News that Laramie has been named the best hippie town in Wyoming by a travel website made me start thinking about back in the day when I was in San Francisco’s legendary Haight-Ashbury district during 1967’s “summer of love.”
It was literally one day. Sometimes I’ve fantasized about what it would have been like to live in hippie nirvana at its height, but the whole counterculture movement came a little early for me. I was 12 when my parents — who were in no way hippies — took me to the Haight.
We often drove to the city from our home in San Jose, but I still have no idea why we ended up that afternoon in such unfamiliar territory. Perhaps it was a parental pre-emptive strike, a scared-straight moment to keep their kid from ever thinking about turning on, tuning in and dropping out.
I don’t know exactly what we expected to do or see, but I remember what happened after my dad parked his beloved red MG on a side street. We got out and saw a long-haired guy all dressed in black walking right toward us. He had on John Lennon glasses and looked like he was straight out of hippie Central Casting. He resembled a grungy George Harrison, and I had absolutely no clue how old he was. His outfit was completed by a well-worn stovepipe hat.
We stared, and he stared back. He seemed stunned to see what was before him: A stereotypical suburban family had suddenly invaded his space. Up until that moment I had always considered us totally normal, but when I look back, we were so out of our comfort zone we must have been a pretty amusing and/or scary sight. Especially me — I had short-cropped hair because that’s what my parents told me I must have, and I was wearing a blue ascot tie that until then I thought was pretty cool.
He stopped in his tracks and watched us warily as we walked by him. In what I later learned was an observation by someone who was likely stoned out of his mind, he peered at us once more over the top of his glasses. He was probably referring to all three of us, but at the time I knew his slow, drawn-out description was meant solely for me: “W-e-i-r-d, man.”
I had been pronounced a nerd by an authentic hippie! Not a good day, but nevertheless a life-influencing moment. I put the ascot away and never wore it again. I should have burned it, symbolically ending my dweeb era, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I felt comfortable at least adopting part of the hippie look. I stopped getting my hair cut. For a year.
When I was 19 I flew back to Nashville to visit several aunts, uncles and cousins. My hair was down to my shoulders, my weight down to 114 (it was a rough sophomore year) and I must have looked like a hippie cadaver. My family didn’t know what to make of me. Tennessee in the mid-’70s would never be mistaken for a hippie haven, and any thought of my moving there quickly vanished.
Back in Wyoming I knew it would be impossible to keep my mane and still land a job I wanted as a newspaper reporter, so I reluctantly went to a hairstylist a friend recommended. I sat down in the chair and the owner, Gary, approached me carrying his scissors. He just stared at me for what seemed like an eternity, then finally said, “What the hell do you expect me to do with that?”
“Just a trim,” I said, and we struck up an immediate friendship. Gary wound up cutting my hair for the next 20 years. The first cut was a little short; I missed my long hair and I knew my Haight hippie would have branded me as a sellout. But I got the job, and I still managed to rebel a bit by wearing my hair as long as possible before some boss ordered me to cut it. “I need to remind you we do have a dress code,” was the standard opening. But early in my career I could sense “the talk” coming and headed it off. “I’m going to get it cut this afternoon,” I’d say before a publisher or editor managed to start his spiel. Then I’d call Gary.
Soon enough my family genes kicked in and I no longer had to worry about growing my hair out, because I didn’t have much left. There went my hippie dreams. I don’t know how many generations of Drake males have suffered the same fate, but it’s at least four. It’s likely more, but my ancestors had the good sense to wear hats in photos, so no one really knows what they looked like.
While having long hair has always been a component of the hippie look, the counterculture that began in the ’60s was always more about an attitude and lifestyle. I admit I wish I had been born a little sooner, so I could have experienced hippiedom in its heyday. By the time I was 14 I lived in Pennsylvania, not that far from Woodstock, New York, but culturally I was a million miles away.
While my friends were listening to the Stones, the Doors and Jimi Hendrix, I had Johnny Cash on my turntable. My musical taste usually never matched my age, but when you think about it, Cash was one of the first real hippie celebrities. Drugs? Check. Cool all-black wardrobe? Check. Rebellion? Triple check.
I’ve always felt I missed a great, enjoyable era that will never be back, but sometimes I’m reminded that isn’t a universal feeling. Since I was a teen my idol has been Bob Dylan, who to me always seemed to embody everything hippies stood for. But in his autobiography, “Chronicles Vol. 1,” Dylan said he never wanted to be the spokesman for his generation, and he confided that he really hated hippies — especially the ones who would break into his Woodstock home looking for the singer to tell them what they should do with their lives, and scaring the hell out of his family.
“Road maps to our homestead must have been posted in all 50 states for gangs of dropouts and druggies,” Dylan wrote. “I wanted to set fire to these people.”
It didn’t work out for everyone. Some hippies made great art and did positive things for their community, but others were self-indulgent and didn’t care about anyone else. In other words, it’s a culture that has as much diversity as any other. It all depends upon how we want to live our lives.
So is Laramie really the best hippie town Wyoming, as Thrillist.com recently proclaimed? I think one would have to live there to make a definitive judgment, but I can’t think of any other city in Wyoming better suited to be known as our hippie capital.
Most of my friends who live in Laramie seem to be anti-hippies who may wax nostalgic at times about their youthful indiscretions but long ago chose a conventional lifestyle over the counterculture. But if they ever want to re-live some of the good times, Fort Collins and its legal marijuana is only about 40 miles away. They will be surprised by the potency of what people smoke these days and likely joyful that edibles are available so they don’t have to destroy their lungs to get high. Or so I’m told.
Thrillist noted that Laramie is home to NU2U, which it called “quite possibly the greatest secondhand clothing store in America.” That’s high praise. A photo of the shop published in the Laramie Boomerang shows a huge selection of T-shirts, and I know I’ll visit the shop the next time I’m in Laramie.
Long hair still required
I can’t look like the standard-issue 60-ish male hippie, because I don’t have any hair to put into a ponytail. I’m jealous of these guys because anyone can look at them and immediately know they lived through the Sixties, which automatically means they have some interesting hippie stories to tell or fabricate.
But I can and do wear T-shirts, and I search the Casper thrift stores because 1) it matches my freelance writer’s budget) and 2) tie-dyed and rock shirts remind me that I wasn’t always 60 years old. You never know what you’re going to find, and I was happy to score Dylan and Grateful Dead T-shirts at one shop last week.
At another, I was surprised to peruse the rack and come away with a James Taylor shirt, which led to a quandary: Is wearing a shirt emblazoned with a less-than-hip singer’s image equivalent to a blue ascot tie? I don’t want to be walking the streets of Casper and find a confused teen who stares at me and says, “Weird, man.”
“Don’t judge me, kid, and I won’t judge you,” I’ll say. “And get a haircut sometime, OK? You missed the ’60s.”
In many ways, so did I.