning was that my cause from the opposite side of the spectrum of 'no more war' warranted a comparable commitment. I touch on this in an 'afterword' at the end of Chapter Zero. But once I was out on the road, I don't remember thinking about it much – it was 'over' in '73 anyway.
· Speaking of Chapter Zero, you described meeting Charlie Manson and some of his family – can you briefly talk about your encounter with them?
· It still gives me shudders to think about. Of course when he and his bus was around in our neighborhood, it wasn't with his whole entourage, it was just his friends, just a few at a time – there wasn't any reason to suspect him or any one of them of anything. Ours was totally a hippie neighborhood and he was just another freak like all the rest of us. But he set his rabid dogs on those whom he'd perceived had crossed him and it could have been any 'reason' from any one of us. By the way, he thought that a record producer who'd shunned him lived at the Tate house, it was a horrible case of mistaken identity, but he did have his idea of a 'reason'. We were on different wavelengths, so there was never any substantial interaction between his bunch and my friends, never any incident that pissed him off. Thank God for that.
Travel was much cheaper then, even in a relative sense - and w/o the internet, cell phones, and such, more isolating. Were there upsides and downsides to that? In retrospect, do you think the experience would be much different now at least with regard to communications?
· Oh yes, for instance, when I traveled across Afghanistan by horseback I was completely unreachable for six weeks. The upside to the lack of communication during that time, or almost any of the time during my travels, was the complete absence of distraction. None of my mental energy was drained away by the constant checking in that we do today, it was a full and total absorption in and of my surroundings, the immensity and intensity of the world. Of course if anything had happened to me, well, who knows? My poor parents, I must've put them through a lot of worry. I only phoned home a couple of times in ten years, but I remember once from a 'telephone center' in Kabul – there were four or five booths and a queue to wait through – seriously, you had to set aside a whole day to make an international call, and it could take two. It was extremely expensive, the line was crackly, and if you got a busy-signal or no one was home, you had to start all over. It was harrowing, and often you'd see otherwise blissed-out hippies run crying out of the office or screaming at the poor guy behind the counter. Letters, or 'aerograms' – very lightweight pieces of postage-stamped paper you could buy, with glue at the edges that didn't require an envelope were the cheapest, but might take two weeks to arrive and another two to get a reply. We all got our mail at the 'poste restante' area of the general post office – at least they alphabetized them. Well, as we know, a letter or phone call nowadays travels fast as lightning and is free. And you can probably find the nearest chai-shop in Old Delhi with your GPS.
· -Was your family worried about you while you were 'on the road'?
· I'm sure they were, but they gave their blessing too. My dad used to take my aerograms down to the bar and read them to his friends while they were having beers. There was a certain fascination for them about what I was doing, even though it probably kept them awake many nights.
-Traveling amidst poverty can be intimidating, depressing. What was it like first experiencing the 'developing world' for you?
In my opinion 'developing worlds' are much freer and more fun than worlds that have made themselves firmly established. Food is cheap and very good, lodging was and still is only a few bucks a day, sometimes less. Those are the no-star hotels, of course. It wasn't so hard for me to come to terms with their poverty, I was right down there with them, sometimes even poorer than they so the beggars felt sorry for me, ha! One even took me out to dinner once. Really. I don't mean to make light of their poverty, but misery is common to poverty in both our nations, what is more uncommon over here is joy within poverty, which I saw plenty of over there.
-What's the difference between what you and your co-travelers were and a "bum"?
Travelers, pilgrims, are curious, awakened people with ideas and goals in mind, with elevated spirits. A bum is commonly thought of as a derelict, depleted. Kerouac wanted to put the two together, bringing adventure and purpose into a homeless, knock-about existence, with his idea of the Dharma Bums. It's two words which encapsulated a huge idea, another mantra which dovetailed perfectly into the idea of getting out on the road.
On all your travels, what were the 'ten wonders of the world' that you saw?
Peoples' fingers. What I saw people's fingers do was truly remarkable.
-OK, but come on - what were some of your most favorite spots or sights?
Hmm, well then, let's see. I wrote about some of them, Lake Atitlan, the Mayan Ruins at Copan, the Parthenon – well I didn't write much about that, but it was impressive. That and the Taj. I didn't write about Gangotri, the source of the Ganga, or Ganges Rivers because I went there on a recent journey, making my way alone, right up to its mouth. That's a power that dropped me to my knees, bringing tears. It's a glacier melt that runs underground for miles before roaring out of an icy cave. Then Varanasi gets plenty of description and is one of my favorite places. There's Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained his enlightenment – Buddhist nations from all around the world have shrines there. Oh yes, McCleod Ganj above Dharamsala, the home of the exiled Dalai Lama... the mosques of Isfahan, the Sahara, the high plains of Afghanistan, some of my girlfriends... and still, peoples' fingers.
-How do you recall so many details from so far ago?
Oh, I'll have to kill that old joke, 'if you can remember the sixties, you weren't there.' I was there.
You didn't keep a journal?
No, just letters home – I have them, but haven't referred to them at all, they're written worse than an eighth grader and I can't stand to read them. I've consulted Wikipedia for a few things, like the exact date of the coup that started the wars in Afghanistan, etc.
· How did you get your name, Ananda?
· It was deep in the night of a full moon, and deep in the heart of India, at Benares – or Varanasi – which is the oldest living city in the world. By that I mean that the culture, the rituals, the way of life is essentially, even exactly the same as it was five or more thousand years ago. Like if you went to the pyramids and the pharoah system was still fully intact. So I had been living outside, on the banks of the Ganges river with a family of Sadhus, the holy beggars who stay aloof by choice from the pursuits of society, the ones with the dreadlocks who remain homeless their whole lives. This little family bent some of the 'rules' of the sadhus with their marriage, and three children, but they were still sadhus. She endowed me with that name, quite extemporaneously, on that particular night, and it's stayed with me.
· What does it mean?
· It's a common name referring to an attainment, or level of happiness.
You've returned to Asia over the years since the time covered in your book – what are the primary changes you see there since then?
· Cars, motorcycles, blue jeans, computers, cell phones, lots more people, a breakdown in standards of morality, integrity – the same changes we've made over here, curiously. My personal favorite though is the ATM machines.
Many 'hippie trail' travelers went in search of, or at least out of interest in, "Eastern" spiritual insight. Was this part of your quest, and in any event, what were the most powerful experiences of lessons for you in that regard?
· Just being there, especially India, is living life in the raw – therein lies the power. It's all encompassing, and the 'spiritual' is somehow embedded and fused together with the everyday. They check in with God everyday by way of personal shrines and local temples and all their vacations are pilgrimages, not just pleasure-seeking outings. But it's their steadiness that most impresses me. We as touring visitors have to stay in a calm state through the loudest, fumiest, most cacophonous country in the world that is not a war-zone – you either stay calm, go berserk, or just leave and go back home. The Indian people have nerves of steel, and average, well-to-do men, women and children, for example, can sleep soundly on a cement floor all night long while under a screeching PA speaker, and underfoot of hundreds of scurrying feet and vending carts missing their noses by inches. I've always regarded this as a high spiritual quality. I've long had the idea that entry-level meditation courses should be conducted in railway stations in Delhi, or on sidewalks of major streets in Calcutta or New York before you can graduate to the quiet hills.
· How did you wind up in Marin?
· Was it Lew Welch who said, “This is the last place. There is nowhere left to go.” - ? Did he say that? Does that answer the question?
· Okayyy... Well, Cilla and I were newleyweds. She's an Aussie. We met in Kathmandu and had a wonderfully eventful and romantically bonding three months together – which is a lovely story. She suddenly had to go back home to Australia, and after seeing her off I decided to end my travels too, after ten years. But that's a long story. She came to meet me a few months later in Topeka, Kansas and we got married in the rose garden in the beautiful park where I used to play and go fishing as a young boy. I built a little house in our VW van and we drove out merrily to the west coast looking for a home. My friend Juaquin, whom I met and traveled together with in Central America some years before – that's even a longer story – was living in, um, 'a little coastal town in Northern California' and he was at the end of the list of my friends of whom we were popping in on, in our drive out from Kansas. We looked around, liked the little town ... and there we stayed, living happily ever after...