Images by John Wehrheim
Fifty years ago, a man named Howard Taylor set sail from the coast of O‘ahu and disembarked with his wife and children on the sandy shoals of Kaua‘i’s north shore. Upon landing, he declared that he was selling all his belongings and moving the family to Kaua‘i. A native of London and brother of movie star Elizabeth Taylor, Howard looked a lot like the classic image of Sinbad the Sailor, and he no doubt felt as much wonder as that legendary mariner while exploring the island’s beaches and cliffs. He purchased a 7-acre plot of land at the end of the road and began drafting plans for his modernist dream home, which he completed but couldn’t obtain a permit to build. Frustrated, he drove with his family in multiple cars to the county jail in Wailua, bailed out 13 hippies from Berkeley who had been arrested for vagrancy, told them about his acreage at the end of the road, and said they should live there and do whatever they wanted. What this group started there came to be known as Taylor Camp.
In 1967, just a few years earlier, about 100,000 people had coalesced in a small hilly neighborhood of central San Francisco. They were drawn together by opposition to the mainstream ideals of the 1950s and ’60s and the clarion call of beat poets and authors like Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs. The Vietnam War had been raging for years, and America’s youth were being used up as fodder in a war with motives the public had questioned for years. Dreaming of living a back-to-the-land lifestyle, building authentic communities, and being free, the flower children who gathered for the Summer of Love were linked by a desire to expand their consciousnesses and develop new modes of thinking. However, while organized around ideals of love, community, and ecology, the masses that gathered in San Francisco lost sense of proportion and awareness, resulting in crime, pollution, and drug addiction. Similar problems would be reflected on a smaller scale around a decade later on a small beach called Mākua.
As the shockwaves of the Summer of Love crashed and receded, some of its refugees washed up on the Pacific island of Kaua‘i. Refugees from the dying American Dream, the original members of Taylor Camp were still running from the world that had killed its heroes with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. In 1969, the plantation industry in Hawai‘i was falling apart and the island’s population was declining. Homes sat empty. Mango and banana trees were untended, boughs heavy with ripe fruit enriched with the nutrients from Kaua‘i’s loamy soil. They were a valued resource for individuals willing to break the law to get free food.
Other ideal resources were plantation homes sold by Kilauea Plantation with the stipulation that they must be dismantled and taken offsite. For $100, buyers could get the materials for an entire home, and if they cleaned up the lot the house sat on, they got a $50 discount. The community destined for Taylor Camp envisioned the materials as expansive tree houses. Large veranda windows would be transformed into skylights and moon doors along sections of the 100-foot walls of “The Big House,” becoming portals into a unique and fleeting time in space. Rooms would also be illuminated by light traveling through a canopy of kamani and the layers of translucent plastic that formed the roofs of most of the tree houses.
Heading to the end of the road in Hā‘ena, the members of the camp found a place to heal, get back to nature, and find community and peace for maybe the first time in their lives.
Emerging from an original group of 13, Taylor Camp grew to more than 100 members. Initially drawn by word of mouth and later by the media, people from all over the world bought tickets to Kaua‘i to find their spot at the camp they had heard so much about.
Established as a place with no rules, elements of the outside world eventually emerged in the microcosm of Taylor Camp. Order began to form as campers constructed a church and a free store where they could pick up groceries. The only rule enacted was “No More Houses,” which helped the camp population stabilize. Life at the camp consisted of farming, fishing, surfing, yoga, kung fu, and spiritual practices. Many of the radical ideals of the Taylor Camp residents have become trends in mainstream society.
If the camp was off the map, nearby Kalalau was its own universe. Long, meditative swims along the coast’s craggy shoreline to the beaches of Hanakāpiʻai and Honopū revealed beautiful fingerlike cliffs descending downwards, worn fine and thin by millions of years of rain and wind. Time alone in the natural wonders of Kaua‘i would bring anyone closer to God. Lots of the campers ventured into the depths of the Nāpali Coast to get clean, to be one with nature, to grow pakalolo, or to just be deeply alone. The campers got away to these magical places when the idyllic mellowness of Taylor Camp became too much, or when they started getting loaded a little too consistently, or when they lost it; maybe an acid trip was too heavy, or they got hooked on harder drugs that started coming around, losing touch with the sense of community and healing they had found in the natural refuge of Kaua‘i. Nāpali could bring that back.
The campers found some measure of peace, sometimes lost in revelry and nudity, and sometimes in the pure bliss of being, but their lifestyle disturbed and upset Hawaiians and locals in the area. Violent physical altercations sometimes resulted.
Near the end of the camp’s time, after Surfer magazine published a story about the camp in 1973, its grounds were overrun with transient surfers who slept on the beach and chased waves, not contributing to the community and leaving refuse and trash in their wakes. Like the Summer of Love a few years distant, the camp became a source of pollution and decadence, in opposition to the dreams of back-to-the-land harmony shared by permanent campers. To add to the irony of the situation, the camp also disrupted the lives of local residents whose families had been farming and already living off the land sustainably in the traditions of their native ancestors.
Taylor Camp’s story is beautiful and multifaceted, sparkling but sometimes as dark as black tar heroin. Freedom allowed creativity, one of the highest forms of human expression, to run free and wild, but this freedom also allowed in a decrepit element, one that would rather bask in artificial euphoria than experience the joy of community and compassion. The camp was a dream to many but a hellish nightmare for some. It relieved the responsibilities of an average life, which left space for addicts to indulge their addictions and get lost in the sway of their drugs. As years passed, the more constant stewards of the camp slowly drove out these influences, but not without emotional casualties along the way.
But the cultural ramifications of Taylor Camp live on. Elizabeth Taylor was photographed wearing puka shells, a gift from the campers, and an international trend was born. Howard Taylor, the first celebrity resident to live on Kaua‘i’s north shore, inspired a wave of celebrity transplants to the area. Like the campers who were drawn by radiant Kodachrome photos of Kaua‘i in the 1970s, modern romantics from all over the world are still lured to the island by beautiful images in magazines and online. The azure hues and white sand beaches are prime social media content, a call to hordes of tourists who congregate daily on the same beaches. Once an isolated and serene setting, droves of visitors now walk along Kūhiō Highway to Mākua Beach, since nicknamed Tunnels. Homogeneous white Ford and Jeep rentals line the roads, the occasional local’s car with its sun-faded hood standing out like a sore thumb, an unintended silent protest against the march of tourism and commercialization of Kaua‘i.
In late 1977, after fighting legal battles for nearly a decade, the campers were evicted. Their tree houses were burned to the ground by police. Some of the campers left for other parts of the world. Some headed to Hawai‘i Island. Some stayed on Kaua‘i and dealt with the shame of society after living lives the mainstream might have called derelict. But stories and photographs of the campers remain, glowing embers that still throw sparks to the wind. For a moment, they were free.