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From The Wall Street Journal July 27, 1999

Wavy Gravy's Camp for Nostalgic Hippies

BY SUSAN G. HAUSER

 

Laytonville, Calif. "Mommy, what did you do in the 60’s?"

Don't ask. I was boring. I never wore a flower in my hair, I didn't return to the land, I was never a hippie, and most embarrassing of all, I wasn’t at Woodstock.

But in this 30th anniversary year of the famous rock festival, I did the next best thing. I attended adult camp at Camp Winnarainbow, directed by Woodstock legend, '60s icon, Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor, and still a vision in tie-dye at age 63…tah dah!…Wavy Gravy. Every summer the man in the rubber nose turns his children's performing arts camp over to grownups, who try to act as silly for one week as Mr. Gravy does year round.

The silliest thing he did lately was to agree to participate in Woodstock ’99 in Rome, N.Y., whose only real link with the 60’s original was the traffic jams on the approach roads. But here at camp, Mr. Gravy runs a truly hip festival of his own.

I flew to San Francisco, met up with my pal Dianna, and together we drove north to Mendocino County, where Winnarainbow has been a beloved summer camp for kids ages 7 to 14 since 1983. Our group of about 50 adults ranged from 18 to 80, though most were aging Baby Boomers. One women came all the way from Indonesia, two guys were from New York, one woman was from Chicago; there were two Oregonians besides myself, and the rest were Californians.

One of the New Yorkers, Peter, said this was his second year at Camp Winnarainbow. His wife insisted that he return, "because I was so mellow for so long" after his first adult camp session. I asked him if he was ever a hippie.

"I grew my hair long, I smoked a lot of dope and I slept in the park," he said. "Does that count?" Besides that, he was at the original Woodstock and had free food personally dished up for him by Wavy Gravy (who was then known as Hugh Romney). These days, Peter provides computer security for the federal government. No wonder he likes to get remellowed every summer.

There is a strict rule at Camp Winnarainbow against alcohol and recreational drugs, so camp wasn't all that similar to Woodstock. .But we were expected to get high. Daily classes were in circus arts such as stilt walking and trapeze.

Every morning at 8 a. m. the wide-girthed Mr. Gravy, with a derby over his shoulder-length gray hair, and a fish-shaped bag hanging from his shoulder, trudged around the circle of tepees, rousting campers with the blow of a conch shell that went by the name of Consciousness.

After breakfast he read to us: poetry by Allen Ginsberg, wisdom from the Tao Te Ching, a children's book, the almanac or excerpts from his own autobiography, "Something Good for a Change."

By then our morning mellowing had just begun. Next we did tai chi with Mr. Gravy's co-director, a clown from Vancouver, British Columbia, named Txi (pronounced Chee) Whizz. Once we were mellow and flexible, Ms. Whizz sent us off to our morning classes. Dianna made a beeline for the trapeze; I tried the stilts, and on other days dabbled in improv, rhythm, ceramics, labyrinth walking and, of course, tie-dye.

Before lunch we kind a talent show, with most of the campers showing off what they had learned. Every increase in skill was appreciated. For example, a newcomer to unicycling was wildly applauded simply for being able to sit on the thing. Those campers juggling two balls were cheered along with those juggling five.

After lunch we rode the shuttle van to Lake Veronica, where we could swim out to George Raft, ride the 350-foot waterslide or play beach-blanket bingo. Mr. Gravy explained that everybody played bingo backstage at Grateful Dead concerts. (I never went to one of those, either. Txi!) We learned that the camp's spectacular sound system was compliments of the Dead, and that whenever Mr. Gravy reverently mentioned "Jerry" he was referring to his late friend and fellow ice cream flavor, Jerry Garcia.

One of my tepee mates, Susanna, had been a hippie photographer, chronicling Grateful Dead concerts across the land. A camper named Mary told me tepee living was old hat to her, since she had lived in one in Canada for several years while "dropping acid and waiting for Armageddon." She is now a legal investigator for the U. S. Justice Department. Go figure.

I felt more affinity for Alicia from Chicago, who told me she had tried to be cool during the '60s by growing her hair long and attending two (count 'em, two) SDS meetings. "But I was just pretending," she confessed.

I, too, failed at hipness, unless you want to count the fact that I inhaled.

In fact, I was so wary of this hippie camp that I talked Dianna into signing up for only three days, instead of the full week. But at the end of each of our three days, after the nightly talent show (Yes! Two talent shows in one day!), and after our head counselor – or, if you prefer, Head counselor – gently admonished us to "Brush 'em if you've got 'em, soak 'em if you bought 'em," I would crawl into my sleeping bag with a heavy heart. Yes, our departure from this clown utopia was getting hard to face.

On our last night we went to the costume barn to dress for dinner, sifting through the hundreds of clown suits, party dresses and assorted costumes. Dianna looked regal in a rainbow of skirts and scarves. I passed up the drawer labeled "Gorilla Parts" and settled for a goofy hat and polka-dotted ensemble. Finally, I was beginning to let my hair down, to move Toward the Fun.

"Toward the Fun," a play on the Sufi expression "toward the One," is Camp Winnarainbow's slogan, while the camp director encourages everyone to seek Big Fun. If I learned nothing else during my three days at camp, I learned that "Have fun!" is the best advice you can offer anybody.

By the way, Dianna and I will be back next year, for the full week. It's never too late to become a hippie. After all, it's just a state of mind, man.

 

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