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T.C. Boyle Reflects Hippie Era in <i>Drop City</i> - 2003-04-23

April 22 was Earth Day in the United States. As long as there's been civilization, there have probably been people who longed to escape from it. But the 1960s and 1970s inspired a whole movement based on the idea of living a simple, self sufficient life close to nature.

Many of those Back-to-the-Land experiments didn't last, but they're brought back to life in a new novel by the award-winning American author T.C. Boyle. The book is called Drop City, and it's about a group of hippies who migrate from California to Alaska.

T. C. Boyle is known for using an inventive style and offbeat characters to write about serious subjects. The environment is a subject that's concerned him for a long time, and it inspired a previous novel called A Friend of the Earth. That story was set some 25 years in the future. In Drop City, he writes about the environment from another perspective.

"I felt it's time to go back into the dim mists of history, all the way back to 1970, to see what it was like on earth then with the 'back to the earth movement,'" he said. "And I chose the year 1970 because until 1970, before the Native Claims Settlement Act was enforced, you could homestead in Alaska. You could live as the pioneers did, and that was the last time that happened on this continent. So people could simply go there and find a lake and say 'Wow, this is a beautiful place. Here's some trees, let's cut them down and build a cabin.'"

T. C. Boyle begins his story on the Drop City Ranch, an imaginary hippie commune in California. He said it's based on a mix of communes he's read about in books.

"Some were very religious. Some were political," he said. "But some were really pretty much free-form. There was a real Drop City in Colorado, and I love the name because it suggests you drop out and here you are, you're in Drop City. This one is very free-form. A really, really old guy named Normhe's 38 has inherited a ranch from his dead parents. And he's into this hip life. And so anyone who wants can come. No one is denied access to this land. Unfortunately, they don't really plan for housing or sewage or meals. Also, as with any community, some personality conflicts develop."

When local officials shut down the commune as a health hazard, the group decides to move north to Alaska.

"It is the last frontier," he continued. "There's no rules, no cops. Nobody to bother you. You do what you want. And everyone says, 'Wow, yes, Alaska, how cool, let's go.' And they go, and it's perpetual summer. They go during summer solstice. The sun is out. There are berries. There are fish in the river. It's just like the hippie dream."

Here's how Marco, one of the novel's main characters, experiences their arrival in Alaska as T. C. Boyle reads from the novel:

"When they reached Alaska in tact, everybody singing, sandwich-fed and hopeful, they pulled off to the side of the road and sat in a circle, hands clasped, while Reba and Tom Krishna led them in a chant. People lit candles and incense. The air was heavy with the smell of rain-soaked vegetation, of berries run riot and a sun that soaked up the moisture and give it back again day after day. It was a smell that brought Marco back to his childhood on the east coast, and he realized that this wasn't the west anymore, this wasn't California or Oregon. This was the same sort of environment he'd grown up in, the rolling boreal forests of the northeast extended all the way out here as the globe narrowed toward the pole."

But idyllic as it seems in summertime, Alaska in the winter poses harsh challenges the hippies aren't prepared to face. They struggle to survive with the help of two new friends, an Alaskan trapper named Sess Harder and his wife.

"The people coming from California don't really have a lot of survival skills, beyond stringing beads. But I've got two opposing groups of people," Mr. Boyle said. "The people who are living in Alaska, trying to live in the bush as a traditional pioneering way of life, and these hippies who really are similar to them. Yes, stylistically they're different. In belief systems they're different, but at root they're trying to do the same thing. And Sess ends up trying to mentor Marco and teaching him what he knows as he was taught by an older man. And you do, I think, learn essential survival skills if you have to."

T. C. Boyle did a lot of reading about both the '60s and the 70s and Alaska to write Drop City. He also took a trip to Alaska, and spent time in an Eskimo village. He says he didn't want to write a political statement, or a nostalgic tribute to a vanished era.

"I'm much more interested in telling you a great story, but which develops some of the themes that obsess me," he said. "This movement, the hippies, wanted to withdraw from our consumer based society. All of us are caught up in this need for products. So there is something in the idea of living more simply and more in tune with the environment. However, as our population expands worldwide, it seems less and less likely that anyone will be able to do that."

T. C. Boyle came of age in the 60s and 70s himself. He sang and played drums in a rock band, and says he did his own share of 60s-style rebelling and experimenting. He's now settled into a successful life as a best selling author and professor of creative writing at the University of Southern California. But he says some of his home town friends from Peekskill, New York haven't quite put their hippie pasts behind them. While he was writing Drop City, he took a trip back to Peekskill and went to a party.

"I said hello to everybody," said T. C. Boyle . "I said, 'Boy, it's great to see all you people. But I'm not here to have fun. I'm just doing research on hippies.'" Drop City was published by Viking, 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.