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Summer Travel: Rainbow Family Reunion

Barrett Golding

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Gathering in Colorado, 2004
(Courtesy RainbowGuide.info)
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As American as apple pie is the drive to protest and revolt -- it's in our blood as a nation of immigrants.

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Gathering of the Tribes, the annual migration of the Rainbow Family of Living Light. It sounds like a hippie happening, and it is. Homeless kids, war protesters and the whole '60s vibe define the Rainbow Family, meaning clothing is optional and that smoke smell is definitely not tobacco. Each year, 20,000 to 30,000 people camp in a different national forest over the first week of July.

Producer Barrett Golding went to the gathering a couple years ago, and reported on what he saw:

The Rainbow Family gathers every year, the first week of July. Nearly 20,000 hippies are camping in Montana's Beaverhead Forest. On the highway, I pass peace signs painted on vans and flowers on buses. I pick up hitchhikers with long skirts and tie-dye shirts. It's a 100-mile drive from where I live; in time, though, it's around 1969.

An old logging road leads up to a green meadow. To the west is a pine forest, to the east a grassy hill, and above, several 9,000- and 10,000-foot peaks. The meadow is a mile long, a half-mile wide, and constantly filled with people. In the trade circle, they barter beads for bongos and bongs. They eat at Lovin' Ovens, they chant to Mother Earth, and they crash in teepees and tents. "Welcome home" they say to each other. "Where are you from?" "Everywhere." "Nowhere." "Why have you come?" "Love."

They believe corporate culture is killing America, and they believe the world needs more peace. The gathering is part reunion, part protest -- 20,000 people off the grid, praying, meditating, getting along cooperatively. There are mountains, music, naked long-haired kids sitting in circles, playing flutes and smoking pot.

Rainbow Gathering participant: There's every kind of person here -- thieves and rapists, and some of the most enlightened, benevolent people in the world.

In the '60s, everything was possible, but nothing was real. The sound of thunder brings howls from the trees.

Crowd: "The moon's coming up. It's moonrise."

Night falls, and the campfires light. A thousand instruments come out to play. It's easy to think these people are naive, but maybe that's what it takes to raise a sound like this to the heavens.

I wander off to find my campsite. As I slip into my sleeping bag, a beautiful young woman comes up. She asks if I have a spare pair of socks. I'm from Montana -- of course I have extra socks. I reach in my pack and give her a pair. She wanders back into the dark.

At sunrise, no one is speaking. All morning, there's silence, meditation. This is July 4th, their prayer for peace. By the time the sun hits high noon, everybody's in the meadow. A mantra begins... Like the psalm, it makes a joyful noise.

Are these people for real? Yeah, they are. They know what it means to make a community within America, but also what to do without it. Nearly 20,000 of them can live for a week in the woods, cooking, singing, staying healthy, filtering water and burying feces. That's real. Some stay longer to clean up. A month from now, you'll hardly know anybody was here.

On the way home, just a few miles down the highway, a cop pulls me over. Do you have any weapons? No. Do you have any drugs? No. He's a kid, probably just deputized for the week. Do you have any drugs? he asks again. I say: "Do a lot of people answer 'yes' to that? They just hand over their drugs? You catch a lot of criminals that way?"

Get out, he says. I'm gonna search your car.

"I don't want you to search my car." You don't have a choice, he says. But I know the law: "probable cause," versus illegal search and seizure. But by now, two state troopers are here, hands on their guns, saying it's a matter of officer safety.

Ten miles away, 20,000 have gathered to pray for peace. Ten miles away.

But I've come down from the mountain and I'm back in America -- land of the free, home of the brave, and three guys with guns bothering one with none. I've left the gathering, and I've come back home.

I'm back home.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Jy=oy Gather

    From CA, 07/14/2012

    Individuals working together voluntarily. Pure Democracy. These gatherings do make a difference. 20,000 individuals peacably assembling with the goal to make the gathering happen. This shows that intentional communities can work without appointed overlords. Sure it's not complete paradise. There are human emotions that have to be worked through.

    Propaganda. Peace be with you.

    By gio vani


    I heard this story a few years ago on THE SAVVY TRAVELER radio show which was hosted by Diana Niad on public radio. How come WeekendAmerica did not acknowledge that previous version?

    By kk Karuthers

    From Eugene, OR, 07/22/2008

    Well, I just have to wonder if all the writers that are complaining about the Rainbow Family have EVER been to a gathering?

    Well, I have, and it is beautiful...even the Forest Service guys were holding hands around the circle and praying for peace with us....


    By Alright Guy


    My guess is Mr. Barrett Golding got a little too much contact with "that smoke smell is definitely not tobacco"!

    By Derek Petrie

    From Jonah Field, WY, 07/02/2008

    darcy critchfield

    Ranching dosent pay for anything in this state. It is 1 percent of the economy and the only erason it is still alive is from Gov. handouts where are you from o ya MT.

    By darcy critchfield

    From Red Lodge, MT, 07/01/2008

    Happy Thinker? You are so Wyoming-ignorant and negative and proud of both-I'm sure the Rainbow crowd avoids Wyoming-most gentle folks do. As if the forest service pays for anything in Wyoming-duh. it's the oil and gas companies and the ranchers that are keeping the roads up and rebuilding infrastructure--good grief have you ever tried to get a dime out of the forest service for ANYTHING-where the heck are you from anyway? oh that's right, Wyoming...

    By Happy Freethinker

    From Farson, WY, 07/01/2008

    Please! The American public isn't that stupid. This fluffy piece is not journalism and sounds like it came straight from the disinformation campaign of the rainbows themselves! It's pure rainbow propaganda and belongs in an editorial. If you read the FULL forest service reports you can see the rainbows are not about protest and revolt they’re about partying and sex. Despite their propaganda campaign, there will be lots of illegal drug use, lots of alcohol, lots of teenage runaways and lots of panhandlers. This gathering is not going to be just a few peaceful people smoking pot and dancing around in the nude. Which won't accomplish any real, lasting change it will just trash OUR public lands. There will be violence, theft, drug overdose, vehicles blocking road so emergency vehicles can't get in to fight the fires they'll start, and thousands of people trampling OUR public lands. It's ridiculous to think that an invasion of thousands of people who don't have any respect for authority won't have a huge negative impact -social and environmental. And exactly WHY should the rainbows be above the law? Why aren’t they treated EQUALLY?
    If you read the full, original forest service final reports – not the amended stuff the rainbows put out you can’t help but see that the rainbows have NEVER left an area the way they found it. They always tell the press they did and the dumb journalists merely repeat their words without checking into it, but the forest service and the taxpayers always have to foot the bill for their irresponsibility. THINK! FACT: the rainbows will deposit over 72 tons of human feces on OUR public lands over the next 6 days and they will not take full responsibility for it. How can they? Their waste will get into the water and the soil and it will be there for years. The vegetation they destroy doesn't grow back immediately. The ruts in the roads won't be repaired for years and what if it rains? What a mess! The Forest Service will have to spend money cleaning up after them that could have been put to better use preserving the environment. Rainbows make true environmentalists take a step backwards in cleaning up after them. The rainbows will create trails with their feet and ruts with all those gas guzzling vehicles that need not be there. How do you think these concerned environmentalists are going to get here? They will have to DRIVE here! Wouldn't the gas money they'll spend be put to better use getting Obama elected? They always stick the community they invade with huge unpaid medical bills and clean out the food banks. Money that should go to poor people of color goes to the spoiled predominantly white rainbows. Is that social justice? It's not professional to blindly accept their propaganda or rely only on info from a rainbow site. They’re not rebels at all. They’re hypocrites. You don't stop the war by naval gazing you get out and work for an end to the war. The rainbows are NOT above the law they are EQUAL to every other citizen in this country. They should be treated EQUALLY as any other citizen who breaks the law and disturbs our beautiful environment. Any elected officials who don't take appropriate action on this are going to find themselves recalled. And I want to see pictures in the media that show the true condition that they leave our public lands in! I want responsible follow up. No more puff pieces! Get with the program are you people at NPR professional journalists or are you lobbyists for the irresonsible naked hippies?
    P.S. I know the rainbows tactics because I used to be brainwashed into doing the same thing. I was trained to fool the press. But no more, now I think for myself.

    By Along Your Path

    From Victoria, TX, 06/29/2008

    I went to the one in Colorado two years back and the one last year in Arkansas. Having never been to one before it was an eye opener for a lot of different reasons, but in the end I felt a great joy in gathering with people that call you, a complete stranger, their brother or sister. A place where Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans, Wiccans, Christians, and a number of other spiritualy minded people come together and prey for peace. Yes there is pot smoking there and yes the alcohol is confined to A-camp but it's nothing different then any other community in this country.

    I've been to different church services and family style events and the Rainbow gathering is one of the truest feelings of being 'home'.

    The bartering system at the "Trading Circle" is how life should be in the real world. No use for money except to supply the Kitchens that feed thousands of people each day. Helping out with gathering wood, digging 'Shi*ers', or helping in the kitchens is real cummunity participation.

    The only problems I saw were of the few times I saw law enforcement harrasing people for basically being there, but yet that was once or twice.

    By amanda szabo

    From greensboro, NC, 06/28/2008

    google rainbow gathering or rainbow family of living light,
    this years' gathering is in wyoming, it should be great! anyone can go, everyone with a good intention is welcome, and your intention will be obvious. that means if you go to make fun of it, you'll end up in some sketchy situations, but if you go to be kind to yourself and learn about community you'll find what want. I wouldn't recommend staying too long after the 4th, the people who come for the right reasons leave pretty soon after that, and drifters are left.

    By Kevin Stanchfield

    From Pasadena, CA, 06/28/2008

    There are those that go into the woods, smoke pot, and pray to Elvis for peace - then there are those that join organizations like the National Guard or the Marines. Now I have nothing against getting high in the woods, but lets not delude ourselves about which of these groups are actually making a difference.

    By David Armstrong

    From Manchester, MI, 06/28/2008

    Where is next weeks (this years)gathering of the tribes? Is there a formal registration (I doubt it)? Can we just go?

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