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All Roads Lead to Wells: Stories of the Hippie Days

By Susan Safyan

Review By David Stouck

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 177 Spring 2013  | p. 195-96

The growing literature about hippies demonstrates that the phenomenon was anything but uniform. Joy Inglis, in a privately printed book, describes one manifestation: a commune on Quadra Island that was established in 1968 by Antioch College art instructor, Janet Jones, to provide young men with a refuge from the Vietnam draft. Jones’s vision of a self-sustaining intentional arts community was steeped in the utopian idealism of the counter-culture movement. The participants built an art centre and organized a farm where everyone worked. But Jones died suddenly in the fall of 1969, and while the farm continued for another thirteen years it was shadowed by her loss. In Inglis’s artful narrative the hippies tell their stories, each chapter set to music with popular lyrics from that era, but throughout we are made aware of the fleeting nature of that special time “back to the garden” by the book’s title, Always Remember This.

Susan Safyan’s All Roads Lead to Wells by contrast is not a nostalgic document but a bracing, life-affirming one, rich in the specific geography, history, and sociology of the Wells and Barkerville region. Safyan allies her method to that of Barry Broadfoot in Ten Lost Years, letting her informants speak for themselves. The music of the era is frequently referenced but there is no “lost garden” in Safyan’s narrative because no one could live from the land; at an elevation of 4,000 feet there are no guaranteed frost-free days. Instead Wells’s hippies worked seasonally in the local parks at Barkerville and the Bowron Lakes, with highways and forestry, and in the town’s hotels and restaurants.

“Filthy Larry’s” leather shop, the first hippie establishment, became the model for social organization: small groups of three or four friends living together in the area’s abandoned buildings. Because the gold rush era’s 4,500 inhabitants had diminished to 300, there were many of these: miners’ shacks, little houses, log cabins. Some built their own unique dwellings: one used a car windshield for a living room window, another built a pie-shaped tree house spanning five trees and moving with the wind. Few had electricity or running water; most had wood cook stoves for heat. Massive icicles grew in the corners; buildings caught fire.

Individuals emerge from Safyan’s narrative as admirably ingenious at coping with difficulties: spring floods, tormenting mosquitoes, forty below temperatures (“you wear all your clothes to bed”). Dinner might be stinging nettles and rice, electricity and water lines created by rank amateurs. But individualism was prized and every dog had a name.

Safyan’s expert editing of her informants’ memories highlights an essential fact about this hippie enclave: “living off the grid” depended on a vigorous communal life that often included local old-timers. There were social activities throughout the year: dredge pond skinny-dipping, costume parties, snowball tournaments, dinners with drums and dancing — all fueled by “serious drinking” and mind-altering drugs. But especially it consisted of helping each other through the difficult times. Though there was division, there was a kind of active utopianism based on the ideal of community, rather than communal living. Some former hippies still live there; others return for visits.

Why is it important to preserve accounts of these communities? As Inglis says: “they had a profound and humanizing impact on North American culture. The revolutions in thought which animated these groups expanded into an ever larger general consciousness. It is still found wherever the hopes of freedom, peace, and equality are expressed today.” All Roads Lead to Wells is a vivid collection of stories from one such unique and fascinating community.

All Roads Lead to Wells: Stories of the Hippie Days
By Susan Safyan
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2012. 304 pp. $26.95 paper