This is the story of The Trees Community, a semi monastic Christian group that left NYC on a bus in 1971 on a journey of faith. When most of our money burned up the first night, we relied on God for all our needs and he provided! We traveled the United States growing in our new faith, finding a ministry in music and eventually becoming artists in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Seven years, seven "stories" are woven into this amazing journey.

The Spring Tour: The Long and Winding Road to NYC

The Trees - April 2003

It was March 23, 1973. We attended our last mass at Pecos monastery, sharing prayers and blessings for our journey. This departure was the hardest one yet. It was always difficult to leave good friends and face the unknown but this time it was especially emotional. I felt sadness mixed with a deep sense of loss as one by one I hugged each monk and nun. At least I wasn’t the only one wiping away the tears. The time had finally arrived to leave everything that was comfortable, familiar, precious and beloved to return to New York to begin a new life there. Brother Gregory decided to join us for the trip to Colorado for our concerts there. We drove off showering Sanctus bells out the bus windows and the New Mexico chapter of our lives came to a final close. I watched out the bus window with an unbelievable amount of loss, trying to memorize every inch of the monastery, the river, the monks and nuns, the beautiful mountains.

After a last minute stop for groceries in Pecos, we returned to the bus and found ourselves stranded at the store. The radiator hose had cracked and boiling antifreeze and water came gushing out everywhere. It was the only hose that hadn’t been replaced the day before. We bought a new hose and headed toward Pueblo, Colorado. Only 100 miles later, as David was shifting, the clutch made terrible grinding noises and would only work in low gear. We pulled into Maxwell, New Mexico but discovered they had no mechanics that could work on a bus. Unwilling to turn back, we decided to try to make it over Raton Pass to Pueblo. As we lurched forward and struggled on, the sky was an ominous gray and snow began to fall.

Slowly and cautiously we crept up the icy mountain road through Raton Pass. A long line of cars stretched in front and behind us, creeping along as the snow fell heavier, completely blocking any view of the surrounding mountains. A silence fell over us as we watched from the windows praying God would help us make it through. Each time we lurched forward from a stop, the clutch made a horrible grinding sound and the brakes were getting spongy. The wind blew sheets of snow sideways across the road in huge drifts and the snow fell in blinding waves until finally our entire line of vehicles came to a dead stop in the deep snow of the pass. The road was impassible. We were snowed in! The clutch on the bus froze solid in gear and when David pressed his foot on the brakes, it went straight to the floor. Nothing - no brakes. Unfortunately, the parking brake didn’t work either.

Gregory, Ariel and Shipen rushed outside debating whether to find some stones to keep the bus from sliding backwards. From somewhere in the bowels of the bus they found blocks of wood and wedged them behind the wheels. At this point the snow was 13 inches deep and still falling thick and heavy. What should we do? When all else fails, eat! Stephen and Shipen started fixing dinner while Brother Gregory, Ariel and David Lynch went outside to scout out our situation. A few minutes later, Gregory came back in – he had lost his glasses in the deep snow! Since he could hardly see without them, everyone threw on wool blanket serapes and gingerly probed the snow outside, searching for the missing glasses in 16 inches of snow. For Gregory, it was baptism by fire into the hazards of bus life! Soon I heard a yell, "Found them!" Hurrah. With the glasses finally located, we clambered back into the bus and David Lynch exclaimed, “This adventure with God is becoming surreal!!”

It was nearly late afternoon when the snow finally let up. We had decided to help out our fellow travelers so Sarah and I had baked cookies and made fresh pots of coffee and tea. For serving trays, I covered cookie sheets with my grandmother’s white linen pillow cases embroidered with lilacs. Then we bundled up and went from car to car serving refreshments on white embroidered linen laid over cookie sheets: “Would you care for hot coffee…tea? We have orange slices, oatmeal cookies and sandwiches…please, have some.” As we approached each car, the occupants seemed incredulous and exceedingly grateful. Eventually, after every car had been served, we spied a police car approaching that somehow had made it to through the pass. Anxious for some news, Sarah and I rushed over, arms waving and invited the policeman onto the bus for coffee and cookies. As he sipped his mug of steaming coffee, we pumped him with questions, “What’s happening? Is the road passable? What’s the weather report? When will the road reopen?” All he could report was that the pass was officially “closed indefinitely,” but he promised to send a wrecker to tow us out. Thank God. Soon after he left, tow trucks arrived and rescued the cars, one by one. Several hours later with night falling there was only one empty car buried in snow a short distance from our bus. It started to snow again. We waited hopefully for the promised wrecker, but hours passed and no one came. Meanwhile the bus was buried in giant snowdrifts that reached the bottom edges of the windows. Oh oh.

When night fell, it grew bitter cold. Had the policemen forgotten us in all the confusion? The snow kept falling and the wind blew fiercly, its icy fingers reaching through the metal windows. Snowdrifts reached midway up the windows. Where was that wrecker? In the desolate mountain pass, alone and engulfed by thick banks of snow, buffeted by howling winds, we ate dinner and wondered again about the Lord’s sense of humor. Ariel stoked up the fire in the pot bellied stove until its sides were glowing from the heat. Toasty warm, we sang Compline and then prayed that the Lord would send help. Then each of us snuggled into our sleeping bags and hunkered down for the night. I listened to the eerie sound of the bitterly cold wind whistling through the windows of the bus wishing I was lying in my cabin in Pecos.

March 24th. We awoke at 8 in the morning. The fire in the stove had nearly died out and I could see my breath. Inside the bus windows were laced with delicate white frost patterns. Shipen stoked the pot bellied stove and I shivered inside my sleeping bag until the bus finally warmed warm up. When I went to pump water to fix coffee and make oatmeal, the pump and the water tanks were frozen solid. What next! Sarah and I went outside and packed snow into pans to melt for cooking, drinking and washing dishes. It was a tedious job and took many trips back and forth into bitter cold. After breakfast, we huddled together and tried to decide what to do while we waited for the wrecker, which we still hoped would come. Grouchy and irritable, an argument broke out over something as innocuous as whether to have a rehearsal, a prayer mass, study, or a family meeting. Finally, we voted to work on the new song, Shout Joy, a song based on a poem by Madeleine L’Engle. This turned out to be an exercise in futility because Shipen was angry that we weren’t having a family meeting which he felt was more important; David Lynch was preoccupied with finding a way out of the pass; Ariel was worried about contacting the Minnick’s to let them know we wouldn’t be able to perform the evening’s concert; and the rest of us were just worried we’d be stuck there for weeks! To complicate matters, Steve and Shipen were having “a tiff” so the atmosphere on the bus was tense and unpleasant. Poor Gregory. Welcome to life with the Trees.

Late in the afternoon with no wrecker in sight it was finally decided that David Lynch and Ariel better go try to find help (and hopefully a phone). Just as they had bundled up and were about to leave, we heard the sound of a large machine in the distance. We rushed out of the bus excitedly waving our arms yelling Help! Help! Maybe we would be rescued after all! It turned out it was a snowplow and we were overjoyed when we the driver stopped and climbed into the bus for a cup of coffee. He told us he didn’t know anything about a wrecker but said the pass should be reopening “soon.” Thankfully, he did give us directions to the nearest phone a few miles down the road and David Lynch and Ariel set off to get help and contact the Minichs about our situation. (When they finally reached them, they cancelled the concert). Two hours later they returned and shortly thereafter the snowplow had cleared the roads and the pass was reopened to traffic. Hurrah! At long last, an army wrecker arrived! Finally we were saved! In order to be towed, the bus’s drive shaft had to be removed. We were hauled to a nearby weighing station, just beyond Raton Pass and from there another wrecker towed us to a GMC service station in Trinidad. Unfortunately, the station was closed for the weekend so there we remained, stranded…again.

Now it was time for a family meeting. The tensions, resentments, anger and misunderstandings came bubbling out. After awhile, David Lynch began crying and explained that he felt guilty that the bus breakdown had been his fault. One thing led to another and soon we were talking about his relationship with me, his feelings, my feelings and then I was crying too. I shared how I felt frustrated that I loved him but wasn’t allowed to show it and also how I felt about leaving Pecos. Eventually, I worked through some of my feelings and after others did the same, I felt drained but relieved. Thank God Gregory was there with us. His long experience with community life, and the ups and downs of relationships in the monastery brought a more seasoned and refreshing perspective. He was quick to sense someone’s needs underneath what they were saying and was graceful in offering advice. Feeling much better, we ate dinner and once again bedded down for the night in the cold bus.

Assumption Sunday. The Minnick’s arrived early in the afternoon with two vans to transport us along with our instruments to the Search Center in Pueblo, Colorado. Somewhat frayed at the edges and feeling grungy and ragged, we performed that night for a large crowd that was warm, loving, and responsive. Father and Becky Minnich then drove us to their home to enjoy a home cooked meal. Best of all, we split up to spend the night in different parishioner's homes. I relished a hot shower and a toasty warm bed. Delightful!

By Monday morning the diagnosis for the bus was something about the clutch needing a new throw out bearing so a new part was ordered. With concerts to give, we crammed everything into Sister Winifred’s van and headed off to Trinity Ranch in Wetmore, Colorado. As soon as we arrived, Father Bill’s wife and all seven children rushed out eager to help us unload, chattering and peppering us with questions about our recent harrowing experience and all our unusual assortment of instruments. For dinner, Ariel and I baked a casserole from what we scavenged from the dorm. At 5pm, we rehearsed, tuned and then performed a conglomeration of new and old songs in an informal format.

Tuesday, still without wheels, we were driven to Salida, Colorado where we performed the last tour’s version of our concert at the small local Episcopal Church headed by Father Ed Rouff. We felt strong support from the crowd, which buoyed our dragging spirits and bodies. Once again, we split up to sleep in different people’s homes.

March 28, 1973. Father Gregory (who was still with us) concelebrated mass at the church. Afterwards, we gathered in the parish hall and celebrated Ariel’s 30th birthday with a cake, coffee and presented him with a silly Colorado dinner plate. He was gracious and kind, as usual. Then we packed everything into three different vehicles and just as we were going to start out we realized our tabby cat Daniel had snuck off once again. It was pouring down rain and it took an hour until we finally found him. Rascal!

Daniel, the Escape Artist

Off we drove to Leadville, 13,000 feet up and dry! It was chillier up high in the mountains. Our hosts, Jerry McMahon and Penny, whisked us over to set up at the high school auditorium. While we prepared for the concert, Father Gregory went to pick up our bus. All of us either had colds, chills or fever and we definitely were not feeling up to snuff. Even so the show must go on so at 8pm we played for around 50 children and parents at Leadville High School. With bright spotlights focused on the stage, I couldn’t see the audience but I noticed it was unusually quiet after each song. Usually there was applause or laughter, but that night was different. When we reached the banjo song and I walked out into the audience playing the accordian and saw pursed lips, scowls and very few smiles. That was discouraging but I smiled back and soldiered on as best I could. When we finished there was sporadic clapping.

Shrugging it off, afterwards we joined Jerry and Penny who had prepared a delicious, festive dinner, with cake and a big celebration for Ariel. There was even a gift certificate for him. Afterwards, he splurged with a cup of coffee (he had given it up for Lent). We finally fell exhausted to bed at 1:30 a.m.

The bus was still not repaired so we rented a school bus and drove toward Colorado Springs, arriving in Security, Colorado by late afternoon. Father Duel greeted us and helped us settle into his home, then had to rush off. We took turns enjoying long hot showers - luxurious! Father Gregory arrived awhile later with the newly resurrected bus, allegedly with a new clutch and new rattles to go with it.

We performed at St. Raphael’s Episcopal Church in Security, Colorado for a small group of only 35 or so people, despite “six weeks of publicity.” We made it to bed at 12:30 am and were up early for Mass the next day at 6am. We were definitely not getting enough sleep and it was no wonder we felt tired, sick and dragged out. After mass, we drove straight through to Denver. Of course, we were not at all surprised when the bus stalled out every time we stopped for a light. It was almost comical. Then David Lynch made an interesting observation. It seemed that as soon as we received a sizeable donation, immediately afterward the bus would break down. What was even more odd was that if made $150 at a concert, strangely enough the bus repair would cost $149! With the recent clutch repair, we had made $350 dollars and the new clutch cost $349. Maybe we were meant to live life on the edge with no cushion, no savings. Maybe the Lord used the bus to test our faith?!

Returning to St. Andrews, we found there was new prior, Iggy, who told us that since our last visit seven people had left the Order of the Holy Family. There seemed to be more unity, more cleanliness and a renewed spirit of discipline. At 1:00 p.m. we did a television taping for “Black and White Keys” a Nine File program on ABC TV in Denver. For the taping, we performed the Wander trilogy, Taka, Comfortless and the Monkey Chant, which they then cut down into two ten-minute segments. Performing in the studio at first made me nervous but soon I got used to the camera lights blinking on and off as they switched from one camera to another.

In downtown Denver, Colorado, we went shopping then we all huddled around a large TV in an electronics store to watch the our appearance on Black and White Keys - what a thrill! Afterwards, we play to a packed house at the Presbyterian Church in Littleton, Colorado and spotted our friends, the Buscarellos, in the audience. Though there were some mistakes, it was well received. More importantly, our confidence with the new material was steadily growing as we honed and refined our presentation.

On April fools day we performed during the “high” mass with Father John Stark. Gregory again concelebrated. Then we hurriedly packed up and rushed over to St. Jude’s Cathedral, eating on the way. We set up eager to play for the 1,000 people we had been assured would be there. Instead, 300 showed up for the Charismatic Day of Renewal. We performed for a full two hours, then packed up quickly again in ten minutes and hurried over to Bishop Frey’s house to play at his prayer meeting at 7:30 for about 30 or so people. Once again, Sister Sara James was with us. We were a half hour late (due to a quick stop at Pizza Hut) but they waited for us. We sang, had mass, then totally wiped out, we joined Gloria and Ralph Buscarello for an incredible dinner, which I was too tired and full to appreciate. Daniel, as usual, took off again, nowhere to be found. Where the hell was that stupid cat! The bus troubles and back-to-back events left me feeling crabby and worn out. After looking for him for ages we had to leave without him. We left instructions with the Buscarello’s who promised to continue to look for him. Daniel was one of my favorite cats so I was really upset that he might be lost for good! We got to bed at 1:30 in the morning.

The next day we attended another television ABC TV taping for a show called “Home Church” with interviews by Marilyn and Mr. Hickey. The questions were colored by a fundamentalist approach but it went okay. Then we drove to Karen and Bruce’s home for much needed naps, dinner and a relaxing evening.

In the morning Bruce took a look at the clutch on the bus and assured us “it’ll purr like a kitten all the way to Kansas City.” Hmmmm. Somehow I wondered about that. Then we called the Buscarello’s to see if, by chance, they might have found Daniel. Hurrah, they told us they had searched and searched and indeed found him! Overjoyed, Steve drove back to the Buscarello’s to retrieve our cat while Karen fixed us breakfast.

We held our last mass with Father Gregory who would be leaving us to return to Pecos. I suspected he was secretly glad to be returning to the peace and sanity of the monastery there. He certainly would have some wild stories to tell about being stranded in the mountains on Raton Pass! After warm goodbyes, off we drove into bad snowstorms, heading for Kansas City 500 miles away. I prayed this time we would make it all the way through.

Well, we only made it a total of 50 miles before the bus was making disturbing noises again while losing power. We were stranded once again, this time in a small town called Flagler, Colorado. At a small garage there, they took apart the carburetor and lost a part while doing it. They also informed us we’d need a new fuel pump. Half of us had stomach flu and kept running between the bus and the only greasy, smelly, oil stained bathroom around. All I could think of was the Bible verse, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

With a concert deadline fast approaching, after breakfast we paid the bill and drove straight through the afternoon and night to make up lost time. It was hard to sleep while being bounced and jostled about as Ariel drove for most of the night. (School busses are not a smooth ride even on flat roads). We stopped for two hours, then, David Lynch dragged himself out of his sleeping bag and drove the rest of the way to Kansas University where we unloaded at the St. Union Center. Dead tired, we rehearsed and played for a crowd even larger than for our previous concert there. We introduced the baptism segment and the new koto piece, which the audience seemed to really like.

After the performance, Shipen went to get his shoes (the sitar had to be played barefoot) when he noticed they were missing. Just then we noticed Sarah’s change purse had been stolen too. We were grateful that at least they had remembered to take up a small collection. I wondered who would want Shipen’s smelly old shoes anyway? Someone with a foot fetish?

On April 5th the bus broke down again! Oh for God's sake! This was getting absurd but we weren’t laughing! This time it was the alternator and a dead battery. Finally late in the day we left for St. Mary’s College, in Leavenworth and made it just in time for dinner. Sister Rose welcomed us back and after eating I collapsed into a refreshingly clean and comfortable bed. I was still sick and certainly the bus was perpetually “ill.”

At rehearsal the next day, I could totally relate to the words in Stephen’s new song, Wilderness Garden:

Wilderness Garden by Stephen Gambill

John lived deep in the wilderness
cloak of camel’s hair
food of locusts and wild honey
the young man grew; his spirit matured.

Would we say he was happy there
do you think that he was sad
I don’t suppose he was too worried
when he felt deathly bad.

In the long desert silence
his thoughts came painful, welling up
into a constant bubbling fountain
by a purity, given yet sealed up
Within a garden, young and enclosed
miracle in his wilderness
the new fig and olive budded
love’s virtues watered by the sealed-up

Some hot afternoons he was lonely
thirsty called by God to prayer
until the day to fainting Israel
He would come, openly, to appear.

I couldn’t say that I’m happy
I wouldn’t say that I’m sad
Some long days I don’t know anything
Oh God, you know, it’s maybe not so bad.

One day my Lord will come into my garden
Which he relentlessly defends
and He will bring His gentle loved ones –
Drink deep, my dearest friends
Drink deep, my dearest friends.

At one point during rehearsal, we got into a heated discussion about whether to play the old or the new format for the evening concert. We argued back and forth about it until, finally we took a vote. Unfortunately by then it was too late to practice the new concert and as I rushed to tune my harp, I felt unprepared and upset. We gave a shaky performance of the new concert to a very small turn out of young women. Shipen was fuming and it was obvious that we had better pay closer attention to the time and not get so caught up in arguing that we weren’t ready at all! Dinner was greasy food at a crummy hamburger joint. Great.

A close friend of Ariel’s named Elij met with us after dinner and said he’d like to join the group. Shipen and others tried to discourage him. Bus life was grueling and it was not the best time to take on new aspirants. We talked it over and after an hour or so, we agreed with him that it would be better to wait until we arrived in New York City to see if he still felt the same then. I think Ariel was disappointed but I was relieved. It was crowded enough on the bus and I just wasn’t ready to adjust to a working a stranger into our family.

April 7, Saturday. Outside it was rainy and dismal. We attended early mass at St. Mary’s then rehearsed all morning before driving to Kansas Correctional Institute in Leavenworth, Kansas, a women’s prison. The warden, Mrs.West, gave us a run down on what to expect from the prisoners. In general, they suffer from apathy, depression and lack of motivation. We adjusted our program accordingly and Shipen gave an overview of our life in community relating it to prison life. He spoke of the Lord’s victorious, incurable love that touched and healed us. Playing the music was a struggle at first, but once we finished “I Wander through the valleys searching for Him whom I love…” and broke into the Captain, the women laughed and clapped along with us. By the end, they were smiling and some were crying as we walked out among them at the end singing Glory Be to Jesus, who in bitter pain, brought to us the lifeblood, through his sacred veins.” We returned to St. Mary’s college and turned in, exhausted.

On Sunday, we performing during the mass with the choir circled around us, then packed up and in the afternoon we visited for a while with the sisters. With three weeks to go before our arrival in the city, Shipen reflected on our recent problems with the bus and how our tour was going in a letter to Canon West:

April 9, 1973

Dear Father West;

We are mid-tour once again, and somewhere in the snowy regions of Southern Illinois. We have had an immense amount of trouble with the bus (27 major repair stops costing over $1,000.00 in the last year, and most in the past four months.) The first night out from Pecos we were stranded in a blizzard on a mountain pass with a burnt out clutch, and enjoyed a vacant snow drifted highway for 24 hours alone and unrescued. We did get to serve coffee to the last line of traffic over the pass before the snow closed it completely, but we were not taken out. Because our concert schedule was so tight we had no time to lose so each city sent envoys to get us as we shuttled from city to city without our home. Finally the bus and we were united outside of Denver only to discover new problems with the fuel pump, alternator, voltage regulator and battery. We have been free of trouble since Kansas City (three days) and we are hoping. Because of this our funds have dwindled and there are not many concerts ahead of us. We have cut back on the number of concerts this tour mainly because we are exhausted and also because we needed time to rehearse and to pray and be together. We are planning on spending a week alone at my parent’s cottage in Michigan before our final trek back to New York. This will give us some time to work on the music that was to be completed before we left for California. We are far behind in our work and don’t seem to have the opportunity to re-center. I get the feeling that we are really in no better shape than our bus.

We are looking forward to New York with great anticipation and also with fear and trembling. We feel the past two years has offered us an association with Christ that seemed impossible before and has allowed us to regain some dignity and a voice concerning some of the more obvious work of the church. I’m afraid that in starting out as prophets of doom, that we have, of necessity, become ecumenists.

April 9, Monday. After goodbyes, we drove 200 miles to St. Meinrad’s Seminary in St. Meinrad, Indiana and miraculously there were no bus problems. We parked for the night in a church parking lot a few miles away and had a very long and hard talk that lasted into the wee hours of the morning. It started with Steve saying he resented what he perceived as negative statements against him. Then I complained that I was upset that someone had referred to me as too sensitive. This led to other, older issues, and I tried to let out my anger and soon others spoke up about their feelings. As Canon West was fond of saying, we lived like a bunch of raw, exposed nerves and in this case, he was right - the discussion was particularly grueling. Eventually, we prayed together and retired to bed.

At St. Meinrad’s, we were greeted by Archabbot Gabriel who led us to our different guest quarters and then showed us the space for the evening concert. He made sure we were completely taken care of before leaving. We used the hours before the concert to rehearse the baptism section and to continue talking out issues from the previous family discussion.

The attention to detail in preparation for our concert at St. Meinrad’s was a delightful change. They had even arranged for someone that worked out lighting for each portion of the concert. After our 2 ½ hour concert, the crowd was enthusiastic and applauded for what seemed like ages. It really helped me feel encouraged and at ease. Father Abbot and many of the brothers had come, which the students later informed us was quite unusual as they rarely came out for anything. We ate dinner with the monks, and Abbott and got to bed late again.
The next two days were delightfully peaceful after the previous hectic nonstop schedule. I enjoyed visiting with the brothers, taking a tour of the grounds and Abbey Press, and dinners with the seminarians or the monks.

Friday the 13th of April. Throughout our visit, Father Gabriel was kind, loving and expressed a kind of fatherly care that I found deeply touching. Even as we drove away, I could see him crying as he turned and walked slowly back to the monastery. We left St. Meinrads and drove to Bardstown, getting lost somewhere near Louisville, Kentucky. By 2:00 p.m. we finally reached our destination - The Abbey of Gethsemani. Oh praise God. A house of peace.