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The Naked and the Dead: Daily life at the Slaughterhouse Commune

Article by Marty Rush

Part 3 of a 3-part series

Local History – May 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

The Slaughterhouse Creek commune flourished during the first half of the 1970s.

Cabins went up every year. Also rising was a geodesic dome where people could take saunas, and an open-air structure of lodgepole pine where you could get beer for a quarter and free advice. There were tequila, women, and song.

People came to visit all summer from other hippie enclaves in Salida and the San Luis Valley at Mineral and Valley View hot springs. Flotsam washed up off the highway with regularity, as did distant friends and relatives. Some people stayed on, seduced by the potent vision of the commune. (Not to mention the potent communer.) Women were captured, a few balmy enough to spend the winter, kids and all.

In the early 1970s, Slaughterhouse Creek was running fast and clear. But during the second half of the decade, as the communers approached or surpassed 30, the vision began to fade. By 1980, the only full-time resident was a mysterious middle-aged man who’d appeared from nowhere to rescue the Main Cabin from ruin.

The rise and fall of the Slaughterhouse Creek commune took less than a decade.

From 1970 to 1975, though, the experiment in alternative living was in full bloom. It was a surreal time to be living on Slaughterhouse Creek — or in America, for that matter. The country was catching its collective breath after the ’60s. It was coping with defeat in Vietnam and the spectacle of a president so corrupt he would have to resign his office. There was a dream-like quality about life in those years.

And nowhere was the dream more vivid than at Slaughterhouse Creek.

They were living on a mountain in Wonderland, miles from any civilization but their own. Life was unreal and not earnest in the least. It was a lot of play, a little hard work, and no sweat. Life was a gas, expanding and contracting as the pressure varied, but always fluid and changing. It was hazy and nebulous, but there were moments of brilliance and nightmare clarity. There were moments of awe, moments of romance and tragedy and farce, and moments when you felt the kind of closeness to another human being that’s only experienced among people who are family.

But this was like no other family on earth. They lived in a place like no other family, during a blip in American history that was also unique. They were the Cartwrights on the Ponderosa, the Mavericks, and the Fugitive. They were the Beverly Hillbillies on Gilligan’s Island and Mary Tyler Moore in the Twilight Zone. The early ’70s was a magical time on Slaughterhouse Creek, when time didn’t matter and legends could become real…

THE CONCEPT OF A NORMAL DAY on Slaughterhouse Creek is pure nonsense, a contradiction in terms. The commune was not a structured society. It had only two rules: no dogs in the house, and another one that nobody could ever remember.

If there had ever been a normal day, though, it would have started in summer, between sunrise and noon, when people woke up.

Coffee would be available in every cabin and at many campsites. The Lightning Bar, which never closed, had beer for the hard-cores, available by the bottle in a bathtub filled with snow. Breakfasts would be cooked and consumed, often in small groups, sometimes in large ones. Someone was always building something and organizing a work detail.

People drifted off to pound nails or cruise the forest for logs in a ’53 Studebaker pickup. Others might drift off for a hike or to go fishing. There were even more pleasurable activities on some agendas. But these were usually pursued at home in the near-privacy of a cabin or campsite, since no one was able to call before they came. Cribbage games were played, books read, and dreams dreamed. Some people might leave, others might arrive… days were long during the summer — a few seemed positively eternal, depending on what you’d eaten before your hike that morning.

As the shadows lengthened, people began drifting into the Main Cabin for the communal dinner. Cooking chores rotated among the dozen or so people who were full-timers at any given moment. Rice and beans were a staple. Soups and salads were always popular, as was chili and fresh-baked bread.

A few cooks subjected their companions to more exotic dishes when their turn came. Spaghetti with carrots drew particular notice, as did the squirrel stew. Lentil soup was the consensus choice for least-favorite dish, except for the wild pokeweed salad, which poisoned the entire commune and launched an all-night orgy of vomiting and dry heaves. That aside, the food was hot and good and plentiful.

There was usually a floor show after dinner. The Captain might tell a few jokes, warming up the crowd for the headliner, namely, himself. He played the old favorites in G on his battered Gibson — all night if it was a good crowd.

Occasionally, the audience would be treated to Earth Mama and her sleek Martin, or guest artists like Magic Fingers, a jazz guitarist from New York, or a beautiful Jewish folk singer from Denver.

Another favorite performer was a Druid friend from Minnesota who insisted he was Greek. He’d been a minor radio and theater personality in Minneapolis, which made him a major star at Slaughterhouse. A genius at improvisational humor and a fair hand with a guitar (or a windmill), the Greek was literally a one-man show. When he teamed with the Captain — that jovial and melodic master of mayhem — the results were, well, entertaining.

There was other entertainment, too, when the star performers had the night off. Poker, maybe, or a frenzied drinking contest called Indian. Also popular among the Main Cabin loungers was putting a match flame to the flatulent by-products of that evening’s dinner. The results were often spectacular explosions of light; these were rated from one to ten, based on criteria known only to the judges.

Finally, though, even these Olympian amusements failed to amuse. The guitars were packed away. People started drifting off to their sleeping quarters. Then the final act in the evening’s entertainment would begin, a normal end to a normal day on the Slaughterhouse Creek commune.

THE COUPLINGS at Slaughterhouse Creek were sometimes fixed…but not for very long. Life was fluid in this area, too. Couples were de-coupling all the time, and re-coupling elsewhere within the group.

They were supposed to be above permanent attachments, which reeked of Establishment values, but they weren’t. Hearts were sometimes smashed and had to be repaired. Sometimes people simply had to leave for a while.

Recovery wasn’t usually so difficult, though. Life was too easy to get hung up very long. For the women, there was the lure of other male communers, which was oddly irresistible at times.

As for the menfolk… well, anything was irresistible to them. They were hormone-crazed males in their 20s and ever-alert for any opening that might present itself. An Earth Mama or Jewish folk singer might bestow her favors at any time, without warning. Marvelous Mary, who stayed in the Main Cabin loft, might suddenly crook her finger at you some sleepy afternoon and live up to her name. Even the ethereal beauty from the hot springs, who’d moved in with Sven (and later with the Crafty Devil), might spring loose at any moment.

It could happen suddenly, or it could happen gradually, but it could happen and it often did. It could happen on a town trip to Salida, which had a thriving hippie colony of its own. Women could be lured from the Office Bar with visions of conjugal bliss at a secluded commune in the mountains. (The bliss often lasted only a few days before the abandoned woman needed new lodgings or a ride to town, a practice known as “throwing them to the wolves.”) Romance was also found in abundance at the Mineral Hot Springs, where they had hot-and-cold running women on tap.

The supply was almost plentiful at times. But women were mostly fair-weather friends — by October, more than the aspen leaves had vanished. Few women would tolerate the primitive isolation of a winter at Slaughterhouse Creek. When the snow began to fly, it was time to separate the men from the boys, and, unfortunately for most of the communers, the men from the women as well.

WINTER ON Slaughterhouse Creek could be heaven or it could be hell.

It could be heaven if you’d been a wise little squirrel and you had your firewood in and staple food stored. You needed some money stashed for town trips, too. You had to relieve cabin fever once in a while, do your laundry and pick up fresh fruit and veggies — $100 would about cover it. If you were really wise, you’d also ordered a cuddly bedmate from L.L. Bean to help pass the long winter nights. You could spend six months cross-country skiing and making love, eating fresh-baked bread and making love, playing cribbage and…

It was as close to heaven as most people ever get.

But winter was also brutal, even for Mensa-caliber squirrels. Skiing down the road to your vehicle was a wonderful excursion, but you paid for it later. On the return trip, you gained back everything you’d lost — about 1,500 feet in five miles. If the snow was fresh, you and your 50-pound pack were breaking trail all the way. It was tough enough in pairs or groups, but people also tackled it solo, then took a week off to recover.

The snow was brutal in other ways. Equipment and woodpiles and outs could disappear overnight, then had to be located and dug out. (Outs were outhouses without the house.)

If you stepped off one of the packed-down trails between the cabins, you could disappear. Snow drifted over second-story decks — entire cabins could disappear. It was an eerie feeling, being slowly entombed in your house as the inexorable snow got deeper and deeper. The Lost Jew went slightly mad one winter and began diving naked into the snowdrifts every morning to start his day.

People went slightly mad in other ways — during the hellish Winter of the Last Gasp, for instance. Four communers were snowed in (so the legend goes). Three — the Crafty Devil, the Captain, and Eor — were holed up in the Main Cabin. The Handyman had his own cabin up the hill.

They were all broke and listless, except for the unstoppable Handyman, who was broke and full of energy. The Main Cabin trio stayed in their sleeping bags every day until noon, when the Handyman came down to start the fire. At which point they went back to reading Louis L’Amour and started asking about breakfast. The Handyman endured it for a while, but finally left the land in disgust. The others eventually got cold and hungry and had to leave themselves, forced to face bitter reality: We have no money!

AFTER WINTER, though, came spring. The snow began retreating. Forgotten equipment and woodpiles were remembered. Bare spots appeared on the road. You could drive in halfway, finally all the way. Survivors were awarded their Byronic Hero medals and winter was officially declared over.

The Opening of the Road party was one of two formal holidays on Slaughterhouse Creek. (The Fourth of July was the other.) It was held over Memorial Day weekend. Prodigals returned from the four points of the compass. Friends from city, town, and valley came up to celebrate. They brought food and beer and musical instruments and a cornucopia of party favors. Women showed up, too, bringing all that and more, mainly themselves. Cabins would be filled to overflowing and you couldn’t get served at the Lightning Bar.

There were other major events during the summer, but these were spontaneous. They were often inspired by the arrival of some lively group or other, and many would pass into legend. There was the floor show at the Lightning Bar, when amazing feats of oratory left the crowd speechless. There was the Goat Sacrifice, presided over by the Monarch in his ceremonial Aztec loincloth. And there was Poot Melon Eve, which became not only a legend, but a communal tradition whenever people remembered.

It was a time for legends.

There was Pig Man, a half-man, half-pig monster who roamed the woods at night and kept the kids in line. There was the visit by the sheriff looking for Patty Hearst, followed by visits from fugitives who weren’t in the headlines.

There was the Bleeping of the Lost Jew, who may or may not have been contacted by aliens one night on the ridge. And there were other moments of religious awe. The Jehovah’s Witness who was found wandering the woods in a blizzard, wearing a sport jacket and tie, carrying an attache case. And the evangelist from Salida who came up all summer to save lost souls, until he stumbled on the sauna one afternoon and found the Earth Mama in all her glory…

But then the time for legends passed.

IN THE LATE 1970s, the vision of Slaughterhouse Creek began to fade. It was the inevitable arrival of middle age — the communers were turning 30 and recalibrating their sights. They heard the call of civilization, finally. It was a cry of long-forgotten needs: money and material comforts, security and stability, marriage and family.

Gradually, during the second half of the ’70s, the communers left Slaughterhouse Creek. They moved to Salida and Denver and other parts of Colorado more associated with the real world. They found jobs with health benefits, careers that made their parents proud, or at least wouldn’t drive them to an early grave. They bought houses and property in more conventional realms.

A few got married and bore children or inherited them. In either case, many became parents and made good-faith efforts at responsible adulthood. They built their lives on more solid foundations in the terra firma of reality, where dreams and visions can only exist as legend.

Slaughterhouse Creek is still there, though.

Some cabins are still standing and weathering well, visited regularly summer and winter by the former communers and their friends and families. The children sometimes ask about it, curious about what went on during that mythical time. They wonder what it was like to actually live in those remote cabins, in a commune on the frontier of reality.

What their parents tell them depends on how much they can remember and what they’d rather forget. And, of course, on how much they still believe in legend.

Marty Rush is one of the few people who will not immediately threaten to file a lawsuit if his real name is mentioned in connection with Slaughterhouse Creek. A former Salida resident, he now lives in a Denver suburb, where he works at a federal laboratory and studies journalism at Metro State College.