Early in the spring of 1994, I met a girl named Heather out on The Drag in Austin, Texas. "The Drag" is what everyone called a wide strip of Guadalupe Avenue near the University where a high concentration of street vendors, punks and hippies hung about.
That spring Heather could often be found sitting on a blanket toward the end of the Drag, wrapping strands of people’s hair in colored string for money. I worked in a diner near her blanket, so we became friendly.
I lived nearby, and one time she asked if she could come over to my house to use the phone. Apparently she didn’t have one where she lived.
"Sure, okay," I said.
"Oh, thanks a lot, man," she said.
She rolled up her blanket and spools of string and we walked over to my place.
She was pretty, with troubled eyes and a dyed blue streak running through her black hair. After she used the phone in my house that day she gave me a blowjob. As she was going down on me, I wondered if it was in return for using the phone, or if the whole phone bit had been a ruse so that we could get frisky.
Heather and I began a spotty relationship. Every once and a while she’d come by the diner as I got off work and walk with me back to my place, and at some point she’d casually begin to unbutton my pants. We never had sex, though. She had subtly hinted that this was off limits.
I gathered that Heather was sort of in transit. She was staying with friends; taking a break, she said, from life, with a community of pagan hippie folk who owned a big farm out in a small Texas town called Bastrop. This community was called the Zendik Tribe.
"They’re nice people," she explained. "It just gets kind of intense sometimes."
Like most people in Austin, I was aware of The Zendiks. They often cruised The Drag, selling their self-published magazines and CDs, and talking
vaguely about escaping the "Death Kulture" of the outside world. The Zendik men usually wore long beards and dreadlocked hair, and some of the women pierced their ears and noses with bits of animal bone. They didn’t stand out that much in Austin, but they were a curiosity. A friend once told me they were a "sex cult".
I told this to Heather and she laughed. "It’s not about sex. But they don’t believe in monogamy. It’s all out in the open."
Heather explained how new members of the tribe were placed under quarantine for about two months, meaning they couldn’t have sex with anyone. After this they were tested for STD’s and then free to enjoy the company of whoever consented without protection. The founder of the group, an aging radical from California named Wulf, had instituted this practice.
"Wulf hates condoms," said Heather.
I began to wonder if this was why Heather wouldn’t have sex with me. Maybe she planned, at some point, to go back there, and didn’t want to be placed under quarantine when she did.
"We can use a condom," I told her, but she shook her head. I guess there was more to it than that.
I told Heather if she ever did go back, I’d like to check out the farm myself.
"Yeah, maybe, okay," she said.
About a month later she asked me for a ride out there. She wasn’t going to bring her bags. We were just going for a visit. We left that afternoon.
The drive took a little over an hour and Heather was very quiet. When we arrived she let out a big sigh.
"Well, here we are," she said.
The place was very well kept. There was an elaborately welded metal sign planted out front which read "Zendik Farm" in spiky letters. As we drove down the bumpy dirt road a pack of dogs materialized to greet us. There were about fifteen of them, all barking loudly and howling, but no one seemed to pay much attention.
A pick-up truck drove by, its back loaded down with healthy-looking, long-haired young folk. Heather said they were probably headed out to do some work in the fields. We got out of the car and walked around. A group of kids ran by us, trying to catch a chicken.
A short teenaged kid approached us and gave Heather a hug. His name was Xed, spelled with an "X", he explained. He had a metal ring through his lip, and the skin around it looked a little infected. His hair was cropped short on the sides, a sort of punk look, and he had affixed safety pins to most of his clothing. Xed had only been living there for a few months.
We wandered around the sets of wooden buildings with Xed and as we did others came by to say hello. They all introduced themselves with what I learned were Zendik monikers, usually self-chosen, but sometimes with help from the group. "Talon," "Willow," "Raj," "Cinder." A woman in her thirties gave Heather a long embrace and asked her how the "walkabout" was going. She had grey streaks in her hair and strong, defined biceps.
| "I’m doing okay," said Heather.
"Who’s your friend?" asked the woman, looking at me.
"He’s just giving me a ride. I met him out on the Drag . . . "
We went into the kitchen where several people were cutting up vegetables at a wide table. Heather and I got separated and I ended up hanging out with Xed until dinner. Xed had come here from New Orleans, where he’d been living on the street. Someone gave him a Zendik magazine and he hitchhiked here to join up.
"It’s okay," he said. "A lot of work."
A woman named Fawn walked by and told him that, speaking of work, he should try doing some. He and I took some buckets of compost out to an enormous pile near the garden and as we mixed it together I asked Xed if he had a girlfriend.
"No, they don’t really believe in that. You can have dates with different people if you want. It’s, you know, to
break down all the bullshit."
The problem for Xed was that he was kind of young for this place, and the older guys got all the women. If you wanted to have a date with someone, and by that he meant have sex, you had to bring it up with the group first and they would discuss it. He liked this one girl, Sierra, but he didn’t think the group would approve of the union. Later on, at dinner, I met Sierra. She was very pretty and probably the woman closest to Xed’s age. She was nice to Xed, but in the way an older sister would be. I sensed, also, that she had other options available.
I had wanted to sit next to Heather during dinner, but again we were separated. I wished that I hadn’t shaved that morning, or even better, that I had managed to grow a beard before coming, because that was clearly the favored look. I felt like I was being regarded warily, and when I told people I was living in Austin they gave me looks of sympathy.
Dinner was a big communal affair where about sixty people — almost the entire tribe, I gathered — sat around a set of tables and afterward made announcements concerning chores and future activities. There was some kind of dance performance scheduled for that night, and Heather decided she wanted to stay to watch it. I wasn’t sure if I was welcome, though.
After dinner, as I was helping with the dishes, an older woman approached me and introduced herself. Her name was Arol; she was Wulf’s wife. Together they had founded the place in the 1980s.
Arol had a set of very intense eyes and somewhat mystical aura about her. She wore a thin headband with a feather dangling from it and had a small tattoo under her eye. She kind of floated about as we spoke, moving from side to side.
"What brings you here?" she asked me.
"I’m just giving Heather a ride."
"But you are curious."
"You are an artist."
"Don’t be bullshit," she said. "You are an artist. Or you want to be."
"I work in a diner," I explained.
"Don’t we all," said Arol.
And she walked away. Afterward, someone asked me what I had thought of "Arol’s wisdom," and I said I wasn’t sure. I guess I was a little flattered about the artist bit. Heather was off in a corner talking with a tall, heavily tattooed fellow named Birch. At some point they disappeared, and that was the last I saw of her that night. The Zendik Band had set up some instruments out in a barn, and most of the the tribe drifted over there to see the performance.
A heavy-set, dreadlocked girl named Raz saw that I was unsure what to do, and she took my hand.
"You’ll enjoy this," she said, leading me over there.
In truth, I didn’t enjoy the music much. It was a strange mixture of noise: screeching heavy metal and loopy New Age sounds. But the dancing was interesting. Several of the women danced about topless with fiery batons lit at both ends. This kind of fire dancing is fairly common now, but those Zendiks were the first I’d seen doing it back then. They said they picked it up down in Mexico.
Wulf Zendik showed up for the performance too. He had skipped dinner for some reason. He looked, I guess, just as you would think an old radical hippie poet who had founded his own tribe might look. He was kind of radiant, really, and wizard-like, with a long grey beard, a flowing robe and a jovial manner. He carried a carved wooden staff, too, and at one point he got up to dance with the fire dancers. Someone offered to light his staff on fire, but Arol said, "No, don’t do that."
Raz filled me in on their relationship. Arol was perhaps twenty years younger than Wulf, who was in his 70s. Wulf’s health was failing, but he still had a zesty sex drive. Several of the younger women had slept with him. Arol did not mind this. In fact, she had a younger boyfriend herself, and that relationship was about as close to monogamous as things got here on the farm.
"Arol doesn’t like to share him," said Raz.
| There were several women on the farm who had learned how to determine if another woman was ovulating by examining her vagina with a speculum. Something about its appearance was a sure-fire indicator of ovulation; Raz wasn’t sure what.
"I’m not ovulating right now, though," she told me. "I know that."
If a couple announced they wanted to have a date, and that was approved, a spec-check would be performed to see if there was any risk of pregnancy. The creation of some of the tribe’s children had been arranged this way as well.
Although I’d expected the place to be full of psychedelic drugs and alcohol, there really wasn’t so much of that going around. Pot was pretty abundant, but it was surprisingly weak, and the Zendiks smoked it casually, like tobacco. I assumed they grew it themselves. They made their own beer too, and this was very strong, but not so ubiquitous.
It had gotten very late, and after the performance I found myself staring into a campfire with a drunken Xed and a few other stragglers. Raz had indicated that I could sleep in her bunkroom, and I wondered then if I was being given a pass on the quarantine rule. At some point in the evening she’d decided to dance and was now covered in copious amounts of sweat.
I pictured a memorable, but not entirely enjoyable, coupling between us.
In fact, Raz had not been offering me sex that night. The bunkrooms were strictly for sleeping. I fell asleep by myself on a dusty mattress, which I learned later was reserved for the dogs.
The Zendiks rose at dawn for chores. I wandered about in a haze, helping to feed animals and wondering what had become of Heather. Our original plan had been to just stay for dinner, and then I’d give her a ride back.
Heather showed up at breakfast, looking sleepy and holding the hand of Birch.
"I’m going to stay here," she told me.
"What about your stuff?" I asked.
"I’ll get that later. It’s unimportant."
After breakfast, I went to say goodbye to a hung-over Xed, who had been
assigned to watch the children for the morning. He was being helped by a woman named Liv, who said she dropped out of a Master’s program at Cornell to come down here.
"I was just tired of all the bullshit, you know?" she explained.
It was a word I heard a lot while I was there: "bullshit." As I drove away, followed by barking dogs and a group of giggling, naked little kids, I wondered if there wasn’t something to all that rejection of the outside world. As I left rural Bastrop and entered the bustling city of Austin I passed by gas stations and twenty-four-hour stores, massive billboards, and strip malls, and yes, I suppose it was all a bunch of bullshit.
But pretty Heather was out wrapping hair on the Drag just a few weeks later. She told me Xed had also left The Zendiks, and so had Liv, who grew tired of the bullshit on the farm too, I guess. Eventually, the Zendiks moved away from Texas and down to Florida, for Wulf’s health apparently, and then up to North Carolina, where Wulf died, and they got sick of all the golf courses and fancy neighbors moving in. So they relocated again, to West Virginia, where they currently reside. Arol still runs the show, and her daughter Fawn, is apparently poised to take things over.
The Zendiks have a new business now too, selling T-shirts on the streets of Washington D.C. emblazoned with their copyrighted slogan, "Stop Bitching and Start a Revolution." Apparently business has been quite brisk ever since the pop singer Christina Aguilera wore one on national television.n°