My accidental sleep over with a cult
August 3, 2015
I docked my canoe at Watermelon Campground at last. I had just paddled about 150 miles on the Shenandoah River, which flows parallel to the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia. Hikers call this aqua-blazing, as opposed to following the white blazes that mark the Appalachian Trail.
Now I needed to catch a train in Harper’s Ferry to Washington D.C. From D.C. I’d travel to N.Y., where I’d hike another section of the Appalachian Trail. Unfortunately, Harper’s Ferry was about 30 miles away and I had only $60 left in my bank account, so I searched my guidebook for a cheap place to stay. Stoneybrook, a nearby organic farm, offered “work for stay.” I called them and was thrilled when they said they’d pick me up, feed me, house me for the night and drive me to Harper’s Ferry the next day all for free, even if I didn’t have time to actually work. Within the hour, an older woman in homespun clothes picked me up in her station wagon. Stoneybrook, she said, was not only an organic farm, but a religious commune called the Twelve Tribes of Israel community.
Dang-it. I’d been bait-and-switched.
During an Appalachian Trail section hike in Vermont the previous year I’d first heard of the Twelve Tribes community, who also have a farm close to the trail in Rutland, Vermont. Hikers, including some who’d volunteered and stayed on the farm, told me various stories about the commune. One hiker said they enforced a 10 o’clock bedtime, but only for guests who are women. Another repeated a rumor about a young thru-hiker who got sucked into the Twelve Tribes and was trapped baking bread in their basement until his parents came to his rescue. Other hikers said they were harmless.
I remembered buying an energy bar from the Twelve Tribes tent at the Trail Days Festival in Damascus, V.A. Regardless, I was surprised my guidebook did not mention that Stoneybrook Farm was a religious organization. Appalachian Trail resources I’d encountered usually mentioned if a religious institution provided service. Even most trail magic – random acts of kindness from strangers on the trail- I’d found would acknowledge sponsorship by a church or religious organization. Whatever the truth about Stoneybrook Farm, I felt tricked and was worried about staying with a religious commune. I would have much preferred a secular hostel with a microwave and a solid collection of VHSes. But we were already on our way.
Arriving at Stoneybrook Farm, I felt like I was entering an American Girl Doll historical chapter book. People in loose homespun clothing moseyed around the farm’s compound, finishing up their evening chores. Up the hill from the main house people were constructing small huts. These would be bunk-houses to host even more Appalachian Trail hikers, said my driver, who was also the farm’s school teacher. Almost all the young women I saw were holding babies. People greeted me and made intense eye contact. Every conversation ended with, “How long are you staying with us?” and “I wish you could stay with us longer.” I thought of the expression , “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” but Stoneybrook Farm’s nectar was the maté, a caffeinated herbal drink, often pronounced “matay.” The community had already eaten dinner, but some of them took me to their dining room and served me fruit, a bowl of gruel and a steaming cup of maté. While I ate, the school-teacher sat beside me and spoke with a distressed young woman wearing jeans and holding a cell-phone, an outsider, I thought. They talked about her plans to quit her job that weekend and join the community.
After I ate, the teacher showed me around the farm, then took me to her bedroom and offered me a twin-sized bed parallel to her own. She lent me a pair of homespun balloon pants to wear while I did my laundry. Then sorted my backpack and she graded geography tests. One kid, she said, had answered that Ohio was a country and another wrote that Spain was a continent. “Maybe we should review geography. Mostly we just teach proverbs.” Their children study for half a day, she explained, then do farm work.
After my much needed bath, it was bedtime. I asked the teacher if they had a book I could read. My copy of Kraukauer’s Into Thin Air got destroyed during my aquablaze, when my canoe was pinned against a rock and flooded with water. “We have the book,” the teacher said.
There were no novels, magazines, newpapers or non- Twelve Tribes literature on the farm. So I nestled into my bed, parallel to the teacher’s matching bed, and read a propaganda pamphlet. It said that members must disconnect from their friends and families outside of the community, renounce their worldly possessions and work in the community’s organic delis and markets for free. I text-messaged several friends and my older sister: “Staying with a cult for the night, hope I don’t get sucked in.”
The teacher woke me around 5 a.m. to get dressed and attend their religious circle. First she brought me to the main house. Families flowed into the kitchen and gathered around a pot of brewing maté. Even the children ladled maté into their cups for their morning fix. Next we sat in an outdoor tent area, our chairs in a circle, and the ceremony began around 6 a.m. A young man with a full blond beard started guitar. He looked like he could have been a member of the band Fleet Foxes. They sang songs about Yahshua, a pseudo-Hebrew word for Jesus. I felt rude sitting and drinking my maté while the community stood with their hands in the air, so I put down my mug and started waving my arms, too. After more Yahshua songs, an elderly woman shared her conversion story. She said she was in financial ruins before she joined the Twelve Tribes. Next an older man gave a speech, saying that the cultural movements of the 1960s were all failures, therefore people should join the Twelve Tribes Community. He stressed the importance of authority to the Twelve Tribes: “Children must be spanked if they disobey. Women must listen to their husbands and authority figures.” He mentioned George Orwell’s 1984 and said that people in the news use “double speak,” like in the book. Actually, he was combining Orwell’s terms, “newspeak” and “double-think.” I wondered if 1984’s anti-authority, anti-censorship themes had made any impression on him. Then he directed his speech at me: “Hikers and canoe-ers are just like us. We’re both looking for something, we are searchers.” I gulped down the rest of my maté. The circle concluded and it was breakfast time.
Though Stoneybrook Farm serves gourmet treats and artisanal bread in their organic delis, the people on the farm seemed mostly to eat gruel. The women at my table said again they wished I could stay longer. They asked what I was going to do later that day. I’d been planning to stop at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in D.C., as I’d longed to see their dinosaur exhibit since I was a kid. But was the existence of dinosaurs controversial for the twelve Tribes? I wasn’t sure, so I avoided the subject. After breakfast, I used the restroom. When I came out, the teacher was praying discreetly beside the door. Annoyed because she was so clingy, I thought I’d branch out and make other “cult” friends. I offered to help a mother with her morning chores. While she folded laundry, I babysat her toddler and four year old daughter. What is life like for women on the farm? I asked. Most girls think about getting married throughout their childhood, she said, and usually marry between 17 and 19 years old. She’d joined the Twelve Tribes Community in her late 20s and was paired up with another man who’d also recently joined. While she changed the bed sheets upstairs, she mentioned she didn’t like having to do all the housework for her husband and family.
Afterwards, the mother brought her children and me to the bakery where her next chores would begin. The guitarist from the morning circle was kneading dough. He smiled and asked, “Where are you from?”
“Upstate New York,” I said.
Would this be my cult husband if I stayed here? I was 24 and a half then, probably an old maid by Twelve Tribes standards, but still within breeding age. I could wed this beautiful brainwashed hipster, procreate and make artisanal bread for the rest of my life. Wait, no! I snapped out of my delusion. I have ambitions. I want to see the dinosaur exhibit. I want to hike the Appalachian Trail, one section at a time.
“We have lots of mice here,” the little girl told me.
“You’re not supposed to tell Cyndi that, dear,” her mom said, as she carried in a bowl of raisins for their bread.
“It’s OK, I have mice in my house, too,” I said, as I drew the girl a picture of a super hero to color.
Finally, it was time to leave for Harper’s Ferry and catch my train to D.C. I thanked the community for the free meals, bed, laundry, shelter I received in exchange for very little work. A man whom I hadn’t met before gave me a ride out of the community. He spoke about his son’s career and sounded proud of him, though they were no longer in contact, as his son was not a member of the Twelve Tribes community. In Harper’s Ferry, we did a loop around town and stopped beside every person wearing a backpack to ask if they wanted to stay on the “organic farm.”
“It’s a great place, just ask her,” the driver boasted. I’m a seasoned hitch-hiker and I believe it’s best not to disagree with your drivers.
“Yup,” I said shyly, but tried to communicate with my eyes: “Beware, it’s a cult!”
One south-bounder we pulled up to said he’d already stayed with the Twelve Tribes Community in Rutland, Vermont. He said it was one of his best experiences on the trail. A paradise, he called it.
I thanked my driver when he dropped me off at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Outside the building, I spoke with locals who said they were also upset that Stoneybrook Farm does not advertise as a religious organization and often tries to recruit Appalachian Trail hikers. One local called it, “false advertising.” I walked down the hill to catch my train and made it safely to D.C. But my dreams were shattered: the Smithsonian’s dinosaur exhibit was closed. I did see a few mummies though, and now had the confusing experience of a sleep over with a “cult” to ponder.
Hikers, like feral cats, can easily be seduced by anyone who brandishes free food. But if you ask me, people who are kind in order to convert you to a community that severs you from literature, the Internet, newspapers, and your friends and family and has mandatory meetings at 6 a.m., may not have your best interests at heart.
For another story from hiker’s impressions on the Stoneybrook Farm: Hiker blogs about the Twelve Tribes Stoneybrook Farm