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From Babylon to Wisdom

Chasing metaphors, seeing visions and learning lessons at the Rainbow Gathering

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On June 12, Gov. Marc Racicot declared a state of emergency in advance of the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Americans expected to pay a visit to the land they own on the birthday of their nation. So on July 4, staff photographer Chad Harder and I are outside Wisdom, Mont., paying a visit to the remote hillside in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest where 23,000 people calling themselves the Rainbow Family of Living Light are exercising their First Amendment right to free assembly, and in the process giving birth to the seventh largest city in the State of Montana and the fastest-growing city in America.

Don’t get too hung up on figures like 23,000. Whether the final count is closer to 18,000 or 30,000 is immaterial. They’re just numbers, facts (as the Rainbows might say) used to push the truth around. It’s all just “Babylon talk,” and when you enter the Rainbow Gathering, you leave the world of Babylon—with its fax machines, ATMs, manicured lawns and minimum wage jobs—behind.

Who are the Rainbows? Technically speaking, the only precise definition would be those who attend the Rainbow Gathering, either in body or spirit. Further attempts to classify or cubbyhole them fall flat on their face and are about as fruitless an exercise as, well, chasing a rainbow.

For starters, don’t go looking for a Rainbow Family, Ltd., a subsidiary of Rainbow, Inc. with corporate offices in New York, San Francisco or Boulder. They’re not a religion, cult, fraternal club, or non-profit organization. There’s no exclusive line of merchandise marketed under a trademarked logo, no toll-free hotline, official web site or cable broadcast network. No one claims ownership of their name, but all rights are reserved, namely, those guaranteed in the Constitution.

Included in the ranks of this “tribal anarchy” are Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Krishnas, Pagans, Rastafarians and Baha’i, not to mention a heaping spoonful of those who are all, or none, of the above. For years they used to say that membership in the Rainbow Family was free and open to anyone with a belly button, but alas, even that definition came up short when some Rainbows discovered among their ranks, they say, a select few without a navel.

So be it. Definitions and artificial boundaries don’t lend themselves well to the Rainbow Family anyway. Simply put, the Rainbows are just plain folks, some with families, others without, some with money and jobs, others without, and more than a few who are wrinkled, torn or frayed around the edges, but all trying to make their way in the world. Every year since 1972, they’ve been gathering on public lands throughout the United States for a week or more culminating on July 4, when they offer petitions and prayers for peace and harmony on Earth, healing with nature and the positive evolution of humankind.

Over the years, Rainbow Family members have had numerous and repeated legal clashes with the U.S. Forest Service and other law enforcement agencies who classify any event on public land involving more than 75 people without a permit as an illegal gathering.

An official spokesperson for the Rainbow Family—but, of course, there is none—would say that the Rainbows cooperate fully with the Forest Service in accomplishing its stated mission, namely, protecting the land and its resources. Despite years of biased and predominantly negative media coverage, the Rainbow Family has demonstrated its commitment to honoring the ecological concerns of the sites where they gather, a claim substantiated by the Impact Summaries prepared by the Forest Service after each Gathering.

Since theirs is an assembly of individuals who make decisions by consensus in a council open to anyone who wishes to participate, no person has the right or authority to sign a permit or enter into a contractual agreement with the government on anyone else’s behalf. The Rainbows ask only that they be left alone to assemble peaceably, as they always do, without harassment or fear of being bent, folded, spindled or mutilated.

There. Now that that’s said and done, the last vestiges of Babylon are finally shaking loose on this eight-mile stretch of kidney–busting ranch road, as we rumble into the National Forest behind a rust-colored VW Microbus bearing Alaska plates and the prophetic message on its bumper: “Warning: Leaderless individuals ahead.”

Rounding a corner and crossing a cattle guard we’re greeted by a banner that reads, “Welcome Home,” a sign that it’s time to abandon our watches, our shoes, our wallets and our inhibitions. They’re relics of Babylon, of no use to us here. We’ve entered the unincorporated village of the National Rainbow Gathering 2000.

Official population: 74.

The Unbroken Circle

As we follow a stream of cars into the forest, passing the main trailhead into the Gathering, a volunteer with a two-way radio directs us up the road, where we park in a meadow a quarter-mile away overlooking the Big Hole Valley. For much of the day, volunteers will coordinate ride shares, shuttles and carpools up and down the mountain. At Rainbow Gatherings, the only single-occupancy vehicle you’re likely to see is a bicycle.

Although we have no tickets to purchase or show times to catch, I’m eager to get to the main meadow for the only “scheduled” event of the week: the Silent Circle for Prayer and Healing. Every July 4, from daybreak until noon, the Rainbows observe a period of silent meditation and prayer for world peace and healing of the Earth. The clock in our car reads 11:45.

As we hurry down the dirt road, fussing with fanny packs and camera gear, we pass a bearded man and his 4-year-old son astride a spotted Appaloosa walking at a lazy pace. He asks what’s the hurry, and when I tell him, he tips us off to a shortcut about 200 yards up the hill. As we thank him and hurry on, he shouts, “Hey! Hippie noon is two o’clock.”

We crest the hill and emerge from the pines onto a steep, sage-covered hillside, where Chad and I are nearly blown off our feet by the combined forces of a stiff headwind and a palpable energy radiating from the scene before us. In a wide meadow several hundred feet below stand some 20,000 people in near silence, joining hands in an ever-enlarging circle that is spreading like a grassfire up the sides of the valley. Feeding the circle are trickles of people, alone or in groups, picking their way down through the sagebrush like mountain goats. Directly across the valley, an upper meadow is peppered with teepees, and on an opposing hilltop, a posse of mounted Forest Service rangers observes in silent repose, silhouetted by the snow-capped ridges beyond.

Most people born in the 20th or 21st century will never witness a spontaneous and unchoreographed human gathering of this magnitude. I feel as though we’ve stumbled upon the opening ceremony of an ancient Indian powwow, before the arrival of settlers relegated those events to dirt parking lots and high school auditoriums.

As I make my way down the hill, trusting my descent to the wisdom of a trail not two weeks old, I see Chad gripped in audible rapture, both from the spiritual energy emanating from the valley and the rich tapestry of images flooding his camera lens. Shutter ablaze, he’s in the zone.

I join the circle and take the hand of a woman named Sandara on my right (“It means everlasting stream of peace,” she whispers) and a knappy-headed teen with a wisp of chin hair to my left. He shifts uneasily from one foot to the other, unsteady on the hillside and uncomfortable holding the hand of a man he doesn’t know. As I soon discover, this is just one of the many unspoken lessons of the Rainbow Gathering: Trust yourself to the hands of strangers.

At no specified time and without signal or fanfare, the circle of thousands begins to chant “Om,” followed by sporadic whoops, cheers and refrains of “We love you!” echoing across the valley floor. Only the emotionally bereft or spiritually bankrupt would not be moved. Of them, I see none.

Traveling the Hippie Highway

The immense circle implodes and we descend into the main meadow to the Main Trail or “hippie highway,” the major artery running through the Gathering. Although this was a pre-existing jeep trail, like all the trails and clearings created by 40,000 shuffling feet, it will be torn up by Rainbow volunteers after the Gathering, re-seeded according to Forest Service specifications and vanished.

Today, however, this thoroughfare—with its makeshift bridges, handicapped ramps and wooden walkways over the smallest of creeks—carries us to the Main Circle, the eye of the needle, where gyrating hordes are converging with drums, flags, kites, banners and dogs.

The daily press release issued the next day from the National Incident Management Team (NIMT) describes what followed as “a large, unrestrained party in the main meadow …[where] alcohol and drug use was prevalent, and persons suffering from severe intoxication were observed.”

Although the Rainbow Gathering imposes no rules about the use of intoxicants—in fact, it imposes no rules at all, just suggested wisdom born of years of experience—alcohol is strongly discouraged.

“What you use is your business. What you abuse is everyone’s business,” reads the “Rainbow Guide 2000,” an unofficial guide for new Rainbows and tourists. “We respect a person’s right to drink. We do not respect difficult drunks.”

Typically, an area called “A-Camp” forms for those who wish to consume alcohol, an area that many Rainbows told me they tend to avoid. If alcohol is being consumed in the main meadow, we see no evidence of it: no beer cans, bottles or plastic cups, nor the flagrant and inconsiderate public urination typical at festival-style events where beer is ample but toilets are not. In fact, despite a conspicuous absence of trash cans, garbage bags or dumpsters, there isn’t so much as a lick of trash on the ground.

Marijuana and LSD are another matter entirely. Both are openly bartered, shared and consumed throughout the Gathering. According to anecdotal reports and conversations with Information Stand volunteers, Forest Service rangers and long-time Rainbow Gathering veterans, the overwhelming number of criminal and medical incidents are associated with the small percentage of Rainbows who are drinking alcohol and not the majority who are high on life—or other psychoactive substances.

Meanwhile, Chad’s intoxication—the professional variety—is unmistakable, as we are enveloped in a cornucopia of eye candy: colorful banners, outlandish clothing, painted naked bodies. Respecting both the Rainbows’ privacy and the customs of the Gathering, Chad diligently asks permission before taking anyone’s picture, a prerequisite he is repeatedly reminded of over the next 24 hours.

Suddenly, Chad freezes in his tracks, lowers his camera and mutters, “Oh my God. It is not possible!” For a moment, I’m convinced he’s having a seizure, experiencing an empathic acid trip or possessed by the Great Spirit.

Moments later, he is locked in a bear hug from his old friend, Keli, whom he hasn’t seen in years. Serendipitous reunions of this kind are as ubiquitous at the Gathering as dreadlocks and the spicy aroma of burning sage.

Keli introduces us to her partner, Pablo, who immediately invites us to share their camp and join them later for dinner. While Keli and Chad catch up, I watch the Parade of Redheads snake past, an act of proud defiance of a thousand years of historical prejudice that once branded their genetic stock as sinful, mischievous agents of Satan.

Turning around to see what latest Kodak moment has caught Chad’s fancy, we lose each other in the patchouli-scented dust rising off the shape-shifting throng.

Shift in Paradigm

The test begins, the paradigm shifts. I’m now forced to drop any pretense of a reality external to the Gathering. Survival instincts kick in, honed from years of outdoor music festivals and Grateful Dead shows, as I get my bearings and take stock of my immediate needs: water, food, shade, toilet.

“Every action is a mission, every need is a task,” a woman comments. The Rainbow Gathering forces you to abandon the tenuous threads that bind you to modern conveniences and instant gratification. Notably, your money is no good here. For both legal and spiritual reasons, the Rainbow Gathering eschews the exchange of legal tender, giving birth to a vibrant barter system that seems a cross between a Renaissance fair and a Moroccan marketplace.

With the usual accounting of wealth and worth upended, I begin to decipher an exchange rate where fresh oranges are bartered for clothing or jewelry, chocolate chip cookies for hand-blown glass pipes, cigarettes for toilet paper, Snickers bars for stinky green nuggets of British Columbian grass.

Noticeably absent are corporate sponsors, with their three-dollar water bottles. Instead, Rainbow volunteers have rigged an ingenious plumbing system that funnels water through pipes and hoses to drier areas away from creek sides to prevent erosion. Springs used for drinking and cooking are marked with ribbons, and hoses are fitted with spigots to prevent waste. For those who’ve forgotten water bottles, a water station provides free, pre-boiled water.

For human waste disposal, no chemical toilets were brought in, but detailed instructions are posted everywhere about how and where to locate, dig and use the trench latrines, universally referred to as “shitters.” Dug at least 150 feet from open water or springs, most have cans of ash or lime to spread following your “deposit,” with a water and bleach solution to wash up afterwards. By necessity, modesty is a liability, and privacy is maintained by wooden blinds or simply averting one’s eyes.

Healing, responsibility and concern for the communal welfare are strong themes at the Rainbow Gathering. At the First Aid and Self-Help stations, Rainbows can avail themselves of free bandages, sun screen, ointments, herbs, tinctures, over-the-counter remedies, even containers for disposing of insulin and acupuncture needles. Cots are provided for those who need to chill out from too much sun, dancing or pharmaceutical indulgence. A map directs people to 12-step recovery meetings held daily. Another sign reads: “Please take responsibility for your own health…Educate yourself.”

At an “Information and Rumor Control” station, volunteers hand out mail and copies of All Ways Free, the Rainbow newspaper, collect and distribute lost and found items, post the license plate numbers of vehicles to be towed and implore idle hands to work with the sign: “Maybe dig some shitters.”

While internal rumors can run rampant—at last year’s Gathering, word spread like wildfire that Bob Dylan had died, prompting the hasty construction of monuments and shrines—the real need for rumor control seems to be outside the Gathering. In a setting where Chad’s camera and my reporter’s notepad are turning more heads than a four-person hookah or a naked man with his hips, legs and penis painted like the American flag, there’s a real desire among the Rainbows for the outside world to get an accurate account of what goes on here.

“In Colorado, one of the newspapers said that Rainbows walk into stores and take off their clothes, while other Rainbows rob them blind,” one dreadlocked teen tells me. “Or, we go into bathrooms, rip out the sinks and shit on the walls.”

“At the regional gathering in Florida, they said we were eating dogs,” his friend chimes in. While such outrageous claims border on the absurd, a press release from the National Incident Management Team this week did note that a dead cow found near Wisdom was not caused by the Rainbow Family.

Meandering along the hippie highway, I feel like an anthropologist on assignment in a strange land. Where two weeks ago there was nothing but lodgepole pines, creeks, sagebrush meadows and clearcut, there now stands the infrastructure of a small city: streets, avenues, bridges, subdivisions, sewers, markets, playgrounds, recycling centers, even a two-story theater crafted out of firewood. Makeshift signposts bear the names of locales seemingly torn from the pages of a Lewis Carroll novel: The Snail Tree, Infinite Sunrise Kitchen, Voodoo Soup, Gypsy Library.

As I pass a billowy Rainbow parachute—inside, children and adults dance to an endless drumbeat in a room whose acoustics are ever-changing—I spot Chad in an area that seems a cross between Lord of the Flies and The Swiss Family Robinson: Kid Village.

It Takes a Village

“The test of the morality of a society,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “is what it does for its children.” Perhaps more so than any place I’ve visited, Kid Village captures the heart and soul of the Rainbow Gathering. Neither a drop-off zone nor a hippie day care center, it bears a closer resemblance to an African village, where everyone shares in the task of supervising, feeding, bathing and clothing the little ones.

Available for free in Kid Village are a wide assortment of supplies, from wipes and baby powder to infant formula and neonatal vitamins. Above a water cooler at a child’s height is the stern warning: “Brush your teeth. It’s the law.”

See-saws and swing sets are fashioned from logs, creating a playground in a pioneer motif. A clown crafts balloon sculptures. A handful of older boys teach younger boys how to build and tend the fire. A man plays the clarinet while infant twins get a hot bath in an old sink.

“This is the best thing a kid can do, especially a boy,” says Steve, who is rigging a swing for his 5-year-old son. “He gets to build fires and piss on trees. I’m 38, and this is the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Steve is camped with us at the “Under the Sun Luvin’” kitchen, the campsite Keli and Pablo created a week ago. Although Main Circle may be the literal center of the Rainbow Gathering, like any true home or party, its metaphorical center is the kitchen, hundreds just like this one scattered throughout the area, where Rainbows are baking bread, cookies and pizza, cooking five-course Indian meals, even a Thanksgiving-style turkey.

As Pablo prepares our dinner of salad, pasta and meat sauce, he explains how the hearth, which looks ancient, was crafted only a week earlier out of mud, rocks and clay found while they were digging shitters. (These too will be dismantled.) The campsite also has benches, kitchen counters and shelves, all crafted from downed wood.

“Before you get here, everyone wants to be self-sufficient,” says Amber, another Rainbow in our camp. “But once you’re here you have to surrender yourself to it and let the Family feed you.”

After I finish dinner, exhausted from a day of sun, wind and sensory overload, I look around and realize that while everyone appears busy, no one looks hurried. I become conscious of the collective buzz of humanity permeating the forest, the soothing hum of conversation, drums, guitars, hammers, laughter and children at play.

Bedded down for the night in Pablo’s supply tent, I drift in and out of consciousness, lulled by the white noise of the village, the beat of distant drums, the heartbeat of the Rainbow Family.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Henry David Thoreau, another American who spent some time in the woods pondering how human endeavors fit into Nature’s grand scheme, once wrote: “The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity.”

In recent weeks, many news accounts of the Rainbow Gathering have created a false sense of “otherness” about the Rainbow Family, suggesting, with a wink and a nudge, that these are folks who’ve crawled from the woodwork, outsiders, weirdoes, “1960s-style hippies and social dropouts,” as the Associated Press labeled them. As one Bitterroot store clerk said to me, “The Rainbows are a different breed from you and me.”

The Forest Service and the National Incident Management Team are not entirely to blame for this perception. They have their jobs to do, following their own set of rules, traditions and belief systems. But sadly, the picture they paint tells a one-sided story.

If all you look for is an inventory of criminal activity and human frailties, then that’s all you’ll ever see. At a Rainbow Gathering, as with any sampling of 23,000 Americans, you’re bound to find drug addicts, alcoholics, wanted criminals, drug traffickers, spouse abusers, deadbeat dads. But as the 2000 Census will soon remind us, such social ills are hardly the exclusive purview of those who find themselves outside the political, economic and spiritual mainstream.

Likewise, if those in the environmental community only pay attention to the reports of resource degradation, trampled vegetation, disturbed landscape and displaced elk, but ignore the fact that hundreds of volunteers plan to stay in this valley for as long as it takes, until the first snows of Autumn if necessary, ensuring that every scrap of litter is picked up or recycled, every trail vanished, every compost heap and pit toilet buried and every structure dismantled, then they’ve gathered the facts but missed the truth. Rainbow Gatherings are not zero-impact camp-outs. Cities never are.

Perhaps next year, when Incident Command compiles its list of “Rainbow Gathering 2001 Incident Statistics” to fax to the media each day, below the tally of felony and misdemeanor arrests, public nudity, DUIs, stolen and damaged property, loitering, panhandling, and so on, they might also count how many hungry mouths were fed for free, how many infants were bathed, children clothed, homeless housed and warm blankets distributed. And while they’re at it, they might add up how many songs were sung, new friends made, old friends reunited, stories shared and lessons learned.

A state of emergency? No, a state of emergence, the birth, death and renewal of an American village.

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