Huerfano: A memoir of life in the counter-culture, by Roberta Price

Review by Abby Quillen

Local History – April 2005 – Colorado Central Magazine

Huerfano: A memoir of life in the counterculture
by Roberta Price
Published in 2004 by University of Massachusetts Press
ISBN: 1-55849-469-3

ROBERTA PRICE BEGINS her memoir of life in the counterculture in 1970. Che Guevera, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Bobby Kennedy are already dead. Richard Nixon is escalating the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Four students are shot at Kent State by the National Guard. Many classes at SUNY Buffalo, where Roberta and her husband David are graduate students, are canceled after some unemployed steelworkers drive through campus shooting at long-haired hippie students.

It is that winter – a long, cold, cloudy one in Buffalo, New York – when Roberta and David decide to stop protesting against the war, and leave graduate school (and David’s draft deferment) behind, to carve out a new life for themselves high up in the Colorado mountains.

The previous summer, Roberta had gotten a faculty fund grant to study and photograph the communes that were cropping up in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. With a Corvair camper, a kilo of marijuana, and a Pentax Spotmatix camera, she and David toured through communes called Drop City, New Buffalo, Reality Construction Company, Morning Star, and the Lama Foundation. But, the one they fell in love with was Libre, a scattering of geodesic domes, zomes, adobes, and log cabins in the Huerfano or “orphan” valley of Colorado. Roberta had never been to the West before, had never seen mountains rising out of a valley floor, and as she looked out at the Sangre de Cristo range, her heart beat faster with “the exhilaration of seeing great distances.”

Libre wasn’t exactly communal as communes went. There were a few pooled expenses, but couples were pretty much on their own. It was populated by intellectuals; enough residents held post-doctoral degrees that it was registered with the state as a non-profit school. Unlike the other communes they’d visited, where Roberta felt disheartened to see the women in their traditional roles – working in the kitchen, taking care of the children — Libre seemed like the place she and David wanted to live, a place where artists and writers and poets came to be creative. It would be a model for others to follow: proof that it was not only possible, but better to build your own home, grow your own food, and make your own clothes.

HUERFANO is not exactly the story of a generation. Relatively few hippies chose to live off of the land in the late sixties and early seventies. But something about the idea of the hippie commune has captured the American imagination, be it the residents’ rejection of materialism, their experimentation with psychedelic drugs, or their “free love” philosophy. Roberta Price doesn’t leave any of it out. Huerfano is an intensely honest memoir, full of youthful indiscretions that most middle-aged women with two children and a second husband might be embarrassed to write about.

It’s fortunate that Roberta Price is more courageous than most. And it’s even more fortunate that she seems to remember more about the early seventies than I remember about last month. Price is a capable and straight-forward writer, and she offers a lively account of her seven years building a life at Libre. It is a story with a large and sometimes confusing cast of characters, but it never gets boring.

Price doesn’t glorify commune life or glaze over the hard parts. Despite her initial reservations, she and David seek to avoid the oppressiveness of their parents’ marriages by forging ahead with an open relationship, but the jealousy and heartbreak that comes with having multiple partners turns out to be just as oppressive. They choose to live in a community with like-minded people, but as in any community, some of their neighbors are crazy, others are mean, and it frequently isn’t easy to get along.

And, then there are the hardships of every day life without running water and electricity on an often impassable road high in the Colorado mountains. The first winter, Roberta and David hitch-hiked to Florida because living in their hardly-finished house proves intolerable in fifty-below-zero weather.

All of this probably explains why the communes of the late sixties and early seventies are all but gone, and why Roberta’s time at Libre spans only seven years. But, Price also captures the hopefulness that was the driving force of commune life. Here were a group of young people faced with tough times who really believed that they could create a utopia. They were convinced that they could make the world a better place. And, even though it seems strange now that a handful of hippies thought that they could change the world by dropping out of society, doing a lot of drugs, crossing sexual boundaries, and building tiny communities up in the mountains, the spirit that drove them to do it is contagious.

If the drugs and sex of commune life turn you off, and you’re not impressed that Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, and Baba Ram Dass are minor characters in Price’s tale, Huerfano has other things going for it. It’s the story of an eastern girl who falls in love with the West and is beguiled by the Sangre de Cristo mountains. It’s the tale of a city girl who learns to raise goats, frame houses, blow dynamite, mix cement, split wood, and start fires, who rides bareback, takes photos, and comes of age in the mountains. It’s not always easy to identify with Price’s choices; sometimes I found it impossible, but it’s hard not to be thankful that she’s willing to share them with us.

At the end of the book Price writes that she learned many things the hard way at Libre. “Yet, unbridled possibilities are what we saw in the Huerfano, and what we took away.” Since we can probably all use some of those, and because Huerfano’s a fast and entertaining read, I recommend it to old hippies and non-hippies alike.