Sunday, August 9, 2015
"Out of the Woods"
Several years ago, David Withers, a zoologist with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, was digging for crayfish in some creek beds on the edge of DeKalb County, in an area that can plausibly be described as nowhere at all, when he spotted an unmarked road. He had never noticed it and decided to see where it led; after a short drive, he found himself amid a strange encampment. Withers stepped out of his truck and looked around. Cheerful, rickety houses sprouted from the ground like unclassified fungi, or something dreamed up by Lewis Carroll, but what appealed to him most was the barn; on the side, in large yellow letters, someone had written ‘‘Welcome Home.’’ Withers walked up to a shack that appeared to be inhabited and — overtaken by curiosity — he knocked. The woman who came out looked surprised. She told him that he was on a commune for gay, lesbian and transgender people and suggested politely that he leave. Later, Withers called his friend Neal Appelbaum, the openly gay director of the arts center in neighboring Cannon County, and told him about what he saw. Appelbaum explained that Withers had stumbled into Ida, a commune for queer vegetarians; the entire region was home to maybe a dozen rural planned communities for L.G.B.T.Q. people, a kind of sexually nonconforming Amish country. He also pointed out that the fading sign on the barn didn’t say ‘‘Welcome Home.’’ The last letter was not an ‘‘e’’ but an ‘‘o.’’
If you’re younger than, say, 35, chances are you don’t remember what it was like to be a gay man between the Stonewall riots and the second season of ‘‘Will & Grace.’’ You probably don’t remember bars with names like Traxx and Rawhide, their windows smoked to deflect the accidental glances of co-workers, bars with ‘‘Elvira, Mistress of the Dark’’ playing on VHS, where everyone who came through the door was greeted with looks of longing and fear. You probably don’t remember the Herb Ritts poster of the Pennzoil-smeared Adonis hefting semi tires, or the Mr. Fire Island Leather contest, or hearing the entire godawful Barbra Streisand Christmas album played over the P.A. while waiting for the bus outside the Castro Theater, or having to take that bus for a half-hour in the first place simply to buy lubricant, which was sold as illicitly as a bong. You’ve probably never heard an otherwise-reasonable family internist wonder out loud whether your sore throat might be seroconversion illness or the tingling in your fingers a symptom of H.I.V. neuropathy. You’ve probably never had a prospective landlord explain, upon meeting you and your partner, that the vacant apartment in his building is not, as the listing said, ‘‘available immediately’’ but needs to be painted, and that the painting will take seven weeks. And if you don’t remember any of that, consider yourself fortunate.
In those days, the social lives of gay people transpired mostly in large coastal cities, primarily out of public view. The bars and restaurants, the beach resorts and borderland neighborhoods became sanctuaries where, through a tacit agreement with the surrounding world, you could socialize mostly free of scrutiny and overt discrimination. For the young men who settled in these neighborhoods, even that Streisand record functioned as a sanctuary of sorts, by providing a common cultural language with a larger community of gay men whom they were counting on to be their families, because in many cases their actual families no longer wanted to know them. But for some, this notion of sanctuary did not go far enough. For some, the modes of camouflage, code and passing were tantamount to an admission of leading a life defined and hemmed in by others. And so they began to leave the cities in search of a less compromised identity.
In 1979, a gay rights activist, communist and Angeleno named Harry Hay — a founder of a neo-pagan countercultural movement called the Radical Faeries — urged gay men to ‘‘throw off the ugly green frog skin of hetero-imitation.’’ Instead of fighting for the rights that straights had, like marriage and adoption, the faeries believed that to be gay was to possess a unique nature and a special destiny apart from straight people, and that this destiny would reach its full flowering in the wilds of rural America. So it was perhaps fitting that the faeries began to refer to their secluded outposts as sanctuaries. There are more than a dozen loosely affiliated sanctuaries across three continents today, but in the same year that Hay made his pronouncement, the mother ship of the faeries landed on Short Mountain, one of the tallest points in Middle Tennessee. It remains home to what is almost certainly the largest, oldest, best known and most visited planned community for lesbian, gay and transgender people in the country, a place that one local described to me as a veritable Gayberry, U.S.A.
With its outhouses, goats and vegetable gardens, it doesn’t appear far different from your textbook commune. Until, that is, you hear about a spot called Sex Change Ridge, a network of hiking trails called the Fruit Loop and a functionary called the Empress. Many residents are known by names of their own devising, like Jazz Hands, Fade-Dra Phey and Helvetica Demi-Oblique. Twice a year, hundreds of visitors come to the mountain for weeklong gatherings that, sartorially speaking, make Burning Man look like the annual conference of the Modern Language Association. In the decades since its founding, dozens of people not personally cut out for communal living but nonetheless drawn by Short Mountain have settled in the area, most of them men, and they tend to refer to one another as the Family and to the area as the Neighborhood or the Gayborhood. Some inhabit one of the numerous satellite communities — places with names like Breathwood, Daffodil Meadow and Ida — and others treat the area as a part-time second home, coming here as much for the privacy as the fellowship. The name of the commune is no secret and can be found online with a few keystrokes. But as with Occupy Wall Street, its residents reach decisions by consensus, and because some harbor misgivings about being the subjects of stories and other forms of publicity, many spoke to me on the condition that I don’t reveal the name of their home in print. So forthwith I will call it the Commune.
Just about everyone in Cannon County knows about the faeries on the mountain, but over the past 36 years there has been pretty much no vandalism, no spray-painted epithets or slashed tires, no dropping of the commune as a wedge into local elections. The equipoise between the faeries and the county wasn’t a regional quirk or a sign of encroaching liberalization — the faeries lived in near seclusion and largely stayed out of politics, which is exactly how many residents of Cannon County preferred it. ‘‘In the South, we like to say that every man is king of his own castle,’’ Mike Gannon, the county executive, told me. ‘‘So if you come into this community and mind your own business, everybody will mind theirs.’’
All parties had been minding their business until 2003, when Neal Appelbaum — a 5-foot-6, bearded, bald, Jewish 47-year-old former C.P.A. — bought the old Paul Melton farm on Parchcorn Hollow Road in Woodbury, the only place here that can be called a town without using air quotes. He became one of the county’s busiest developers, landowners and real estate agents. He was elected president of the county’s Chamber of Commerce and chairman of its industrial board and was hired to run the arts center, where, in the Southern way, people call him by the formal-familiar ‘‘Mr. Neal.’’ Soon there were few aspects of the county’s day-to-day functioning in which he wasn’t involved. Appelbaum says that when Gannon’s term expires in 2018, he will run for the job. Gannon told me he thinks Appelbaum has a better-than-even chance of winning. That would make Appelbaum the first non-Christian, non-straight, non-married-to-a-woman county executive, the first without familial roots in the area and the first openly gay person to run a county in the South.
This dance of the Short Mountain faeries and Cannon County could not have happened until recently, because being gay in this country is changing more fundamentally and faster than at any time in its history. You have to look only to the recent Supreme Court decision that affirms same-sex marriage as a constitutional right to see the beginning of the last act for legally enshrined homophobia. In the decision’s wake, some have struck an elegiac note, lamenting the loss of a shared identity in the coming post-gay landscape; ‘‘The thing I miss is the specialness of being gay,’’ the playwright Lisa Kron remarked in an interview with The New York Times. I wondered whether the gay residents of rural Tennessee shared this lament. I wanted to see how the encounter between gays and straights was unfolding far from the coastal cities, among two of the most culturally divergent constituencies I could think of — rural anti-assimilationist queers and their evangelical conservative neighbors, both of whom happen to oppose same-sex marriage, though for vastly different reasons. I wondered too about the Commune’s future: What does a sanctuary signify once people are free to leave it?
It doesn’t take long to notice that Cannon County is an odd setting for a faerie sanctuary. On the mountain’s steep north face there is a stable that allows visitors to sip on tallboys of beer atop a moving horse, and at the summit there is a Church of Christ bible camp. More than 70 churches cater to fewer than 14,000 people here, a ratio that’s high even for the Bible Belt. Twenty percent of the housing stock is trailers. The last time national TV networks set up camp here was in 1994, when a group called Sons of Confederate Veterans nearly persuaded the county to incorporate the confederate battle flag into its official banner.
The faeries weren’t the first strangers to come to Short Mountain. Locals still remember when it was home to moonshiners’ cabins, and over the years the greenery here has shielded many wayward people from unwelcome eyes. With its limestone striations and sandstone cap, the mountain is a remnant of the Cumberland Plateau and resembles nothing around it. What is around it looks downright strange. The ground erupts in perfectly hemispheric hills that the locals call knobs. They give the place the topography of cheese bubbling on a pizza, one reason neither industry nor large-scale farming ever prospered here. The knobs are fun to look at up close, especially in the summer, when the steep hillsides blaze up like billboards of neon green interrupted only by handfuls of biscuit-colored Hereford cattle. Sometimes, when a dog barks or a car backfires in Cannon County, the sound, bouncing off the hillsides, can travel for miles.
In 1973, well before Sex Change Ridge got its name, about a dozen mostly straight political radicals from North Carolina pooled money and bought the land on Short Mountain from a retired couple. They were committed to ending the war in Vietnam and to improving race relations; the group put out an underground newspaper and had spent time in Cuba. In Tennessee, they found pockets of sympathetic neighbors, back-to-the-land types who had come to the area after seeing an ad in a magazine called Mother Earth News. ‘‘We were aware of gay liberation and supported it,’’ Milo Pyne, a member of the original group from North Carolina, told me. ‘‘The sexual atmosphere was inclusive.’’
By the late ’70s, many in the group had left. ‘‘Some people discovered that they couldn’t stand each other, and others were starting families and wanted a more conventional home life,’’ Pyne said. ‘‘I wanted the community to survive, so I began looking around for new residents.’’ While visiting New Orleans, Pyne (who then used the surname Guthrie and who identifies as bisexual) met several faeries and hatched an idea. He placed an ad in RFD — a publication popular with the faeries that billed itself as ‘‘the magazine for country faggots’’ — inviting readers to come to Short Mountain. ‘‘All around the country, there was a palpable sense of danger,’’ Pyne said. In 1978, Dan White shot a fellow city supervisor, Harvey Milk, in San Francisco City Hall; when White was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder, the city’s gay community looted stores and blew up police cruisers.
The early years were difficult, but a steady stream of gay and lesbian settlers, mostly from cities, found a long-term home on the mountain; Pyne was the sole member of the original group to stay on. Within a few years, the AIDS epidemic added another level of meaning to the notion of sanctuary, and for a time residents tried using it as a hospice. ‘‘There simply wasn’t enough medical care available in the woods,’’ Pyne recalled. Women formed a part of the community from the beginning but remained a distinct minority, a continuing source of controversy. Pyne left to become a botanist in 1985, by which time the Commune had become both a magnet and a gathering place for other gay men and women. ‘‘For a lot of older country people in the area, the transition from hippies to gays was almost imperceptible,’’ Pyne said. ‘‘All they knew is that there was a bunch of longhaired young people doing weird stuff up on the mountain.’’
For many men, the Commune became their first encounter with country living and a laboratory for questioning assumptions about the shape and possibilities of their lives. Sandor Katz, who lived at the Commune for 17 years, told me that when he realized he was gay, as a teenager in the ’70s, he became resigned to having to live in cities. ‘‘Years later, while walking through the East Village, I found a coffee table with a detached leg that someone had thrown away,’’ he said. ‘‘I recall calling a friend and asking him how to fix it. I was 28 and had no idea how to put a leg on a table.’’ Shortly after, he learned he had H.I.V. ‘‘Something had to change in my life, but I didn’t know what,’’ he said. Some Commune members he met suggested he visit Short Mountain; Katz settled there in 1993.
Off-the-grid living creates certain imperatives, and in his time there he learned to hunt, build houses, dig wells and preserve food. These days Katz, who is 53, writes about fermentation and food traditions and offers workshops a few miles from the Commune, at an 1820s farmhouse that he restored and expanded. ‘‘Urban gay men have become a deskilled class,’’ he said. ‘‘Having to learn these traditionally masculine skills was hugely empowering.’’ Sometime after he arrived at the faerie sanctuary, Katz and his friends began calling it the Short Mountain Refinishing School for the Butch Arts.
Amid the doldrums of late January, with New York blanketed in gray snow, I set off for Short Mountain, a journey that would leave my rented Nissan sedan with a partly detached front bumper. Having watched the sun set in the windows of roadside restaurants along Interstate 81, I reached Woodbury under a nearly full moon, and Appelbaum and his husband, Garth Hawkins, guided me the rest of the way to the Commune, a place I surely wouldn’t have found alone. Its entrance came into view at the bottom of a dicey-looking mountain road. We shared a late vegetarian dinner with roughly a dozen residents at an antebellum farmhouse that serves as the main meeting place and kitchen. I introduced myself to a young woman with a nose ring who was brewing a witchy-looking tea out of marigolds, calendula hay and something else I can’t recall. ‘‘Hi,’’ she said, shaking my hand. ‘‘I’m Altercation.’’ Someone showed me the way to the nearest outhouse — it turned out to be an open-air four-seater — and on my walk there, one of God’s creatures lurched across my path, passing so close in the unrelieved dark that the hair on the back of my neck stood up, reminding me of all the reasons I’ve never lived in the country.
I first met Appelbaum in the late ’80s, at the Midwestern college we attended, and it was already clear that he was interested in fixing things, an unusual quality in a society of 20-year-old stoners. Even then he tended to run things, because the people who did it before him weren’t as good at it, and because he wasn’t averse to the responsibility but actually courted it. After graduating, he spent a decade in Chicago, where he became active in Act Up, started a recycling company, bought his first property and met Hawkins, who is now a FEMA reservist. In the end, they found city living inefficient. They chose Cannon County because it combined two qualities that rarely coexist in a single place: a sizable gay community and a cost of living low enough to make full-time work an option rather than a necessity. It wasn’t perfect. The closest places to buy a book or an artichoke were 25 miles away in Murfreesboro, but for Appelbaum and Hawkins, the advantages outweighed the problems.
Soon after they arrived in Woodbury, Appelbaum learned that a logging company was selling a tract of land adjacent to the Commune. Its residents worried about potential developers and the threat to the habitat from aggressive logging, but no one had found a solution. With money borrowed from his father, a Ford executive who later made a small fortune selling cars, Appelbaum bought the 535-acre lot; placed it under a conservation easement that prevented clear cutting, overhead wires and overzealous building; subdivided it into plots; and sold them at cost to longtime visitors to the Commune who wanted to settle nearby but could not find or afford land. It was in this way that he appointed himself the benefactor of the gay hippies of Middle Tennessee.
When Appelbaum contemplates the day ahead of him, he scrunches his forehead, crosses his arms and juts his lower jaw out just far enough to reveal a tuft of chest hair sticking up out of his collar, a look that goes a ways toward explaining his high-school nickname, Nealanderthal. He tends to dress like a summer-camp counselor. He speaks in an uninflected monotone, so when he told me that his neighbor Ronnie Timmons’s bull got loose and was running up and down the road, I didn’t know whether he was joking. But he is in constant flux; motion is too mild a word for it. ‘‘I’m no good at TV shows,’’ Appelbaum told me, ‘‘because I can’t sit still for 21 minutes.’’
Applebaum’s intellectual makeup is unusual — he is fascinated by money, and sees its wide-angle impact on the world, and thrives at making it, but has little desire to amass it. The interest is almost aesthetic. He abhors waste of any kind; when I reached for a paper towel to clean up some coffee I had spilled on his counter, Appelbaum nearly threw himself in my way, like a halfback, and then handed me a sponge. (‘‘It’s O.K., Neal,’’ Hawkins chimed from the living room in his lilting rural-Indiana cadence, ‘‘he is allowed to use a paper towel.’’) The house Appelbaum shares with Hawkins — the first fully solar house tied to the power grid in Middle Tennessee — bears out this ethos. It is well built and sturdy, but the downstairs, where they sleep, has a concrete floor and bare plywood walls. ‘‘This is way more house than I need,’’ Appelbaum insisted shortly after I arrived. ‘‘Look at it, it’s a palace!’’ He drives a dented 2000 Chevy Cavalier, and rarely faster than 35 miles per hour. Even the pets are not safe from his frugality. Appelbaum believes that cats are ‘‘basically unreliable,’’ so he began naming his after the letters of the alphabet. He’s named the two that live with him now C and D, after A vanished and B was killed by a dog. The most extravagant object on the property may be the Kubota tractor, which, on days it isn’t being borrowed by a neighbor, sleeps peaceably near the barn. On some days, Hawkins, who favors cowboy hats and Western shirts from the Truck Stops of America, will sit on the tractor and puff thoughtfully on a cigar, looking like Jeff Bridges circa ‘‘The Big Lebowski.’’
Worry rippled across the Gayborhood again in 2006, when the Drug Enforcement Administration and a posse of sheriffs arrested a local excavator named Jeff Young — the charges concerned two semis parked on his property that were crammed with marijuana belonging to a Mexican cartel — and seized much of Young’s land on Short Mountain, much of it near the Commune. The Marshals Service auctions off land seized in raids to developers, but Appelbaum saw an opportunity. A zoologist named Brian Miller had discovered unique species of beetle and salamander in some nearby caves, and Appelbaum, after making many calls, found Withers, who was wondering whether consequential fauna might be found on the mountain too. Withers began digging up the creek beds on Young’s land and located two endangered species: the Brawley’s Fork crayfish and the Short Mountain crayfish, which was previously unknown to science. ‘‘In conservation terms,’’ Withers said, ‘‘that was a slam dunk.’’ Appelbaum drove to meet with every caliber of federal and state official and peppered them with endless emails, calls and memorandums. In 2012, when they agreed to sign over the seized land as a wildlife management area — the first such land transfer in Tennessee history — Appelbaum made national news.
In the meantime, he had branched out. He bought foreclosed buildings, hired a crew of builders from Short Mountain to renovate them and turned them into rentals, finding homes for many strapped members of the Family. Because sympathetic real estate agents weren’t easy to find in Woodbury, Appelbaum got his license. Soon enough, people began to call him with their problems, because he seemed to enjoy solving them. He helped a neighbor who was going blind renovate his home and helped others procure health insurance, dentures, a marriage license. A 69-year-old Vietnam vet and home health care worker named John Greenwell, a onetime resident of Short Mountain who was dying of cancer, wrote his family out of his will and left a quarter-million dollars to Appelbaum, who dispensed Greenwell’s money as microgrants that paid for water tanks, driveways, hearing aids, diabetic supplies and an additional 90 acres for the Commune. And the denizens of the Gayborhood would have continued their bucolic existence, except that at some point along the way, Appelbaum became interested in the larger place that they, and now he, occupied.
In business dealings, Appelbaum makes it a point to clarify that he is gay, a habit that occasionally irritates both his detractors and friends, including Hawkins. He isn’t confrontational about it and remains unperturbed by the ideological distance that remains between him and many local residents. When he was being interviewed for the arts-center position, he told the hiring committee, ‘‘I’m gay — if that’s a problem, let me know.’’ ‘‘We’re all sinners,’’ one of the men responded. Appelbaum and Hawkins married in 2013, at City Hall in Manhattan. ‘‘I wanted everyone in Cannon County to know the exact nature of our relationship,’’ Appelbaum told me.
His candor hasn’t exactly turned the county into the cast of ‘‘Glee.’’ ‘‘Neal never brought his husband to anything, and I hope he doesn’t,’’ said Austin Jennings, the 88-year-old former international president of the Lion’s Club and one of the county’s leading citizens. (Hawkins said that Appelbaum takes him to everything, but that Jennings doesn’t realize who he is.) Appelbaum ‘‘aggravated the crap out of me at first,’’ Charlie Harrell, the vice mayor of Woodbury, told me, adding, ‘‘I don’t care if you’re Angela Davis, if you come here and work hard, we will treat you fairly.’’ I was speaking to Harrell and Mayor Harold Patrick in a flourescent-lit office at the end of a long hallway in the one-story town hall. I asked how they felt about working with someone who was openly gay. ‘‘We don’t think of Neal as being gay,’’ Patrick explained. ‘‘We think of him as being a Cannon Countian.’’
Appelbaum’s eye is drawn to large-scale inefficiency, and after a while the affairs of Cannon County’s queer community no longer presented enough problems to monopolize his attention. In 2009, he read in the local paper that the county had lost its three-star status, meaning that it was not in compliance with state guidelines and was in danger of losing badly needed grants. The main reason was that the county lacked a website; none of the leaders knew enough about computers. Appelbaum talked a friend into building the website and offered to sell it to the county for a thousand dollars. ‘‘I basically kind of wandered in,’’ he said. Gannon took him up on the offer, and Appelbaum began wandering in more often.
Everywhere, it seemed, he found an opportunity to fix something. When the town hall and the local high school needed to replace its heating and cooling systems, Appelbaum found federal grants that paid for the renovations. He filled out the paperwork himself — ‘‘I studied that grant and couldn’t figure it out,’’ said Patrick, who is 69. Appelbaum packaged and sold Short Mountain Coffee, an undertaking that paid for a city park to be replanted, and talked the strapped arts center into leasing its roof to an investor in solar panels. In 2010, when Billy Kaufman, an openly gay heir to the Samsonite fortune who lives on the mountain, wanted to open a distillery in the dry county, Appelbaum introduced him to county officials and helped him gather the signatures for a ballot measure that would allow him to bottle moonshine. Two more ballot measures followed, allowing liquor stores in Woodbury and alcohol by the drink in the county — proposals that, by freeing locals from having to drive to Murfreesboro to buy their liquor, would reduce traffic accidents and D.U.I.s and keep hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue from leaving the county. Despite church opposition (‘‘The deacons said demons would come out of them bottles,’’ Patrick recalled), the measures passed, and now Kaufman employs moonshiners and other locals of all persuasions at the distillery and the restaurant he opened beside it.
To see Appelbaum in his element, I attended a meeting of the county’s Chamber of Commerce at the arts center; it was the first public gathering in the county’s history at which alcoholic beverages were served, and some attendees glared at the punch bowl. As everyone filed into the room, the two things I overheard were: ‘‘So where do y’all worship out yonder?’’ and ‘‘I think you know my wife, Pat Hercules.’’ John Barker, the supervisor of the Middle Tennessee Electrical Membership Corporation, opened the meeting with a prayer, and then the newspaper publisher, Ron Fryar, introduced the business leaders gathered under the paintings by folk artists on the walls. Nearly all the introductions were of the homespun ‘‘Y’all know Dottie of Dottie’s On the Square Antiques ’cause she’s a stone cutup’’ variety, but when he got to Appelbaum, Fryar introduced him with a sober, ‘‘Everyone here knows what he has done for the county.’’ Grudging respect may not feel as good as easy familiarity, but it is what Appelbaum prefers.
Appelbaum told me that the person who taught him the most about comportment was his maternal grandmother, a social worker named Dorothy Lieberman Gruskin from Midwood, Brooklyn. Gruskin dressed elegantly, and among her circle of friends, mostly other middle-aged Jewish women, she had a reputation for being a fixer. ‘‘She wasn’t particularly attractive, and she wasn’t warm or nice,’’ Appelbaum said, ‘‘but she was the person who would help a friend going through a divorce find an apartment or help someone with a job or money. I suppose I always wanted to be like Dorothy.’’ At his wedding, Appelbaum wore an antique string of pearls that had belonged to Gruskin. When he was being photographed for this article, he insisted on wearing the pearls, for once adding a bit of flair to his LL Bean uniform.
Being an aficionado of strong coffee and indoor plumbing, I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to see any more of Short Mountain. But a question kept nagging at me about why — in this age of corporate pride-parade sponsors and openly gay N.F.L. draftees — hundreds of queers still loaded station wagons and drove for days to a place where many people still believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis. So I returned to the Commune at high tide, when it swells with visitors during the spring gathering. It was impossible to reach the entrance by car, and I hiked along a plunging amphitheater of hackberry and wild paw paw trees choked by enormous, gnarly grape vines, so when the clearing finally unfolded below, I felt a little like Captain Cook getting his first glimpse of Kauai. Visitors of all genders, ages, shapes and colors milled about, almost none in street clothes or — as they have been known here since the advent of the Harry Potter novels — muggle clothes. Grassy knolls teemed with minotaurs, cyborgs, warlocks, Myrmidons, figures clothed only in metallic body paint or Pan-like ivy tendrils. A leathery dominatrix holding hands with a unicorn wished me, using the customary parlance, a happy Beltane. A solitary visitor sat on a log, wearing a T-shirt with a portrait of Oprah Winfrey. I passed two young men lying on their backs in the grass; one said, ‘‘ ... or maybe we should just pull ourselves together and get some coffee.’’
At the gathering, I saw sights I cannot unsee and smelled odors I cannot unsmell, but they are not what stayed with me. Unlike many queer enclaves, the place seemed to stipulate no demands; the usual hierarchies — of gender and race, age and attractiveness, money and power — seemed, for those several days, if not suspended, then magically indistinct. Food and drink appeared from dawn till dark, replenished by shifts of volunteers, and the only word I could think of to describe the attitude around me was ‘‘forbearance.’’ Most of those who had traveled here from all parts of the country were too young to remember the ’60s and early ’70s, and it was difficult not to see that the communal-living experiment, having been largely discredited and left with its chintzy, joss-stick-scented reputation, was being revived and pressed into service by a new constituency.
These were the thoughts I chewed over when I nearly collided with a tall, loose-limbed man in denim overalls who walked with a knobby cane. Two hearing aids framed a face that suggested he had been handsome. Hector Black grew up in Queens, served in World War II, attended Harvard and later joined the Quakers. He spent much of his life involved in political activism and maintained an organic farm in Cookeville, Tenn. He told me he began coming to Short Mountain when he came out, 20 years earlier.
‘‘While my wife and I were raising children, I was leading a double life with other men and finally decided I couldn’t anymore,’’ Black said. ‘‘I was 70. I haven’t missed a gathering since.’’
Just then two slender men in their early 20s, clothed in little but body paint, walked past us. ‘‘What are your names?’’ Black inquired.
‘‘I’m Artemis,’’ one said, ‘‘and this is Summer.’’
‘‘Well, it is certainly very nice to meet you,’’ Black exclaimed decorously, and with a wave of the cane he began making his way, step by step, down the hill.