Upon first glance the property looked like an abandoned Boy Scout camp. It was easy to imagine fed up Scout Leaders driving off and leaving a troop of 13 year-olds to maintain the campgrounds with nothing but a woodworking merit badge book. But we weren’t at camp. We were at the Tribal Oasis Intentional Community in Topanga, California and we were their newest residents.
The drive to Topanga is gorgeous. It starts on the famous Pacific Coast Highway with views of the shimmering blue ocean stretching to the horizon. Right before you get to the multi-million dollar estates of Malibu, a two-lane road takes you into the Santa Monica mountains. Once you make that turn, you have left normal civilization.
It was unclear whether he was the owner of the property or just the guy who had lived there the longest. To be honest, I’m not sure ownership was a solid principle when it came to this community.
Dave had long hair and thick glasses. He came from Philadelphia years ago and never went back. Dave has a quality where it looks like he is really paying attention to what you are saying, but as soon as you stop talking all of the information blows away in the breeze.
Dave lived in a silver motor home wedged between an old stone building and the side of the mountain. It was unclear how this motor home ended up in this position. Like a fence built too close to a growing tree, it seemed like the mountain grew around the motor home.
Adjacent to the stone building was an addition that could be best described as Junkyard Chic. The addition had two apartments. Dave’s wife lived in the one we rented. She was traveling for the next 3 weeks to “find herself,” and he hoped that she might actually stay away longer to have a deeper experience.
At this point, I see two red flags. The first is that Dave’s wife lives in a separate apartment 50 feet away from where he lives. The second is that his wife is out “finding herself,” which means her life was was unstable prior to leaving. That instability was so strong that her husband hoped she would be gone as long as possible.
It felt like an adventure that could change your perspective on life. Or it could get you eaten by a mountain lion. But the rent was cheap, the apartment was furnished, and they accepted pets. We moved in three days later.
When we drove up the first time as residents, we saw a woman in a white bikini top and a cowboy hat sitting on a tire swing that was cut in the shape of a horse. A guy was taking photos of her. Your basic move-in day welcome wagon.
In the apartment, Dave’s traveling wife had a unique decorating aesthetic. Highlights included:
And my personal favorite: an Asian baby with cornrows giving the peace sign while wearing an eye patch that has a clock on it.
Gnomes next to pencil holders. Gnomes next to horses. Gnomes next to picture frames. Gnomes next to the torso and genitals of a man which was in direct view of my dining room table.
Did I mention the apartment was crawling with spiders? You could argue whether the spiders were living in our apartment or we were living in the spiders’ apartment. In elementary school, a friend told me that you eat eight spiders a year while you are sleeping. I’m confident that I hit my quota during our stay.
In the bathroom there was a little red turtle statue with cobwebs holding it down. I felt an emotional connection to this turtle. First of all, my college mascot was the Terps (essentially a red turtle). And those cobwebs were my metaphorical struggle to get established in Los Angeles.
They say when you get to “Hollywood” you have “to collect your first 100 Nos.” Between job interviews and creative auditions, I was hearing “No” left and right. The little turtle statue and myself both had hopes of turning our luck around.
On Tuesday nights, the community held a potluck. I thought this would be a good way to relieve some stress and meet some of my neighbors. Dave was there with his 10 year-old daughter. They brought a pumpkin pie for dinner. Dessert for dinner? Why not, we’re all free spirits.
After getting jacked up on sugar and pumpkin spice, the 10 year-old started swinging around on a metal hula hoop hanging from the ceiling. I watched the child spin and twirl over the stone floor, inches from a broken skull. Nobody else seemed concerned, but this was making me nervous.
The small talk in the room is what you would expect on a hippie commune. One neighbor talked about a solar powered 3D printer that turns sand in the desert into glass buildings. He believed that the future would be entire cities in the desert built from glass. I wanted to make a joke about people in glass houses not throwing stones, but I kept my mouth shut. We touched on other popular cocktail chatter topics including the failure of the monetary system, the impending violent revolutions, and the return to an agrarian society.
One of the first nights I met another caretaker for the property. He fit into your stereotypical notion of a hippy:
His name was Jiva Shakti or Jaya Shiva or some other connection of spiritual, Indian words. He told me to let him know about any problems in the apartment and he would take care of them. I told him about our problem with the shower curtain that was too short to reach the tub, which created a lot of water on the bathroom floor. He said, “That is exactly the kind of thing you should let me know.” Then he walked away and never mentioned any plan to fix the problem.
The property also had lots of public art, the most impressive of which seemed to be a gateway to another dimension. We never found out how to turn on the precious crystals.
She brought her artwork out into the yard and worked in the sun. She sketched an alluring woman with a flowing dress on the bottom of a surfboard. She painted a view of the mountains with deep red skies. It was beautiful work.
One night, Christina and I got home after dark and walked by their apartment on the way to ours. Their lights were on, and we casually looked into the window. We saw the boyfriend sitting in a chair with his girlfriend standing in front of him wearing a short pink wig, a tight white t-shirt, and neon green bikini bottoms that tied at the sides.
Mind you, this wasn’t the window to their bedroom that we were looking in. This was the front door completely wide open. Christina and I kept walking and got into our apartment. We turned to each other like gossiping pre-teens to confirm what we actually saw. Christina’s hypothesis was that the woman was a hippy artist by day and a stripper by night. I wasn’t so sure. Maybe she just wanted to do a sexy dance for her boyfriend. Free spirits.
A few days later, Christina and I once again came home after dark and walked past their apartment. Again, we saw the boyfriend sitting in a chair, but this time the girlfriend stood over him wearing a skirt suit that can be best described as 1980s Wall Street meets Mad Max. Christina and I kept walking and got into our apartment. Again, we turned to each other like gossiping pre-teens to confirm what we actually saw. Christina stood by her belief that our neighbor was a stripper.
One other night, we saw a similar scene. Boyfriend sat in the chair again. Except this time he wore a priest outfit and the girlfriend stood over him wearing her regular clothes. The topic of what was actually going on is still up for debate in our household.
It was the traveling wife. She was back, and she was frantic. She started digging around the apartment yelling in a Norwegian or Dutch accent, “I need clothes! I need some pot I hid in here!” It was like a Tasmanian Devil tornado blew in and blew out. Now the picture was clearer why her husband wanted her to stay away for as long as she could.
The next day, I was washing dishes and could hear the wife yelling at Dave from outside the mobile home. “Where is my money? Why are you hiding my money?” This was also at 8:45 A.M. She must be a morning person.
I couldn’t help but feel that she was talking about the money we had paid to stay in her apartment. From then on whenever I passed her, I saw a distinctly fake smile that was really saying, “Get the fuck out of my apartment.”
Seeing Dave and his potentially Norwegian/Dutch wife argue was a wake up call for Christina and me. For as bad as California was kicking our ass, we were still doing it together.
We ended up finding a new apartment that was furnished, accepted pets, and wasn’t on the side of a mountain. As we packed up our car the Norwegian or Dutch wife walked around with a shit-eating grin on her face.
I think I got the last laugh because before I left, I cleaned all of the cobwebs off of the little red turtle and gave him a new lease on life. The last thing we saw as we drove away was a man with legs crossed in lotus position meditating in a tree stand 20 feet above the ground.
Stay free spirits. Stay free.