Life in Bloomington in the early 1970s was tantamount to that of a Wild West town, without the shootouts (although, eventually, there were some). The place was wide open and oozed wealth generated by a burgeoning hippie economy. And few cared that the boom was fueled by contraband. Too many people made too much money off marijuana. Society accepted it. And the community embraced it.

I can say with unimpeachable confidence that a walk down Kirkwood Avenue and around the Courthouse Square anytime between 1971 and '75 would have passed at least a half dozen businesses whose owners were or had been pot dealers, and probably more. With equal certainty, I can say the first communication a high-powered local attorney shared with three green asses busted cold with five pounds of marijuana in 1974 were: "I've talked to the prosecutor, and he said to tell you not to worry, you're not going to jail."

The Monroe County prosecutor was a Republican named Greg Carter, who would represent the Indiana chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) after he left Bloomington. The attorney was John G. Baker, who would eventually be, in turn, Monroe County Judge, Monroe Superior Court Judge, Monroe Circuit Judge and Indiana Court of Appeals Judge. His office in 1974 was located in what is now the Old National Bank building at Kirkwood and Washington.



For more tales of Bloomington past
  • Forty Years in Bloomington: A Memoir -- Index

  • A number of factors, in addition to the city's enormous population of pot-smoking-age college kids, coalesced to make Bloomington and its rural environs a logical outpost on the Marijuana Way. Among them were the locals' unique combination of libertarian and liberal politics; the remote, rugged, sparsely populated countryside; and its location within a few hours of major metropolitan areas, especially Chicago and The Region, as I learned Indiana's Lake Michigan steel country is known.

    And, it can't be overstated, there were those hundreds of millions of dollars that passed through the town, underground, tax free, year after year after year. No car salesman would question the source of the cash a longhair wearing a Hawaiian shirt and dripping with turquoise and silver jewelry laid on his desk for, say, the first Datsun 240Z sports car to hit the lot. Metallic green, special-ordered, paid in advance.

    My first trip on the Way came during the summer of 1972, much of which I spent hanging out and road-tripping with a friend from Indy named Banks. He was 18, three years younger than me, a former wrestler and cross country runner who, for reasons I never quite ascertained, left home and turned his back on society.

    I "worked" that summer cutting grass and whacking weeds at rich people's houses with a friend in Indy. I didn't work much, and Banks slept under the Interstate 465 bridge on East 30th Street. He'd come by, and we'd hang out while my parents were at work.

    ***

    Banks was a cute little guy, short and muscular with an engaging manner, blue eyes and a slight lisp. He didn't drink; he hated drunks. But, it soon became apparent that he had an enormous appetite for drugs. Before his habit developed, Banks and I hitchhiked from Indy to LA to Berkeley and back in three weeks. That thumb trip produced too many tales for one section of one story, but the only time I ever saw the fearless little bastard rattled is one that must be told.


    Photograph by Steven Higgs

    Rural Monroe and surrounding counties' rugged, isolated landscape combined with the locals' liberal and libertarian attitudes to make South-Central Indiana a major distribution point along the 1970s Marijuana Way.

    Our second day of hitching landed us on the historic Highway 66 in Gallup, N.M., on a Saturday night. Gallup was an Indian town where, we noticed as we walked a few miles through its north end, police patrolled the streets with helmets on and nightsticks in hand. We had taken a ride off Interstate 40 to restock our supplies. Instead, as we eyed our surroundings, we walked nonstop to the Interstate interchange on the west side of town and pitched our sleeping bags in the desert sand and slept under the stars.

    One of the first cars to see our thumbs in the morning pulled over, an occurrence we viewed as recompense for our meticulous attention to Karma -- "Don't step on that bug! Bad Karma!" The bronze, 1959 Chevy 4-door had Oklahoma plates and a driver who emanated an In Cold Blood vibe. He was a wiry little guy with tattoos, slicked-back, straight black hair and cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve of his white T-shirt. Seated next to him was another hitchhiker he had picked up a half hour before us. He was a demonic-looking cat with long, dirty hair and a goatee. Reminded me of Gary the bank robber.

    The driver didn't seem to have any particular destination and decided he would take us wherever we were all going. Good news, we thought. Maybe we could make it to our destination, Whittier, Calif., in four days. The home of Richard M. Nixon from age 9 through his college years, Whittier is located about 15 miles west and south of LA. Our euphoria dissipated, however, when the driver leaned over, opened the glove box and threw the car's registration into the Arizona desert. At that moment, Banks and I knew we were riding in a stolen car.

    To fuel the drama, the driver stopped at every gas station along the way, retrieved oil cans from the trash bins and drained their remains into the car's engine. It leaked like a sieve, and none of us would own up to having any money to buy oil. Banks, as tough as he was, was only a kid and panicked when the registration papers flew. He wanted to get out at the next oil stop, but I changed his mind by pointing out the endless string of roadside messages, made out of softball-sized rocks, on the desert's edge: "Randy and Tim stuck here five days. Stuck here three days. Stuck here ... Stuck here ... Stuck here ..."

    We stayed in the Chevy's backseat, smothered by the desert heat, and arrived alive in Barstow, where the driver bid us adieu and sped off to whatever one does when driving a stolen Oklahoma car in California. Hitchhiking in 1972 California was like hailing a cab, and we quickly landed in Whittier, where we stayed in a garage apartment of a cousin of a guy named Paul Huerta, who had spent some time on the east side of Indianapolis. The place had changed since Nixon was a lad.

    ***

    Hitchhiking provided a window into a separate reality that I'm glad I peered through, kind of like seeing the world through Jack Kerouac's eyes. And it provided my first view of Latino culture, even if it only lasted a few days. But another road trip Banks and I made to Bloomington in the Summer of 1972 opened a door I passed through and never exited.

    "There were those hundreds of millions of dollars that passed through the town, underground, tax free, year after year after year."

    I had briefly met an aspiring dope dealer named Tony at my childhood friend Terry's apartment on East University Street in the spring. Terry had gone to a Catholic, all-boys school in Indy and was one of the smartest guys I ever knew. He roomed with three guys from The Region he had met in McNutt dorm. Tony was a big-talker from steel country who said he was going to work in the mills over the summer and save some money to invest in the marijuana trade. "If you can make a thousand dollars," he told the handful of guys drinking beers and smoking his pot, "you can make a hundred thousand."

    Terry knew where Tony and Stan moved that summer but didn't have their number. So he and Banks and I decided to drive south on 37 one afternoon and see if we couldn't make a summer connection. Terry, who had been busted for selling LSD spring semester, knew that he couldn't take two strangers to their place, so we dropped Banks off on Kirkwood with directions to meet us later at Pizzeria.

    As we approached the Smith Road and Hillside intersection in my 1970 Firebird, dark green with black vinyl top, Terry saw Stan, also driving a Firebird, turn our way. We flagged him down, and, yeah, he said, he could help us out. He turned around, and we followed him to his rustic, two-bedroom house overlooking a farm field.

    Stan was an ebullient fellow who was always smiling and greeted everyone with a lilting, "Hello. How are you?" with the emphasis on "you." When we got to the house, I sat on the porch swing while Terry convinced Stan that I was cool. Due to his legal predicament, Terry was only interested in facilitating a connection.

    Tony and Stan were art students, and their place was decorated in hippie chic -- antiques, oil lamps, India print spreads. The three of us sat around a wooden utility spool turned on its side for a table and talked and sampled.

    Tony was working in the mills, Stan said, and when he returned, they were reorganizing their operation. They were buying a downtown business, which he was going to run. Tony would handle the side operations. They were still partners, but if we wanted in, I'd be dealing with Tony.

    We picked up Banks at the Pizzeria and gave him the good news. No more trips to Talbot Village for Northern Indiana ditch weed. We had a Bloomington pot connection.

    ***

    When I returned to IU for my senior year in the Fall of 1972, Banks moved to a junkie-infested apartment complex near Windsor Village in Indianapolis, where he succumbed to the lure of hard drugs. I didn't see him much after that. He eventually joined the Navy, married Filipino and drowned in Puget Sound, allegedly. I saw it on Indianapolis TV news while waiting for Chinese takeout. The last I heard, his body was never recovered.

    Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.