Steve Hodgson never forgot the mischievous grin on his new co-worker’s face, a crooked smile that seemed totally at odds with his flashing blue eyes centered within raccoon-like rings that evoked a world-weary wisdom beyond the stranger’s years. John Griggs was a wiry, well-groomed man who, from a distance, appeared normal enough, dressed as he was in the white polo shirt, khaki shorts and tennis shoes that formed the standard uniform of Laguna Beach’s parks-and-recreation department. But upon close inspection, nothing could disguise the fact that there was something different, something askew about him. “He had a somewhat-broken face, and it was just imprinted with this grin, a smile so large it was threatening to shatter his face,” Hodgson recalls. “His eyes were just beaming, and I didn’t know what he was smiling about.”
Hodgson, a soft-spoken, introverted film student who grew up in Pasadena, was crashing at his aunt’s house in Laguna Beach during the summer of 1966, sweeping stairs and emptying trash bins for the city. He’d taken the minimum-wage job so he could earn a few extra bucks while he waited for the fall semester to start at the University of Colorado. He clocked his time for the city during the day, and in the evenings, he made a ritual of kicking back on the bluff to watch the sun set.
He couldn’t imagine a better place in the world to hang out all summer than Laguna Beach. Hodgson considered himself a gypsy of sorts, intellectually speaking at least, and this town was the genuine bohemian article, a half-hidden enclave of painters, poets and musicians bursting with creative energy and blissfully segregated from the rest of Orange County, California’s burgeoning suburbia, by a fortress-like ring of craggy hills and canyons. With a dramatic coastline, scenic bluffs and rocky coves, Laguna Beach had long played host to artists, most famously Plein Air Movement painters such as Edgar Payne and William Wendt. In decades past, the sleepy artists’ colony served as a weekend retreat for Hollywood film stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Bette Davis, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
By now, however, Laguna Beach had been transformed into a bustling resort town, teeming with art galleries and cultural celebrations, often held at an outdoor auditorium at the base of Laguna Canyon, where the local aristocrats hosted their beloved Pageant of the Masters, a quasi-feudal ritual in which local residents dressed up in costumes and re-enacted famous paintings, including Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware and Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. An avuncular World War I veteran named Eiler Larsen—always dressed in a rumpled suit, with long gray hair and a flowing beard, known to everyone simply as “the Greeter”—would wander up and down Pacific Coast Highway, cane in hand, calling, “Hello, there” and affably waving at tourists as they drove into town.
Hodgson and another city worker were parked in their dump truck next to a row of trash cans at the top of a flight of wooden stairs that led down to a secluded beach when Griggs approached them, introduced himself as a newly minted trash collector, pulled a cigar-size joint from his pocket and stuck it in his mouth.
“You guys smoke?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Hodgson answered.
Griggs jumped in the truck, they rolled up the windows, and, a few seconds later, Hodgson got high on the job. As he drove south along the highway to the city dump, Griggs, sitting in the passenger seat, suddenly rolled down his window. “I’m driving this truck in traffic, cars are everywhere, and John is leaning out the window as far as he could reach,” Hodgson recalls. “And I’m leaning over trying to pull him back in, and he’s just waving at everyone, yelling, ‘Hello! Hello! I love you! I love you!’ and embarrassing the shit out of us.”
The next morning, Hodgson’s boss, a burly ex-barber, called him and Griggs into the office. “You guys been drinking on the job?” he barked.
“No, no, no,” Hodgson insisted.
“Well, let me smell your breath. I’ve been getting all these phone calls about someone driving one of my trucks all over town saying he loves everyone.”
Hodgson feigned bewildered ignorance, delighted at the realization that what had begun as a menial summer job had unexpectedly been transformed into a mind-altering adventure.
“John just turned you on by his presence,” Hodgson explains. “If you couldn’t stand it, you’d be out of that truck in five minutes. He was one of the most powerful people I’ve ever met in my life. He was just there, just open and eager to see you and relate to you only. Like you’re the only one in the room when he’s talking to you. I don’t think anybody could meet John for more than 10 minutes and walk away with the same skin on they had when they met him. He’d melt you down and put you back together and make you feel love, make you feel great.”
Once Griggs discovered Hodgson played the harmonica, he refused to let him do any actual work. While Hodgson belted out blues riffs on his mouth harp, Griggs pushed the broom, making up nonsensical lyrics to go along with the melody. It didn’t surprise Hodgson that Griggs knew a lot of people in Laguna Beach or that his friends shared Griggs’ indefatigable appetite for celestial daytime distractions. Everywhere they went, someone would pass Griggs a joint to smoke. “People kept us loaded all day long,” Hodgson says. “It was incredibly menial work, but being with John made it fun.”
Although Griggs loved to goof around while high on pot, he was serious and even evangelical in his enthusiasm for another drug that had been cooked up a few decades earlier by Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist with Sandoz Laboratories: lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, also known as acid.
Hodgson had tried LSD a few times at parties and thought of it as a rather intense recreational high, but Griggs insisted that acid was nothing less than a religious sacrament, a key that in the proper hands could unlock the mysteries of the universe. “He told me that he’d seen God while high on LSD,” Hodgson recalls. Earlier that year, Griggs explained, he and a few dozen close friends, all of whom grew up in the shadow of Disneyland in the working-class city of Anaheim, had absconded to a cluster of houses in the secluded hills of nearby Modjeska Canyon. Griggs, only 22 years old and already married with two kids, lived in a century-old stone building he called the Church. He asked Hodgson to take some LSD with him there. At first, Hodgson refused, but Griggs persisted, and eventually, Hodgson gave in.
* * *
Encircled by oak trees and perched atop a steep hill at the end of a winding dirt road in Modjeska Canyon, the Church had a screened patio in the rear that afforded a sweeping view of Saddleback Mountain, a 5,600-foot escarpment of the Cleveland National Forest named for its twin peaks that, when viewed from a distance, form the silhouette of the pommel and seat of a saddle. Beneath the porch flourished an orange grove and a vegetable garden, where Griggs and his friends grew their own food. Decorating every wall inside the stone building were portraits and representations of various deities: Jesus Christ; Buddha; a host of Hindu gods and goddesses; even snapshots of Eastern mystic teachers such as Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian-born teacher of transcendental meditation who achieved fame in Europe and America after World War II.
Incense candles burned in imported bronze dishes, filling the house with hazy smoke and the odor of sandalwood. Stacks of metaphysical and psychedelic literature adorned the bookshelves: dog-eared copies of works by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert, a trio of Harvard psychology professors whom Hodgson had heard were using LSD in experiments on one another, their students, even local prison inmates—the latter in an attempt to prove that acid, when expertly administered, could reduce recidivism rates. To readers like Griggs and his friends, Leary’s just-published The Psychedelic Experience was a timely how-to manual for cosmic mind expansion. It billed itself as a translation of the ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead, a compilation of aphorisms, chants and prayers that steer Buddhist initiates toward a state of enlightenment after achieving the death of one’s ego. Griggs told Hodgson that he and his buddies from Anaheim recited it chapter and verse whenever they got high on acid, and that the book guided them in their quest for spiritual enlightenment.
Griggs and his friends, Hodgson reasoned, were willing guinea pigs in an experiment Leary didn’t even know was taking place in California. They were dropping acid and transforming themselves one trip at a time in hopes of proving Leary was correct that LSD could cure the most hardened criminal. A few of the folks at the Church were suntanned surfers with flowing locks of golden hair and sublime, spiritual dispositions, but most of them, including Griggs himself, were former heroin addicts and boozers, petty crooks, and street fighters who’d drifted in and out of juvenile hall, jail and reform school. They had nicknames such as Dark Cloud, Eddie Spaghetti, Fastie and the One-armed Bandit. “They thought of me as a soft city boy,” Hodgson recalls. “I couldn’t relate to any of them except John, who insisted I take acid with all of them.”
Following Griggs’ instructions, which he gathered were gleaned from Leary’s acid manual, Hodgson lay down on the floor of the screen porch with several strangers and closed his eyes. “We all joined hands,” he recalls. Just as Griggs had promised, what happened next changed his life forever. “It was an out-of-body experience, a religious experience,” he says. “Someone was reading from The Psychedelic Experience and making sure everyone was okay, that nobody was having a bad trip. I remember helping Christ carry a cross. I remember seeing this pierced figure bleeding and a crown of thorns and him carry a cross and me helping him. I don’t know what it meant. It blew my mind. It’s been a point of wonder all my life.”
* * *
At the end of the summer, Hodgson left Laguna Beach and returned to Colorado, where, inspired by the visions he’d experienced at the Church, he set about making a documentary about LSD. He hoped to interview Leary, Metzner and Alpert, who had been kicked out of Harvard for refusing to stop their LSD research. At a Sept. 19, 1966, press conference in New York City, Leary famously commanded everyone on the planet to “turn on, tune in and drop out.” The trio had also established a commune at the Millbrook, New York, mansion of William Hitchcock, the son of a millionaire oil magnate whom Leary befriended while at Harvard. A procession of beatnik luminaries such as Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey, plus jazz musicians such as Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, dropped by Millbrook in a never-ending parade of LSD-popping poets, socialites and protohippies.
One day, Hodgson showed up with his camera crew. “Leary welcomed us and gave us a tour and befriended me like a great friend,” Hodgson recalls. “He wanted us to come into town the next day where he was giving a lecture on The Psychedelic Experience in New York City.” Hodgson filmed the lecture, and Leary asked him if he wouldn’t mind driving an ancient-looking Indian swami, a guest of his at Millbrook, back to the estate. “‘Just don’t let him stop at a liquor store,’” Hodgson says Leary warned. “They had to keep tabs on this swami because he liked to drink a lot. And sure enough, when he got in the car, the first words out of his mouth were ‘Could we stop at a liquor store, please?’”
After dropping off the alcohol-addled swami, Hodgson said goodbye to Leary and flew back to Laguna Beach to find Griggs, whom he regaled with tales of the defrocked Harvard professor. He asked his old friend if it’d be okay to take a few shots of the Church to use in the film. When he heard that Leary was onboard with the project, Griggs beamed with excitement and granted Hodgson his wish, giving him free rein to film whatever he wanted at the Modjeska Canyon house. Hodgson felt protective of Griggs and resolved to shoot only a few scenes that didn’t include closeups of anybody’s faces. “As I was packing up, Griggs took me into the living room,” Hodgson recalls. “And on the mantel of the fireplace was an open bowl, 14 inches across and 10 inches deep, full of 100 microgram capsules of LSD.” Griggs reached into the bowl with both hands and began to dump fistfuls of acid into Hodgson’s rucksack. “Do me a favor,” Hodgson says Griggs said. “Go turn on the East Coast.”
* * *
Hodgson never saw Griggs again, and his documentary would never be completed. He returned to New York and distributed Griggs’ acid to everyone he knew. Then someone broke into his apartment and stole his film. In the previous few days, he’d received several telephone calls from the FBI, asking to see his footage. After the break-in, an agent hauled him into a field office, strip-searched him and interrogated him about Leary. Hodgson, who had finished college and was now eligible to be drafted for service in Vietnam, fled to Canada, where he remains today, 40 years later. He soon heard that Griggs and his friends in Modjeska Canyon had moved to Laguna Beach and helped usher in a flowering hippie scene that established the city as a Southern California version of Haight-Ashbury, luring countless flower children to overrun the resort town and fill its beaches, coves and canyons with the scent of marijuana and hashish and the wild sounds of the latest psychedelic-rock albums.
Griggs would eventually lure Leary himself to Laguna Beach.
Within days of his arrival, Leary was telling anyone who asked that Griggs was not only his good friend, but also his “spiritual guru” and “the holiest man who has ever lived in this country.” But Griggs was far more than Leary’s guru. He had his own legally registered church and used its tax-exempt status to establish Mystic Arts World, a metaphysical bookstore, hippie boutique and head shop on PCH. Through the store, Griggs and his friends helped transform Laguna Beach into the epicenter of Southern California’s acid scene, where teenagers from as far away as San Diego and Glendale knew they could find the most-powerful LSD anyone had to offer.
Griggs and his friends ran the biggest marijuana- and hashish-smuggling network in the United States. Each week, their cars and trucks, outfitted with special stash holes or carrying hollowed-out surfboards, crossed the border from Mexico and made their way to Laguna Canyon and a warren of clapboard houses and log cabins on Woodland Drive. The neighborhood became known as “Dodge City” because of the frequent police raids that took place there, a surreal skirmish with the local forces of law and order that did little to stop the flow of illicit drugs into and out of Laguna Beach. Also at Griggs’ command was an even bigger fleet of vehicles—Volkswagen buses, campers, Porsches and Land Rovers purchased in Europe and driven east, then sent home on container ships from India and Pakistan, laden with tons of hashish purchased in the exotic bazaars of Katmandu and Kandahar.
Griggs and his friends weren’t just hash smugglers; they were also America’s largest LSD-distribution ring, complete with mobile laboratories that always managed to stay one step ahead of the police and federal drug agents who constantly, but with scant success, chased after them. Their exploits, beginning well before San Francisco’s so-called Summer of Love introduced the world to hippies in 1967 and stretching over the next several years, most famously included springing Leary from prison with the help of the Black Panthers and the Weathermen. They would eventually lead to the creation of a multi-agency task force that formed the first legion in America’s global war on drugs, carrying out arrests from Orange County to Oregon; Hawaii; even Kabul, Afghanistan. The raids netted dozens of suspects and sent an equal number underground, scattering around the globe in pursuit of an outlaw life that would, in some cases, last decades.
By then, Griggs and his cohorts had turned on countless young people with their own brand of cosmic, mind-expanding, highly powerful LSD: Orange Sunshine, which would find its way to Grateful Dead concerts and love-ins up and down the coast of California, and then to hippie communes and cities across the country and beyond.
Charles Manson and his followers would get high on Orange Sunshine. So would the Hells Angels and the unruly audience at the Altamont Music Festival. During a three-day happening in Laguna Beach—a riotous, apocalyptic birthday party for Jesus Christ that began on Christmas Day 1970—a cargo plane would drop a full load of gray cards over a crowd of 25,000 concertgoers in Laguna Canyon, just up the hill from Dodge City. Each card included a tab of Orange Sunshine. That year, the FBI estimated, Orange Sunshine was being manufactured by hundreds of pill presses stashed in various houses across the country, and federal drug agents traced the acid’s spread to such far-flung locales as London, Bangkok and Sydney.
Just as Leary was enticed by Griggs to join his cause, so was Jimi Hendrix, who starred in a movie that paid tribute to the hash-smuggling exploits of Griggs’ cohorts. On a windy summer day in July 1970, the world-famous musician even played a private concert for a band of Laguna Beach smugglers and their surfing pals in a cow pasture high on the slope of Haleakala, a 10,000-foot volcano on Maui. The concert took place there because several of Griggs’ foot soldiers had just escaped to Maui from the increasing heat in Dodge City on a 25-foot yacht loaded with 6,000 pounds of Mexican pot—the cultivars of which would become the legendary “Maui Wowie”—and arrived in the tropics like conquering warriors in a royal canoe.
Griggs and the rest of his crew were psychedelic warriors who had turned on with acid and tuned in to a newfound sense of spiritual purpose. Instead of dropping out of society, they created their own version of it, one that they hoped to single-handedly spread through their entire generation. Their goal: turn on the entire world. First the police and later Rolling Stone magazine would brand them the “Hippie Mafia.” They called themselves the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. The book Orange Sunshine is their story.
To read Nick Schou’s previous stories about the Brotherhood, please go to ocweekly.com. Nick will sign copies of Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World at Latitude 33 Bookshop, 311 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-5403; www.latitude33bookshop.com. April 10, 5 p.m.
This excerpt appeared in print as “Orange Sunshine: In 1966, a young film student met John Griggs, the man the rest of the world would come to know as the leader of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).