Night on the Sacred Mountain

“When an eccentric billionaire invites you to his commune to camp out and listen to music, you go.”

Photo by Aaron Lee on Unsplash

We struck out for the commune after lunch, driving up through the oaks. Four of us in the Subaru, vanguard of our tribe. Our ears popped as we climbed above the fog line trekking toward a night of music and song in the hills. A creative jamboree with a hundred like-minded souls.

Or, you know, something like that. In truth, none of us was sure exactly what we were getting into. We knew there was camping, a potluck, and music. We were promised workshops and concerts, though, to my dismay, we hadn’t seen an agenda — I’m a bit of a planner, you see, and wondered what exactly a square like me could get out of such a weekend.

But as my friend told me, “When an eccentric billionaire invites you to his commune to camp out and listen to music, you go.”

So I found myself packed cheek-to-jowl with a tent, sleeping bags, musical instruments, three friends, and one sheepskin. Short on detail but long on expectations.

Around 2:00 p.m, we passed through the unmarked gate, and the first thing we saw was two women and a check-in table. Welcoming us, they passed around clipboards with release forms. The agreements were standard, but they were delivered with instructions on using the restrooms. Mainly, pee in the trees when possible, and don’t, by any means, put anything other than tissue down the toilet, lest the temperamental septic tank rebel.

Our intake complete, we drove up the dusty road and staked out a campsite: a small clearing on a ridge with views of the house and valley below, sheltered by oaks on one side and redwoods on the other. It was also bordered by at least three species of prickly and sticky weeds and vines. We watched our step as we pitched the tent.

After setting up camp, we unpacked the djembe and guitars. This was a musical camping trip after all, and once we tuned-up, we walked down the hill through the trees and flower beds to the main house and set up on the patio. And though we weren’t on the official lineup, we did provide an impromptu pre-potluck jam session.

You could see Palo Alto from where we sat, the bay in the haze just beyond. You could also see the spinning orange warning light, which was some sort of FAA requirement meant to warn passing planes of the house’s presence way up there.

For several hours we played on the patio, welcoming fellow travelers as various tribes moved in and out of our circle. A few other drummers appeared to play along. A naked baby walked up, dancing with his mother. Then came a long-haired mustachioed Brit sporting cowboy boots and a silver resonator guitar. At some point, two belly dancers manifested right there in our little circle of mistrals. Not just women dancing in the belly style, but actually donning the official garb.

But they weren’t the only dancers. Dozens of others joined at various points to sing and to sway in the twilight, to work up an appetite for dinner and for what lay ahead.

Dinner was served in the backyard, where there was an outdoor kitchen, a fire pit or two, and a tent shrouded in fabrics you might describe as Eastern. It was a potluck, and though we were at a commune in the hills above Silicon Valley, it turns out potlucks are the same no matter where you are.

That meant the bounty consisted largely of several dozen side dishes on one table and countless deserts on the other—all the stuff that’s easy to bring. Though I should note that, compared to the church potlucks of my youth back in the south, there was a marked absence of fried chicken and the minimum four different dishes of spaghetti.

At dusk, with the potluck supplies thinning, the estate transformed into a wonderland of fires and string lights and giant oaks lit from below with reds and blues. There was also the twinkling lights from Palo Alto out in the distance. And the blinking of that airplane warning light in the front yard.

At the edge of the Tea Room (the living room), dozens of campers spread across the floor on blankets and pillows and giant foam pads covered in sheets. The collective noun for this comfy floor material is “squish,” so when someone says “Would you like some squish?” they’re probably just offering you a pillow and not drugs or something sexual.

Inside the Tea Room there was tea service. This tea wasn’t sacred, though some people decided to make theirs so. That turned out to be a common discussion of the weekend, different types of sacred tea and their effects.

Though if you listen closely, these discussions were less about procuring and consuming sacred tea and mostly about introspection and self-discovery, and namely, understanding one’s brain, and what’s really going on in there.

You might not be surprised to hear that Ken Kesey is still revered in these hills. They say he owned a ranch not far from here, where he and his merry band of pranksters hosted gatherings not unlike this one. 50 years on, the mythos of his Happenings lives on, energizing and inspiring and animating modern tribes toward music and art and human connection.

Aside from the Tea Room, the other music venue was The Cathedral, whose 40-foot ceilings contributed to it stirring acoustics. From around 8:00 till sunrise, emotion poured forth from that place, from the makeshift stage up front and from the piles of us hippies strewn about the squish. I hunkered down there around 11:00.

Music in the Cathedral

The lineup was almost entirely acoustic singer-songwriter, consisting of musicians from other communes and I think a couple of witches from the hills across the bay. They sang about matters of the heart, about self-doubt and the fear of failure, about what happens if everyone learns the truth about me? Songs of justice and also songs with sass, with rhythms and lyrics that provided welcome relief from introspection and reflection.

In a precarious age, these thoughtful souls crafted space for us to lament and cry and maybe find hope in our selves and in each other.

Around 2:00 a.m., I stepped out of the Cathedral to come down from all the feelings and get some fresh air; the chapel and the tea room were muggy from all the bodies. Stepping outside, the air in the hills was crisp and new at this hour, the redwoods lending their fragrance to the slight breeze.

I came upon the fire out back, which was built and tended by a man in his 20s, our self-appointed Prometheus, who had found his calling here in the backyard, maintaining warmth for others and forsaking the musical delights inside.

We talked about the commune where he lived (a different commune from this one) and about music and art. Turns out he was a musician too: a flautist, though unlike us performers he played only for himself, he said, as a form of meditation.

At the end of the conversation I learned out he’d just raised a bunch of money for his robot startup, and I thought it was nice to be in a place where “work” was literally the last thing that comes up when meeting a new person.

I’d met dozens of people over the weekend, and only later, upon Friending them on Facebook, would I discover anything about their professional lives down the valley. Even though we were just 45 minutes south of San Francisco and just up the hill from the world’s tech titans, everyone just seemed to have better things to talk about.

It reminded me of something good ole Ken Kesey said after completing his bus trip from La Honda to New York:

“The sense of communication in this country has damn near atrophied. But we found as we went along it got easier to make contact with people. If people could just understand it is possible to be different without being a threat.”

The pranksters at this campout I think had caught onto that notion. They’d plotted this little tract of hospitality, not drawn on lines of status or role — no one gave a damn if you were a product manager at Google. But there was implicit permission to sit down and talk with anyone. Presence and acceptance were the same things.

Back in the cathedral, I caught the end of another acoustic set. As they wrapped up, I settled in for more lyrical poetry, which did not prepare me for what came next.

Soon after the guitars were carried away, the stage was darkened by Soren, who, from what I can remember, stood at least 8 feet tall, black clothes, black hat, black beard, and moonless eyes. His music had no lyrics, but he spoke fluent the language of pathos.

His voice his instrument, he’d sing a melody, record it, and then play it back on continuous loop, sometimes adding in the drum machine, and repeat this until he was satisfied with each horrifying and beautiful cacophony not born of this dimension. An otherworldly foil to the grounded perspectives of the prior acts.

I heard later that a few of us mortals actually conversed with him after his performance, but I’m not convinced he didn’t evanesce back to wherever he came from, leaving nothing in his wake but raw emotion and the reminder to remain vigilant, lest our comfort lull us to unconsciousness.

It was about 4:00 a.m. at that point and I’d run out of energy. On the way out, I stopped by the bathrooms in the hall outside the Cathedral, where I discovered a small commotion related to some panic with the septic tank. I guess someone forgot the instructions at check-in. As a result, they were directing traffic outside. It’s okay, they said, because the nitrogen would be good for trees.

After finding a private spot in the redwoods, I climbed the path to our campsite and settled in for sleep. I’d gotten about two hours of shut-eye before the rest of our crew made their way to our tent or their hammock or the sheepskin out under the stars.

Sometime around 6:00 a.m., “Fuck. Fuck. Shit. Fuck.” echoed across our little ridge and down into the valley as one barefoot campmate veered off course and into the rambling spike-vines. Even on the sacred mountain, it pays to watch your step.

The next morning, while the naked baby was still sleeping, we made camp stove coffee and ate grocery store mini-donuts. Down in the valley, the fog hung low, though the skies were clear up on the hill. Wild turkeys gobbled in the distance.

We lounged about the porches and swimming pool and the old-school wooden hot tub. Some of our tribe gathered pomegranates and persimmons and at least four kinds of apples that grew nearby.

After a placid morning, we tapped our final reserve of emotional energy for one last encounter in the Cathedral: a workshop on creativity. I still hadn’t found an agenda but that was okay because I’d mellowed out considerably by this point.

The session was hosted by one of the acoustic duos from the official lineup. These two had made me cry twice already — during their set the night prior then again during an informal session on the back patio that morning. “Name a feeling,” they’d say, and then they’d sing a song about it, wrenching your heart.

I tried to back out once I saw it was them — nope, not again, bards of the soul — but before I could weasel away, one of them made eye contact and welcomed me. Trapped. So I grabbed some squish and settled in.

As a creative professional, I’ve attended my fair share of these kinds of things, so I’ll admit I was cynical when the torn notebook paper and colored pencils were passed around. Am I really going to have to draw my feelings?

It turned out there was more at stake.

While they introduced the exercise, it struck me that of all of my conversations, not one dwelled on the particulars of work or the economy or politics. Discussing specific details seemed less interesting than understanding the organizing themes, trends, and patterns.

This crowd wasn’t focused on singular acts of injustice so much as it was on Justice, and our role in it. Less about individual artists and more about the impact of Art in our time. Systems more than parts.

As such, they weren’t going to teach us how to discover better rhyme structures or craft chord progressions. They were here to illuminate Creativity, and the generative force it can unleash on a world in need. They guided us to enlightenment, and readied us to face our own demons of doubt when we came down off the mountain.

Of course, that included plenty of heavy introspection accompanied by stirring music that stole past our internal defense mechanisms, that exposed us all as fragile and yet powerful.

I cried a third time.

And I experienced the force behind that kind of self-discovery, and self-care. And I thought about life back in the city, off the mountain and away from the tribe. Where age-defining world events dominate casual conversation. Where it’s easy to deride what the president said but hard to consider our role in the structures at work.

But then again, contemplating our responsibility can feel overwhelming, and sometimes the toilets break and you step into the thorns. Why bother?

How can writing a poem or composing a melody have any tangible impact on the world? Can we actually change anything, or is this all just a hilltop hippie dream we’ve manufactured with nice people and dramatic lighting?

Then, when they finished their last song, and we dried our eyes, our guides spoke into the silence as if to answer for us all, saying “Creativity is about being true to our selves, not the darkness, which lies to us. The world needs creative people to speak the truth. It needs people who are true.”

Patrick Woods is a San Francisco-based writer and brand consultant. You can follow him at @patrickjwoods.