SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW: A Search for Transcendence & Annihilation in New Zealand’s Hippie Paradise 




It’s about how I once ate a mushroom I found in New Zealand, though I had no idea if it was edible. I tell the story at parties, or during banter with a love interest—and usually after a few drinks.

“The mushroom was big and white and fluffy, like a marshmallow,” I say. “I picked it from a patch of grass and carried it to the guesthouse where I was staying. Then I sautéed it in olive oil. Ate it with a knife and fork.”

I’m never planning to tell the story. It bursts out of me, unbidden, prompting listeners to make little noises of surprise, their expressions both amused and disturbed.

“You really had no idea if the mushroom was poisonous?” they ask.

“No!” I say, which startles me, too.

People usually laugh; they look at me with narrowed eyes, perhaps concluding that I am more zany, carefree, and wild than they initially believed.

I am not, though.

That was partly why I ate the mushroom—why I went to New Zealand in the first place.

But I don’t tell them this. Instead, if I’ve had too many drinks, I add: “After I ate the mushroom, I lay down in the guest bedroom and waited to see if I would die.”

Usually, if people are laughing, at that point they stop.



To travel to New Zealand for an extended stay, like I did in 2011, you could get a “Working Holiday Visa”—that is, if you intended to both labor and sightsee in the country, and if you were under thirty. Not yet a year out of college, I bought my plane ticket while on a fellowship in Human Ecology, a gig that paid a stipend of $2,000 for a semester of teaching and research assistance. The cost of the ticket used most of my stipend. I was running on fumes: my meager lifesavings amounting to what I had squirreled away from work-study jobs, summer employment, small academic prizes. My student debt wasn’t as dire as that of many other Millennials, but those bills still loomed. This fact lent my ticket purchase an aura of manic impulse, even as I felt myself turning diligently, inevitably, toward the island nation. Adulthood was banging on the door, breathing down my neck, but this made getting to New Zealand all the more urgent. I saw the country as my final chance.

For what, exactly?

Transformation—no, transmogrification. I had the sense that I could become a latent, secret version of myself. New Zealand seemed the place to do it.

One reason was that the country lived in my imagination as an otherworld: a Land of Oz where anything was possible. Narnian. Tolkienian. On the opposite side of the globe, it was as far as I could get from the small New England towns where I’d grown up and gone to school—towns with white steepled churches and old mill architecture; towns cloistered by thick forests that went grim and stark in the wintertime; towns with traditions so entrenched they could sweep you up in the same life as your parents, and their parents before them, everyone striving and dying in the long shadow of the Puritan work ethic.

By contrast, New Zealand was at once subtropical and glaciered, hot-springed and canyoned, volcanoed and rainforested, pastured and plumbed with caves of bioluminescent worms. Aotearoa, the land’s Maori name, means “long white cloud.” I liked the idea of disappearing into a cloud. I liked the implications of an antipodal landscape: an upside-down place that might shake loose the part of me I wanted found.

My hopes for that part me—the secret self—had to do with another aspect of New Zealand as well. From an academic study called Living in Utopia, I’d learned that New Zealand was home to more intentional communities per capita than any other nation. This meant the country fomented socialist co-housing experiments, back-to-the-land homesteads, hippie communes, cooperative eco-villages, and other utopian ventures where people tried to push back against the container-shape of mainstream society.

I had been obsessed with intentional communities ever since I first heard about them in a high school history class. Growing up, I collected books on Sixties back-to-the-land communes and transcendentalist enclaves like Brook Farm, as well as works of utopian fiction like Herland and Walden Two. In New Zealand, though, intentional communities weren’t history or pure fantasy. They were real, and they were present-day, and they were plentiful.

I wanted to be steeped in this utopian spirit. I wanted to be among the freaks and dreamers, the hippies who wove peach pits in their hair, and who walked barefoot, and lived in yurts, and who knew the secrets of peace and love—the kinds of people I had read about and studied for years.

But I wasn’t going to New Zealand to study hippies.

I was going there to become one.



The New England landscape had been snow-covered when I left; in Auckland, an orange sunrise illuminated a snowless city. I’d departed on January 11, and arrived, twelve hours later, on January 13—a whole day disappeared, as if I’d crossed through a wormhole. This felt like evidence I’d entered another dimension: the realm of possibility. From Auckland, I took a two-hour flight to Christchurch. In that city, roses were blooming.

My first three nights, I stayed in a dingy hostel that would later shudder in the catastrophic earthquake that rocked the city in February. In my jetlagged fugue, I felt this shuddering early, internally. After waking dizzy and ravenous my first morning, I stumbled to the hostel’s kitchen, where I ate a bruised banana that had been left in the “free basket” like a mystical gift. Back in my four-person room, I gripped the edge of a bunkbed to hold steady. One of my newly arrived roommates, a guy from Germany, flipped his floppy backpacker hair, cursed in stilted English.

“I’m fucking wrecked,” he said. “Rode the fucking Naked Bus from Dunedin. Usually I hitchhike.”

Later, he solemnly distributed his possessions—a portable propane stove, paperback bestsellers—to others in the hostel. He was about to fly home. He had been traveling for eleven months.

“Went by like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.

Like that, I thought, urging myself to make the most of my time—the five or so months I’d set aside for the trip. The five months I had to transform.

Beyond the hostel, I found Christchurch to be pleasant—even charming. Ducks swam in ponds. Farmers markets were flush with a harvest of cherries. Gothic architecture gave the city a genteel British vibe, as did the street names. In my notebook, I wrote that Christchurch had: a whole parallel universe contained in its streets. There was Peterborough Street—my hometown—and nearby Durham, Manchester, Dublin, Gloucester, like parallel incantations of a New England upbringing. 

Of course, as in North America, these names were the stamp of British colonialism. They represented the cultural and linguistic horrors of imperialism. In that moment, though, I took the names as a signal that I was truly in an upside-down realm—in Oz. This was a place I knew and didn’t know; perhaps it would help me find the self I knew and didn’t know. So that when people of the future said Allegra Hyde—just like they said “Peterborough”—they would mean something totally different.



The hippie ideal lived intuitively. The hippie ideal was calm. Playful, laughing, loving. Bright. She wore her long hair uncombed. Her feet bare. Her skin sun-freckled. She did not use dayplanners, as I had for years, neurotically scribbling in tasks, because she let each day wash over her. She welcomed every moment with ease.

That she was an ideal—an illusion, even—I must have known on some level. But I had chased ideals my whole life. Growing up, I strove for perfect grades, for the perfect number of extracurriculars, for the perfect body of a top athlete. To do otherwise, I thought, would be to miss the escape hatch of an elite college education—and, with it, a life beyond the kind of life my parents lived. They had wanted careers as artists, but had ended up in what seemed like second-choice professions, both working in education. And though their jobs gave our family a perch in the middle class, it was only a delicate one.

I wanted a first-choice life, even if I wasn’t yet sure what it was; I wanted, at least, the freedom to live without bills hovering like knife blades to the throat. And so I cultivated myself as the perfect college applicant. To be anything else was too risky—which isn’t to say I didn’t take the occasional risk. Once in a while, I put away my SAT prep books, wandered my family’s vegetable garden barefoot, or collected wild blueberries from the woods. With friends, I swam in ponds at midnight, floating in the silvery water and howling up at the moon over the sheer thrill of existence. I got high. But these breaks were brief—truncated by my fear of betraying my future for my present. It was only through achieving an academic ideal, I was sure, that I could give myself access to anything like freedom.

When I did get into an elite college, however, I discovered that accessing freedom still required more work. I had to get a good job, after all. And so I woke up early to study, anchored myself in library carrels. I swallowed down my unhappiness: the sense that there was a wilder, weirder me who had to be contained. And though that self sometimes escaped—when I hosted a bizarre radio show called “The Commune,” for instance, or wrote dream-drenched short stories about displaced flower children and island dwellers who floated to shore on their guitar cases—I’d always work harder afterward, trying to make up for a sense of lost time.

And for what? On graduation day, with my diploma in hand, a prestigious fellowship on the horizon, I was overcome by a huge, howling sorrow. The reward for working hard, I’d finally realized, was getting to work more. There was no freedom to be found at the end of my schooling. Long hours in a library would become long hours in an office. If I didn’t change—change radically—I would be trapped to continue as I had: grasping at a Sisyphean sense of accomplishment, caught in the neoliberal prison of optimized productivity.

There are far worse fates, I know. I was lucky to have received the education I had, to benefit from the obscene privileges that come with being white, middle-class, and American. But I also knew that my discipline and achievement mindset, the straightjacket of perfectionism, would destroy me. The walls would close in. The truer me—the free spirit, the flame of her—would be extinguished forever.

I went to New Zealand to give her a chance.



The first utopian community I planned to visit was called Rainbow Valley. From my internet research, as well as Living in Utopia, I knew the community had been founded in 1974. It was secular, environmentally-minded. It was a place, I imagined, where residents shared labor, shared love, operated not for individual gain but for the health of the group and the surrounding land; a place where people stepped away from mainstream society to try something different—where I might step away from myself and become someone new.

To get to Rainbow Valley, I mapped a route from Christchurch up the coast of the South Island, then northwest into the Nelson Tasman region. New Zealand is a small country; Rainbow Valley wasn’t far, really—a day’s drive, if I’d had a car. Some backpackers bought or rented vehicles, but I was trying to save money any way I could. This would mean lots of hitchhiking. It would also mean finding places to stay for free, ideally through Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF): a network of hosts around New Zealand who’d house and feed me in exchange for a few hours of labor. WWOOFing, I reasoned, would fill in the gaps as I traveled between intentional communities and occasional hostels. Either that, or I’d camp in the single-person tent I carried in my backpack, along with my sleeping bag, sleeping roll, clothes, notebook, pens, water bottle, snacks, camera, Dr. Bronner’s soap, pen knife, and hardbacked copy of Living in Utopia. 

Getting to Rainbow Valley, or anywhere in New Zealand, would be piecemeal, slow—but I wanted to take my time. I wanted to pay attention to my surroundings, watch for every wink and nudge from the universe. Wasn’t that what hippies did?

Thus, when I noticed a flyer advertising a “free feast” at the Radha Krishna Temple on my last night in Christchurch, I decided to go. This was the kind of serendipitous opportunity I’d hoped to find. I also wasn’t about to turn down free food. And so, I gathered with other takers in a windowless room decorated with pillows and icons, joined the transcendental mantras led by believers wearing loose robes. By the time I left the temple, hours later, I felt light—happy and unencumbered—though I had eaten a large portion of the feast. The sun was setting, sending buttery yellow beams through the city’s streets. I had liked chanting mantras. I hoped there would be more chanting in my immediate future.

As planned, I headed toward Rainbow Valley, pausing to WWOOF at a sheep farm, where I did chores for a kindly, sunburned couple, who fed me fresh apricots and tea. When I reached Nelson—an artsy town with bead shops and locals riding unicycles—I was within striking distance of the community, just two hours further. But my gaze landed on another flyer, this one advertising a six-day festival called Luminate. The festival promised live music, as well as “earth-friendly consciousness, innovation, participation, co-creation, self responsibility, respect, compassionate communication, integrity, unity in diversity, knowledge sharing, music, arts & creativity, sacred geometry of nature, holistic health, celebration and aroha/love.”

It promised hippies, in other words. Though I was eager to get to Rainbow Valley, the appearance of the flyer, the timing of the festival and my proximity, seemed like another cosmic nudge set before me by New Zealand’s mystical realm possibility. I could go to Rainbow Valley afterward.

I caught a bus to the town of Motueka, wrote “Luminate” on a piece of cardboard and stood in front of a gas station. After fifteen minutes or so, a gas station customer yelled: “Hike your shorts up.” I smiled politely, hoping he was only making a friendly joke, but the comment unsettled me. Maybe hitchhiking wasn’t such a wise idea. I had no other way, though, to get to the festival.

To my relief, a loud, dented car rolled up beside me a few minutes later. The driver was also going to Luminate. Her name sounded like Meadow. She had dark hair, a thick Kiwi accent, and a peaceful demeanor. She was eating a carrot.

“I hope you don’t mind,” she said, as I buckled into the front seat.

“Not at all,” I replied—and I meant it. I was impressed and amused as Meadow crunched down the carrot, one hand on the steering wheel. When she finished, she chucked the stump out the window.

Around us, brambly forest and grasslands were punctuated by rocky mountain outcroppings. We were gaining elevation. As Meadow turned onto a dirt road—the route that would bring us to the festival grounds—she explained that we were in an area called Canaan Downs, on a sacred mountain called Takaka Hill.

“It’s special, this place,” she said, as the car rumbled into a field filled with campsites, and my stomach somersaulted with anticipation. “This whole mountain is made of quartz crystal. Quartz channels energy, conducts truth. You can’t help but be your true self up there. Whatever you’re feeling will be amplified.”

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. The forces of the universe—of New Zealand—had directed me to a quartz mountain of truth: a place where my deepest self was bound to be set free.



Drums thundered alongside the heady zing of electronica, stirring hundreds of festival attendees into a dancing mass around a bonfire—making my heart leap. For Luminate’s opening ceremony, people wore their hair in mohawks and long braids; they wore pink wigs and top hats, capes and star-studded scarves, feathers, bangles, crystal pennants, big billowing pants that tapered above the ankles, patchwork jackets, pirate suits, bird costumes, fairy wings, earth goddess green robes. As the music picked up, the fire burned hotter, flames spitting sparks into the air, and attendees began to shed their clothing, exposing tattoos, naked skin, their teeth shining in the firelight.

“I hope we will leave this place not as strangers—” someone said into a microphone, “—that we will remember we are one great human family orbiting a golden star.”

I inhaled on a pipe passed through the crowd; the smoke singed my runner’s lungs. Above, the sky opened up huge. I wondered if the crystal power of the mountain was working yet. I had overhead more people talking about how the landscape amplified sound, as well as energy. “It’s the same kind of quartz found in watches,” they’d said—which seemed like evidence that science backed up the hippie claim.

If the mountain was working, though, it was too soon to know for sure. And so, over subsequent days, I immersed myself in Luminate’s offerings. I wandered into pavilions arranged in accordance with sacred geometry, joined drum circles, listened to lessons on Unified Field Theory, meditated, ate gluten-free, dairy-free bliss balls. I used the communal composting toilets, which had been rigged up to separate pee from solid waste in a manner I found structurally impressive. I toured the wavy rows of campsites, where people pitched tents and strung up prayer flags, parked custom-built RVs that looked like ships-on-wheels. I hula-hooped. I went to a workshop on intentional communities where a self-described “Commune Guru” urged prospective communees to “first find people and make sure you can work together, then find land—not the other way around.” I diligently took notes. I scrutinized the festival schedule, trying to maximize my time. When I wasn’t sure what to do, I danced to the live music—heady electronica—but eventually my bare feet hurt.

I put on sneakers.

I hoped my footwear wouldn’t stick out too much.

Generally, though, I felt like I stuck out. Other attendees had come in groups, or seemed to already know one another. Beyond passing friendliness, I found it difficult to connect with anyone. Maybe I was too foreign. Maybe I had too many walls up: the armor of A Woman Traveling Alone. After all, I opted not to take any of the party drugs that might have helped me dance all night, with or without sneakers.

Or, a worse possibility: I simply wasn’t cut out to be a hippie. I was doomed to be who I already was—a neurotic, type-A overachiever with habits too calcified to alter.

I willed this to be untrue, waited for an emergent spiritual essentiality: my true self brought forth by the amplifying power of a “crystal mountain.”

Mostly, though, I felt lonely, tired, adrift.

I’d been in NZ a few weeks—not a terribly long time—but time moves weirdly when you’re traveling. It’s big and long. Then short. Gone like that, the German backpacker had said to me. But where was it gone and where was I going?



I’d been anticipating the workshop for days, having circled the time slot emphatically on my schedule of events. Designed to re-integrate the broken parts of a person via a guided meditation, “Dreamscape” seemed like the perfect opportunity to accelerate my hippie transformation. It was led by a professional psychic and took place in a yurt.

She had everyone in the yurt lie down and close their eyes, I scribbled in my notebook afterward, my handwriting racing ecstatically across the page:

It was all about purple shields of light—the violet-colored protection (flame) of Saint Germain, and an opening lotus, and making yourself melt into shafts of light. The intent was to open the secret chamber of our heart, find lost bits of our soul displaced by trauma, reconnect the 12 strands of our DNA, so as to regain the knowledge of past lives, meet our higher selves, and so on. Somehow through the trance, I actually felt myself gripped by vibrations. My heart-raced, a sensation alone that could make you a believer by the fact that [the psychic] confirmed this might happen in the coming moments. She said the effects of the process could take weeks to fully integrate but that your body might “purge” bad worries and feelings before then… She said that The Age of Aquarius started in February (11?), that it was finally a feminine age…the window of opportunity to create a new paradigm.

It was the dawn of a new era—when the workshop was over and I emerged from the yurt, I’d been sure of this. A new paradigm was imminent for me and the world.

Later that night, though, when I slid into my single-person tent—so small it could only be entered feet-first—my certainty began to waver. I felt the polyester walls press close, slick with condensation. I felt the press of my own caution, my practicality and perfectionism, my thoughts ever running toward the future instead of staying in the present. From inside my tent, I could hear electronica pulsing in the distance: the wild hippie dancing going all night. Why wasn’t I out there with everyone else, dancing until dawn?

I knew my answers—and I didn’t like them. I wasn’t out there because I was tired; because there were things I wanted to do the next day; because I wasn’t bold enough to take the party drugs that might have made dancing easy.

Lying prone in my tent, I felt like I was in a coffin.



I wandered a grassy ridge in a small town called Todd’s Valley. It wasn’t far from the crystal mountain, though by the time I got there I had traveled all around the South Island. I had visited intentional communities, WWOOFed in many situations, pitched my tent in the wilderness. Then I saw that mushroom waiting for me on the ground, soft as a cloud.



After the festival, I hitched a series of rides to Rainbow Valley. Once there, a part of me wished I’d come earlier. The community was even more idyllic than I’d imagined, with wood hewn buildings nestled helter skelter around the base of lush, mist-capped mountains. A wide river flowed through the valley, blue-green water spreading leisurely over rocks. There were pastures of dairy cows. Horses as well. And those bohemian touches: stumps for sitting in circles, low winding stone walls, sculptures, totems, wind chimes, stained glass.

From my notebook:

The place is warm and dreamy. Flowers nodding, tomato plants laden with fruit, bending over as if falling asleep, bumblebees hovering near, their buzz like cool breath. There is something so safe about a valley. There are apple trees, plums, Asian pears, blackberries, and a small community garden, like a jungle. It feels good and soulful to weed it, to get dirt under my fingernails, discovering our meals, “beets!” “beans!” 

By “our meals” I meant meals for me and the few other visitors who cycled through Rainbow Valley’s guest lodge. We were given free range of the community garden, as well as a pantry of bulk lentils, oats, and whole wheat flour. The handful of long-term residents had private homes and their own garden plots. I was mildly disappointed to be separated in this way, but I hoped to get to know the long-term residents as time went by. I hoped to get to know the other visitors even sooner, and to perhaps forge the kinds of connections I’d failed to make at Luminate.

As ever, I hoped the place would make me into the hippie I wanted to become:

I feel a sense of glowing happiness and peace. I cleared blackberries and gorse brush from a path, then hiked up to a waterfall in a misty, mossy spot. Then I harvested some snacks, then I rode a horse. I already feel like I’ve been here a long time. 

One other visitor was named Harmony. She had arrived at the same time as me because she, too, had been at Luminate. She was also American—and from New England. She had an interest in intentional communities and seemed to be seeking transformation, though she was evasive about specifics. She was older than me and had recently left her job as a therapist. She had dark hair, big intense eyes, and wore a crystal pendant.

I found her to be extremely beautiful and profoundly wise. I hoped we would become friends—or even partners in a shared pursuit of higher, hippie aims. This seemed wholly possible given how much we had in common.

Harmony, though, was mostly distant with me. I wondered if this was because she was a more “advanced” hippie than I. She had purportedly had a fantastic time at Luminate, for instance. And she was cultivating an expertise in Mayan astrology. She even did yoga everyday, often in the pillow-strewn lounge area of the guest lodge. Once, I walked past her as she sunk into Goddess Squat—Utkata Konasana—her legs wide, her arms raised, her concentration tuned to a frequency I couldn’t yet access.

“How do you know what poses to do?” I later asked—I, who had only done yoga a dozen times in my life, and always with someone guiding me through a sequence.

Harmony smiled faintly, said nothing; the answer was already evident.

In these moments, I felt a pulse of despair, even as the door to friendship—if not transformation—still seemed open, if only I could figure out how to walk through. Harmony and I did spend a fair amount of time together. Left up to our own devices by the long-term residents of Rainbow Valley (who mostly showed up when it was their turn to supervise our chores), we swam in the shallow river. We baked dense loaves of whole wheat bread. We collected blackberries, then we added them to fresh cream from the cows’ milk in an attempt to make ice cream. Our efforts froze rock solid. This made us both laugh. My heart sang when this happened: us laughing together, then chipping out the ice cream and eating it anyway, each little mouthful rich and sweet.

Looking back, a decade later, I can see that it wasn’t just the promise of hippie kinship that drew me to Harmony. In truth, I had a crush on her. My queerness, though, was not something I had yet fully recognized. It had not occurred to me that my sexuality could be among the reasons I’d never felt at home in my life. I thought the disconnect came solely from my perfectionism and the hamster wheel of late-stage capitalism. And so, in the moments when Harmony’s walls came down—as they did when we made ice cream—I took the opportunity to open up to her, but not because I was revealing my most honest feelings. I opened up because I thought she might help me excavate my true flower-child self.

“You know,” I said, while we both sat at the long sticky table in the guest lodge, “I actually didn’t have the greatest time at Luminate. I found it hard to meet people.”

Harmony listened thoughtfully as I described my experience—she’d been a therapist, after all. With her large eyes trained on me, she replied with calm matter-of factness that perhaps I ought not to force things.

“Sometimes we tell ourselves we want something,” she said, “and we ignore signs—our spiritual selves—telling us that this isn’t right or good for us.”

My whole body tensed; this wasn’t what I’d wanted to hear

“All this bad stuff will happen,” Harmony continued, “and we’ll be like, ‘Why?!’ But it’s just the universe moving us in the right direction.”

“Sure,” I said, trying to play it cool, though I was terrified she might be right. Maybe it was absurd to believe I could transform my whole identity in five months. Or even in five years. Maybe transformation wasn’t and never would be possible. The universe had been telling me so.

Then again, though I had come to New Zealand seeking a sense of ease, I had never expected achieving it to be easy. Maybe this was a product of my New England upbringing: a lifetime steeped in Puritan mores. But I’d always assumed that the path to any goal would involve difficulty, if not some degree of suffering. Why should the path to becoming a hippie be any different?

And then there was the far more pertinent question: if I couldn’t transform, then what? Because if I knew one thing, it was that I couldn’t go back to being who I had been. There wasn’t a me, I believed, to go back to.



Once there had been many children at Rainbow Valley. They ran through pastures, drank fresh milk by the gallon. Once there had been singing, along with the thump of hammers as residents built cottages, the thwack of axes as they chopped wood. Now, a quietness pervaded the valley. The children had grown up, left. The community was peaceful, picturesque, but often I felt I was staying in a museum, not an active utopian experiment.

Inside the guest lodge, I drifted among stained-glass windows, worn velvet pillows, three string guitars. Around me was evidence of another time: a communal phone in the pantry, boxes of costumes from past parties, shelves of old books with titles like Yoga with Veronica, Earthhome Building, Solar Energy, and Decode your Dreams. There were scrapbooks too, documenting the commune of decades ago, when ruddy-cheeked dreamers barn-raised homes, planted gardens, fed children in a barefoot herd.

From my notebook:

Apparently, in the late 70s, caravans of hippies would come to the valley, 200 extra people for the summer, sleeping everywhere, their cars, the barns. They made such noise that some of the original residents built themselves little summer houses further up the valley to escape. 

Those residents had kept retreating, it seemed, over the years. Maybe it was hard to meet itinerant travelers again and again—to say goodbye to people as quickly as you met them. But this begged the question: Why invite them in at all?

At night, curled in my sleeping bag under the eaves of the guest lodge, I used my headlamp to reread sections of Living in Utopia, as if the sociological study might offer explanation. “Utopia is the good place that is no place,” the authors write. “Utopian imaginings of a better world exist, for the most part, in the world of fiction or theory.” The authors go on to note New Zealand’s extraordinary abundance of intentional communities, as well as their particular longevity, and yet I couldn’t help wondering if a place like Rainbow Valley persisted as a kind of hallucination more than anything. I was in a “good place” that didn’t actually exist. The after-burn of the seventies shimmered around me, but remained ultimately unreachable. The party was over—but then again, had the community’s intention ever been fully realized? Or had it always been in-progress, and then, all at once, a nostalgic memory? After all, it’s one thing to see a rainbow at a distance, arcing across the sky; it’s quite another to follow a rainbow all the way to its end. Where illusion meets earth, there’s nothing but nothing.



William was a big man with a white beard; in his old gray tee-shirt, he might have been an off-duty mall Santa. He showed me and Harmony where he made cheese and butter from the cows he tended. In the dairy room, he opened up a container where milk had been churning. “Oh look,” he said, eyes lighting up, “there’s a little still in there—”

He wiped a big dollop of butter off the edge of the container, held out his finger. Harmony and I looked at one another. He shrugged and put the whole dollop in his mouth. “I hate seeing this go to waste.”

William may have spent time with me and Harmony because he was lonely himself (too chatty for the other long-term residents) or because he was trying to stave off the grief that had chased him for years. His former wife and two of his children had died in a car accident. The pain of that loss was evident, even when he cheerily followed the story of his family’s death with the fact that he’d settled down with a woman named Alice “after her partner became a Buddhist and became celibate.” This was funny, he said, “because Alice had been the one to insist people didn’t sleep with each other’s partners.”

Two of the community’s couples had switched partners in the eighties, apparently. Cheryl and Arthur were another couple; before, Cheryl had been with Tom, who was now with Wren. I found the partner switching amusing, but also satisfying to hear about. This was what I’d expected from an intentional community where people sought ways of living beyond mainstream norms. William went on to say that he knew Rainbow Valley wasn’t perfect—a lot had changed since it was first conceived—but he was proud to be a part of it. The community had historical significance. After inviting me and Harmony into his cluttered kitchen for tea, he boasted that he had even been interviewed about Rainbow Valley for an academic study.

“For Living in Utopia?” I said excitedly, and pulled my copy from my daypack.

The old man’s eyes widened. Then he frowned. “But how do you have that?” he said. “How do you have that?”

I laughed; I was interested in utopian communities, I explained—but William’s disbelief persisted.

“That’s a very academic book. I don’t understand why you would have that.”

I blinked at him, confused. Was it so odd that I had this sociological study? Then I realized that William perceived me as I must have looked from the outside: dirty, sun-bleached, dreamy. I was no longer visible as a neurotic student. He thought I was a free-wheeling flower child for whom academic jargon would have been impenetrable.

Pre-New Zealand Allegra would have been offended, but I took the old man’s shock as a sign of progress—a sign, too, that Harmony had been wrong. All my striving could yield results. My transformation into a hippie was happening. Externally at least, I had some folks fooled.



Several weeks into writing this essay, I decided to log onto my long dormant Facebook account. The site, I knew, contained photos I’d uploaded during my time in New Zealand—and I hoped these photos might help explain something. Because I’d started writing this essay to explain something to myself: why, on that trip, I would go on to eat that mushroom—the ghost of a decision resurfacing in my mind, over a decade later, insisting it be understood.

You really had no idea if the mushroom was edible? people ask me, again and again, when I tell them the story.

I had no idea, I answer, every time.

But why? people always say. Why did you eat it?

I didn’t know. I could not explain to them or to myself why I’d done it. I’d certainly known better. Having grown up in the woods of New Hampshire, not eating wild mushrooms was a foundational lesson imparted by my parents, along with instructions never to stand between a mamma bear and her cubs or go swimming during lightning storms.

And just how risky had the mushroom been? Before logging onto Facebook, I googled “deadly mushrooms in New Zealand.” The death cap mushroom surfaced immediately: white and tender-looking in photos. “Even the smallest bite,” said one article, “is packed with enough toxins to kill someone or, at the very least, maim survivors.”

My chest tightened upon reading this, my senses growing dizzy. I felt the recurrent urge to turn away from writing the essay—the decisions made by my past self too painful to face. How could I have put myself in such danger? Launched my own existence into the air: a coin toss?

The only way to understand was to keep looking.

Logging into my old Facebook account felt like opening a time capsule. As the home screen blinked with notifications, my chest tightened once again. Beyond old messages and scraps of conversation, there were dozens of photos from my time in New Zealand. The images showed bright turquoise coastlines, jungly forests, feathery grasslands, epic rivers. The people in the photos seemed like characters from a book I half-remembered reading—the festival-goers and commune residents and backpackers all frozen in this other dimension. To gaze upon them, years later, felt like crossing a breach. It felt like peering back into Narnia: no time having passed there at all.

And in the photos of myself (which I took using my camera’s self-timer) I look both shabby and golden. I look a little haunted. In some images, I peer into the camera like there is someone on the other side, watching.
















I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for at Rainbow Valley. The community felt like a mirage; I needed something tangible. Also, despite all that Harmony and I had in common, she was never going to be more than another acquaintance—more meaning both what I could let myself wish for, and what I couldn’t yet acknowledge. I said goodbye to her, William, and others, and began looking elsewhere.

I did a lap of the South Island. I WWOOFed and hitchhiked, camped outside and trekked for miles carrying my backpack. When the pack felt unbearably heavy, I imagined offloading possessions: Sunscreen? Notebooks? Living in Utopia? I imagined offloading parts of myself as well: Neuroticism? Perfectionism? Material ambition? I willed New Zealand to work on me, to strip away the parts I wanted gone.

In Waitati, I slept in a busted teardrop trailer in a small hippie compound that resembled a junkyard. To earn my keep, I weeded hardscrabble kale, potatoes. During communal meals in an old bus, a woman’s pet rat ran up and down my arms, attracted by my lavender hand sanitizer. There was no refrigerator. All stored food—from scavenged samosas to yogurt—was first subjected to the smell test. There was no plumbing, either.

“I’m not anti-house,” said Zain, a qigong instructor with a long thin ponytail. “If someone offered me a house, I would take it. But our system works. It’s very simple, but we don’t have to worry about a mortgage.”

He smiled knowingly, tapped acupressure points.

I kept wandering. Sometimes I ate what I found along roadsides and trails: chickweed, apples, berries, nuts. I often felt lonely. I always felt tired, never getting enough sleep in my single-person tent or the other places I bedded down. When I did pay to spend a night in a hostel, I struggled to drift off in bunkrooms of eight snoring bodies.

My time felt big and my finances small. I sweated every cost. Even so, after a hitchhiking scare (in which I contemplated the logistics of ejecting myself from a moving car) I rode buses more often. This meant spending more time among nonhippies, which I resented. There were lots of Europeans traveling on packaged tours: recent university grads who seemed so young, and clean, and thoughtless compared to the bohemian types I sought. “What are we supposed to be doing?” they would say whenever a bus paused along a roadside, as they waited to be pointed toward a scenic vista.

I believed I was different from the young tourists. They came to New Zealand for shorter stays, for photographs and souvenir “Maori-style” necklaces—not for transformation. They needed someone to tell them what to do.

Now I recognize I wasn’t so different. In my effort to become a hippie, I was constantly asking my role models: “What am I supposed to be doing?” I wrote all their answers in my notebook.

  • Be cool 
  • Be compassionate 
  • Be passionate 
  • Be in the moment 
  • Open your heart 
  • Follow your heart 
  • Accept everything, especially yourself 

The irony is that, of all people, the tourist kids were most interested in making friends. They asked me to go on dayhikes, asked if I wanted to get drinks, asked for my contact information so we could stay in touch. I might have been a lot happier, a lot less lonely, if I’d been open to them.

But I wasn’t, despite writing open your heart in my notebook. I brushed off their friendship, too fixated on my quest to become a free-spirit. When the young tourists went out to eat together, I holed up in my single-person tent, making a dinner out of peanut butter and stale crackers. Or, I mixed water with powdered milk, added muesli. How I got these meals down, I don’t know—though, of course, when you’re hungry things taste better. You’ll eat anything to fill yourself up.



Spiders, everywhere. They even shower with me. Found passionfruit-type fruit on vines in the bush. Quiet up here. Everything is vertical. The fruit falls off the trees then rolls away. Apples, pears, lemons, grapes, oranges, walnuts tumbling…They roll away into ditches, streams, the bush, oblivion. 



Near Queenstown, I joined a group that wanted to go bungee jumping. This was an expensive activity for me—and not an obvious hippie activity, either. Plus I was afraid of heights. But this fear was exactly the reason I wanted to fling myself off a small platform strung above a ravine. Bungee jumping was another way to push up against the hard edge of my own instincts: the discipline and self-control that had governed my life. Because I felt that those instincts were holding me back from who I wanted to be—who I needed to be—if I was ever going to find something like freedom.

“Pretend you are swan diving into a pool,” the jumping coach told me, when I stood on the quivering platform, my feet bound by the bungee apparatus, my human instincts screaming to step back. “Don’t look—just leap.”

The young tourists cheered. Though part of me scorned their bald enthusiasm, I was also grateful. Body trembling, I stretched my arms wide and dove into open air.

I’d leapt in that instance—but broadly speaking, the circumvention of instinct also presented an impasse. Liberation from myself meant the loss of self-protection. The more I placed my fate in the hands of the universe, the more vulnerable I became. And as a young woman traveling alone, vulnerability was a constant concern. Though I had started hitchhiking less, the world was still awash with creeps. Once, a British guy insisted he sit next to me on the bus for hours and hours, though there were other seats available, and though I pointedly ignored him. Later, I thought I’d evaded him by taking a ferry to Stewart Island and camping there for several nights, but he was lurking in the port town when I returned.

How was I supposed to be peaceful and joyful when there were people who wanted things from me that I did not want to give? Was a hippie indiscriminately giving? Was free love predicated on an abandonment of the self?

“You know,” said one commune old-timer, staring at me while I weeded a cabbage patch at a community I later visited in the Coromandel Peninsula. “In the old days, women used to garden topless.”

He leered at my flushed face. He wasn’t the only man who recognized my naked desire to be something I wasn’t—and who held out a version of that young woman, as if it might satisfy us both. Men have been doing that to women for time untold.

Show me your tits and maybe you’ll transcend to the next dimension. 

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t consider it: weeding, tits out. Just to show that I could. But I’d also read about intentional communities since high school; I knew that utopian experiments—for all their high-minded idealism—often entailed women suffering sexual exploitation, not to mention the burden of dreary domestic chores.

I’d hoped to find something different in New Zealand—something more progressive, equitable, idyllic. I kept hoping I would. But I also couldn’t quite relinquish my own armor, even as I visualized the laughing, easy, free spirit I wanted to become. And this made me disappointed. The wall between me and what I wanted was myself. An activity like bungee jumping could dissolve such a wall, but only for a few adrenaline-fueled moments. I was at a loss for what else to try. Though I had months left in my trip, it felt like it might already be too late for transformation—unless something radical happened.



Something radical did happen. A friend visited me: Ana, who I’d known in college. She took two weeks off from her job at Google and flew to New Zealand for a vacation. I hadn’t seen anyone who knew me for several months. Ana was an emissary of my past, bringing with her a knowledge of who I’d been. When she first saw me and yelled my nickname, “Legs,” it felt like someone calling to me while I was half-asleep, my former name plumbing the darkness.



After Ana left, my nickname echoed in my head. It had felt so good to be known again, even if the person Ana knew was not the person I wanted to be, and even if she reminded me of things I missed—things that were not hippie-ish at all. She’d left behind issues of The New Yorker, for instance, and I devoured the magazines, savoring every article. They felt like contraband.

With Ana gone, I was also alone again, and faced with a sense of impending doom: an unmeetable deadline.

I bought myself a ukulele as consolation—or else as a last-ditch effort. Returning to Nelson, I went to a Buddhist Center that offered open lessons to visitors, filled my notebook pages with a transcript of the session’s commentary. What is you? It is not the body, you could cut off arm and that would no longer be you… the notes crush onto the page in a slanty scrawl, as if to crowd out the fears otherwise on my mind… The body, the sense of being a “human being,” is a temporary state for a spirit, a consciousness. 

A week later—at a WWOOF site billed as an earthworks compound with organic gardens—I ate the mushroom.



Really, the earthworks compound was a family’s adobe house, with two outlier buildings and a scrubby garden, all perched on a valley cleft cut into coastal hills. The site faced the north, meaning that daylight was pinched: the sun crossing the valley with a stripe of light.

My host, Diane, had picked me up from the nearby town where she worked as a florist. She seemed to me a frail woman, distracted, long-haired, nervous. She had her two children in the car with her—big-eyed, preternaturally intelligent children—as well as a heap of unsold bouquets.

Before driving home, she stopped at a hardware store to get paint. “Green,” Diane said to the children, raising a metal container in her delicate, trembling hands. “For Reed. Does this seem like the right shade?”

The children studied the container with great seriousness, then agreed.

Reed, I learned, was a long-term WWOOFer who lived in a little hut on her property; he was painting his hut forest green.

On the drive, Diane seemed to forget I was in the car, lost in thought as she fretted about bringing Reed the right shade of paint. But as we pulled up the steep driveway to her house, she turned to me and said, in a tense voice: “This is a position for someone who doesn’t mind solitude.”

She did not want me to expect that I would be hanging out with her family; I could stay in the guesthouse and do the chores she prescribed. I should count on much interaction beyond that. Also, I should understand that the town was miles back up the road—though there was a bike I could borrow if I needed it.

“Sure, no problem,” I said, thinking some solitude would be fine while I regrouped for the second half of my trip. I could use the alone time to practice my ukulele. Also, maybe this woman and her family just needed to see that I was chill, trustworthy, and good. Obviously some WWOOFers, like Reed, earned special status.

“What will you do with these old bouquets?” I asked cheerfully, as we all got out of the car.

Diane’s face tightened. “I can’t bear to see them thrown into the trash when they start to turn at the shop. But there are too many chemicals on flowers like these to put them into our compost. So I toss them in that gully.”

She pointed toward the edge of the parking area, where a wall of matted brambles gave way to a shadowy gash.

A chill ran through me; though I had no better idea for what to do with the flowers, I found their fate disturbing.

If Diane noticed my reaction, she did not comment on it. Instead she handed me the bouquets.

“Go ahead,” she said. “Throw them.”



Though I could bike a few miles into town, I had no bike lock. I worried my host’s bike would get stolen if left unattended. So, mostly, I hung around the property. Around me, fruit thumped invisibly to the ground, rolled down the valley cleft toward the sea. I felt my thoughts rolling away with them, my sense of possibility too. I tried to stay busy. After I weeded my host’s garden or cleaned the windows of their adobe house, I practiced ukulele. Perched on a picnic table outside my guesthouse, I plunked out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” sang in my wobbly voice.

I don’t have any photos of myself during that time. If I took them, I deleted them. But if there were photos, I suspect they’d show a tired-looking young woman, dressed in shabby clothes—the costume of a transient existence, a cosplayed hippie identity—her heart heavy with the knowledge that she’s still somehow herself.



I have long since shed that costume. In fact, these days I’ll often wear a button-down and khakis. I am a writer. A professor, too.  I never did become a free spirit—not in the way I originally envisioned. Sometimes I spend long hours in my office. I stress about emails. In the life I live now, there isn’t a yurt in sight.

Likely, twenty-three-year-old me would have seen this as a failure.

I don’t think it’s a failure, I long to say to her, I don’t want it to mean that. 

But I am not always sure, especially on days when my emails are endless. Maybe that’s why I keep telling the mushroom story: voicing this moment of extreme risk—when I was so willing to try anything, I was willing to lose everything. The story is my past self screaming her disappointment into the present. Or else, it’s my present self looking down at her khakis, wondering: Should I have tried harder to transform?

Unless—what if I did transform, just not in the way I’d originally envisioned? What if, way back at the beginning, at Luminate, my true state was amplified? Maybe the dreamscaping psychic did repair my DNA with the purple flame of Saint Germain, coalescing a truth within me, even if I didn’t see it at the time. Because reading through my notebooks from New Zealand, I find details of hippie life and free spirit philosophy and my goals for transformation, but also other kinds of writing. There are observations of the landscapes, the communities, the people I encountered. These are details that will show up in the books I will later publish: books about intentional communities, idealists, dreamers. My notebooks are also full of drafts for stories and essays, because when I was honest with myself, writing was what I truly enjoyed doing. Writing was what gave me access to something like liberation. It was no coincidence that I’d go on to write a fictional queer relationship before I ever experienced a real one. In writing, I could do anything and be anyone. I could be weird and wonderstruck, but also disciplined and hyper-focused. I could be myself: a person who was not one extreme or another, but a composite of disparate, often contradictory traits. And so, though I went to New Zealand to become a hippie, by the time I left, I was on my way to becoming a writer. That was the transformation that ultimately took hold.

I’d like to think that isn’t a failure at all.



When I met Reed, the long-term WWOOFer who was painting his hut green, I thought he resembled an elf from Lord of the Rings. He had long smooth hair, delicate features. His skin was so pale that the slightest flush on his cheeks looked rosy. He wore clothing made of woven hemp. His green hut was filled with dried herbs, as well as the glass jars of kombucha he brewed himself. He had a gentleness about him, an easy grace. He was, in every way, the hippie ideal. During the day, he even worked at an organic vegetable shop.

My host, Diane, showered him with affection. Maybe she was in love with him, I don’t know. Toward me, she remained guarded, though we communicated occasionally. When it started drizzling one afternoon, she came by the garden I was weeding and said: “You ought not work in the rain.”

I shrugged and replied that I didn’t mind; then I wondered aloud if she did—she and her family had been about to head out on a bike ride.

“We’re not made of sugar,” she said.

“Neither am I,” I said, returning to the weeds.

Later, I walked along a grassy ridge in the twilit drizzle, wishing I had more chores—something, anything—to do. My brain buzzed, static and empty, except for the echoing phrase Not made of sugar. It sounded like something out of a fairytale; I was in one, except the story wasn’t quite right. I thought about Alice in Wonderland. Lucy in Narnia. Middle Earth and all its mysteries. I thought about how, if I was made of sugar, I could dissolve away the parts of myself I wanted gone.

Then, with daylight fading, I came upon a mushroom: big and white and tender-looking.

I knew some wild mushrooms in New Zealand were edible. I knew some were even delicious, having been served a plate by a past WWOOF host. As I stood over this one, though, I chose not to know the other truth: that an unknown mushroom could kill me. Or else, I knew that possibility and ignored it anyway, because to do so was to circumvent my own instincts, which continued to stand in the way of my goals.

A voice in my head dared me, goaded me toward boldness. I bent down and picked the mushroom. It felt soft and faintly moist in my hands. A live thing—or a recently live thing. Once I held the mushroom, it seemed as if I had already made the decision to eat it. I started moving quickly, carrying the mushroom back to my guesthouse and into the kitchenette. If I paused, I knew, I might break the spell I was under, second-guess myself—look instead of leap.

But I didn’t. I cut the mushroom into strips, sautéed it alongside a zucchini. Then I plated my dinner, took out a knife and fork. I remember the mushroom did not have any flavor.

Afterward, I lay down in the dark guesthouse bedroom and waited. Night closed in. If I felt fear, it was only slight. Mostly, I felt a breeze of curiosity: the wonder of a free fall—whatever happened wasn’t up to me.



Girl swallows a bell, or several, and they get lodged somewhere inside her. “It will cause more trouble trying to get them out, then to just leave them,” said the doctors. So they stayed, and the girl jingled when she moved. You could hear her coming, the light tinkling. It was when she learned to dance, though, that it was truly wonderful. She made her own music. She moved languidly, or fast, the bells chiming from the hollow space within her, resonating through her limbs and into the space around her. And when she cried, the shuddering of her body sent out one long sad note.



I woke up in that guesthouse the next day, alive. Okay, I thought. I’m still here. I was glad. I’d never wanted to end my life, only change it. I felt a little silly for what I had done; the reality of what could have happened had not yet fully hit me.

Outside, the sun beamed. Beckoned.

I left that “earthworks compound,” headed north, crossing Cook Strait by ferry to arrive in Wellington. I had two months remaining in my trip, months in which I would visit other communities, including an edenic commune called Wilderland, as well as a rehabilitated sex cult outside Auckland. I would put myself in other situations, sometimes risky, that seemed potentially beneficial. But I also think that after eating the mushroom, and after realization and relief set in, something in me shifted. I started to understand that to destroy the parts of me I didn’t like—my discipline, my try-hard determination—was to destroy my whole self. And this wasn’t worth it.

What I should add, though, is that I did experience a short period of hippie transcendence. At Wilderland, I fell in with a group of travelers and veteran bohemians, lost myself to commune rhythms. Each day, I helped gather apples and guavas and avocados for our meals from the community orchard. I held hands with the others in the daily gratitude gatherings. And, one beautiful afternoon, I ribbon-danced with others in the communal hall, a Beatles record playing in the corner, sunlight streaming in, lentils boiling on the woodstove. The past and the future disappeared and it was only us enjoying ourselves in that single glimmering moment.

And it was only a moment, truly. But in it, I felt joy—uncomplicated and expansive—as well as an ease with myself and the people around me.

Then things changed, as they do. Seasons shifted at Wilderland, and the composition of the group shifted with it. People got tired of eating lentils—people including myself. A cloud passed over the sun; it was time to move on. Utopia was slippery, ephemeral, ever out of reach. It was never going to be my whole life. It had never been anyone’s whole life. Why hadn’t that occurred to me from the beginning? No wonder Rainbow Valley had felt like a mirage.

I’d always known utopia was No Place. I’d even written that in my notebook. And yet, I’d gone to New Zealand looking for it anyway.


















“I once ate a mushroom in New Zealand,” I tell people, “though I had no idea if it was edible.”

“You really had no idea?”

“Not a clue.”

“But why? Why would you eat it?” they say—asking me so I can ask myself.

Because I was hungry.

Because it looked good.

Because I was lonely.

Because I wanted to.

Because I needed to fling myself out of one dimension and into another.

Because I was rolling down a hill, caught in an uncanny valley, and there was no way to stop.

Because I was terrified—terrified of being myself—and eating an unknown mushroom somehow seemed less risky. And when, by complete chance, I didn’t die after eating the mushroom, I started to realize what I had almost thrown away—which is also to say, who I had almost thrown away—and how that person was worth caring about. She was trying her best. She was trying so, so hard—too hard, according to Harmony—but in the end, Harmony was just as right as she was wrong. Because, while I ignored all the signs from the universe indicating that my pushing and striving had sent me off-course, going off-course did get me somewhere. It was from my time in New Zealand that I started to understand what freedom really meant.

Because that’s what it took to hear what the hippies were saying, what they had been telling me since the very beginning: Accept everything, especially yourself.



Photographs courtesy of author Allegra Hyde
Rumpus original artwork by Genevieve Anna Tyrrell

Allegra Hyde is the author of the story collection Of This New World, which won the John Simmons Short Fiction Prize. For more, visit More from this author →