I attended the Oahu premier of Kauai filmmaker John Wehrheim’s “The Edge of Paradise: Taylor Camp” at the Hawaii Theatre last month expecting to be mildly entertained.
I walked out nostalgic for a way of life that could never be duplicated today and admiration for the hippies who lived it. Their stories stick in my mind, especially the lives of the women of Taylor Camp.
Filmmaker John Wehrheim says millennials who see the film are also in awe of the hippie lifestyle but for a different reason. Staggering under student loan debt, they are astounded to see people living in such freedom without worrying about finding lucrative jobs to pay off their loans.
“The Edge of Paradise” is Wehrheim’s remake of his 2011 documentary. He says he remade it to take advantage of high-definition technology, add vintage surfing footage and to include darker elements of the story such as the arrival of cocaine at Taylor Camp.
The movie is about the hippie enclave that sprang up in 1969 when actress Elizabeth Taylor’s older brother, Howard Taylor, invited 13 mainland haole vagabonds who had been imprisoned in Kauai’s jail for illegal camping to set up their tents on his oceanfront property in Haena, Kauai.
Taylor helped the young people partially out of compassion and partially to take revenge on Kauai County officials who had denied him a permit to build his dream home because his 7-acre property was slated to be condemned to expand Haena State Park.
The camp would expand into Hawaii’s most notorious hippie colony, growing exponentially to become a sprawling complex of up to 100 people living in tree houses, dropping acid and smoking weed in a clothing-optional environment.
Taylor and his family lived across the bay from Taylor Camp. After the camp became wall-to-wall tree houses, he stopped visiting. Wehrheim said Taylor, a scholarly marine biologist, found most of the hippies uninteresting.
Before seeing Taylor Camp, my stereotypical image of hippie women was of submissive earth mothers operating at the will of their male partners. But in the film the women look you straight in the eye, unapologetically tough and self-assured.
They were middle-class young women who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s when their futures seemed pre-determined: get married, have kids and if you work, make sure your work hours don’t interfere with your household duties. Instead they dropped out, ending up in enclaves like Taylor Camp, looking for more options.
“We were all searching for something that wasn’t quite what our families were offering,” former Taylor camper Cherry Hamilton says in Wehrheim’s 2009 book, “Taylor Camp.”
I talked with a couple of the other former campers.
Diane Striegel Daniells, now 64, came to live at Taylor Camp when she was 20. She was one of the few campers who had a full-time job, running her own child-care center in Hanalei.
“I had a normal life on Kauai except for living naked in a tree house,” she said.
Many who came to Taylor Camp were escaping from the Vietnam War, unhappy childhoods or even the law.
Daniells, who grew up in Torrence, California, said she was determined from an early age to escape from the fate imposed on women of her generation.
“I did not want to have to follow the pattern of growing up to be a wife, raise kids with the dad coming home to play with the kids after work and the women spending their time in shopping in malls. I thought, no. I did not want my life to come to that end before it was even started. I wanted every day to be a new beginning.”
Suzanne “Bobo” Bollin, now 70, arrived at Taylor Camp at age 20 with a husband and two small children. She was jumping probation from marijuana possession convictions in Southern California.
“I hid out in Taylor Camp under an assumed name,” Bollin says.
Years later when she was trying to recover from a downward spiral of alcoholism and drug addiction, she called the San Diego Police to turn herself in.
She said, “They told me, they didn’t want me anymore. They said they had bigger crimes to fight. I thought, ‘Fuck they are not even going to save me from myself.’”
Bollin did save herself and today is a great-grandmother who has worked for 20 years raising two of her grandchildren and working as a sales clerk at Hanalei Surf Company.
Wehrheim began photographing and conducting videotape interviews with Bollin and other residents of Taylor Camp in 1976 to write a book. The idea for a film came later.
He says when he was meeting with the printers in Shenzhen, China, to put together his Taylor Camp book, the Chinese men in the print shop told him they admired the amount of time he had spent to “build the Taylor Camp sets and costume the people.”
He said, “I had to tell them: ‘This is not a dramatization. This is real. They are not actors.’ The printers just couldn’t believe such a place existed.”
Taylor Camp lasted from its inception in 1969 until 1977, when county and state officials burned it down to get rid of the hippies and make way for park expansion.
The camp was an anomaly that could have existed only within the ’60s and ’70s, partially because of Howard Taylor’s generosity but also because Kauai’s plantation economy had ended but the tourism industry had not taken off, Wehrheim says. There was a socio-economic vacuum into which the Taylor Camp hippies easily slipped.
“There were only 28,000 people living on Kauai in the 1960s,” he says. “People were leaving the island to look for work. The plantation camps were empty but they had gardens. For the Taylor Camp dwellers, that meant food was there for the picking and there was plenty of building material from old abandoned plantation workers’ houses people could buy for very little money or even get paid a small fee to haul off to use to build their own places. Those days are gone. Kauai today is a tourism nightmare.”
At first local residents weren’t particularly bothered by Taylor Camp. That would come later as Kauai became more crowded and stressful, and more hippies came to the camp.
“People have to have something to hate,” Daniells says. “It is easier to dislike something that is different than to try to understand it by seeing the people as individuals.”
Former Kauai Mayor JoAnn Yukimura says film audiences at screenings of the Taylor Camp documentary today leave with a better understanding of the lives of the camp dwellers.
“The film dashes stereotypes by presenting the hippies as individuals living through the same sorrows, joys and challenges that we do,” Yukimura says. “Enough time has passed now since the 1970s for the stereotypes to dissolve. The stigmas don’t have the same power any more.”
She is married to Wehrheim and they have an adult daughter.
Yukimura says some millennials tell her after seeing the film that, “I was born in the wrong time. I want to be in a place where I can be nude and be free from worry about my success or my job.”
“Taylor Camp was a lifestyle that couldn’t last forever,” Wehrheim says. “It is sad that such freedom is lacking today. Student debt has boxed in young people and stifled their ability to be creative and experiment and explore and grow after they leave college. That opportunity is gone for most kids.”
Daniells is still living on Kauai, in her 45th year of teaching at the preschool she founded in Hanalei.
“We all knew it was temporary,” she says. “The state was always going to condemn the land to expand the park. Taylor Camp was like a dream that was so good you didn’t want to wake up. That’s why everyone there made such an effort to get along and be kind and helpful to each other. We knew it wouldn’t last.”
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