Charles Littler's dream of starting an experimental community based on cooperation and centered around art began coming true one Sunday in 1968. He spotted a newspaper ad for a rundown dude ranch on 80 scorpion-infested acres outside this community. Price: $67,500.
"When I saw this place I knew I had to do it or it was all just talk," says Littler, then a University of Arizona art professor who had been searching for a location for five years.
He found 10 families, mostly other art professors and graduate students, willing to plunk down $1,000 apiece for a down payment and moved into the site, 35 miles north of Tucson. Today, Rancho Linda Vista is thriving, one of the few experimental communities founded in the '60s still operating.
Littler can hardly believe that the community he envisioned has lasted so long. "The first years were chaotic and difficult," says the 62-year-old Littler, who sports a ponytail and a blue stone dot earring. "Everyone had a different idea of what this place should be. I wasn't sure we'd survive."
Like other so-called hippie communities that popped up at the time, Linda Vista was a commune, complete with a ranch grocery store that ran on the honor system and talk of pooling incomes. But all that collapsed as bigger problems arose.
Scores of wanderers drifted in. A bus carrying the Universal Church of Music broke down in Oracle, depositing 30 people, some infested with head lice, on the ranch's doorstep. Some stayed for several months before they were invited to leave.
"People came from all over thinking this was a place to squat and do drugs," says Artis Hernbrode, an early resident. "Some came with a critical attitude because we worked and were trying to pay the mortgage. I remember one guy saying, 'You probably even use deodorant.' "
But ranch residents weren't exactly old-fashioned. Nude swimming in the ranch pool was common. So was smoking marijuana, dabbling in psychedelic drugs and free sex. Oracle, which at the time had 2,500 people and 14 churches, couldn't figure out these long-hairs. Relations soured when artist Andy Warhol came to Linda Vista to film scenes for "Lonesome Cowboys," a movie he was making.
Some Oracle residents and their children came to watch, not realizing that Warhol was shooting a rape scene that day. As the scene unfolded, pandemonium ensued. Picnickers grabbed their kids and scattered. The sheriff thought things were weird enough to call the FBI. The next day the hills around Linda Vista were dotted with dark-suited G-men peering down through binoculars.
Ann Woodin, a writer and 20-year resident, says: "People thought that's what it would be like out here--one long rape scene."
But the unusual had been usual at the property well before 1968. In its dude ranch days, Linda Vista was a playground for Hollywood big names such as Rita Hayworth and Gary Cooper. Illustrator Andy Rush says that history made it easier for the people of Oracle to accept their hippie neighbors.
"It wasn't long before we were treated like home boys," says Rush, a former Marxist art professor, now chairman of the Oracle Town Hall.
Over 22 years, Linda Vista has settled into comfortable middle age. The mortgage was paid off two years ago. For its 20th anniversary, children who were raised there returned to celebrate, some with their children. Residents are now talking of starting a graveyard.
Although squabbles are common, ranch life continues to be close-knit. The property is communally owned and bills are paid in common. Big decisions, such as putting in gas piping in all of the white adobe homes that dot the desert hills, require the consensus of the 35 residents. And the once-untamed lifestyle reflects the maturity of the community, with many residents shunning alcohol, tobacco and even caffeine.
"Art has kept us together," says resident painter Margo Burwell, who designed a 56-page brochure for the 20th anniversary party. "Everything derives from that. It's the common purpose."
The ranch maintains a regular schedule of shows in the art barn, a centrally located building that also houses 12 studios, sponsors a modest scholarship program and holds frequent poetry readings and concerts.
Founding father Littler, a small, intense man who bristles with ideas, has retired from teaching and is now organizing what he calls art camp-outs, in which up to 100 artists will gather in Western wilderness areas to make and show art that promotes ecological awareness and respect for the Earth.
Littler and his wife, Pat Dolan, recently won a commission to design sculptures along the nearby Canyon del Oro River. But whatever future projects he undertakes, Littler says he will never leave Linda Vista.
"I think of this place as a real life art project," he says. "Mondrian (the noted abstract artist) was a proponent of the idea of art disappearing and becoming part of everyday life. I look at this community as an expression of that idea."