My Accidental Sleepover With a Cult

I docked my canoe at Watermelon Campground at last. I had just paddled about 150 miles on the Shenandoah River, which flows parallel to the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia. Hikers call this aqua-blazing, as opposed to following the white blazes that mark the Appalachian Trail.

Now I needed to catch a train in Harper’s Ferry to Washington D.C. From D.C. I’d travel to N.Y., where I’d hike another section of the Appalachian Trail. Unfortunately, Harper’s Ferry was about 30 miles away and I had only $60 left in my bank account, so I searched my guidebook for a cheap place to stay. Stoneybrook, a nearby organic farm, offered “work for stay.” I called them and was thrilled when they said they’d pick me up, feed me, house me for the night and drive me to Harper’s Ferry the next day all for free, even if I didn’t have time to actually work. Within the hour, an older woman in homespun clothes picked me up in her station wagon. Stoneybrook, she said, was not only an organic farm, but a religious commune called the Twelve Tribes of Israel community.

Dang-it, I’d been bait-and-switched.

During an Appalachian Trail section hike in Vermont the previous year, I’d first heard of the Twelve Tribes community, who also have a farm close to the trail in Rutland, Vermont. Hikers, including some who’d volunteered and stayed on the farm, told me various stories about the commune. One hiker said they enforced a 10 o’clock bedtime, but only for guests who are women. Another repeated a rumor about a young thru-hiker who got sucked into the Twelve Tribes and was trapped baking bread in their basement until his parents came to his rescue. Other hikers said they were harmless.

I remembered buying an energy bar from the Twelve Tribes tent at the Trail Days Festival in Damascus, V.A. Regardless, I was surprised my guidebook did not mention that Stoneybrook Farm was a religious organization. Appalachian Trail resources I’d encountered usually mentioned if a service is provided by a religious institution. Even most trail magic—random acts of kindness from strangers on the trail–I’d found would acknowledge sponsorship by a church or religious organization. Whatever the truth about Stoneybrook Farm, I felt tricked and was worried about staying with a religious commune. I would have much preferred a secular hostel with a microwave and a solid collection of VHSes. But we were already on our way.

Arriving at Stoneybrook Farm, I felt like I was entering an American Girl Doll historical chapter book. People in loose homespun clothing moseyed around the farm’s compound, finishing up their evening chores. Up the hill from the main house people were constructing small huts. These would be bunk-houses to host even more Appalachian Trail hikers, said my driver, who was also the farm’s school teacher. Almost all the young women I saw were holding babies. People greeted me and made intense eye contact. Every conversation ended with, “How long are you staying with us?” and “I wish you could stay with us longer.” I thought of the expression, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” but Stoneybrook Farm’s nectar was the mate, a caffeinated herbal drink, often pronounced “matay.” The community had already eaten dinner, but some of them took me to their dining room and served me fruit, a bowl of gruel and a steaming cup of mate. While I ate, the school-teacher sat beside me and spoke with a distressed young woman wearing jeans and holding a cell-phone, an outsider, I thought. They talked about her plans to quit her job that weekend and join the community.

After I ate, the teacher showed me around the farm, then took me to her bedroom and offered me a twin-sized bed parallel to her own. She lent me a pair of homespun balloon pants to wear while I did my laundry. Then sorted my backpack and she graded geography tests. One kid, she said, had answered that Ohio was a country and another wrote that Spain was a continent. “Maybe we should review geography. Mostly we just teach proverbs.” Their children study for half a day, she explained, then do farm work.
After my much needed bath, it was bedtime. I asked the teacher if they had a book I could read. My copy of Krakauer’s Into Thin Air got destroyed during my aqua blaze, when my canoe was pinned against a rock and flooded with water.

“We have the book,” the teacher said.

There were no novels, magazines or non-Twelve Tribes literature on the farm. So I nestled into my bed, parallel to the teacher’s matching bed, and read a propaganda pamphlet. It said that members must disconnect from their friends and families outside of the community, renounce their worldly possessions and provide services in the community’s organic delis and markets for free. I text-messaged several friends and my older sister: “Staying with a cult for the night, hope I don’t get sucked in.”

The teacher woke me around 5 a.m. to get dressed and attend their religious circle. First she brought me to the main house. Families flowed into the kitchen and gathered around a pot of brewing mate. Even the children ladled mate into their cups for their morning fix. Next we sat in an outdoor tent area, our chairs in a circle, and the ceremony began around 6 a.m. A young man with a full blond beard started playing guitar. He looked like he could have been a member of the band Fleet Foxes. They sang songs about Yashua, a pseudo-Hebrew word for Jesus. I felt rude sitting and drinking my mate while the community stood with their hands in the air, so I put down my mug and started waving my arms, too. After more Yashua songs, an elderly woman shared her conversion story. She said she was in financial ruins before she joined the Twelve Tribes. Next an older man gave a speech, saying that the cultural movements of the 1960s were all failures, therefore people should join the Twelve Tribes Community. He stressed the importance of authority to the Twelve Tribes: “Children must be spanked if they disobey. Women must listen to their husbands and authority figures.” He mentioned George Orwell’s 1984 and said that people in the news use “double speak,” like in the book. Actually, he was combining Orwell’s terms, “newspeak” and “double-think.” I wondered if 1984’s anti-authority, anti-censorship themes had made any impression on him. Then he directed his speech at me: “Hikers and canoe-ers are just like us. We’re both looking for something, we are searchers.” I gulped down the rest of my mate. The circle concluded and it was breakfast time.

Though Stoneybrook Farm serves gourmet treats and artisanal bread in their organic delis, the people on the farm seemed mostly to eat gruel. The women at my table said again they wished I could stay longer. They asked what I was going to do later that day. I’d been planning to stop at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in D.C, as I’d longed to see their dinosaur exhibit since I was a kid. But was the existence of dinosaurs controversial for the Twelve Tribes? I wasn’t sure, so avoided the subject. After breakfast, I used the restroom. When I came out, the teacher was praying discreetly beside the door. Annoyed at her clinginess, I thought I’d branch out and make other “cult” friends. I offered to help to a mother with her morning chores. While she folded laundry, I babysat her toddler and four year old daughter. What is life like for women on the farm? I asked. Most girls think about getting married throughout their childhood, she said, and usually marry between 17 and 19 years old. She’d joined the Twelve Tribes Community in her late 20s and was paired up with another man who’d also recently joined. While she changed the bed sheets upstairs, she mentioned she didn’t like having to do all the housework for her husband and family.

Afterward, the mother brought her children and me to the bakery where her next chores would begin. The guitarist from the morning circle was kneading dough. He smiled and asked, “Where are you from?”

“Upstate New York,” I said.

Would this be my cult husband if I stayed here? I was 24 and a half then, probably an old maid by Twelve Tribes’ standards, but still within breeding age. I could wed this beautiful brainwashed hipster, procreate and make artisanal bread for the rest of my life. Wait, no! I snapped out of my delusion. I have ambitions. I want to see the dinosaur exhibit. I want to hike the Appalachian Trail, one section at a time.

“We have lots of mice here,” the little girl told me.

“You’re not supposed to tell Cyndi that, dear,” her mom said, as she carried in a bowl of raisins for their bread.

“It’s OK, I have mice in my house, too,” I said, as I drew the girl a picture of a superhero to color.

Finally, it was time to leave for Harper’s Ferry and catch my train to D.C. I thanked the community for the free meals, bed, laundry, shelter and I got in exchange for very little work. A man whom I hadn’t met before gave me a ride out of the community. He spoke about his son’s career and sounded proud of him, though they were no longer in contact, as his son was not a member of the Twelve Tribes community. In Harper’s Ferry, we did a loop around town and stopped beside every person wearing a backpack to ask if they wanted to stay on the ”organic farm.”

“It’s a great place, just ask her,” the driver boasted. I’m a seasoned hitch-hiker and I believe it’s best not to disagree with your drivers.

“Yup,” I said shyly, but tried to communicate with my eyes: “Beware, it’s a cult!”

One south-bounder we pulled up to said he’d already stayed with the Twelve Tribes Community in Rutland, Vermont. He said it was one of his best experiences on the trail. A paradise, he called it.
I thanked my driver when he dropped me off at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Outside the building, I spoke with locals who said they were also upset that Stoneybrook Farm does not advertise as a religious organization and often tries to recruit Appalachian Trail hikers. One local called it, “false advertising.” I walked down the hill to catch my train and made it safely to D.C. But my dreams were shattered: the Smithsonian’s dinosaur exhibit was closed. I did see a few mummies though, and now had the confusing experience of a sleepover with a “cult” to ponder.

Hikers, like feral cats, can easily be seduced by anyone who brandishes free food. But if you ask me, people who are kind in order to convert you to a community that severs you from literature, your friends and family, and has mandatory meetings at 6 a.m., may not have your best interests at heart.

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Comments 8

  • Leah : Aug 3rd

    Staying with the 12 Tribes while we were in Rutland was an amazing experience. I could only wish that there were more sincere, giving, selfless people in this world. We have a lot to learn from them.
    – Monarch

    Reply
  • Denise : Aug 5th

    I stayed with Twelve Tribes in Rutland during my thru. My experience was very different than yours. No mandatory meetings, no pressure, just warm, kind people. Things change and different communities may behave differently. I knew upfront that the hostel was run by the Twelve Tribes so that may be part of why I had a different experience; no feeling of being deceived at the start. – Librarian ’06

    Reply
  • Timothy Steele : Aug 6th

    Can’t stand religions of any size. They’re all cults. Every single one of them. Wackos and looneys.

    Reply
  • Roger Williamson : Jun 27th

    I was doing Trail Magic this weekend on Route 17A in NY when a pick up truck pulled in and parked with more difficulty than you can imagine in a dirt parking lot with plenty of room and no actual parking spaces or lines. A trippy, but nice girl came over and explained that they had driven there from Oneonta and Rutland to give the Thruhikers tea. TEA????? She was nice, and never told us her name or that they were a religous group. But her trippy manner made it all to clear. The men never came near my little group of Trail angels but glared at us a lot. They then ventured out on the trail to intercept the hikers before they got to us. However all they had was tea or Kool-Aid as the Thru I was talking to referred to it. In the end they could not compete with their tea and lunacy. Since I had DT socks, sodas, candy, fruit, chairs and phone charges. It was a surreal experience though.

    Reply
  • Ex-member, Twelve-tribes communities : Feb 19th

    YES, this is a cult. (Answer from an ex-member)

    Also: They are very kind and hospitable. I lived in the TT community for 10 years, in a few locations. The vast majority of people there are kind, loving and supportive folks. Many were lost and hopeless and disillusioned with “mainstream” life. Understandable. Many join; many leave. It can be hard to leave because it becomes a financial prison, particularly if you have a family to support and no independent financial means. I left with my children and it has taken me years to get on my feet financially. There is also emotional/spiritual damage that takes place in the TT environment. The TT is no different from the many other forms of emotional manipulation & interdependence that people write about in psychology texts and “cult study” publications. The people in “leadership” in the cult are the real perpetrators of the lies and oppression.
    I was not aware that they were not advertising as a religious organization. That is an outright deception and one of the many that they use to mask what they are and entice people.
    I thank you for writing about your experience. I am sure that I personally know some of the people that you met. I have many friends still in the TT who I miss dearly. They are trapped, and as you noted, they are cut off from me as an “outsider”. The pain of this separation is what keeps a lot of people there. I went through a few years of mourning the loss of these friendships and essentially my entire social network. But I had a “past” to return to. Many do not. The TT may view their guests as needing saving, but I say that if you have the opportunity to stay there, try to show the ones with their eyes opened that there is another way and they can leave. You may be their only hope.

    Reply
    • Anonomous : Mar 23rd

      Your comments are so offhanded and RIDICULOUS and out of context! This is not at all how they are and I dont appreciate you slandering GOOD PEOPLE!!

      Reply
  • Rob F : Oct 22nd

    We live near Stoneybrook in Hillsboro. These “cult monsters” that the author was so freaked out by are the nicest people on the planet. If you she had a bad experience, it was probably of her own making.

    Reply
  • Kyle : Apr 6th

    My experience on AT with the 12 Tribes was at the Yellow Deli in Rutland, VT. They are indeed a cult that preys on the vulnerable, weak, and the lost. They were super friendly, but it was very easy to see they had alternative motives.

    I felt bad because it seemed like some of people trying to get us to join clearly lacked a good education as kids. My girlfriend who was hiking with me said she had a degree in Spanish that was met with, “We need those in Brazil to teach our members English.” We nodded, knowing that they don’t speak Spanish in Brazil. But, I was surprised how hard they pushed us. I was also dismayed to see a hiker we had been with decide to join, and I wonder where he is now, and how he’d survive/escape without any $$$.

    Thanks for sharing the story.

    Reply

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