A graying generation of peace and love finds champion in Bernie Sanders
MOUNT SHASTA, Calif. — It is a glorious day in Northern California, and Lewis Elbinger, a 68-year-old Bernie Sanders supporter, is feeling great — or, as he puts it, "high vibe." In the five decades since he first painted a white peace sign on his forehead, protested the Vietnam War and hitchhiked to India to become a monk, in fact, he has never felt more optimistic about the country than at this very moment.
"A consciousness is rising," he says.
A case could be made that this is not exactly so in the sense that Elbinger means it.
Donald Trump is now the presumptive Republican nominee for president. Hillary Clinton, according to everyone who is not a Sanders supporter, will be his Democratic opponent, meaning that Sanders is about to become the latest in a long line of progressive candidates to lose.
But that is not how things appear in Mount Shasta, where the light seems brighter, the air cleaner, the sky bluer, and where Elbinger is about to get into his car with two fellow Berners and drive 130 miles south. The destination is Chico, California, where he will try to become a Sanders delegate representing California at this summer's Democratic National Convention. Put another way, he will be the older, white-haired Jewish guy with steadfast 1960s values trying to win an election against all odds.
He is certain that Sanders can not only win the nomination but also ride the wave of rising consciousness all the way to the White House, ushering in the era of peace, love and prosperity that his generation has long imagined.
"We've been waiting for this our entire lives," says Elbinger, who retired after a 28-year State Department career that included a stint as a political adviser to Gen. David H. Petraeus at the U.S. Central Command in Florida. "I know this is going to catch fire."
He is dressed for the occasion like the Foreign Service officer he was and the unapologetic hippie he remains: gray blazer, forest-green oxford shirt, knotted tie, a large crystal draped around his neck, a "Feel the Bern" button on his lapel.
"Wow, you look spiffy!" says Christine Herbster, 59, as Elbinger arrives to pick up her and her friend Marcia Rey, 65, for the drive south.
"I saw a poll that said California is 61.5 percent for Bernie," says Rey.
"Let's work for 70 percent!" says Elbinger.
"I'm going for 90!" says Herbster. "We have an endless pool of hope."
"We are not giving up," says Rey. "The vibe is different here — we are progressing."
"We have sunshine!" says Herbster.
"And a lot of water!" says Rey.
"We have this glorious mountain here," says Elbinger. "Just look at it. I can see it right now."
The clouds have blown off Mount Shasta, which is still tipped with snow, and Elbinger draws in a long breath of fresh air. His mind is clear. His chakras are balanced. He likes to say he has a good filter to sift out negative thoughts before he might utter them and thus give them life in the world.
"All right!" says Elbinger. "We're off to Chico!"
"Right on!" says Herbster, and off they go.
As the 2016 presidential election heads toward its last big primary, in California on June 7, Bernie Sanders has achieved far more than anyone predicted, winning 20 primaries and caucuses and nearly 10 million votes. In recent weeks, more and more of those voters have become ever more strident and angry, believing that the primary process is rigged against Sanders. They have cursed and shouted down party officials and turned the slogan "Feel the Bern" into "Bern It Down" as a feeling spreads that Sanders should stay in the race no matter what. Such is the evolving devotion to a man who is called by some of his supporters "the candidate we've been waiting for."
Of these, few have been waiting longer than Lewis Elbinger, a proud member of the Woodstock generation that forms the solid, ever-hopeful core of the Sanders coalition. These are the true believers who have always sought out some version of him, whether that was Dennis Kucinich in 2004 or Ralph Nader in 2000 or Jerry Brown in 1992, and who include the trio now hurtling toward Chico in a station wagon, a pouch of feathers dangling from the rearview mirror.
"Us old hippies," says Rey.
"This is just the beginning," says Elbinger, who cast his first presidential vote for the anti-Vietnam War Democrat Eugene McCarthy in 1968, the year that Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, cities were rioting, and Elbinger was sure that his country had "gone crazy."
He was 20, and trying to make sense of such a world. He headed to Vietnam as a photojournalist, then hitchhiked to India, where he was living on pot and bread and setting up an ashram when something happened that changed the course of his life. A copy of Life magazine drifted into his hands, a whole issue devoted to Woodstock — page after page of half a million muddy hippies reveling in music, peace, love and drugs for three days on a farm in upstate New York, which made him think something had shifted for the better.
He returned home to Detroit, met his wife, had a daughter and joined the State Department, which turned into a long career of postings in Kenya, Pakistan, India and other places. All of it led Elbinger to his fundamental belief in the oneness of humanity, and finally to Mount Shasta, where he opened a place in town called the Silk Road Chai Shop.
When he is not there, he is working on an opera based on the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. He lives in an apartment overlooking the mountain and meditates in a chair facing his chakra chart. He takes long walks in the forest and says prayers for a better world in a particular spot at a particular time when beams of sun hit his forehead just so. He sets a cellphone alarm for 12:12 p.m. each day, and when it rings, he asks himself, "Are you doing what you're supposed to be doing?"
He loves this life in a town that can at times feel like an actual Shangri-La, a place where shops sell kama sutra oil, crystals and books about dissolving your ego, and it's normal to overhear "I used to buy that incense by the box" or "Where do you keep your Buddha?"
Which is not to say that Elbinger is cut off from reality as most people know it; he toggles easily between worlds and was watching a debate last year when he became enthralled with Bernie Sanders, or as he sometimes calls him, Mahatma.
"The 'maha' means great, the 'atma' means soul — Great Soul," he says, and in the car, his passengers could not agree more.
They zip along the highway, past blurs of green fields and sprays of orange poppies and a full and glittering Lake Shasta, winding down toward the Central Valley that Elbinger calls "the real world."
"Imagine a painting, a Norman Rockwell painting that looks so idealistic," says Rey, a retired graphic designer, looking out the window. "Living in a place like this, you're in the painting. ... It's just a different way of being, and that's what Bernie stands for. A quality of life for everybody."
"No matter how poor your parents were," says Herbster, a retired Air Force mechanic.
"People don't know it but those rights are actually enshrined in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights," says Elbinger, who likes to say that if this life is a dream, as the Buddhists say, then "let's make it like a Walt Disney musical — why make it like a nightmare?"
"Do you have anything better to do than to try to make it better?" says Rey.
"That's why we're here," says Elbinger, who has a remarkable ability to fold information he deems negative into his unified theory of ever-rising human consciousness.
For instance, the rise of Donald Trump: "He's needed — we are detoxifying, purging our system of the racism that occurred in the past."
Hillary Clinton: "She's representing the dying forces of the 20th century."
Pundits who say it's over for Sanders: "No, it's just beginning," Elbinger says, explaining his view that the system is rigged against Sanders and if it weren't, the true extent of his popularity would be unleashed.
What's happening is an evolution, he says, which reminds him that he wishes Sanders would stop using the word "revolution."
"I think he should drop the 'r,' " he says. "The word 'revolution' scares people. It literally means to go in circles. Evolution means to spiral upwards, and that's what we're doing."
At least this is how it feels at this very moment, winding through miles of walnut groves.
"There's nothing more I would love than for California to be the one that really stepped up for Bernie," says Rey.
"It's going to be," says Elbinger.
"I feel like I haven't had someone feel and think the way I do in a long time," says Herbster, and soon they are arriving in Chico, pulling up to an old wooden Grange Hall for the election.
"Oh," says Elbinger. "Look at all the cars."
A few hundred people are lining up at the doors. Some of them are young, but many more are of Elbinger's generation, men and women with graying beards and ponytails who have come from all over California's 1st Congressional District, which is mostly Republican, and which gives the gathering the slightly awkward air of a coming-out party.
"Nice button," a young man says to an older woman wearing a Feel the Bern button.
"Isn't this wonderful?" an older woman says to another.
"So, you're a candidate? Bless your heart," a young nurse says to Elbinger.
"I am — Lewis Elbinger," he says, shaking her hand, then turning to the man behind him.
"Hi, I'm Lewis Elbinger — I'm going to be on the ballot," he says, his confidence in all of this rising as the line moves into the auditorium.
"Kimberly Butcher?" an official calls out as the candidates begin making their pitches.
A nervous young woman comes to the stage.
"I'm a fairly new Democrat who's always felt apathetic to the process," she begins, her voice shaking.
"Don't worry! You're among friends!" an older voice booms back, and one after another, the candidates stand on stage to declare their passion for Sanders.
"I have personally seen the cost of poverty, of these children being disenfranchised from the economic system," begins a young mental-health worker named Randall.
"I'm Native American, and Bernie's the only one who's ever cared about us," says a young man named Erik.
"Bernie's our only hope you guys," says a mother of four named Karissa, her voice rising as she explains that she is overwhelmed with bills and is about to lose her house and that she is shouting because she is terrified. "I will stand with him for hours! I will stand with him for days! I will stand with him until my feet are bleeding, my knees are buckling! I will stand with him until I'm exhausted and fall down, and then I'll grab one of you guys to stand me up to stand with him some more!"
A 67-year old woman recalls hearing Martin Luther King speak at the March on Washington in 1963. A man in his 70s recalls attending the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. A Legal Aid lawyer recalls marching against the Vietnam War.
"Many of you remember those times," he says.
In the audience, Elbinger is nodding, because of course he does. He remembers everything about those times, and that is the reason why he is here, walking up to the stage, a white-haired, 68-year-old Jewish man still clinging to all the ideas that first inspired him.
"All right, Lewis!" Rey calls out.
"Yeah!" Herbster yells.
"Wow! Look at this crowd!" he begins. "My name is Lewis Elbinger, and I'm a retired Foreign Service officer. I've traveled all around the world, and I'm telling you that people all around the world are hoping for Sanders!"
His voice is rising.
"God knows we need him here, but the whole world is looking at us!"
He is gesturing.
"This is about voting our conscience! Getting trust and values back into the government again!"
He is on a roll.
"So the only question is, will this delegate switch over to Hillary Clinton at the contested convention?" he shouts. "And the answer in my case is no!"
The crowd is clapping and cheering him on, and he is looking out at their faces. It is not exactly a half-million muddy hippies at Woodstock, but to Elbinger the moment feels similar to what he felt all those decades ago, like something is shifting for the better in America.
"I'm expecting Bernie to win!" he yells. "Why? We are California guys! We can do this!"
People clap and cheer as Elbinger steps off the stage and sits back down, and when the speeches are over, Rey and Herbster tell him how great he was.
They cast their ballots, and soon they are back in the car, winding their way through the walnut groves, past green fields and swaths of orange poppies and on into the mountains.
"What an experience," Elbinger says, pulling onto the highway.
"It was awesome," says Rey.
They talk about how good it felt to be around so many people "who listen with their heart," and their shared belief that this election and in fact all of existence comes down to a choice between love and fear, and how sure they are not only that love will win, but that the movement to elect Sanders will win, too.
"It's ever growing," says Elbinger, and as they round a curve they can see their home in the distance.
"There's Mount Shasta!" Elbinger says.
"Yeah," sighs Herbster.
"As beautiful as all this is, that's the place I want to be right there," he says.
And soon, that is where they are.
Elbinger drops off his friends at the Silk Road Chai Shop.
"Mission accomplished!" says Herbster.
"Thank you, Lewis!" says Rey.
He drives through the town he loves, where people shop for little Buddhas and incense and a tourist holds a crystal in his palm while a man asks: "Can you feel it? The vibrations are really strong."
And now he is back home, sitting in his meditation chair and facing the chakra chart. He looks out of the window — a view of blooming flowers and the mountain beyond. It is sunny. It is glorious. Eventually it is 12:12 and his alarm goes off.
"Are you doing what you are supposed to be doing?" he asks himself then, and at this point in a life he sees as spiraling ever-upward, he is certain. The answer is yes.