Backpack, Mic, and Tampons

Judy Chicago’s “Menstruation Bathroom” (partial view)

I’d just started producing Lesbian Nation at WBAI when a student group at Arizona State U. invited me to speak. They were paying my air fare! I bought a one-way ticket, packed my mic and cassette, and flew out. My plan was to use the other half of the money for a hitchhiking trip around the West.

I stepped off the plane into Phoenix heat. I don’t remember anything I said to the students that day, but I do remember that Richie Larsen, the guy who’d invited me, expressed some surprise. He had heard my fire-breathing speech after being released from jail, after the Grove Press occupation two years earlier, and expected more of the same. But by 1972 I was in a more cheerful frame of mind.

I got to walk around Phoenix. It was the strangest place I’d ever seen, so different from the concrete canyons of NYC, or the lush, mosquito-ridden Catskills where I’d spent summers as a child. Mesquite trees. Big saguaro cacti, little prickly pears. Hordes of ants racing along the cracks in the sidewalks, faster than any ants back home. I wondered if the heat that slows us humans down supercharges them.

Richie invited me to spend the night at a gay men’s commune out in the countryside. We bounced over dirt roads, past what was instantly recognizable from the Looney Tunes cartoons as a roadrunner. It tore through the desert, revved up like the ants. Another critter hovered in the sky just ahead of us, wings whirring like some gigantic bee. Richie told me was a hummingbird. I had never seen one. I have since learned that there are, in fact, ruby-throated hummingbirds in New York. They hang out in gardens with nectar-rich flowers—places I wouldn’t have visited during those frenetic years.

We arrived at a cabin about ten yards from the larger house where the landlord lived. He also kept pigs in a pen nearby. Richie introduced me to the poor overcrowded beasts, and then took me inside to meet the other members of the commune. One of them had some capsules of organic mescaline. The sun set, the temperature dropped, and soon we were all tripping in the moonlight, sitting on a patch of sand. Wisps of cloud morphed into a lace doily surrounding the full moon…it was all lovely except when the wind changed direction and suffused us with bouquet de pig sty.

The next day I heard that one of the men had thrown himself off a nearby mountain and was in the hospital. Depression? Self-hate for being gay? Drug induced hallucination? I never found out.

I told Richie that I wanted to go to Los Angeles and then Berkeley. He was between jobs at the time and decided to join me. Hitching together, we passed for a straight couple, which gave us a measure of safety. Our best ride was with two guys who had driven their van all the way from rural Arkansas. I could barely understand their Appalachian accents, but they were kind and friendly and took us all the way to Los Angeles, where I met two of the artists who had created Womanhouse.

Womanhouse, a feminist art installation, had occupied an abandoned Victorian house in Hollywood. It existed for only a month (February 1972) but drew national and international attention. Though it had been dismantled by the time I arrived in L.A., I was able to record the artists’ descriptions, especially that of Judy Chicago’s “menstruation bathroom.” The shelves, I was told, were stocked with boxes of tampons and piles of sanitary napkins. Red rags hung on a small clothesline. Sitting below the shelves was a large trash can overflowing with what appeared to be used menstrual supplies. A tampon soaked in dried “blood” lay on the floor. Men who entered that room left immediately, much to the artists’ amusement—and mine. As I edited that section of the tape, I spliced in a song:

The girl that I marry will have to be
As soft and as pink as a nursery.
The girl I call my own
Will wear satins and laces and smell of cologne…

Later, still in L.A., I met up with a woman I’d had an affair with in NYC. I’ll call her Diane. She had moved out west, gotten into primal scream therapy, and didn’t want to resume the relationship. She suggested that I try the therapy (I wasn’t interested) and urged me to quit smoking. At the time I was disappointed—but in fact she had given me a gift.

After leaving L.A., Richie and I hitched north. At Big Sur, remembering Diane’s prodding me to quit, I ditched the cigarettes and we hiked up and up along switchbacks for a 1200’ elevation gain. I struggled through tobacco-saturated lungs to match Richie’s pace, panting under the weight of a pack loaded with camping gear—and my mic, cassette, and tapes. Two days later and 20 miles in, we arrived at Sykes Hot Springs, which we shared with two other hikers. The springs were great. We’d soak, and then whiz down a natural slide into a cold stream. Less delightful was a mountain of trash left by previous visitors. At least they’d piled their rubbish in one area instead of dropping bits and pieces all over.

We had scored some of that organic mescaline back in Phoenix and spent a day tripping. Steller’s jays—another species I’d never seen before—transformed into miniature peacocks, and pebbles in the stream became periwinkles.

When we hiked out I was done with tobacco.

From there we hitched north again, to Berkeley, where Richie left me to return to Phoenix. I stayed for a few days, meeting with some of the local feminist poets. By then I was ready to go home, and by luck encountered Linda (not her real name), who was also from New York and heading back that way. Somewhat younger than me and from a more affluent family, she owned a VW Beetle. We headed across the U.S., sometimes on the highways, sometimes on back roads, stopping every now and then to wipe bug splat off the windshield. These days you could probably drive 1,000 miles without needing to clean the window. We have wiped out vast numbers of insects and about 1/3 of the bird population.

The drive was uneventful, except for when, having crossed into Canada, we re-entered the United States at Niagara Falls. The Canadians gave us no trouble, but U.S. Customs asked a lot of questions. I had had the foresight to hide my capsules of mescaline inside a Tampax tube, which I then resealed with glue, and toss the box of tampons into in the trunk of the car. However, I was wearing blue jeans, a fringed leather vest, and a leather hat, and looked like a prototypical hippie.

“Where did you two meet?” the male official asked.

“Berkeley,” I replied, without thinking about it.

“Pull over to the side,” he rasped.

They searched and searched. Linda knew I had drugs and was freaking out. “You can’t do this to me. I’m going to call my father,” she fumed at the customs agents. I was scared but sat quietly, hoping that if they found the mescaline I could get help from Emily Goodman, the attorney who’d represented us at the Grove Press occupation.

The female official was fishing around in the trunk. “I know they’ve got something.” She sounded exasperated. “But I can’t find it.”

They let us go. I detested those officials, but suppose I should be grateful they didn’t plant anything in the car. And grateful for menstrual supplies as well—they’d given me the material for a successful radio show, and saved my ass from the feds.


4 Responses to Backpack, Mic, and Tampons

  1. Esther Newton December 28, 2020 at 7:04 am #

    great story Martha, you are so intrepid.

  2. Martha Shelley December 28, 2020 at 10:41 am #

    Or young and foolish…

  3. Connie O Byrne December 31, 2020 at 9:28 am #

    Enjoyed the read as always and in particular liked hearing about Judy Chicago’s menstrual installation. I still have both of her books from that era and am always amazed when women I’ve met don’t know who she even us, let alone her work!
    I’m glad you gave up smoking…means you’ll be around longer to share your experiences

  4. Martha Shelley December 31, 2020 at 1:40 pm #

    A very cherished friend of mine, Jan DuBois, was one of the weavers on Chicago’s Dinner Party. I’ve written a little about her but will write more in the future.

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