Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Long, Orange Trip

Just finished reading Nicholas Schou's Orange Sunshine, which tells the fantastical story of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a hippie drug ring centered in Orange County ca. 1970. It's a shaggy one all right: lots of characters, not an especially neat story line, but some riveting episodes.

I first read about this outfit in Peter Conners's White Hand Society, which focuses on Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg. (Leary is a key figure in the Brotherhood story.) What I learned from this book is that the Brotherhood's members were street-fighting jerks and petty criminals before they turned on. Then they went cosmic, formed a secret organization, and hatched a plan to sell enough drugs to buy an island in the South Pacific.

That didn't quite work out. Instead of retreating to an island, leader John Griggs purchased a ranch in the desert mountains near Idyllwild, only a couple of hours away from Laguna Beach, the center of their operation. That proved to be a mistake. Instead of eluding law enforcement, the move may have helped police get a bead on the operation. Also, Griggs died there after taking a huge dose of synthetic psilocybin. But the book recounts a fair amount of island time. Several members spent years in Hawaii and helped develop Maui Wowie, the strain of weed that was the rage during my high school years. They also packed a boat full of Mexican pot and sailed it to Hawaii without any navigational instruments. That was another wild ride, well narrated by Schou.

Although the title stresses the Brotherhood's signature brand of mind-melting LSD, their hashish business was the most interesting part of the book. Members trekked to Kandahar when that was an even more remote location than it is now. The first trip took several weeks and was full of twists and turns; in fact, the original destination was Turkey, but some fellow travelers convinced them that Afghanistan had the best stuff. Once there, they scored primo hash from Afghans who would have been at home in the Hebrew Bible. The Brotherhood smuggled it back to the states, often in hollowed out surfboards. The LSD, it turns out, was practically given away, all in an effort to enlighten the world, Leary style. When Leary was sent to prison, the Brotherhood paid the Weathermen to bust him out.

Yeah. Pretty wild.

Organized crime is one of my favorite genres, and there's plenty of that here. But what comes through most vividly to me is the utopian impulse behind the operation. Mostly these guys wanted to surf, drop acid, smoke hash, meditate, and get back to the land. The drugs were in many ways more sacramental than recreational. There was plenty of sex, but Griggs tried to emphasize family life, hippie style, especially on the ranch. (At first, the ranch community excluded unmarried members of the Brotherhood.)

On the edge of the operation was Mike Hynson, best known for his role in Endless Summer, which is nothing if not utopian. For you youngsters, Endless Summer was the 1966 film about two youthful surfers traveling the world in search of the perfect wave.

The Brotherhood's operation came crashing down in 1972, when law enforcement rounded up members in a multi-state raid. But several remained at large for years, and some went on to lead interesting post-Brotherhood lives.

Hats off to Nick Schou for his research on this amazing story.

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