Great American Stories

Utopia: It’s complicated Inside new-age and vintage communes

The first hint that this assignment will be different comes when a man, working alone in a hammock-weaving shop, spots me and shouts, "Unicorn!"

I back out of his space and duck into the room where I'm supposed to be: in a rustic building for an official introduction to this 48-year-old commune.

Welcome to Twin Oaks, a world free of bills and bosses, where gourmet meals are presented at no cost and saving for retirement is a pointless exercise. Sounds pretty nice, right?

Nestled on 450 acres in rural central Virginia, Twin Oaks is an ecovillage touting the virtues of egalitarianism, income-sharing and cooperative, self-sufficient living. It is home to about 100 people, young and old.

They live communally, but would rather not be called a commune. It's silly semantics, they know, but they worry the word smacks of "cult." One member recalls the family friend who tossed him a quarter before he moved here more than 20 years ago, insisting he call if he needed help -- as if he were headed to Jonestown.

About this series

Great American Stories is an occasional series on the unexpected places and unforgettable characters that help define the country.

Oakers, as they're called, aren't controlled by a charismatic leader, and they intend to be here, which is why they prefer the label "intentional community." Thousands of communities worldwide share this description, and they come in a vast array of styles.

Some are rooted in modernity, like 20Mission in San Francisco, where members unite over their interest in technology, start-up ambitions and code-is-king religion. At Twin Oaks, cell phones are banned in public spaces and even if they weren't, good luck finding reception. The industries du jour include tofu production, flower and seed growing and book indexing. Hammock-making, the dominant business for decades thanks to a fat now-defunct contract with Pier 1, remains important but is a fraction of what it once was.

This is the sort of place where someone with a Ph.D. in computer science is no more valued than a high school dropout who tinkers with tractors. Where a heap of rusted old walkers, pots and pans and stray file drawers is considered a "resource yard, not a junk yard." Where the observance of New Year's includes personal-growth workshops and instead of Valentine's Day, members enjoy Validation Day.

In so many ways, it's a bucolic bubble: a quiet refuge, detached from modern-day stresses and influences. No one goes hungry or forgotten. The guy who greets new faces with "Unicorn!" is looked out for as much as anyone. Some say it's easier to build a life here than it is to navigate the world on one's own.

I walk the dirt trails, admire the scenery, breathe in the fresh air, ogle at the mounds of fresh, home-cooked food served in the communal dining hall and can't help but feel envious. It feels a bit like summer camp, year-round.

But after a few days of exploring Twin Oaks and talking to its members -- current and past -- I begin to see an underbelly to this idyllic haven. In a way, life here isn't so different from life on the "outside:" It, too, can get complicated.

Spanning the spectrum

Some Oakers always knew they were atypical. Maybe they were anti-authority or didn't want the responsibility of a home or car, even a personal refrigerator or toaster. They may have gotten a hankering for this lifestyle after living in a co-op in college or on a kibbutz in Israel. Maybe they were misfits who hungered for a place where people accept them for who they are. Some craved family connections but didn't want to marry or have children.

The collection of members I meet spans the spectrum.

Wearing a faded flannel shirt, heavily patched old jeans and sporting a long white beard, Steve Bloom is the "old hippy" straight out of central casting. He welcomes me into the kitchen of the residence he shares with his "small living group," or SLG in Oaker parlance. His apron is painted with his image and the words "Steve's Pancake Palace." In a large pan on the stove is one of the fluffy masterpieces he serves up every Sunday morning.

Bloom, 71, grew up in the West Bronx and bounced around the world -- India, England, Sri Lanka, Central and South America -- before landing here 23 years ago. He'd had a taste of several intentional communities along the way, including one in Colorado. His mother was thrilled when he finally settled down in one place.

"A Jewish mom," he says, "she was just happy her son had a good roof over his head."

In the common area, others file in.

There is the 30-year-old who left a pharmacy job for a life where he can do work he feels like doing while being fed by others. A 35-year-old talks about how he always had trouble feeling understood.

"I like being surrounded by interesting weirdos and being rewarded for just being a good person," he says.

In pajama bottoms and slippers, Jayel Tober, 70, comes in with the help of her walker. She was supervising a group home for adults with intellectual disabilities when a colleague slipped her a copy of B.F. Skinner's "Walden Two," about an imagined utopia. "Wouldn't it be cool," she thought, "if there was really a place like that?"

Turns out there was, sort of. Established in 1967, Twin Oaks was modeled after what Skinner, a behavioral psychologist, envisioned. But scientists qualified to mold people's conduct and establish order never showed up. Hippies did. Tober showed up about 25 years ago.

Eve McCormick, 65, is another resident who says this place gives her the life she desires. But she admits it's not always easy. She's been here eight years and came from a nearby community she established a couple of decades ago.

Attachments are formed only to see people leave through the revolving door that sometimes is Twin Oaks. There was a time when as many as 25 people -- a quarter of the population -- would leave each year. I'm told that number now maxes out at about 10.

Getting things done can be maddening.

Everyone here is a "reluctant leader," McCormick says. In a world where consensus rules, and the 90-some-odd adults often have 120 opinions, she and others sometimes wish one person would step up and take charge.

Petty conflicts crop up at every turn, and survival is often an exercise in picking battles. There's a sort of irony to this, says McCormick.

"You have to be idealistic to live here," she says. "But you have to be willing to compromise your ideals to live here."

'A limited world'

Over dinner in Charlottesville, about 30 miles away, I sit down with a group of ex-Oakers to learn why they left.

A couple explains that they walked away when their desire to have a child together was met, by some, with outright condemnation. Because every new mouth means a further spreading out of resources and midwife costs come out of the community kitty, would-be parents are required to get a green light.

She'd had two kids already, in a previous relationship. Although they ultimately got permission, just asking to have a third stirred up more drama and negativity than they could take.

A man across the table realized he wouldn't find a life partner if he stayed. A woman next to him says she began to feel "locked inside a limited world."

But that narrow and safe world is what appeals to some members.

Keenan Dakota, who came to Twin Oaks in 1983 two classes shy of college graduation, raised two sons here. He says by living and being homeschooled at Twin Oaks, his boys dodged societal traps such as gangs, drugs and violence. Instead, he boasts, they gained life skills: how to feel comfortable with adults, build houses, think for themselves and negotiate.

"Many say kids need to be socialized," Dakota, 55, says. "But in my experience, when kids are around other kids they get worse. ... Here, teens don't become surly. Teen rebellion isn't necessary. Boys here aren't after girls -- because they're self-contained."

I look at Dakota's 19-year-old son Rowan, who radiates innocence and skips around barefoot. When he was small, his parents could find him in wintertime by tracking his shoeless footprints in the snow. He lets his dad do most of the talking but I want to hear from him: Does he feel like he missed out on anything?

He looks across the table at his dad and stammers. I'm not sure if he's afraid to be honest or is simply shy in front of me. I ask the most pointed question I can think of: "Rowan, have you had your first kiss?"

He blushes and tells me he hasn't. Sometimes he wonders what it would have been like to grow up with more people his own age.

Finding acceptance

It's not like just anyone can mosey onto this land and call Twin Oaks home. There's a waiting list, and has been for about eight years now -- ever since the economy started to tank. An applicant can wait months for a call.

Then there's a mandatory three-week trial period -- an audition of sorts -- to weed out slackers and drunks and identify who fits. Prospective members are asked if they've attempted suicide within the last year, Dakota says. If they have, they're told to "get healthy elsewhere."

That said, a number of members talk about mental health issues. Twin Oaks, they say, is a safe place to fall apart. And someone who may not function well in the outside world can get by here.

It's not a place to go to for therapy, they emphasize, but there's a care team that keeps tabs on folks. Still, in the confines of this space, someone who's off or struggling can wear on everyone.

Imagine, for a minute, that guy who talks to himself at work, says things that are inappropriate or flies off the handle a little too easily. He's the one you avoid in the breakroom. Well, in the mainstream environment you can go home at the end of the day and get away. At Twin Oaks, your home is also his.

Beyond all this, acceptance in the community is also contingent on a small living group wanting to live with the wannabe Oaker. Members have their own bedrooms in large shared homes -- big cabins, really -- but they share kitchens, bathrooms and common areas. Equally important, they share lifestyle preferences.

One SLG is more down with the polyamorous way of life than others. (I'm told a third of Oakers are poly.) One may not be into kids, another more kid-friendly. One might enjoy late nights and partying, while a different SLG prefers quiet.

Community members divvy up responsibilities, including everyday tasks like laundry, child care and meal prep and labor that feeds Twin Oaks' pooled income, which covers expenses like utilities, maintenance and medical and dental care.

Each member gets $100 per month of personal discretionary money, which is fine by those who live here, including Madge McQueen. The 56-year-old writer and artist has been an Oaker for 13 years, though she's taken time off to work on projects, travel and "engage with other parts of my life."

"Time and freedom have always been more important to me than money," she says. "I have a lot of time for the life of my mind."

Still, she bemoans some of the unavoidable tensions that emerge in a place as small as this. Take that ex-lover she forever sees around. Then throw in his new lovers.

"It's complicated. It can be a pain in the ass," she says of Twin Oaks living. "But it's allowed me to live in the way I've wanted to live, and for that I put up with a lot."

'The technology that makes it work'

The ex-Oakers I meet talk about what they left behind and what they miss. The friendships that spanned generations. The immediate sense of community and family. The comfort and beauty of being in a place where people care for the dying and bury their own. The freedom from sitting at a desk 40 hours a week. Afternoon naps in hammocks, the food, the pace.

They laugh about sticker-shock, the rude awakening they had when they first roamed grocery-store aisles again.

Perhaps they'll land in an intentional community again someday. They don't rule that out.

One ex-member, who left Twin Oaks after eight years when a close friend committed suicide, has never given up on his ideals.

Alexis Ziegler, 48, created other communities after his 1994 departure and takes me on a walking tour of his latest venture. He started the Living Energy Farm four years ago. The 127-acre property, not far from Twin Oaks, will run without fossil fuels. We hike up a hill, passing rows of planted fruit trees. The muddy road leads to the main house that's still being completed.

There's the solar water system, the composting toilet and the solar oven out back. He shows me how hot air will be pulled from the roof, replete with solar panels, and blown beneath the floor to heat it. Nearby are the tractors that don't run on traditional gasoline but instead on wood gas. I don't know what that means, but I'm still impressed.

I can't help but ooh and aah about what he's doing, and he quickly puts me in my place.

"The technology that makes it work is community," he says. "It's always a mystery to me why more people don't do this."

A different life

I head back once more to Twin Oaks, to meet with a woman who's on her way out. Sapphyre Miria and I walk past a tangle of old bicycles, a pasture of cows, a small row of solar panels and laundry waving in the spring breeze.

The trained biochemical engineer talks about her "great awakening" during the economic downturn seven years ago. She was a buttoned-up professional, married with two kids. She watched as her neighbors in Phoenix lost their homes, and corporate giants -- the entities she deemed responsible -- dashed off with golden parachutes.

She calls capitalism a "system of subjugation" and considers it "inherently violent." Suddenly, the "consumer lifestyle" she was living stopped making sense to her. She thought to herself, "I'm done. I'm taking my bailout, too," and stopped paying bills.

That was before the dreads, the tattoos, the piercings, her divorce and her name change.

"When I came here," she says, "my heart exploded."

But four years after moving in, she's ready to leave.

People aren't as transparent at Twin Oaks as she wants them to be. She's disappointed in those who just want an easier life, not a different life. She wants to be around people who talk about their grievances with the world, throw it all on the table and demand change.

"Relative to being a single mom in the city, it's utopia," Miria, 36, says. "Relative to what we could accomplish together, I think it falls short."

In December, she, her kids and her partner plan to start a new community in a small mountain town off the Appalachian Trail. There, they will further develop the business they started at Twin Oaks, offering regionally adapted, organic, open-pollinated seeds.

"It's not perfect," she says of this old commune, "but it's a start."

Being an Oaker has taught her plenty. She didn't find nirvana but she's been baptized in waters far from the mainstream and need never return to that sort of living.

We say our goodbyes as the trail we walk splits. She turns back to her world and I, for better and worse, return to mine -- bills and bosses included.

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