I turned 8 in 1970, the year my mother got into the Ph.D psych program at ASU, the year we left the Bay Area’s happening scene and political foment and landed in Tempe, Arizona. Back then it was a small, flat, sunstruck town full of potbellied Baptist Republican burghers in cowboy hats, white shoes, and white belts, and their helmet-headed, pant-suited wives. In Berkeley, my little sisters, then 3 and 6, had been in the habit of going naked everywhere along with all the other little kids. Our first trip to the local supermarket caused visible shock waves; they did not go naked in public again.
Until 1976, that is. That was the year we moved up to northern Arizona, to Jerome, a town on Cleopatra Mountain, above the Verde Valley. This former copper-mining town turned ghost town had been reinvigorated in recent years by a scruffy bunch of Baby Boomers — artists, entrepreneurs, and hippies — who bought up the old Victorian houses and opened cafes and pottery shops and hung out drinking beer at the Spirit Room. It was just becoming a tourist destination: Winnebagos and campers jammed the narrow, steep streets in the summertime. In the winters, it was snowy, eerie, deserted. The Verde Valley was in those days a flatland of dull-green cactus and cottonwood trees, bisected into a rough quadrant by the Verde River and Highway 89A. There were a few dusty little towns down there – Clarkdale, Cottonwood, Camp Verde, Cornville, and the trailer-park cluster called Centerville.
My family lived in the ramshackle but beautiful former mansion of the Copper King himself. The Talley House was high up on the mountain, at the top of the cobblestoned, steep little Magnolia Lane, set into the mountainside, so the road wound up and around the back of the house at rooftop level. My mother paid something like two dollars a month in rent to the Jerome Historical Society in exchange for restoring it. She spent many, many hours stripping and refinishing the original woodwork in the kitchen, living room, and stairwell; she had time to do this, alas, because her psychology private practice had hardly any clients — no one there quite knew what to make of a psychologist. Consequently, the Talley House gleamed with gorgeous old wood. The roof leaked, the house was freezing cold in the wintertime, there were broken windows in the sleeping porch, and the plaster was cracking, but I didn’t care; I had always dreamed of living in a house like this – there were window seats in bay windows, hidden porches, Victorian curlicues. The front windows looked out over the whole Verde Valley to the red rocks of Sedona and the San Francisco Peaks and Mogollon Rim beyond.
I started that year as a freshman at Mingus Union High School, down in Cottonwood. Every weekday morning for two school years, I got up at 5:30 to curl my bobbed hair and bangs under, the prevailing style, with a curling iron in front of the propane heater in the kitchen, the only other heat source in the house besides the wood stove in the living room. I made myself a protein shake and two buttered pieces of whole-wheat toast every morning. This shake was made of whole milk, a tablespoon of chalky, sweet Super-Pro powder (very trendy at the time), a raw egg, and a banana.
I left the house at 6:30 and walked a mile and a half down Highway 89-A through the town and along the ridgeback to the Old High School to catch the school bus. During the winter months, it was a dark, freezing-cold walk. I was one of only four teenagers who lived in Jerome; the other three, Desiree, Julie, and Dani, were blonde, bubbly, popular cheerleaders, whereas I was in the gifted program, played the violin in the school orchestra, and had the lead role in all the school plays. Naturally, I was invisible to them. I did all my homework on the long bus ride to school as we wound through the little towns, picking up the respectable children of Clarkdale citizens, then the Indians, Mexicans, and poor white kids from the trailer parks of Centerville, then the “rich kids” who lived in the new development outside of Cottonwood.
Winters could be lonely and cold, but in the summers in Jerome, honeysuckle grew around our porch railings, massive, amazing thunderstorms crossed the Verde Valley every afternoon, and everyone had potlucks. The mid-70s were the golden age of many things, among them the casserole, the naked-adult party, and the uninhibited smoking of marijuana. Those three things went together far too often for my liking. I dreaded the nude-sketching potlucks at John’s sculpture commune near Sedona as much as I dreaded the naked Bacchanalian potlucks at Gary’s hand-made sauna in the Jerome gulch. My unself-conscious Berkeley-born little sisters shucked their togs along with the adults and other kids and joined the crowd while I, a fiercely modest 15-year-old who had been born that way, stayed fully clothed with my book in a corner, averting my eyes from the horrifying display of boobs and nutsacks and butts and, oh my God, penises, dangling softly while dudes squatted over their sketchpads. I craved the invisibility of the school bus at these parties, but of course my family teased me for being such a puritan.
I made my escape in the fall of 1978, when I went East to finish high school at Green Meadow Waldorf School in Spring Valley, New York. The adults stayed clothed there, at least in public. Of course, many of them, including some of my teachers, slept with high-school students, but it was the 70s. What did I expect?
Naked-Potluck Lentil-Carrot Casserole
Into an avocado-green crockpot with funky paisley designs, put a pound of dried lentils, three grated carrots, a cup of brown rice, some salt, and a heaping tablespoon of curry powder. Cover with water, turn on, and leave all day. Bring to John’s sculpture commune, get naked, smoke some pot, and serve alongside soybean-mung sprout casserole, broccoli-walnut casserole, tofu-cauliflower casserole, and squash-wheatberry casserole.