Every year at the national Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes, a wedding is performed, a baby is born, and a death occurs. This is a perfect opening fact to summarize the complexity and scale of the Rainbow Gathering. It helps one understand that a Gathering is more than just a formation of people in the woods. It is a city of rainbow people–a great city where there is death, life, happiness, and sadness.
Driving into the Santa Fe National Forest, I had no idea what to expect from a Gathering. Of course I had heard rumors of the thousands of hippies, the drug use, and the infamous confrontations with law enforcement officers (“LEOs”). I had been to my fair share of hippy festivals and even spent a few days at a spiritual commune in the mountains of West Virginia. I had a pretty good idea of the kind of people I would run into, but I just could not come to grips with the fact that 10,000 people show up to these national gatherings. 10,000 people–in the woods! No electricity, no infrastructure, no leaders! I was fascinated to discover how this temporary and transient society would function.
The rainbow gatherings date back to 1972, when a number of counterculture “tribes” from North Carolina and the Pacific Northwest gathered together for four days in Colorado. Some people claim the first gathering was a direct outcome of Woodstock. In 1973, another gathering took place in Wyoming, and it was soon apparent that an annual event should be declared and organized. For the past 37 years, the national rainbow gatherings have continued to meet from July 1-7 in National Forests, attracting on average 10,000 to 30,000 people. On a smaller scale, a rainbow family consisting of 200-300 people travel the U.S. following the tour of regional rainbow gatherings that occur throughout the year. From what I learned, the regional gatherings evoke the true identity of the Rainbow people, whereas the national gatherings are often attended by first-timers, and tend to be less focused on the mission of the rainbow people.
And what exactly is that mission? Well, it’s sometimes hard to define what the Rainbow Family is all about. The values listed on the Wikipedia site are as follows: “Love, Peace, Non-Violence, Environmentalism, non-commercialism, volunteerism, respect for others, consensus process, and diversity.” The central event at the national gathering is the large “ohm”, which literally means a bunch of people holding hands in a circle and saying “oooouuuuhhmmm” in unison. The beginning of the “ohm” at 12 noon on July 4th, marks the end of a long silence from the morning of the 4th in which people are supposed to meditate on world peace. After the circle has been formed and the “ohm-ing” is completed, children from the “kiddie village” parade through the circle and everyone cheers and embraces and starts to celebrate world peace.
Now some of you might be reading this and wonder how gathering in the woods and “ohm-ing” with 10,000 people will contribute to world peace. I have the same doubts as you. But I’m not out to decide whether the rainbow family is contributing to world peace or a better society. Certainly they stand for wonderful values–values that I think most of humans can agree upon. I don’t want to criticize whether or not they are going about it in the best way. Besides, at the national gathering, a large majority of the attendees are not interested in the mission of the rainbow gathering. Most people are coming because they know they can spend a week in the woods with other like-minded people and score free drugs. Still, others come to take part in something counterculture, to relive their hippy days, or to have a vacation and find out what the rainbow gathering thing is all about.
My rainbow journey began in Denver, CO, where I picked up four passengers who were looking for a ride on Craigslist. It was evident upon picking them up that the gathering would be full of people from all walks of life. From the seventeen year old kid who’s mom informed me he was taking pot with him, to the thirty-something guy looking to relive his old party days, to the couple from Seattle who were not exactly your typical hippy type, but had been to three other gatherings–the Dodge was a rainbow crew headed south towards the land of peace, love, and smelly hippies.
After a long drive and a maze of winding fire roads through the Santa Fe National Forest, we emerged upon a sea of cars that filled meadows and stretched for four miles along a wooded ridge. There were your typical hippy buses and VW vans, but even more interesting were the many expensive cars in the lineup: Subaru Outbacks, BMW’s, Saabs, and VW Jetta’s. The nice cars certainly outnumbered the beaters. It was apparent that not everyone in attendance was necessarily counterculture–at least not economically. My favorite was this guy who just couldn’t wait to get to the gathering and parked a little too quickly.
Upon unpacking and starting the descent into the valley where the main meadow was located, we were met within twenty minutes by a big sign stretched across the path. It read, “Welcome Home!” I certainly didn’t feel like there was anything “homey” about camping out in the woods for five days, but I imagined that for many people, this gathering truly was a place where they finally feel like they are coming back to their people and their home away from mainstream culture. Later, I learned that rainbow types refer to the world outside of the gathering as “Babylon”. So you wouldn’t say you were making a trip to town for food. Instead, you would say you were driving into Babylon. As we passed people on the trail, they offered their own greeting by saying, “Welcome home–I love you!” I wanted to respond with, “Why thank you–but I think there might be a mistake. You see, you might love humanity as a whole, but certainly you don’t actually love just me. You’re a nice person, but I don’t love you in return.” It soon became apparent that almost everyone on the trail would say this to me, so I soon learned to just say “thank you!” That seemed to satisfy them.
As the trail progressed, we began to see tents scattered throughout the woods. Soon there were signs of camps, as the number of tents increased and groups of people sat around fires playing music or socializing. Both on the left and the right of the trail were tents as far as one could see through the woods. We were literally entering a city, with paths and signs and kitchens and bathrooms and medical stations. Little did I know, the area we walked through was only one section of camps out of dozens and dozens spread throughout the forest.
Another half mile down the trail we emerged from the woods and looked upon the main meadow, I literally had to catch my breath. The expansive meadow was filled with close to one thousand people sitting in a series of concentric circles, while others walked to-and-from camps, played in drum circles, practiced hula-hooping or dance, talked with friends, or taught classes. Music and drums filled the air. While the couple that I had driven down went looking for their group, I sat in the meadow and just watched. It was evident by the looks of most people that this was a hippy festival, but there were people from all walks of life. Black, white, asian, hispanic, young, old, very old, well-dressed, poorly dressed, or not dressed at all. Interestingly, there was a large population of street punk kids. Perhaps they are the new hippy. The meadow was a sea of humanity collected in a bowl of nature. It was truly a spectacle.
The people that I associated with the majority of the week did not include everyone at the gathering. Yes, there was another group of people–the group that the rainbow family likes to refer to with a whisper as the alcoholics. And their camp? A Camp. “A as in Alcohol,” I was told. Surprisingly, alcohol is heavily discouraged at the rainbow gatherings because it is seen as a violent drug. Statistically, they’ve been proven correct. There is always violence at the national rainbow gathering, and more likely than not, it takes place in A camp. This outcast of a camp is always situated on the outskirts of the gathering, usually close to the access road or where people park. It consists of the rough and tough, the weary and traveled. This unruly group of people is so full of alcoholics that the violent incidents seem destined from the very start. In the years past, there have been murders. Others have fallen from cliffs. This year, it was a stabbing. So maybe there is something to say for just sticking to LSD..!
My friends from the drive down found their camp thirty minutes later and we made the trek with all our gear to meet their friends. We walked another half mile through more woods and trails surrounded by tents, camps, and kitchens. Our camp turned out to be in a quiet, remote area, and I had just enough light to set up my tent. Later that night I explored the the main meadow and some of the neighboring camps. When the lights go out at a Rainbow Gathering, it feels like the place comes alive. I wouldn’t be surprised if many people stay up all night and sleep well into the afternoon. As the moon rose over the dense forest, the bonfires were lit and the drum circles formed. The dancers and fire-twirlers came out. The drugs were flowing freely. Walking on the paths I overheard offers for acid, LSD, peyote. You name it, and it was probably there. That night I had the sensation that everyone at the gathering were like ants in an ant colony. Walking the trails late at night you pass people using flash lights or head lamps. Within open portions of the forest, you can look down into a meadow and see lights crisscrossing through the brush. Individuals were walking from camp to camp, each with their own purpose and destination. This was a city in the woods.
I’ve mentioned the kitchens within these camps, but I want to go into more detail about the system of food and goods. The biggest thing that surprised me about the rainbow gathering was that there was absolutely no money. Food is free and everything else is traded. The kitchens are responsible for this system of free food. In total, there were probably 30 kitchens. Most of the food is donated by the people who run the kitchen, however a large company called Organic Valley is responsible for many of the fresh goods. Now, not all of these kitchens are serving three meals a day–and even if it’s one meal, it might only be one course. For example, there is one kitchen called Lovin’ Ovens, that only cooks pizza and serves it on two big nights during the week. Then there is a kitchen that only serves pop-corn, and another that only serves tea. What is most remarkable about these kitchens is that they are carrying in all the food to their sites. That might mean one or two miles of wheeling carts up steep hills and muddy trails. Additionally, there is no propane, no electricity, and no running water. All the cooking is done over open fires, or in the ovens that people construct weeks ahead of time with mud and stones.
This free food system is really spectacular, but it can take a good amount of time and effort to fill up one’s belly throughout the day. At 5 pm-ish (that’s how rainbow time works), there is a main dinner in the meadow. Anyone who wants to be fed must sit in the concentric circles and wait to be served by not not just one kitchen, but by many kitchens that have come together to help with the dinner. It’s rare that you see a thousand people being fed at once–especially a thousand people sitting in a field being fed from wagons. I should note that most people do not just eat there at that main dinner. It’s essential to eat at many locations throughout the day if you want to fill up. Because each kitchen may potentially have to feed thousands of people, they keep the portions down. I observed that many people spend their day with a bowl or plate in hand, traveling from kitchen to kitchen receiving small portions. Typically you get one scoop of rice and beans, or one slice of pizza–but that really varied. At Lovin’ Ovens, the pizza was flowing freely and people sat and partied until their bellies were full. Throughout the week I continued to ask people what moved these people to take the time and money to serve all these people. I was truly perplexed, but at the same time amazed that the system worked. I think there are people who believe in the concept of the rainbow gatherings and like to see it continue. By feeding people, they are continuing the rainbow tradition.
Apart from food , there was a vibrant trade scene known as Trade Circle. This consisted of a main road leading from the main meadow that was filled with people trading nick-knacks throughout the day. The scene reminded me of ancient Rome. The varieties of goods were colorful, interesting, and unique. None of it seemed to have much value in so-called, “Babylon”, but here in Rainbow World it was all treasure. Apart from people trading for real necessities though, I think the real purpose for the trading was to score doses of drugs. Many of the people on the road had wish lists on their blankets that included hits for the night. But what I couldn’t figure out was why this advanced system of trading existed for drugs, when at night the drugs seem to flow freely if you just politely asked someone for a hit. I scored big time on my last day by trading two oranges, two apples, and a granola bar for a bracelet decorated with the Virgin Mary.
The most disappointing thing about the week was that people were not very receptive to having their picture taken. The first time I took out my camera, I was told by some guy walking buy that is was Rainbow policy to ask anyone before taking their picture. I thought it a rather strange time to be telling me that because I was composing a picture of the meadow in which there were over 1,000 people. How exactly he thought I could go and ask for everyone’s permission was a mystery. Over the course of the first day, I was approached by more people informing me of the same policy. People seemed very paranoid by cameras, but perhaps because of the heavy law enforcement presence that consistently shows up at the gathering. There were dozens of instances where I would approach a group of people, ask them for permission, but have one person in the group object to having their picture taken. It became frustrating by the end of the first day, and I knew it wouldn’t help make my job any easier. However, I must note that most people who objected to having their picture taken were younger, and by that I mean people 30-40 years old. I met several old guys from the early days of Rainbow, and they were more than happy to be photographed and sit down for an interview. Perhaps their willingness can be related to the growing paranoia with media and the fact that you could take a picture of anyone on the street back in the 60′s. I was disappointed because I expected people who believed in peace, love, and freedom to be more open to having their photograph taken.
It’s hard to convey what takes place at a gathering. As I mentioned before, there seems to be a lot involved with making and eating food. There is a great deal of sitting around. Sitting and talking, sitting and playing instruments, sitting and trading items. The atmosphere is relaxed during the day, and grows increasingly alive as the night sets in. Despite the lack of organization, there are many activities throughout the day. One may join a class on natural birth control, holistic medicine, organic cooking, spiritual awareness, etc. Anyone can sign up to teach a class too. And if you’re not into organized activities, you can go hiking, go swimming, or just stroll around the woods looking at people. At night there are various shows at different camps. Granola Funk camp had great live music and a hippy talent show. Another camp had mud wrestling. There was no excuse for getting bored.
Another interesting factor of the gathering was the presence of the law enforcement officers and the National Forest park rangers. There is a very long and rather unfriendly relationship between L.E.O’s and the rainbow gathering. Two years ago, police officers opened fire with the semi-automatic mace guns in the Kiddie Village. Several children were injured in cross fire and many arrests were made. Every year the police has a strong presence, and every year the rainbow people try their best to kindly ask them not to be involved. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s hard to know what’s best. Clearly, there are dangerous things happening at the gatherings. This year for example, as I was informed by a National Forest ranger, a car was stopped upon the entrance to the gathering, and a trunk-full of stolen weapons were discovered. The men has also been driving with open containers and had a number of illegal drugs in possession. These are not men that people want at the gathering, and yet, if it were not for the police doing random car searches, they would have never been caught.
On the other hand, the people at the gathering are sick of trying to participate in safe and legal activities (although there is illegal activity), while a police officer creeps through the woods with a semi-automatic paintball gun or a real gun. It’s probably not so much about the presence of the L.E.O.’s as it is about how the officers interact with the people. If they were to merely mingle through the meadows and trails saying hello to everyone without a gun on their shoulder, I’m positive that the people would be more receptive.
In fact, this was the case at this gathering. As the National Forest information officer reported to me, this was one of the best years in the history of the gatherings in terms of the relationship between the rainbow council and National Forest. The only incident that occurred was when a girl ran away from her father and the father asked the local police for a search warrant to locate his daughter. This resulted in a silent raid, where two dozen officers crept through the woods taking pictures, and actually using a very cool device that scans peoples faces from a distance and matches them with a computer database of missing persons. I think the raid scared a lot of people because it looked like they were creeping through the woods trying to bust people using drugs.
I’m not sure what the best solution is for the rainbow gatherings and the local L.E.O.’s. However, it seems reasonable for those in attendance at the rainbow gatherings to expect officers, with weapons, to patrol the areas. When you’re participating in illegal activities, whether you think they should be illegal or not, and there are violent felons showing up at the front door, you had better expect the police to be checking out the area.
Perhaps the most beautiful event of the week occurred on the 4th. As I mentioned, everyone is supposed to remain in silence until the great “ohm” is formed and broken by the parade of kids. On this 4th, the people woke to stormy rain clouds and by 11am there was a steady rain. The “ohm” was performed in the rain, resulting in a very small number of people joining in the circle. However, minutes after the circle was broken, the sun broke through the clouds and the masses began cheering. People danced around the bright beams of sunlight and a drum circle formed. What ensued for the next four or five hours was a massive dance party that continued even when the rain returned. The dancing soon turned the soaked ground into a muddy pit. It wasn’t long before people were covered in mud and the dancing turned into wrestling and more strange meditative “ohm-ing” Then, around 5pm, the climax of the week occurred. As the stormy clouds slowly drifted East, the sun began to break through the clouds. The clouds turned bright orange and they cast a warm glow across the meadow. The crowd sensed that a rainbow would appear. The conditions were perfect. Everyone started chanting, “rainbow, rainbow!” And sure enough, the most magnificent double rainbows appeared directly over the meadow in perfect view of thousands of people. It was a great victory for the rainbow people, and as you can imagine they believed that they had called the rainbow to appear. People were running around going crazy–nobody could believe what was before their eyes. It was so beautiful. I too was running around the field trying to find the best scene to take a photograph. The problem was that it was still raining and every time I took my camera out from under my shirt, it would get soaked. I was running up to strangers asking if they had anything dry on them so I could dry off my lens. It was one of those moments where I wished I wasn’t a photographer. I was so obsessed with taking the picture, but I also knew that I had to stop and just appreciate the moment. That double rainbow provided an electric energy throughout the next few days.