WENJIA TANG

Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she speaks with two women who grew up in the hippie counterculture of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Stephanie Blank dated Kelly Fleming’s brother while attending an alternative high school, then followed him to Mexico where she met Kelly and the rest of the family, who were living on a converted school bus while they traveled around. The romance didn’t last, but Stephanie’s friendship with Kelly did, even as they grew up and their lives took very different paths.

The Friends:

Stephanie Blank, 65, a writer and the owner of a home-accessory business, who lives in Marina del Rey, California
Kelly Fleming, 63, a fiber artist and substitute teacher who lives in Langlois, Oregon

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Julie Beck: Tell me about your upbringings, because it seems like they were somewhat unusual.

Stephanie Blank: I was born and raised in Southern California. I was a student at Beverly Hills High School in 1969 or 1970. I was really unhappy there, and frustrated with everything that Beverly Hills stood for—all the kids in their fancy cars and fancy clothes. I was becoming part of the counterculture; I was going to love-ins and be-ins with my older sister. Then I heard about this communal school up in the Santa Cruz mountains in Northern California, and I pretty much just dropped out of Beverly. I only finished ninth grade there. My parents were going through a divorce, and they were really distracted. So they didn't really care as long as they knew where I was.

So I went up to Pacific High School. Really, it was a commune, an experiment. It was very isolated. We had a bunch of geodesic domes; the design was overseen by Buckminster Fuller. The students all built the domes; we were learning about geometry from putting them together. If you don't seal them properly, they leak. So they all leaked.

Beck: What was the social scene like there?

Stephanie: There were lots of parties because we lived communally. Boys and girls lived together; there was no distinction. You could live with whomever you wanted. When the dorms got overcrowded, people would find spaces to live; they'd hang a parachute in a tree and use that as a canopy. There was a lot of pot smoking and quite a lot of psychedelic drugs. We had classes like organic gardening, edible mushrooms, volleyball. The art classes were really popular, the French-language classes were popular, the music classes were popular. But because staff members and students all had one vote in the decision making, at one point the students outvoted the teachers and we fired all the teachers that taught academic-type classes like algebra. It was pretty much a free-for-all. When I was there, I met Kelly's brother Mako, and he became my first true love.

Kelly Fleming: I was born in Oregon, and then my parents moved down to the San Francisco area during the late ’60s/early ’70s. They joined the hippie culture. My dad was in advertising, and then he and my mother got into making a light-show business—light shows that would go behind bands. You took a tray of oils and put it over a light that would reflect onto the wall. And then you would wiggle the oils around. Psychedelic, that's the word. They created a Möbius strip of film that would go through the projector, around and around and around; people could buy it and have that on the stage while the band was playing. The business didn't go very well. So they sold the business, sold the house, bought a school bus, packed up four of their five children, and headed for Mexico.

Beck: Did they buy the bus from the local school district?

Kelly's family stands in front of the school bus.
Kelly and her family next to the Argo. (Courtesy of Kelly Fleming)

Kelly: Actually, it belonged to another group of hippies that lived in San Francisco. But it was mostly just a shell at that point. My parents put in bunk beds, a kitchen, and a king-size bed in the back. It was a really nice set up. Almost all the windows were open. No matter where you were in that bus, you could see a great view as the countryside went by.

Stephanie: The bus got a fantastic paint job with rainbows and all kinds of hippie stuff. And then they named it the Argo.

Kelly: My father was really into history. That’s why he wanted to go to Mexico—he wanted to visit as many ruins and small villages as we possibly could get to in the 35-foot school bus. When my oldest brother, Mako, came down to join us in Mexico, Stephanie came with him and that's where we met.

Beck: That was all prologue. Now tell me about the beginning of your friendship and that trip to Mexico.

Stephanie: So I was madly in love with Kelly's brother Mako, and he had left the school to go down to meet his family in Mexico. I flew down a little bit later and met the whole family. I was just 17. I remember vividly flying into Oaxaca. It was a teeny little airport. I remember looking out the window and seeing this big yellow bus.

Kelly: We were parked [right near where] the airplane lands.

Stephanie: I'm waving out the window, I can see this whole hippie family and this crazy painted bus.

Kelly: I remember Stephanie getting off the plane. She’s got this wild, long curly head of blonde hair and [she was] smiling from ear to ear. I fell in love with her the minute I saw her. A ray of sunshine joined our crew.

Stephanie: That’s how I met the whole family, including Kelly, who’s the oldest girl, and then all the other siblings that are all younger than Mako and Kelly. I traveled with them for a few months as we made our way from Mexico back to Arizona. I rode in the bus with them the whole time—camping out, staying by the sides of roads. It was quite an adventure.

Beck: How did you and Kelly get close during that journey?

Kelly: All of my siblings, including me, just wanted to show her all that we had learned about Oaxaca on our journey. There was a lot of walking her through the community, putting her on the city bus, taking her downtown, and just trying to get as much attention from her as we could when she wasn’t spending time with my brother.

A photo of Kelly and Stephanie.
Kelly (L) and Stephanie (R) a few years ago on the Oregon coast. (Courtesy of Stephanie Blank)

Our communication with each other was just so connected; I don't know any other way to say it. We really enjoyed each other’s company. At that point, she was pretty dedicated to my brother, but when we made it to Tucson, where my family settled and stayed from then on, we made a pact with each other that we would stay in touch.

Stephanie: I came back to LA for a while; I think I went to community college for a year maybe. Then I moved back to Tucson because Mako and I were still trying to see if our relationship would work. Kelly and I had stayed in touch and talked on the phone. So I moved back to Tucson and lived with the family.

Kelly: And then we got a house together.

Stephanie: That’s right. Kelly and I got a house together in Tucson.

Beck: How old were you?

Stephanie: I was 18 or 19.

Kelly: I was 15 and a half or 16. I was pretty young when we moved into that place together.

Beck: It was just you two, no parents or anything?

Kelly: It was Stephanie and I, and then we had another female roommate.

Beck: What was it like living by yourselves at that age?

Stephanie: We thought we were so mature. We felt like it wasn't unusual for an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old to have their own house and have jobs.

Kelly: I was waitressing and helping my parents at their silver shop. We [mostly] got around town on our bicycles. I bought an old Chevy pickup truck that worked some of the time. Mostly, we were just living the young life and feeling pretty free.

Beck: Were Stephanie and Mako still together at this point?

Kelly: They broke up while we were renting that house in Tucson.

Stephanie: The drinking age in Arizona was 19 [at the time], so I got a job at this very hip, happening bar in Tucson.

Kelly: We were putting money away because we wanted to take a trip together.

Stephanie: Our goal was to get the hell out of the desert and go to Europe.

Kelly: We put an ad up at [a local] university for a ride to New York. It was an ongoing, nonstop trip in a van with a bunch of other people; I don’t think that van pulled over except [for us] to use the bathroom the whole way. We sold pretty much all of our jewelry [when we got to New York]. That was our spending money when we went to Europe.

Stephanie: We had some crazy charter flight that left out of Montreal, so we had to hitchhike from Manhattan to Montreal in the middle of winter.

Beck: What were your highest and lowest moments of traveling together?

Kelly: My highest moments were definitely in Greece. When we were in Athens, we were just walking the city through the night, and we ran into somebody who told us the Acropolis was free on a full-moon night. And it was a full-moon night. So we hiked up and got in for free. We watched the moon go down and the sun come up, while sitting on the edge of the ruins looking out over the city.

And [there was the time] Stephanie decided to journey on her own.

Stephanie: Kelly and I split up and I went off on my own. Kelly was a little bit nervous about being alone, but I just, I don't know, I needed to be by myself. This was before cell phones, so we said that two days later or three days later we’d meet where the ferry picks us up and continue on to Santorini. And that’s where we almost died.

Kelly: We were very glad to see each other. The two days’ separation was plenty. We got onto this ferry, and as it headed out into the Mediterranean, a storm came up. That ferry was just all over the place.  There was throw-up all over the deck; it was horrible.

Stephanie: It was like a ship from hell. It was supposed to be a three-hour ferryboat ride. We finally got to Santorini eight hours later, in the middle of the night.

Kelly: When we got to the shore, the sun hadn't come up yet. We watched the other tourists rent donkeys to go up the trail because they dropped you off along a cliff. Neither of us had the money to [rent donkeys]. So we grabbed our backpacks and we headed up the trail. All I remember is we walked for a long time. Finally, we were so tired that we just rolled out our sleeping bags and went to sleep. And when we woke up in the morning, we were on the edge of a cliff, sleeping in donkey poop.

So we rolled up our bags and made our way to the top of the trail. And a young boy, about eight years old, took us to a really sweet little pension for not much money.

Beck: Hopefully they had a shower.

Kelly: Oh my gosh. We had to hang our sleeping bags to air them out for awhile.

Beck: How did your friendship evolve after that trip?

Kelly: When we came back from our many journeys in Europe, we both knew we needed to find our own way in life. Stephanie needed to get back to LA. We stayed in touch while we worked and found partners. I moved to Oregon. Stephanie’s had her own adventures; she’s traveled a lot more than I have. I’ve become very connected to our little place here in Oregon and made that my life while I raised my kids with my husband.

Stephanie and Kelly holding their babies.
Kelly and Stephanie with their babies, who were born a week apart. (Courtesy of Stephanie Blank)

Stephanie: After we returned from Europe in ’74 and I came back to LA, Kelly and I stayed friends and we continued to see each other. I’d go back and forth to Tucson. I met my husband, I got married, and Kelly and I had kids born just a week apart. And we both became grandmas within a week of each other. We both chose our grandma names. My oldest daughter's half Dutch, so I wanted something that reflected her Dutch heritage. So I chose Oma. Kelly at the same time, unbeknownst to me, had also chosen to be called Oma.

Beck: What do you think has kept you close, even as your lives took these different paths?

Kelly: Stephanie lived a life in the city that I definitely chose not to have, and yet when I would have my moments of sadness or frustration, I always knew that I could call Stephanie and we would compare. The different choices that we made created an even closer bond, [because we had] somebody to talk to about those differences.

Stephanie: I think Kelly and I feel like we share the same heart. Kelly has the life of steadiness, being married to the same person for all these years, living in the same place for all these years, having her children and her grandchildren in her vicinity for all these years. I've had kind of the opposite, a lot of turmoil and upheaval. She is not a city person. Kelly lives the life that I always thought I should live—off the grid, in the mountain, in the forest, away from everybody. I always longed for that, but I know I really couldn’t live that life. It’s not realistic for me, but it’s a warm fuzzy feeling to go and visit her.

Kelly: Meanwhile Steph, you're the one that's traveling, going to school in Italy, visiting France, and meeting a man in Holland. You’re continuing the exploring part of me that I gave up.

Stephanie: I guess Kelly’s lived vicariously through all my adventures, and yet I live vicariously through her life of stability. I’ll complain to her about how I couldn’t find a parking spot at the Nordstrom sale, while she’s complaining to me about how her goats have hoof rot. We just laugh and laugh and laugh.


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