Going to the Left Coast

By Anna Schlecht

The name Olympia had a musical, chime-like sound to it when I first heard it. It was an early spring morning just before the breakfast shift at the Main Course, my hippie restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin. I had plopped down at a table of co-workers to chat over coffee and tried to catch up with the conversation. I was pretty tired, having spent a miserably long night in a third story walk-up where my sleep was shattered by a noisy late-night crime scene below on the sidewalk. Maybe someone died, maybe just hurt real bad, I never found out. But the whole raucous scene was disturbing, first because I couldn’t sleep, and second because I was afraid I was getting used to crime as a fact of life. I did NOT want to become one of those people, numb to the tragedy of others.

That morning, I heard one of my friends announce, “Yep!  I’m moving to Olympia!” It sounded like a mythical refuge from street crime, a verdant world of organic food, a promised land for hippies. It jolted me awake. Yes, THAT was where I could restore my endangered sense of humanity.

My worldly friend regaled us with tales of this far off place in the Pacific Northwest. “You can actually get a job shoveling cow shit on mushrooms! People live in cabins and hay bale houses!  And everyone goes to potlucks instead of bars! That last part sounded far-fetched to a Wisconsin native. But having recently gotten sober, I was intrigued with the idea of hanging out in a setting that didn’t involve bar fights.

So that was it. I was moving to Olympia.

Over the next year, I did as much planning as an eighteen-year-old is capable of: I found a U.S. road map, looked up a list of worker collectives in the Northwest, and saved money to buy a backpack. Done. 

While I didn’t realize it at the time, I was part of a huge chain migration of hippies all moving west in search of a better life on the “left coast.” Once established, the first migrants would write home, singing the praises of all they had found. Communes!  Endless forests!  And the vast Pacific Ocean, so much bigger than Lake Mendota! It was even bigger than Lake Michigan, the only body of water I had ever seen that stretched beyond the horizon. 

Those of us from the interior had grown up stifled by our families, even more so by all the rigid folkways that seemed to percolate up with the groundwater. Even in Madison, the city with the first so-called hippie mayor” Paul Soglin, the thin shields of our hippie culture offered only minimal protection from a numbing sense of pending doom, of assimilation into a life we wanted no part of. 

My inner soundtrack was filled with songs of travel. Joni Mitchell’s 1976 album Hejira, named for the Arabic word for “journey” seemed to offer a roadmap to elsewhere. I felt an almost biological urge for going, much like the title to one of Mitchell’s earlier songs. I was much like thousands of other young people, compelled to leave their homes in communities large and small, to find a different world where new ideas washed up on unfamiliar shores. By the mid-1970s, California seemed like a worn-out utopia, but the Pacific Northwest had all the alluring mystery of a newly discovered planet. 

And off we went. By VW bus, Greyhound, hitchhiking, or train. Some of us headed straight out to the countryside and started collective farms in Eastern Washington and Oregon. Others settled down in the small towns like Olympia, Eugene, and Bellingham. I knew that Olympia was the place for me.

When the time to leave finally came, I prepared to hit the road with my backpack, guitar and hopefully a companion. I had been chatting up my friends, trying to muster up a fellow traveler. But once it was time to go, all my hitchhiking pals wimped out. They were probably rattled by the grim number of abductions in the news, stories of people snatched from the highway only to have their remains found later on some forsaken side road. Buoyed by a naive sense of immortality, I set off alone. 

My last ride ended in downtown Olympia, where I tumbled onto the sidewalk, my eyes filled with anticipation. I looked up and down at what turned out to be Fourth Avenue, searching for any sign of the promised land: worker collectives, housing co-ops, or any other hallmark of left coast civilization. Instead, I saw logging trucks rolling down the street, groaning under their loads of giant trees that were bigger across than VW bugs. Sea gulls circled above me in a piercing blue sky, squealing over whatever scraps of food they spied below on the sidewalk. I breathed in deeply, finding the air filled with strange new smells—scents that I later came to know as the confluence of the Salish Sea’s saltwater and the failed septic stench of Capitol Lake—the Deschutes River that never should have been dammed. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

I quickly found the only place I had an address for, the Artichoke Mode, a collective restaurant in my little book for hippie travelers. It was easy to find given the hand-lettered sign on the window featuring a giant artichoke. But my excitement was short-lived—it was closed. I had no Plan B and must have looked pretty forlorn. Enough so that a woman across the street took pity on me.

Honey, they’re closed!I turned to see a red-haired woman in a light blue bandmaster’s jacket with a sparkly purse slung across her shoulder jaywalking across the street toward me. If you’re hungry, come with me and I’ll buy you a sandwich down at the Spar.” 

My rescuer was the one and only Laura May Abraham, owner of the Rainbow Grocery across Fourth Avenue. Unknowingly, I had the good fortune to meet one of the pivotal figures in downtown Olympia. Laura was what my grandfather from Milwaukee would have called a “natural-born ward boss,” except for hippies, not voters. Grabbing my arm, she steered me down Fourth Avenue to the Spar. 

Once there, Laura introduced me to everybody, including world-famous Shirley, the Spar waitress. I left my backpack and guitar in a corner and settled into a two-seater booth with Laura. For the next hour, she leaned back over her seat like a cabbie to chat up everyone who was coming and going. Clearly, everyone knew Laura May. 

“Hey, meet Anna,” she told everyone. “She just got here from Madison, Wisconsin and she plays guitar!” Apparently, that was all people had to know. 

I figured at least half the tables were filled with locals—guys with Brylcreem in their short hair and women with hairdos held in place with Aqua Net hair spray. Everyone else had massively unruly mounds of hair—curly, straight, tied back, or spilling out across their shoulders, even on to the tables—just like me. I had found my people. 

That first night I went home with a piano player named John Alkins and his girlfriend Jolie, the first of a long string of sofa accommodations. Apparently, my guitar was enough of a background check for them to trust me. John and Jolie seemed to know all the musicians in town. John worked for John Grace Piano Movers, a local icon in the small but growing Black community. On the second night of my stay, they took me to a venue called Apple Jam (a converted garage next door to the YWCA) where I met dozens more people. 

Olympia seemed magical—people with whimsical names like Moo, “free boxes” everywhere I looked, and fruit of all kinds hanging over alley fences, saying Eat me!  It was as close to a hippie promised land as I had ever seen. 

“Didn’t you say you knew OTHER people here in Olympia?”  asked John by the third night. 

I took the hint and packed up my meager belongings and left. Still unable to find my friend Sego who was moving here, I circled back to some of the folks I had met at Apple Jam and found an older man named Tom who let me stay with him for a while. Complete stranger. Dumbest thing a naive young woman could have done in a strange new town. One of a string of impulsive moves that I made. Thus began my stint of couch surfing while looking for work and somewhere to live. Fortunately, I didn’t encounter any mass murderers. Some folks were odd perhaps, but not dangerous. 

After a few weeks, the golden warmth of late summer turned to the cool rains of fall. Undeterred,  I sloshed around town, excited to meet even more musicians, activists and others. Slowly, I realized that hippies weren’t really the people I was looking for. 

Without consciously knowing it, I had moved two thousand miles away from my family to come out—it was other gay people I was looking for. Once I admitted that to myself, it seemed like Olympia was crawling with lesbians. In my daily flight path of looking for work and trying to meet people, I often circled by Laura’s store downtown, the Rainbow Grocery. I have no idea how she identified, but her store sure seemed to draw a lot of lesbians. They all seemed so much older and wiser, as everyone older than nineteen seems to an eighteen-year-old. 

Ultimately, I found a farm out on Steamboat Island Road owned by an amazing woman named Peg Wortman, though everyone called her Mingo. Her farm had a cow, goats, and a huge garden, but the real crops grown there were all kinds of crazy dwellings. Some of the cabins were conventional looking, others were shaped like octagons or other fanciful designs. My first accommodation there was a tepee, an indigenous dwelling from the tribes of the Great Plains that was dreadfully ill-suited for a rainy climate, even when I modified it with a patio umbrella that I found at a junk store. I wrote home about all of my adventures—how I learned to milk a cow named Mollie and helped my neighbors build new homes out of logs straight from the woods. 

My mother wrote back, only partly joking, saying, “This is just great, our family leaves the back-breaking farm life in Europe, comes to the new world—all for you to move back into the 1800s and live in a tent!

She was right, I had moved to a very different world, one that didn’t revolve around 1970s sit-coms, new kitchen appliances, or rigid gender roles. This new world was a work in progress, and one that borrowed liberally from many indigenous cultures in ways that I later understood to be cooptation. But there was an intoxicating sense of authenticity. It was life-changing to be around people who lived consciously, people who knew there was a different way to be. Like many other young, disillusioned people, I was in search of a place where those dreams were still alive.

In a few short months I had fully landed. Olympia had become my home.