Stories, Learning & Place

Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Great Divide: Season of the Freaks
   One story of the sixties was the migration of hippies to the Rocky Mountains

The “Great Divide” that Red Lodge writer Gary Ferguson refers to in his book of that title is the Rocky Mountains. Interestingly, his book has the same title as a new release by John Sperling. Sperling’s The Great Divide is a treatise on the backwardness of many people who live in the Rockies, the South, and the Midwest (as compared to the forwardness of the urban residents of the east and west coasts). The divide he contemplates is between the traditional “retros” and the urban “metros.”

Sperling seeks to intensify contention between people who apparently inhabit different realities by establishing “the great divide” as a metaphor that explains political and economic life in America today. Ferguson examines the way the actual “great divide” running north and south through the western half of the country--the Rockies--has long served as a refuge for people who want to get away from the bickering.

From the mountain men of the nineteenth century to the hippies of the sixties, the Rockies have held the promise that there might be life beyond the vast machinery of progress being assembled ever more noisily on both coasts.

The happenstance of the two books having the same title is thought-provoking. There are obvious parallels between the ‘retros” and the “metros” that Sperling talks about and the division between the “Old West” and the “New West” that many observers of life in today’s West have commented on. Were the antecedents for that division established by an influx of newcomers in the 1960s?

A chapter of Ferguson’s book that might be of particular interest to teachers contemplating joining the Expedition to the Sixties is Chapter 9: The Season of the Freaks. Ferguson points out that during the sixties and seventies, people who were disillusioned by the “system” often headed west, more often than not to the Rocky Mountains. Many of these people are still here. Indeed, they are more or less everywhere. They are easy to find and good candidates for oral interviews.

Many who headed for the Rockies in the 1960s and early 1970s came looking for a life without the corrupting influences of the “system,” but with a good supply of like-minded friends within arm’s reach. . . These newcomers were peaceniks and flower children and freaks.” [p. 232-233]

I imagine every town has stories of newcomers and old timers meeting each other. “While [Aspen police magistrate] Guioo was railing against the longhairs in Aspen, on any given summer afternoon in Crested Butte you could find hippie girls skinny-dipping at Nicholson Lake, waving and smiling at the contented old miners watching from their pickup trucks along the east side of the reservoir.”

Colorado newspaperman George Sibley wasn’t amused by the newcomers. Ferguson quotes at length from a 1968 editorial:

The problem children. . .are no more flower children than were all the howling children of the past decade children of Howl. What they are in fact are the basically dull and unoriginal sons and daughters of basically dull and unoriginal mothers and fathers; they are the ones who tack onto any and every movement without understanding in the least what the movement is about. They are bored because they are too unimaginative to creatively amuse themselves, restless because they have energy they do not want to waste on work, stoned on drugs because they are tired of being stoned on the tube. They are not hip, they are not beat. They fight their nothingness by letting somebody else do the work of giving them their identity.

For their part, the young newcomers often shared with Sperling a sense that they knew better than the old-timers they found in place. Though they often wanted what they viewed as the naturalness of rural life, they didn’t always want the traditions of the natives they found.

But it wasn’t just flower children who came. Vietnam vets also came, looking for quiet and for space. The West in the sixties was, as it had been earlier, a place of possibilities. “A place where young girls of privilege could savor the smell of sagebrush and sweat. Where some fortunate black men managed to tumble through a rabbit hole and find themselves a million miles from slavery. Where sickly white men jumped into creeks and sucked at mountain air and sometimes grew strong again.”

An interesting strand in the Sixties Expedition would be to interview people who moved here in the 1960s and 1970s. We could ask them why they came, what they left, what they were looking for, and what they found.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/24 at 10:55 PM
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©2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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