VJ Supera: Hard Travel, Sweet Memories & Sisterly Bonds

VJ Supera: Hard Travel, Sweet Memories & Sisterly Bonds

India Supera’s older sister VJ opens up about her life of wild adventure, travel-inspired service and the eternal bond of two sisters from California who were raised to cross boundaries and seek their own answers. Her life exemplifies a mantra we could all learn from, “The basics of a good adventure: Seek out the unknown. Come alive again.”

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What do you remember about the very beginning, when India had just inherited the property that became the Feathered Pipe Ranch?

Feathered Pipe - India & VJWell, I remember that my girlfriends and I were at Sai Baba’s ashram in Puttaparthi, and India had just inherited the Ranch, so we knew she was in Montana—but we had no idea where Montana was on the map. I was raised in California and the other girls were raised in New York, and we were sitting on the ground trying to draw a map in the sand where Montana could possibly be within the United States. Can you believe that? We were so cut off from that part of the world.

I came back to the States in 1973, around the end of August, and at that time, I hadn’t been to America in five years. It was a huge culture shock, walking around on the property and living in the main lodge. You know the bathroom off the kitchen? I looked at that and my first thought was, “Oh my god, a family of four could live in this bathroom!” I found girls to share a room with me because I didn’t want to be in a big room by myself. I wasn’t used to the space, after living in India for so long.

The Ranch was just loaded full of antiques, so I helped India organize and sell stuff to make some money for the first round of repairs. She was in debt from the day she got it because actually when she inherited the Ranch, Jerri left part of it to Hilda, a teacher in New York. India had to buy Hilda out with money before she took the whole Ranch, so we were always trying to find ways to make money. That first year was really quiet and we were just getting our bearings, cleaning out the place and getting used to the USA again.

What were your first feelings about Montana itself?

VJ Supera: Hard Travel, Sweet Memories & Sisterly BondsI remember all those downed trees and the vast forest. It was shocking to me how abundant it was here, because you know in India they’d pick up every last scrap of wood. It was quite primitive in 1973 and of course things weren’t as modern as they are now. It was wilderness and a whole new world. Shortly after I came back, India wanted to go to Tecate, Mexico, where she had worked in a cancer clinic, so we jumped in a big ‘73 truck and drove down there. She was spreading the word and visiting connections she had. We traveled around a lot in the winters, and starting that first year, I think I was only there about a month before we hit the road to Mexico.

One of the very first winters, India had gone to San Francisco and she brought us back all these great down clothes, and we had this VW bug—I think Laughing Water drove that, which wasn’t great in the snow. We had to burn a lot of wood then and had a wood cookstove in the kitchen at one point for extra heat. We huddled around and talked and sussed out plans for the Ranch. As we know, though, the Ranch took its own course and a life of its own.

I’ve heard that India wasn’t sure what to do with the property in those early years, and that she may have tried to sell it off to return to her nomadic life.

VJ Supera: Hard Travel, Sweet Memories & Sisterly BondsIt was a lot of responsibility for someone who didn’t exactly like responsibility—especially in her mid-20s—but she was never really trying to get rid of it. It was Jerri Duncan’s idea to have a healing center when she passed, so India had that in mind, though she didn’t know exactly how it would shape up. When we first got here, Bob Rheem and Liam O’Gallagher were still around, and they were kind of famous guys in the art and consciousness world. They were brilliant and really helped her to hone in on what it could look like and how it could serve people.

Considering how overwhelming it was to have land handed to you, it’s impressive that it only took two years before they held the first workshop in 1975. They really put things together quickly, and she made up her mind as she went along. Judith Lasater and William Staniger were there a lot and they had a group of people who were making things happen and giving feedback and working towards their goals.

What was your involvement with the Ranch over time?

I was mostly there in the summers, running the boutique during retreats, taking workshops and hanging around with our friends. We built the Stupa up the hill on 8/8/1988—I remember that date—when I had come back from Western Tibet and brought sacred things from Mount Kailash. We put all those Buddhas and prayer flags up and it became a really special spot. I had my tent out there and I lived in that area of the property most summers through my late 30s and early 40s.

I was still going back to Sai Baba’s every year during that time, though, and after the adventure to Tibet, I wanted to travel even more. I used Montana as a home base and loved to touch in with everyone, and at the same time, I was really out exploring the world.

Tell me about some of your biggest adventures. I know you really crave experiences that take you off the beaten path—even now!

VJ Supera: Hard Travel, Sweet Memories & Sisterly BondsI do go for hard travel, don’t I? Remote places, difficult to get to, buses, hitchhiking, overland passes, complicated travel—I enjoy that challenge. Tibet was one of my biggest adventures because I had always wanted to go to that sacred place. Forty years ago, it wasn’t under the control that it’s under now, and they weren’t giving out permits to travel through. I had to get a very complicated VISA then we took buses to the border and hitchhiked on old Chinese trucks all around the place.

I decided to go to Western Tibet, which was really, really remote. With hardly any traffic on the road, I think we waited in one town for about a week for a truck going the way we wanted to go. Plus, I didn’t have any proper equipment. Pat Marsolek had given me a duffle bag that he put straps on for a pack, but I had no down clothes, no sunscreen. Still, it was so amazing to visit Mount Kailash. Nowadays it’s more setup for tourists, but none of this existed when I was there. All we could do is focus on getting from point A to point B—no cell phones, no planning in advance, no communication other than with people right in front of you. On the trail, all we had was dried yak meat and tsampa. Then we had these dried persimmons… and oh gosh, I’ll never forget, our kerosene spilled on them and ruined them! Back then, if you came back alive, it was a success.

After surviving Western Tibet, I got addicted to high adventure, adrenaline and living on the edge. That place was so mind-blowing, and even though I had lived in India prior to this and was used to more rugged living, this was an entirely new level. I started traveling in Pakistan and was back and forth from there for like 12-15 years. Burma was another place I visited for a few years when it was still really jungly. I’d buy goods in these places and sell them on the road in America or along the way to pay for my travel. Eventually, I got enough money to buy a property or two in Helena and rented them out. Somehow I kept it going and kept it together—I’m not sure how!

I live in cycles: Each year, I have a big travel season then come back to Montana in the summer, rest up and take inventory of my life. I’m still traveling—not like I used to by any means—but this past winter, I went to Sai Baba’s ashram and to Varanasi for India’s ceremony then I went up to Nepal. It’s nowhere near as rugged, but I certainly have the habit. My whole life has been traveling, no reason to stop now!

Did the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation start through these travels?

VJ Supera: Hard Travel, Sweet Memories & Sisterly BondsYeah, I had a friend Kathy, who was at Baba’s with us, and her mom had sponsored monks up in Clementown, a Tibetan Refugee community in India. Me, Kathy and her husband took the train up and I began sponsoring some monks. I’d tried to sell things for them and send a little bit of money periodically. That was throughout the 1970s then we met Karma when he came back to Clementown sometime in the early 80s after his schooling. We began bringing groups to India and would always include Clementown on these tours, to educate people about the traditions and lifestyles of these communities.

We eventually started the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation to raise money for education projects in the remote villages that really needed support. I’m the president of the foundation now, Karma has all the connections over there, his brother runs the school and they organize the groundwork and local efforts. Karma’s life story is truly phenomenal, his mother carrying him across the Himalayas at two years old to find safety, then being sponsored through school and receiving a grant from India to study at Harvard. He’s dedicated to the Tibetan community, and we’ve worked really hard to find people willing to sponsor children through school, to help Tibetans preserve their culture and raise their families in ways that will give other kids similar opportunities to grow.

 How about travel memories with India—do any particular trips come to mind?

The infamous trip to Sai Baba’s was partly done together, though we were so young then we didn’t even know it was an adventure! I lived in Hawaii for a year in 1968 then I flew to Hong Kong and met my friend who took a boat with me to Singapore, Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Calcutta and Nepal—my first proper jungly Southeast Asia trip. India flew Icelandic Air from the U.S. to Europe and we met up in India in 1969. We had sent letters—which were called Aerograms—and we said, “Let’s meet in Almora for the full moon in September.” Hippies always traveled like that; we’d go to places and meet up at the full moon and drop acid. That’s where I met Howard also and my friend Socket. My sister and I hitchhiked around until February of 1970 and that’s when we went to Baba. I was 25 and I felt a little bit old because in those days many hippies started traveling right out of high school or even dropped out of high school.

We were raised as Bohemians, you know. My dad was an artist and mom was a private detective and newspaper reporter in the 30s, so we were raised in a unique style. We were very poor but we didn’t know we were poor, so it wasn’t so far out of the ordinary for both of us to go off and travel and be widely independent like we were. Many people quit school in those days—India started college and left. It feels like back then was just a less complicated world. We didn’t have so much on our minds and so much information at our fingertips. It was simple: You just bought a ticket and went somewhere. You didn’t have to plot it out too much.

That’s what this time period we’re going through right now reminds me of—things are moving slower, we’re not rushing around. I don’t know how younger people feel right now, but for me, I have plenty to do inside. I can clean out drawers or start writing. Nowadays, as I get older, I try to stick to my practices, to be kinder to people and not be so self-absorbed, and to just live at a good pace.

To me, it seems like you and India and your friends were kind-hearted and community oriented, even in your younger years.

VJ Supera: Hard Travel, Sweet Memories & Sisterly BondsIndia always had these values; she wanted to do good for everybody. She didn’t care if they deserved it or not. In fact, if they didn’t deserve it, she wanted to do more for them.

The thing I miss most about her is being able to talk about life together, to talk about our families and try to remember things that we’ve done together. Now I don’t have her to ask about what happened during a certain event or phase in our lives. We always kept each other on our toes like that and bantered back and forth about whose memory was correct. Some siblings don’t get along, but we were always on the same page politically. We had the same opinions on what’s right and what’s wrong, which was really fundamental. When I think back on that part, it was very cool. We loved to laugh at the same old stupid stuff and could go on indefinitely about it.

It doesn’t seem like she’s permanently gone, though. Throughout our lives, we weren’t always physically together. We were like passing ships in the night: She’d take off on a trip then I’d take off in the other direction. We’d meet up and spend time together then part ways again. That was our lifestyle. I always felt like I could reach her though. I remember several times, lying on the couch in the main lodge with someone and we’d try to telepathically communicate with India when she was off on one of her adventures. I think we called it “astro-travel.” Oh how fun was that!

That was really the story of our lives: The coming together and going apart. That was the flow we were in. And in a way, it feels like we’ll just eventually come around to the together period like we’ve always done.

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*Special thanks to freelance writer Andy Vantrease for doing this interview!