Like a stock market that has finally found its bottom after a long, volatile decline, my spiritual assets were nearly depleted. I finally had to face earning a living. My future was a ghostly and depressing vision. My resume, if I had had one, would have listed sporadic bouts of menial work in restaurants and factories. My social life fared worse.
I lived with one fellow rent-payer and a bunch of hangers-on who were usually stoned, seldom employed, and “sharing” our food and floor space. It was 1973, I was 21, and I was living as a hippie in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the epicenter of the Summer of Love.If I had to sum up the era, I’d say, “Great music. Lousy philosophy.” Like my friends, I had been a moocher—hitchhiking thousands of miles across the country. Leaning on people’s generosity for a meal and a place to crash. It had all seemed so meaningful in the beginning and fun. We had been protesting the oppressive, racist, and arbitrary rules of the Establishment, hadn’t we? Of course! But if being a victim gave you a moral leg up, there always seemed to be someone else who was a greater victim. And if making skirmishes across the boundary of the law to dare the authorities was exciting, there was always someone else to kick it up a notch. Where was it all leading? Was there a line to be drawn? Where should I draw it? I had no idea. I had no objections to what was going on around me; I just felt that living in the Here and Now was not only not fun anymore, it was miserable. I felt un-tethered. Adrift.
But what was I to do? Where could I turn? There was one person I knew who was different. But he was a neighbor and more of an acquaintance than a friend.
Evan Stewart lived in the Haight-Ashbury but was not of it. Although he may have regarded himself as countercultural because of his open homosexuality, he seemed to belong more to the age of the neighborhood’s elegant Victorian architecture than to its New Left values. In the first hour that I met Evan, my intuition told me that I would know this man for the rest of my life. Evan sparked a great transformation in me, one that rescued me from self-destruction.
In March of 1973, I turned to him for help. I was amazed by his tenderness and grace. He treated me as if I were a fallen comrade and he were a field medic glad to fulfill his calling. The first healing gift I received from Evan was his patient willingness to listen. We would take long walks in Golden Gate Park or I would sit in the enchanted, blue-gray aerie—which is how I thought of his apartment—light classical music playing in the background, while I poured out my pain and bitterness.
If I had to sum up the era, I’d say, “Great music. Lousy philosophy.”
On an evening some weeks into my convalescence, I rose to leave Evan’s apartment. He met me at the door, his six foot posture erect and graceful, and stretched out his hand upon which sat a very large volume. “I think you’re ready for this,” he said. I took what he was offering: Ayn Rand’s epic novel, Atlas Shrugged. The next morning, I read the first ten pages—that was enough to ensure that I would never put it down. I clutched the book under my arm nearly every waking moment but read only occasionally, and with these small doses was able to extend the pleasure of it over an entire month. One day during those weeks, as I relaxed in an overstuffed chair with the book on my lap, my roommate sneered, “Evan is turning you into a capitalist, isn’t he?” I replied serenely, “Only because I want to be.” That was the last conversation I had with her. Days later I came home and she and all of her friends had vacated the apartment without a trace. I had barely had to “shrug” and now I could walk into my new life free of encumbrances, at least of the external variety.
But what had brought me to this state? Why was someone who would later find inspiration in Ayn Rand's philosophy seduced by the hippie lifestyle?
Over a decade earlier, while in elementary school, I had had an ambition: I wanted to become a philosopher or a psychologist—I wasn’t sure what the difference was, but it had something to do with understanding what it means to be human. I wanted to take on the big issues in life. The main ideological influence that I recall from that period was my father’s vociferous atheism, his refusal to believe in religion’s fairy tales in the name of something he called the scientific method. I proudly took up the cause. I was in favor of logic and against frivolous belief.
My aspirations were curbed though when my parent’s marriage broke up: I was eleven years old. My father left me devastated and alone with my mother, who by contrast, was a committed agnostic on every significant topic: god, morality, happiness, politics, etc. On the other hand, she wasn’t afraid to express opinions on matters that affected her or my social standing: “Don’t get pregnant out of wedlock” and “I think you should take French as your foreign language elective.” In hyperbolic, adolescent fashion, I detested her.
That and the pain I had buried due to the loss of my father propelled me into a destructive cycle of rebelliousness—I seemed intent on alienating the very thing I needed most: the presence of a sane adult in my life. So with a coterie of friends—my family by choice—I carved out a kind of Lord of the Flies existence—sneaking around in the middle of the night; throwing wild parties when my mother left for New York, and taking perverse pleasure in each hedonistic strike against her tyranny.
We hitchhiked three thousand miles to join the real hippies, the dropouts.
Some of my friends were precocious and helped me to discover a vast literature to corroborate our wayward leanings. Apparently, it wasn’t just our parents who were the problem, the whole society was corrupt.
Middle class, American culture was focused on material values, phony, arbitrary rules, and the oppression of minority populations. Partial truths are seductive to the uninformed and so they were to us who drank long and hard from the trough of Old and New Leftist doctrine. We read Marx, Mao, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Camus, Herbert Marcuse, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, and so on. Apparently no warning label came with this concoction such as “Results may not be as intended if you attempt to live by these ideas.” I was about to embark on just such a project. Moreover, weren’t these views merely a radicalization of those to which our parents already subscribed? This was particularly so in my case, since my parents were Unitarians and thus already nurtured a contempt for capitalism and a suspicion of any notion of man’s life as noble.
Not intending to do my mother any favors, I graduated from high school a year early—I later learned that she (understandably) had been counting the days. Having turned seventeen with a maturity level of about eleven, I entered Beloit College. Academically I did alright: I got my usual A’s and B’s, but I wasn’t happy. No doubt it was all of those authority figures in the form of professors and administrators. Plus, I was having difficulty making friends. It was 1968 and I guess I hadn’t been reading the newspapers for I was surprised to find the campus half-full of kids dressed or undressed in the new hippie fashions: bell bottom jeans, long uncombed hair, head bands and home-made jewelry, and the men bare-chested and bearded. It seemed tainted a bit with the same in-crowd aura of the exclusive groups in high school, but I was intrigued. I finally made some friends and when two of them suggested going to San Francisco after our first year, I gladly joined them. We hitchhiked three thousand miles, first to Seattle then down the Pacific Coast to San Francisco to join the real hippies, the dropouts.
For the next several years, except for one more half-semester attempt at college, I melted into the counterculture. What was it like? Aside from the sex, drugs, and rock and roll, was there anything of import?
After first arriving in Haight-Ashbury, we settled into an apartment that we furnished with three mattresses purchased at the local Goodwill. A wooden door that we scavenged from the burned-out building across the street served as a kitchen table.
It was 1969 and though two years away from the apex of hippiedom, the neighborhood, and indeed, the entire West Coast, still had numerous communes and hitchhikers, easy access to psychedelic drugs, and a passionate embrace of rock music. The beat of African drums from adjacent Golden Gate Park formed an ever-present backdrop both inside and outside of our third floor walkup.
Claire was one half of the duo from Beloit College with whom I traveled to San Francisco. She held a conviction about free love as an ideal and in an attempt to live up to it, for several months, slept with a different boy almost every night. I exaggerate, but not by much. To the endless stream of young people looking for a place to crash, Claire frequently opened our door.
“Don’t you feel you’re being overly, um, accommodating?” I asked Claire. “No, not at all,” she replied. “I’m just living out my ideals, you know. Universal love. I don’t discriminate.”
One of Claire’s drop-aways, Neil, a former Hell’s Angel, had exchanged his chopper and bullying ways for peace, love, brown rice, and a Stone Age life style. He and a few cohorts had romped naked in the hills outside of Los Angeles for a half-year provisioned with only a sack of rice, a pan, a sheathed knife or two, and—imported from the big city—mood altering drugs. I asked Neil many questions about his stay in the hills, and perhaps, mistaking my curiosity, he concluded that I was destined to be his one true mate.
One night we dropped acid and clambered up one of San Francisco's twin peaks.
One night we dropped acid and clambered up one of San Francisco’s twin peaks. From the top we looked out at the city sparkling like the scattered contents of a giant overturned treasure chest. I thought it was breathtakingly beautiful, but Neil began a long, incoherent rant against “the Man” and with a sweeping motion of his hand indicated that the city and all that it stood for—civilization, science, and capitalism—were evil. According to Neil, the Man’s entire edifice needed to torn down and replaced with a non-violent, non-acquisitive, non-exploitative, resuscitation of man as natural animal. For the whole hour that he spoke, I felt so disturbed and out-of-tune with his declaration, that tears streamed down my cheeks. I was wordless, immobile. Perhaps here in my soul could be detected smoldering, pre-Randian embers.
One morning Neil decided he wanted to visit his friend, a retired cop in L.A., so with 20 minutes of preparation (the way he liked it) and not a change of underwear or a packed lunch, we started out on the four hundred mile journey, hitchhiking. “So, how money have you got?” I asked. “None. I don’t need money,” Neil proudly responded. “But I’ve only got 79 cents,” I replied. By noon I was agonizing over how to best spend that 79 cents, finally settling on a celery stalk and a package of Hostess Apple Pie. A little after midnight, we knocked on the door of Neil’s friend in L.A. I was still ravenous, but as guests we waited until late the next morning to be fed a large fried potatoes, sausage, and eggs breakfast. That afternoon we made our return trip and spent the night sleeping on the ground in Big Sur near the roaring ocean, a treat despite the hard bedding.
Over a period of several years, I hitchhiked close to 20,000 miles mostly in the west. I camped out in parks, in the wild, under bridges; hopped a freight train in a cold, rattling, open, cattle car from Missoula, Montana to Seattle; met hosts of wanderers like myself, occasionally interesting, often generous, and sometimes nasty.
During this time I attended concerts of every major rock and blues group: the Jefferson Airplane, The Rolling Stones, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Creedence Clearwater, Otis Redding, the Steve Miller Band, Three Dog Night, B. B. King, Led Zeppelin, and more, dancing hours on end in ecstatic self-display.
One of my most memorable nights of that era was attending a standing-room only Wilson Pickett concert. This was truly the best of what that era offered—fabulous music. The brass players came out first, strutting down a long catwalk, dressed in skin-tight, metallic gold body suits. Here were these absolutely gorgeous male physiques. I was so close I could almost reach out and touch them. We, the audience, danced head-to-ankle with them, just out of arm’s reach, delirious with enthusiasm.
Not quite a year after my first Haight-Ashbury episode, I camped out with a boyfriend, HAK (known by his initials), for two weeks on an island in the middle of the Bitter Root River that runs through Missoula. We were two of nearly a dozen hippies bedding down in the sand and brush there. HAK had recently gone to a survival training camp for five weeks in the mountains of Wyoming. While waiting for him, I hitched rides to Portland, Oregon, then Berkeley, California where I was welcomed into a house of youths, mostly students.
Feeling as I was more often to feel, uncomfortable with my dependence upon others’ magnanimity, I left in the middle of my stay for a one week trip to a Redwood forest along the Pacific Coast. I stayed alone the entire time, naked (if Neil could do it, so could I), and cooked my food on a camp fire. When I returned to my hosts in Berkeley, despite a full body breakout of poison oak, they were inspired to go camping also. So, eight of us, two dogs and a kitten drove to Yosemite National Park, hiked eight miles up a mountain and set up tents for a week together.
“I’ve got a fishing pole,” said one of our companions. “Anyone want to give it a try?” We wound up feasting on some of the best food of our lives, gorging on tiny, fresh mountain trout. From there I hitchhiked alone the 1,000 miles to Lander, Wyoming to meet up with HAK.
Every morning I would climb up on the railroad trestle to get off the island and wash up in a nearby gas station.
“It’s burning oil,” HAK complained, referring to his 1954 Ford. “How much money we got between us?” “About $130,” I replied, worried. “Where are we going to go?” I asked. Silence. “I’ve got a brother in Montana. I guess we could head there,” I offered. Montana did become our destination, but part way there, the old Ford’s piston froze. We hitchhiked the remaining distance to our campsite on the island in Missoula. All that I owned was in my backpack which included one small dress. Every morning I would climb up on the railroad trestle to get off of the island, wash up in a nearby gas station, don my dress, and go job-hunting. I landed a job as a waitress at a hotel but lost it within a week.
In the years between 1970 and 1973 I lived in Montana, Washington, Oregon, and California, which included a stay in a rural commune and over a year each in Portland and San Francisco. Over time I became less nomadic, took on jobs, had relationships, and although my life in some respects took on the contours of convention, I continued to identify myself with the countercultural Left.
How did this bring me to that life-changing portal in 1973 through which I made my escape?
It is difficult 35 years later to put myself into the shoes of my former self. I remember my wretched discontent. It wasn’t due to something obvious such as a drug problem: although I enjoyed the occasional use of psychedelics, I was no pothead, and never was attracted to opiates or other addictive palliatives. Nor was I inclined to depressive episodes or suicide. I was awakening to the practical matter of supporting myself and wanted some alternative to the monotony of working at minimum wage jobs. My relationships had soured one after another and I didn’t know what to do.
I had come to a realization that I had no ability to frame the solutions to my problems or even how to clearly identify them. I didn’t see myself as an actor effecting outcomes except in the limited sense of being an instigator of adventure. Instead, I was a passive recipient of what other people doled out and I had no means of judging or comparing people or events other than their ability to make me feel good or bad.
At about 13 years old, I remember subscribing to the view that feelings are what really matter: I endorsed subjectivity, not objectivity (perhaps a not uncommon teenage error). A few years later, the New Left enlarged this for me into a guiding principle. But by 1973, all that my feelings could tell me were that I felt lousy.
But then in 1973 in that fortuitous encounter with Ayn Rand, I grabbed the tools that would enable me to take hold of and shape my life.
I was intoxicated with the best drug I had ever taken: Ayn Rand's heroic sense of life.
For months following Atlas Shrugged was intoxicated with the best drug I had ever taken: Rand’s heroic sense of life. I followed up that book with her entire corpus: fiction, non-fiction,
books, essays, and lectures, as well as recommendations by her and her associates. One of my favorite of the early recommendations was The World of Andrew Carnegie by Louis Hacker which through comprehensive and compelling documentation refuted the” robber baron” theory, a much needed antidote to the anti-capitalist propaganda I had absorbed.
During that first year, I bought an old Plymouth Valiant for $95 and occasionally drove it to the top of one San Francisco’s peaks to look out over the city and think about Rand’s ideas. From that lofty knob, I recall three thoughts: (1) Ayn Rand sure beat the pants off Karl Marx, (2) her ideas are going to change the world, and (3) I would like to meet her some day (which eight years later I did).
Thus began my process of self-education, recovery, and my journey to become a full and flourishing human being. Part of that process involved the formulation of long-term goals. Although my thoughts about career evolved over time, all of them included a college degree and so within a year I applied to the University of Illinois in my home state. From March, 1973 to August, 1974 when I left San Francisco, Evan and I were best friends, and spent many luminous hours and days together. When I started college, I wrote to Evan, but my letter came back “moved, no forwarding address.” I was devastated. I have wanted to tell him how much he and what he did for me meant to me.
Ayn Rand sure beat the pants off Karl Marx.
How, then, has Rand’s philosophy influenced my life? In a word—enormously. The most important principle that I have taken from her is the centrality of reason and, of course, reason as she defines it: as a faculty belonging to the individual, exercised by choice, and “that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses,” not some mystical, Hegelian notion. The other aspect of her philosophy that has had a great impact on me has been her discovery of the objective basis of the concept of value (and therefore morality) and her conclusion that happiness is the moral purpose of life. Rand once said, quoting from memory: “if happiness is possible, reason is the means to achieve it.” These are her words that I remember more often than any others on a day-to-day basis. They remind me that whatever situation I confront, there is only one way to optimize the chance of a good outcome: use reason. What does this mean in practice? It means reminding myself of my long-term goals and values and assessing matters in light of them. It also means facing difficulty head-on, instead of seeking the temporary comfort that avoidance might bring. It means employing all of my knowledge about the specifics of a case before drawing a conclusion and it means staying open to new evidence.
Objectivism is not alone in advocating the importance of setting long-term goals, but it provides a particularly strong framework within which to do so. Goals encapsulate values in an action-oriented form. Here are the goals I long ago set for myself:
I think I have achieved these goals although they all require on-going commitment. Since reaching financial independence, I have freed myself to work on defining a new goal to encapsulate my earlier desire for intellectual (or possibly artistic) fulfillment.
Tragically, while writing this, Larry Sechrest, my beloved husband, best friend, and inspiration, died unexpectedly.
Larry was an economist of the Austrian School of Economics, which Ayn Rand endorsed. What I learned from George Riesman and The Foundation for Economic Education in the 1970s and 1980s turned out to be pivotal in my investment decisions, decisions that allowed me to retire early. I will always be grateful to these scholars for showing me the overwhelming benevolence and rationality of the free market without which I would never have had the self-confidence to go forth in the business world the way I did.
My case is one of rags-to-riches, not of the wallet, but of the spirit. If there are some who don’t believe a person can significantly alter their course in life, well, please consider my story. But I have a question: if a hippie can “shrug” in the Haight-Ashbury, that is, “shrug” off philosophic irrationalism, why can’t Atlas shrug on Wall Street or in the research labs or universities of the world? Or, are some of you—each within the drama of your own story—doing just that?