Feature

On Strawberry Hill

The hippie exodus to Canada from the United States was not a mass migration, but it was close. Is it time to rethink this period, then and now?

In the summer of 1970, six young people, all of them former students at the University of Maryland, left suburban Washington DC bound for Vancouver. Four of them — a native Marylander named Dave Buhrman, his new wife, Joan, their Canadian friend, Bill Irwin, and a fourth (probably a young American named Warren Litzinger, though recollections are hazy) — packed themselves into a Volkswagen Microbus. The other two — an older guy they called “Army Bob” because he’d come to the university after a stint in the US military, and a younger dude named Tim Arnold — left a little later by car. Behind them, as they headed west, lay unfinished undergraduate degrees, abandoned career paths, and a semester’s worth of experiments in consciousness expansion. Some of them had joined the half-million protesters on the Mall for the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. They’d seen friends tear-gassed and heard the news of the massacre at My Lai and the shootings at Kent State. They weren’t really activists, but they were surely hippies, and DC in 1970 was not their scene. Like Thoreau walking off into the woods to live deliberately, they were headed back to the land. Ahead of them, they hoped, lay adventure, clean air, open space, the promise of a fresh start, and the fulfillment of a spiritual quest. Ahead, at any rate, lay the unknown: Canada, a country only two of them had ever set foot in but that all of them hoped was a saner place. It was, after all, a country whose youthful prime minister had granted an audience to John and Yoko and declared that his nation should be “a refuge from militarism.”

Along the way, the VW bus lost a cylinder, and in Seattle, during a rest stop at Bill Irwin’s parents’ house, it gained a new paint job (Day-Glo orange) and a new nickname (“Galactibus”). In Vancouver, they bunkered down for the winter with some like-minded folks who’d gathered around a Gestalt therapy group at the University of British Columbia. A sympathetic environmentalist lent them a few rooms in his house in Surrey; Dave and Joan saw the birth of a daughter, Terra; and word on the tuned-in street was that there was a valley deep in the mountains called the Slocan, which was where it was at for a back-to-the-land trip.

In the spring of 1971, their numbers swelled to maybe ten, they drove east into the BC interior. At Nelson, they turned north onto Highway 6, and onward into the Slocan Valley.

Look. I realize that this all eventually morphed into a bloated capital-S Sixties cliché, a mix of boomer nostalgia and self-aggrandizing half-truth that presumed to inflate a little youthful exuberance and affluent adventurism into the explosive stuff of revolution. A VW Microbus, a dog-eared Timothy Leary tome, long hair and leather vests and Cream on the tape deck — it could almost be a montage in a sloppy documentary. It’s easy to dismiss it — especially if, like me, you were born after the putative revolution ended and you grew up in a pop culture awash in its overbearing mythology.

But then you hike up through the forested hillside behind your mother-in-law’s country house deep in the BC interior to find the ruins of a full-blown homestead standing there in stoic rebuttal. And you start to wonder if maybe it was the distorted, oversimplifying lens of three decades of mass media and not the participants themselves that reduced this time and the people who shaped it to sappy caricature. And you wonder, too, if a significant chapter in Canadian history isn’t on the verge of being lost.

Immigration figures offer no clue as to the destination of new arrivals, and so there’s no reliable number to attach to the Slocan migration of the Vietnam War era. The same holds true for the war-resister influx as a whole: contemporary media estimates range from 10,000 to 100,000, and John Hagan’s 2001 study, Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada, makes a conservative extrapolation of about 53,000 from Canadian immigration data. But the truth is that nobody knows for sure how many young Americans fled the United States to avoid the draft, desert the military, or simply escape a nation in dire crisis. Still, as Hagan asserts, this collective northward-ho amounted to “the largest politically motivated migration from the United States since the United Empire Loyalists moved north to oppose the American Revolution.” (The Loyalists numbered an estimated 100,000.) This was a major demographic shift of young and well-educated Americans into Canada, a signal event in the history of Canadian-American relations, and — particularly in concentrated pockets such as the Slocan — a significant reconfiguration of the social fabric.

The tangible traces of this unique chapter in Canadian history, however, are all but gone. Baldwin Street in Toronto — once the epicentre of Canada’s largest war-resister community — is known these days for its cozy cafés. And even the unmistakably offbeat vibe of the Slocan reveals few overt signs of its Vietnam-era roots.

The mountains looming over the valley are great, hulking, tree-covered masses that enclose it like the battlements of some god-sized fortress. These are the mighty Selkirk Mountains, a mass of rock that even the tireless surveyors of Canada’s national railway thought impenetrable until a strange, obsessive American military veteran named A. B. Rogers was hired and discovered the pass that now bears his name. The isolation the mountains impose upon the valley remains its defining feature. Nobody ever comes to the Slocan by accident.

When British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, the population of the Slocan Valley was just over 100. Since then, it has grown mainly in sudden bursts, swelled by seekers of silver, timber, or refuge. The pioneers of this last group were the Doukhobors, fleeing the czar’s army in Russia around the turn of the century. During World War II, the Canadian government interned 8,000 Japanese-Canadians in camps throughout the Slocan (though very few stayed after their release). In the McCarthyite 1950s, several hundred American Quakers relocated to Argenta, on Kootenay Lake. And then, in the 1960s and ’70s, came the Vietnam war resisters, plus a retinue of Canadian sympathizers and seekers.

My mother-in-law came to the Slocan in the mid-1990s — to Nakusp, a logging town and administrative hub that is technically just beyond the valley’s northern rim but psychologically very much a Slocan kind of place. She had a steady job with the provincial government, and not long after her arrival she bought a homestead just off Highway 6, a place known locally as Strawberry Hill. The property boasts a cozy, modernized log house, a small apple orchard, and one-and-a-half hectares of wilderness spilling up a steep hillside. When my wife and I first came to visit, we were told of the ecological riches somewhere up that hill: cougar tracks and old-growth cedar, two pure mountain springs, and a collapsing Aframe house that some hippies built back in the 1970s.

The A-frame on Strawberry Hill is a sturdy, sprawling homestead with high, steep sides shingled in cedar and caked in moss. It has a narrow frontage — maybe five metres — but stretches closer to fifteen metres from front entry to rear wall. The interior, a series of split-level spaces linked by half-staircases, reveals water fixtures, a decaying wood stove, and windows framed in bark-covered wood. On that first visit, we found it carpeted in two decades’ worth of dead leaves interspersed with kitchen tools, mousetraps, empty rye bottles, and a cache of more subculturally specific relics. There were handscrawled notes, old handbills for community- theatre happenings, Bob Dylan songbooks, guides to hitchhiking across Canada and foraging for edible plants. A paperback biography of Che Guevara, a collection of Gary Snyder’s poetry. An empty package of guitar strings. The remnants of a lost civilization, or at least an experiment in one.

My wife and I sorted through the debris, collected the most significant artifacts, and carted it all down the hill for safe storage. We had no idea what we’d do with it, but it felt somehow necessary to try to preserve it. It sat for several years in the drawer of an end table that was eventually relegated to the old woodshed. And that’s where I found it, ripe with the smell of slow decay, when the story of the provenance of the Strawberry Hill A-frame suddenly seemed vital again. It was the fall of 2004.

America’s messy war in Vietnam — and particularly what certain young men had or hadn’t done for their country in the conflict — returned to the headlines with surprisingly divisive intensity that year, as two members of the Vietnam generation fought a nasty battle for control of the White House. Whose medals had John Kerry hurled over a fence in protest on the steps of the Capitol Building in April 1971? Had he really earned those medals in the first place? What service did George W. Bush provide, or fail to provide, to the Alabama Air National Guard in 1972? And swimming in this sea of minutiae, an unresolved question of vital importance to a nation once again embroiled in a guerilla war in a distant land: what does the Vietnam War mean?

Into this political whirlpool stepped a soft-spoken Slocan resident named Isaac Romano. During the war, Romano, then of Seattle, Washington, applied for conscientious objector status and received a deferral instead. He went on to a career as a family counsellor, relocated to Nelson, BC, in 2001 for personal reasons, and was quickly struck by the robust but largely unrecognized war-resister community he found there. As the war in Iraq raged and became more divisive, Romano began to organize an event to celebrate the achievements of the war resisters and their Canadian compatriots. The event — the Our Way Home Reunion, a four-day-long festival scheduled for the summer of 2006 — was to be accompanied by a commemorative sculpture of war resisters being welcomed by a Canadian sympathizer, which was to be paid for with private funds and erected somewhere in Nelson.

In September 2004, Romano and his co-organizers held a press conference to announce their plans. They were delighted by the prominent notice the event received in the Nelson Daily News which focused on the proposed sculpture. But the story was picked up by the Associated Press, and within days news of a “monument to cowards” being erected in Canada swept across the United States. A Fox News crew came to Nelson, and in the wake of its report, hateful emails and boycott threats poured into the Slocan from south of the border. Veterans of Foreign Wars announced that it would lobby the president to raise the issue with Paul Martin. Nelson’s nervous Chamber of Commerce chastised mayor Dave Elliot for sanctioning the monument (which he hadn’t), prompting him to issue a denial — “I wasn’t speaking as mayor when I said I liked the idea” — which in turn prompted Romano to move the monument idea to the back burner. Officials in Nelson soon received a deluge of support for the monument and a long, largely favourable feature in the New York Times that dubbed the town “Resisterville,” but still the sculpture found no public home in Nelson. In the spring of 2006, a Doukhobor museum in nearby Castlegar — which had ultimately been chosen as the venue for the war-resister festival — offered to house it, but city officials objected. Though briefly displayed at the festival that July, the monument now languishes in a private gallery in Nelson. (The festival itself was sufficiently well received that Castlegar hosted a second one this summer.)

The brief, intense notoriety of the war-resister monument exposed just how unsettled the legacy of the Vietnam War remains — particularly now that the United States finds itself mired in another unpopular and ill-defined war. What’s more, the ruckus demonstrates how far Canada remains from coming to grips with its role in Vietnam. The Canadian government at the time unambiguously endorsed the right of war resisters to evade military service. Allan MacEachen, Minister of Manpower and Immigration, May 22, 1969: “An individual’s status with regard to compulsory military service in his own country has no bearing upon his admissibility to Canada. Nor is he subject to removal from Canada because of unfulfilled military obligations in his own country.”

This commitment has clearly wavered. Consider the case of Jeremy Hinzman, an American soldier who sought refugee status in Canada to avoid being sent to fight in Iraq. Before fleeing to Canada in 2004, Hinzman made an unsuccessful petition for conscientious objector status and served in Afghanistan in a non-combat role. His refugee claim in Canada focused on the alleged illegality of the American invasion of Iraq under international law. But the Immigration and Refugee Board refused to consider it, rejecting his case on the grounds that he would not face persecution or cruel and unusual punishment before a military tribunal in the US. (Hinzman and another deserter had their appeals dismissed by the Federal Court of Appeal in 2006 and are now pursuing their case at the Supreme Court of Canada.)

Discussion of Hinzman’s case has often focused on the fact that he volunteered for military service, suggesting a distinction with the Vietnam era. (A significant portion of the thousands of deserters who fled to Canada during the Vietnam War had enlisted voluntarily.) What’s missing from this discussion, though, is the real difference between then and now: the rigidity of Canada’s current immigration policy, which has moved far from the laissez-faire approach to Vietnam-era war resisters — many of whom simply entered as visitors and then applied for (and received) landed-immigrant status once they were settled.

The present standards leave soldiers who flee the Iraq War with refugee claims as their only option. Support networks for deserters from the war in Iraq, many of them staffed by veterans of the Vietnam-era movement, estimate that more than 100 American soldiers and possibly as many as 250 have fled to Canada, but only a handful have made their cases public. The most prominent of the support groups — the Toronto-based War Resisters Support Campaign — is now lobbying the Canadian government to add a special provision to the immigration laws for American soldiers. To return, in effect, to the half-forgotten status quo of the Vietnam era — abandoned apparently without consideration for its importance to the viability of a certain kind of dissent.

It’s as if Canada has lost a critical piece of its historical memory. It was concern over this apparent amnesia that sent me back to that box of mildewed artifacts in my mother-in-law’s woodshed, to try to figure out who built the A-frame on Strawberry Hill.

The story starts with Army Bob. Bob Mathews arrived on the campus of the University of Maryland in the fall of 1969 after a tumultuous two-year stint in the US Army. Until he received his draft notice in 1967, Mathews had been a contented materialist, driving a sleek Lotus sports car to his job as a computer operator at nasa in Maryland. He disagreed with the war in Vietnam, but he had no time for the counterculture that actively opposed it. Why, he would wonder, don’t those hippies just get a job? The prospect of a tour of duty in Vietnam, however, abruptly changed his mind. He fled to Toronto, found a job, and received landed-immigrant status before his father persuaded the local draft board not to penalize Bob if he came back to Maryland and enlisted.

A few months later, driven to despair by boot camp, Bob Mathews attempted suicide. He survived, put his mind back together, and struggled through the rest of basic training. He moved on to Texas for further instruction as a medic and was scheduled to ship out to Vietnam until he persuaded the unit’s officer that he was more valuable working stateside as a mainframe-computer operator. And that was how, in the end, Army Bob avoided Vietnam. Also how, oddly enough, he turned into a hippie: working as a computer technician, he befriended a fellow soldier who introduced him to mescaline and psilocybin.

And it was this Bob Mathews — fresh out of the military, tuned in and turned on — who noticed an advertisement on the University of Maryland campus for something called the Timothy Leary-Alan Watts Clinic. A clinic, it turned out, that was being offered by Bill Irwin and Dave Buhrman and a handful of other participants in Leary’s rigorous curriculum of consciousness expansion. There were readings from Watts’s books on eastern religions and Leary’s interpretations of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in The Psychedelic Experience. Acid was dropped, Leary recordings thrown onto the hi-fi, the unique vibrations of the Third Bardo of Re-entry contemplated.

Dave Buhrman graduated, and he and Joan got married. Dave had been rejected for conscientious objector status but got lucky with the draft lottery in December 1969 — his birthday was drawn far enough down the list that it was statistically almost impossible that he’d ever be drafted. In the meantime, though, Bill Irwin had gone to visit his sister in Vancouver — Irwin is a Canadian, the son of an rcaf officer assigned to the embassy in Washington for most of the 1960s — and he came back convinced that the doors of perception opened on a path that led straight to British Columbia.

So they split. Decided to go “back to the land,” to live together communally in a rural setting as the cosmic order surely intended. They rendezvoused in Vancouver, set out for the Slocan the following spring, and found their way to Strawberry Hill.

In those days there was nothing else around it, just the farms and some logging in the valley below. The hill property belonged to an older gent named Terry Bushell, an English expat who worked as an electrical technician in the Arctic for six months at a stretch. He had a wife, Vicki, and four children, and they were the only ones there when the American freaks arrived. Vicki was keen to have some people around to help her manage the property. The nascent communards pitched tents on the hillside above the Bushells’ log house — soon dubbed the “Electric House” in homage to the key advantage it had over the house they were about to build a few hundred metres up the forested slope. They decided on an A-frame construction. “We knew,” says Dave Buhrman, “that they were sound structures and easy to build, and we were worried about snow load.”

They lugged eight-metre logs and hundreds of cedar 1x6s up the hill by hand. Another local taught them to split their own cedar blocks in order to make shingles. They got some dynamite and blasted out a reservoir below one of the springs to gravity-feed the house with water, blasted out another hole for a latrine. They bought a wood stove secondhand in town, got another one for heating, kerosene lamps, a tub — they even had hot water. Buhrman, chuckling: “We were the envy of all the other hippies.”

They moved in late in the fall of 1971 — Dave, Joan, and Terra Buhrman in the top loft, “the bachelors” in the bunkhouse at the rear of the house with beds strung from the ceiling by logging chains and a trapdoor for easy access. They were joined by some like-minded souls they’d met in Vancouver and by late arrivals from Maryland. With money from part-time work and odd jobs, they bought bulk dry goods twice a year from a co-op in Vancouver called Fed Up — rice and beans, rolled oats and flour, thirty-pound tubs of peanut butter and honey. They tended a garden down the hill by the Electric House, kept chickens for eggs and goats for milk, and did their best to keep the animals from escaping and laying waste to the apple orchards down in the valley.

In the evenings, there was always music, and sometimes there were drinks at the Leland Hotel in Nakusp or social visits to the Crescent Bay hippie commune across the valley. On occasion they’d meet in one of the lofts to smoke pot and read from The Urantia Book, a thick tome purported to be the revealed wisdom of a race of celestial beings. Dave Buhrman: “There was a timelessness about it. We thought we’d go on forever.”

As with so many social experiments, the practice turned out to be quite a bit thornier than the theory. Frictions developed over chores and the Electric House’s long-distance bills. In the summer of 1974, Terry Bushell decided he needed more privacy and politely asked everyone to leave. The Strawberry Hill commune came to an end.

The Slocan’s back-to-the-land movement was robust enough that the fbi sent an undercover agent to the valley in the spring of 1973 in the (erroneous) belief that there was a Weather Underground safe house somewhere in the valley. The best known of the Slocan communes was probably the New Family in Winlaw, which had a clear guiding philosophy and an austere code of conduct; it prospered for nearly twenty years. There were others: Many Skies, Harmony Gates, the Flying Hearts Family. (This last spawned Brain Damage, a mid-1970s psychedelic—rock band.) There was an ashram on Kootenay Lake. The era has inspired reams of anecdotes but few narratives or conclusions.

As counterpoint, consider the climactic scene in “On the Rainy River,” an autobiographical story from Tim O’Brien’s masterful Vietnam War collage, The Things They Carried. In the story, O’Brien has decided to flee to Canada to avoid the draft. He makes it as far as a fishing lodge on the Rainy River, which separates Minnesota from northwestern Ontario. It is off-season, the lodge is all but deserted, and the shrewd old proprietor knows exactly what O’Brien is doing there. One day, O’Brien and the proprietor go fishing, and the proprietor stops the boat twenty metres from the Canadian side and drops his line in the water. O’Brien is paralyzed with fear, then overcome with a profound sadness as he realizes he can’t make the leap. “And what was so sad, I realized, was that Canada had become a pitiful fantasy,” O’Brien writes. “Silly and hopeless. It was no longer a possibility. Right then, with the shore so close, I understood that I would not do what I should do. I would not swim away from my hometown and my country and my life. I would not be brave. That old image of myself as a hero, as a man of conscience and courage, all that was just a threadbare pipe dream.”

This is the gut check that faced each of the 50,000 or more who did take that plunge. Before adventure or assimilation or the tending of goats, each of them had to decide that their convictions were worth more than the comforts of home and family and career. If they weren’t quite revolutionaries, they were in some sense pioneers, and if what they did was sometimes naive and foolishly audacious, it nonetheless took real courage.

Bill Irwin — formerly of Strawberry Hill, still turned on, tuned in, and now settled on a homestead in the Yalakom Valley, an even more remote alpine enclave near Lillooet — puts it more forcefully. “In some ways,” he says, “this is the original spirit of the American people — to say ‘fuck the empire’ and move over on the Mayflower.” To reinvent democracy, or at least to try, whether in Massachusetts or on a Slocan hillside.

Chris Turner (@theturner) published How to Breathe Underwater: Field Reports from an Age of Radical Change in 2014.