Sam McManis

Discoveries: In Willits, a truck that’s tricked out for hippies

A peek inside the “hippie Van” on display at the Mendocino County Museum in Willits.
A peek inside the “hippie Van” on display at the Mendocino County Museum in Willits. smcmanis@sacbee.com

In the main gallery, beyond the unearthed artifacts of the native Pomo people, across the room from a nostalgic re-creation of the old Willits Creamery, and right next to a late 19th-century stagecoach out of Cloverdale, sits an exhibit that sets the Mendocino County Museum apart other repositories of California history.

It’s, like, a tribute to hippies, man.

You know, those back-to-the-landers, those with a van, a dream and a kilo or two who wanted to drop out to change the world – or was it drop in to save a materialistic, bourgeois society, or was it just to espouse free will, free love or something like that? Whatever. Peace out, man.

Easy to mock, easier still to dismiss out of hand, but a serious anthropological look at the counter-culture movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s on permanent display in this fetching Mendocino County burg is not just worth noting, but celebrating as a community that, like the Indians, loggers, ranchers, farmers and early townsfolk (including soda fountain operators), changed Mendocino forever, demographically and attitudinally.

The hippies’ lasting influence in this area can be seen all around, from the area’s hyper-awareness of environmental concerns to its not-so-secretive (anymore) pot farms to the current reprise of the whole free-range, organically grown, farm-to-fork, reclaimed-redwood-table movements covering the state like so much facial hair on a hipster.

So, yeah, why not a hippie exhibit?

What the Mendocino County Museum’s “New Settlers” exhibit shows is a snapshot of a certain time and place where all cynicism was suspended and peace, love and understanding was not funny at all but rather a valid solution to global woes. It may not be quite the draw as that of the museum’s elaborate tribute to Seabiscuit, the legendary racehorse who once called Mendocino home, but the tricked-out Hippie Van alone is worth a look-see if you happen to be headed up Highway 101.

It was the van that lured me there. I expected an old VW bus, or something a la Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters, a multihued swirl of paisley prints and peace signs. In other words, the clichéd version of hippie culture.

How happy I was to be proved wrong. The van, which serves as the exhibition’s centerpiece, is nothing less than a mobile society on wheels, at once utilitarian and utopian, both earthy and ethereal, understated yet outrageous.

First, it’s not really a van. It was an old, rust-bitten bread truck (circa 1960) that the late Andree Connors, a writer who came to Mendocino in the 1970s, bought in Oakland and turned into her “home in the cosmos.” It’s hulking and as faded as the original hippie movement. The outside looks like something you’d find up on blocks in some rural front yard, but a closer inspection shows how intricately and lovingly Connors turned a heap of junk into what she called “a wonderful way to be.” In an excerpt from an interview she gave in 1987 – Connors died of breast cancer in 2001 – she detailed her home makeover.

“It was an empty metal space, in bad shape,” she had said. “I cut out windows and put in a floor, walls, furniture – built everything in. I did it all myself and collected stuff for it from up and down the West Coast and Canada. I created some things, mixing cheap gold pieces with rusty stuff and pearls and put it together slowly. … All I need is water, a teapot and a heater, and I could live anywhere.”

Stop rolling your eyes. It was a valid lifestyle option for many back in the day and, some might argue, still is.

Even if your idea of an “alternative lifestyle” is drinking white wine with steak, you cannot help but be impressed by the sight of Connors’ van. The outside is basic brown rust, of course, but peer through the flung-open back doors and you see a hippie nirvana.

Dimly lit to set the proper mellow mood, the van’s interior is a perfectly preserved period piece. Throw rugs with paisley patterns cover the floor, a bed with a pink throw-pillow type mattress with huge, Chipotle-burrito-size beads hanging down next to an antique bedside table fringed in yellow. Across from it sits a rounded metal propane boiler with an ornate Victorian teapot on top. Near the front, where a partition and beaded-curtain separates the driver from the bedroom, is a handsome armoire with vanity mirror.

That’s the conventional part. The wall decorations are – and this is no understatement – perhaps someone’s idea of a bad acid trip. Every inch is covered with beads, feathers, rugs, velvet curtains, tooled leather objets d’art. There’s a snarling wild boar’s head, enough to freak out even the sober, and a few, well, implements of amusement and altered consciousness. Up front, in the driver’s seat, is a profusion of baroque rugs covering the interior, a fuzzy ball over the ancient stick shift and, on the dashboard, a tea kettle, metal mug and flute.

Very homey. Connors maintained an open-door policy when she lived in the van, as she detailed in an excerpt of a letter to a friend in 1995: “Daily, strangers would ask to see inside. I gave guided tours like the impoverished nobility in European castles. It was a moveable feast I was giving the public. Adults loved it. Kids went nuts. They saw that lifestyle’s only limited by lack of imagination …”

A photo of Connors, in a display case featuring her jewelry and feathered art pieces, shows her spirit. She is seen outside the driver’s door of the van, somewhere along the Mendocino coast, in a long-sleeved, floor-length peasant dress, waterfalls of frizzy hair cascading down her back. She’s looking off to the side, beyond the camera’s eye, a beatific smile dawning.

An adjoining case features Connors decades later, in the latter stages of breast cancer. She is photographed bare breasted, a rose tattoo by Fort Bragg’s famous body artist Madame Chinchilla covering her mastectomy scar. In text next to it, she writes about handling her bodily changes with fierce grace: “My left side is flat as a warrior, my tattooed rose pledges me to the Goddess. Its language is transformation, not mutilation …”

Other Mendocino “New Settlers” figure in the exhibit, including oral histories and period photographs from the editors of The New Settler Interview, a monthly publication, the book “Mendocino Rust” and the newspaper The Mendocino Grapevine. Gene Parsons, a member of the Byrds who settled in the area, tells about how he had to miss a tour with the band to plant his vegetables.

Most fascinating is a shot of Mendocino “New Settler” Monty Levenson, sitting in the lotus position, playing a shakuhachi, an ancient Japanese flute. He looks transformed behind his John Lennon-style granny glasses, at peace, totally into it. Centuries from now, if this photo is somehow preserved, it will serve as the quintessential document of a time and a people – just like the Pomo dancing dolls in another display case represent the land’s first settlers.

“I live on my land,” Levenson said in an excerpt. “I work on my land. I’m here a lot. In that way, I’m very much like that old settler.”

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis

MENDOCINO COUNTY MUSEUM

400 E. Commercial St., Willits

Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

Cost: $1-$4

Info: www.mendocinomuseum.org

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