My Visit to Vonu-Land in Fall 1971 By Jim Stumm

Editor’s Note: The following is an article by Jim Stumm describing his experiences in meeting Rayo and Roberta (or, Haelan, or Dr. Gatherer). It was first published in Vonu: Book 2, Letters From Rayo in June of 1988, one of the publications from the newly acquired batch. Stumm’s experiences and perceptions differ from the ones Benjamin Best recorded around the same time, although the latter was part of Vonu Week, and the former was a normal, unstructured visit.

Nonetheless, please enjoy and keep a look out for VONULIFE, March 1973, as well as this new batch of vonu publications.

Now & then people ask me what happened when I visited Tom & Roberta in Oregon in 1971. Twice I’ve written an account of my visit in private letters. But I’ve been reluctant to tell the story in print in the past for reasons that have mostly faded away by now. So the time has come to tell all.

I was corresponding with R.L. Gifford during 1971. He wrote in LC & VL using the pen name of Orion. Gifford was living in Oregon, camping out at “Jack’s place,” in contact with Tom & Roberta, having been hired by them to pick up their mail from their P.O. box in Grant’s Pass. G was encouraging me to come out, painting a rosy picture of an embryonic vonuist community there with great potential for growth. I was ready to make a change anyway & in Sept 71, after quitting my bank job in Buffalo, I drove to Oregon, intending to stay. The final push that led me to make my move at that time was Nixon imposing wage & price controls on 15 Aug 71. In my apocalyptic state of mind at that time, I decided that that foreshadowed the beginning of the end politically, & it was time for me to go underground. What better place to do it than with Tom in Oregon.

My car was a little 1967 Toyota 4-door that I had modified by taking out the back of the back seat & installing a board so I cd [could] sleep in back with my feet sticking into the trunk. Even so, my body just barely fit. I drove out from Buffalo to Oregon in 4 days (& back in 5), driving alone, up to 700 miles a day, sleeping every night in my car. G had sent me directions to a “squat spot” outside Grants Pass where I was to meet him (the spot designated “Grants Pass NE7” described in VL2 p.8). I found it at dusk on the 4th day of my trip & settled down there for the nite.

Next day I went into Grants Pass to announce my arrival. I wrote a postcard addressed to the Vonu po box & dropped it in a mailbox. Then I went looking for the GP mail-drop, which I found easily: a 5 gallon Olympic paint can in a pile of rubbish behind a garage on an alley at a certain address. I left a 2nd message in the drop & returned to my squat spot to await contact (feeling deliciously conspiratorial, as you can imagine). G showed up later that afternoon, having picked up my message in the drop. We drove to “Jack’s place” in my car. (G had no car, rode a bicycle.)

As soon as I began to learn details about the situation there, I began to find it much less attractive than I had imagined it wd [would] be. In his letters, G had tended to exaggerate, in his youthful enthusiasm (he was about 20 then; I was 27). Eg Jack’s place: In his letters G told me this guy Jack, who lived in California, had bought some land way back in the woods in Oregon, near Grants Pass, & was building a house there. G was camping out there, at the half-finished house, doing some painting or something for Jack, who wasn’t in residence while I was there. Before driving out, I had it in my mind that I might camp out at Jack’s place for a while, maybe even until Spring, until I became familiar with the area.

Upon arrival at Jack’s place, I found it very different from what I had imagined. I suppose it looked like “way back in the woods” to G, a city boy from New Jersey, but not to me. I’m a city boy myself, but I have spent a lot of time in the Adirondack Mtns of NY State, once hiking alone for 3 days w/o seeing another human being. Jack’s place looked to me like outer suburbs, thin 2nd growth woods. Apparently Jack had purchased about 5 acres from some farmer & the access road that dead-ended at Jack’s house passed right by the farmer’s front porch, which was maybe ¼ mile from Jack’s house. So the farmer had full view of all comings & goings. It wasn’t at all the secluded place I was looking for.

I told G that I wd [would] like to meet Rayo & he went off to make arrangements while I set up camp up the hill from Jack’s house. I was using a small canvas pup-tent & a thin rectangular sleeping bag. I had a good one-burner gasoline stove for cooking, but I hadn’t yet discovered the quick way to light it on a cold morning. My camping gear was inadequate for cold weather camping, & the nights were already starting to get cold.

That evening, as G & I sat around a campfire eating popcorn, G told me that a meeting with Rayo was set for the next day (Sunday). We wd [would] be driven to where Rayo was staying by a guy in the real estate business who was a friend of Rayo’s. Then, so I wdnt [wouldn’t] be surprised & confused, G went on to tell me what I hadn’t known before then, that Rayo & Tom were one & the same person. (I was going to meet “Rayo” & the real estate guy always called him Tom.) That meant Rayo’s “freemate” (wife) “Dr. Naomi Gatherer” was Roberta. I also learned then that Roberta sometimes used the pen name Haelan Hygeia. So, I had been expecting to find a somewhat loosely associated vonu community consisting of at least 6 people: Gifford, Tom, Roberta, Rayo, Gatherer, & Haelen. Turned out there were 3 people & some pen names. That put G’s claims about a vonuist community in a different, less favorable light.

Next day I walked with G across fields & thru woods to the real estate guy’s house & he drove us to some rural land he owned where Tom was staying. He drove by a round-about route it seemed, so I wdnt [wouldn’t] learn the way. Very James Bond-ish, but wasted on me; I wasn’t making mental notes. I believe this was a place where Tom stored stuff in 5-gallon cans stashed in the woods, & he was there temporarily, sorting thru his stuff. It was a nice meadow, near woods, with a stream down the hill, & a long view off down a valley. No houses in sight. Dead end dirt road led to the meadow. We spent the afternoon sitting in a circle near Tom’s camper, on overturned 5-gallon cans, munching on walnuts & talking. I’ve forgotten what we talked about.

My overall impression of Tom was favorable. He appeared 40-ish, skinny, but tough, Gandhi-eske (Gandhi-esque) looking. Strong-willed, kind of a suspicious guy; no one wd [would] call him warm & friendly, but cd [could] rely on him to fulfill any contract or promise he had made. But I knew most of that from his writing. He was, however, something less than the libertarian hero I had built him up to be in my mind. And I was beginning to have doubts about his vonu strategy. For one thing, he was dead set against owning land, but here he was using land owned by someone else to store his supplies, depending on favors from his friends to make up deficiencies in his own program, it seemed to me.

Roberta was a big, strong woman; overweight, tho not grossly fat, & hairy; kind of masculine. I went along with her when she went down a trail thru the woods to get water from the stream. She filled 2 5-gallon jerrycans, must have weighed at least 40 pounds each. I wondered to myself: now how is she going to get those up the hill to the camper? I decided I wd [would] make myself useful & carry one of them for her. But before I cd [could] make a move, she suddenly grabbed them by the handles on top, picking up both, one in each hand, & marching off up the trail. I stood staring after her as she disappeared around a bend in the trail, astonished at this feat of strength that I don’t think I cd [could] have managed. It was just her normal daily routine, I gather.

Before dark, G & I returned to Jack’s house. Next day I took my car into Grant’s Pass to have the blown muffler replaced. (It had blown in the Midwest where Toyota dealers were then as scarce as fish feathers. So I drove it, noisy as it was, out to Oregon.) That afternoon, or maybe it was the next day, Tom & Roberta drove the camper over to Jack’s place. As they drove in, they had a small accident that made a big impression on me. The camper had a glass door on the back, like a patio door. They carried a small trail bike outside, strapped on the back. As Tom drove up the washboard road, the camper started bouncing. Before he cd [could] get it to stop, the trail bike had slammed against the glass back of the camper a couples times & cracked it. When that happened, the thought occurred to me that now Tom will have to go back into that society to get a replacement for the glass. And it struck me as more than an isolated problem. It was also an exemplar of a fundamental defect of his vonu strategy; He claimed to be free of that society in some sense. And yet at any moment an unexpected event like this might require him to go back into that society for repairs or spare parts, if he wasn’t to suffer a decline in his way of living. He depended on that society utterly for equipment in general & for most of what he consumed. He was living on the fringe of that society rather than actually out of it. And only the sufferance of govt allowed him to get away with it. A more authoritarian govt cd [could] have snared him easily, eg simply by putting up roadblocks & questioning everyone who came thru: Where do you live? Where do you work? Etc. From that moment, the vonu idea seemed a whole lot less effective than I had believed.

But to this day I remain convinced that camper-nomadism is a way to live in reasonable comfort inexpensively, say on $2000/year or less today. So, living that way wd [would] give you a lot of freedom, not from the State, but from obnoxious employers. Such a low income wd [would] also free you from paying income tax & reduce what you pay in sales tax. And if you spend a lot of time out of sight in the wilderness, you can ignore a lot of annoying regulations. But it will not make you invulnerable to coercion. That overstates it. And if you get rid of the camper & move into a tent to increase freedom by getting off the roads & doing away with need for driver’s license & vehicle registration, that wd [would] reduce your comfort levels below what I wd [would] find acceptable on a permanent basis.

Another thing I noticed was that Tom & Roberta seemed to form a tight, closed society between the 2 of them, with not much need for outsiders, hard for any 3rd person to get close to them (more so than other married couples I have known). G was less close to them than he had led me to believe, not Tom’s right hand man, as I had gathered. And it seemed like G cd [could] flit off to anywhere at any moment. He did, in fact, leave for New Jersey a few weeks later, & he never returned to Oregon, altho my leaving may have influenced him in that. I saw no evidence that any other persons were likely to join the vonu “community.” So where did that leave me, I wondered. Pretty much on my own, if I stayed in Oregon. And I had to do something fast. It was almost October, winter coming, nights were already cold, & I cd [could] see that my camping gear wasn’t adequate for winter camping. That wd [would] have been an easily solved problem, I had money (cash, travelers checks, & a stash of gold coins wired up under the front seat of my car), but it was one more thing to deal with. I had to get settled into some place for the winter, not Jack’s place which I didn’t like, or if I was going to leave, I had to get over the mtns [mountains] to the east before snow started falling in the high passes. So I had to decide.

Overall, finally, Tom & Roberta struck me as quite nice people, like a friendly rural couple, a little shabby looking, the sort you’d fine on a remote homestead somewhere & be happy to have for neighbors. But I had been expecting much more. They fell far short of the super-human, libertarian heroes I was expecting. There didn’t really seem to be any room for me in their little community, us against the world. It wasn’t likely anyone else wd [would] join us & G wd [would] probably leave. So I decided I might as well go back east. If I was going to be pretty much alone anyway, I might as well make my base on familiar territory, where I had relatives & some other friends I cd [could] possibly call on if needed.

I had pretty much made that decision before that evening when the 4 of us spent some time sitting around the table in the camper. We spoke in general terms as if we were going to be staying near each other for a while. I didn’t want to say that I had decided to leave. I didn’t actually say that I was planning to stay either, altho I let that impression stand. I didn’t commit myself to anything in particular & no one pressed me to say what my plans were. I don’t know what I wd [would] have said if they did. I felt I was being a little deceptive & that made me feel uncomfortable, but I was loath to get into an argument with Tom by mentioning the shortcomings I saw in his vonu ideas. I still had a high regard for Tom and I was somewhat intimidated by him even tho he was not quite the hero I had thought he was, & I knew this evening wd [would] probably be the last time I ever saw him. I didn’t want to end up in bickering disagreement. So we had a friendly talk, & I was careful not to promise anything that I wasn’t about to fulfill. Later, in the dark, I went back up the hill to my tent.

Next morning, early, I packed up & left to drive back east without saying goodbye to anyone. I left a brief note at my campsite saying I was leaving. Later I wrote to Tom & expressed my doubts about the vonu strategy in writing.

My leaving was partly a failure of nerve on my part, but it was also a reasonable practical decision. What I found was quite different from my expectations, partly becuz [because] my expectations were unrealistic, partly becuz [because] I was misinformed by G. I was under pressure to do something fast becuz [because] winter was roaring down on me. It wd [would] have been different if I had come out earlier in the year, in early summer. Then I cd [could] have hung around, camping out here & there in the West, for a few weeks & maybe I wd [would] have decided to stay anyway, despite my disillusionment with the vonufolk. But then I wd [would] have missed interesting experiences that I had over the next few years in co-ops in Buffalo. It’s impossible to know what might have happened if I stayed in the West. The Road Not Taken.

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