Wall Street Journal: Rainbow Famil

Marcus L. Endicott (mendicott@igc.apc.org)
Wed, 30 Dec 1992 20:30:17 -0800 (PST)

>Reproduced without permission from the Wall Street
Journal, December 30, 1992.

By W. Hampton Sides

"Among Tupperfriends and Rainbow Family"
By Joe Queenan

Two years ago, the Washington-based journalist W.
Hampton Sides decided to vacate the nation's capital and
set out on a personal odyssey across America. In the
course of his travels through eight of the country's
oddest subcultures, he would eat lentil soup seven nights
running in the Nevada wilderness with the Rainbow Family
of Living Light (a tribe of dope-smoking Indian
impersonators with names like Condor Rising Over the
River); would awaken in sunbaked Sturgis, S.D., in mid-
July amid the world's largest gathering of bikers just in
time to hear a discussion of contemporary arm-busting
techniques right outside his car window; and would spend
two days socializing with 2,000 Tupperware saleswomen at
their annual convention in Kissimmee, Fla. Some people
will do anything to get out of Washington.
Mr. Sides recounts his highly entertaining
adventures in "Stomping Grounds: A Pilgrim's Progress
Through Eight American Subcultures" (Morrow, 272 pages,
$20). In this clever, well-written book, Mr. Sides
describes his experiences with oddball organizations that
are united by two elements: a charismatic founder and an
annual pilgrimage to an official stomping ground. In
addition to the hippies, the bikers, and the Tupperware
ladies, he spent time with euphoric Pentecostals (members
of the Memphis, Tenn.-based Church of God in Christ),
intensely competitive fishermen (the Bassmasters),
fearless Alaskan dog-sled racers (the Iditarod Mushers),
snobbish owners of Airstream recreational vehicles (the
Wally Byam Caravan Club, a secret male society that
gathers each year in the woods north of San Francisco so
that people like Henry Kissinger and Merv Griffin and
Walter Cronkite can pretend to be elves, druids or
A native of Memphis, site of Elvis Presley's
Graceland, Mr. Sides is no stranger to weirdness, and his
aplomb in the face of exceedingly idiosyncratic behavior
stands him in good stead. While mingling with the
400,000 Harley-Davidson owners who annually descend on
the sleepy hamlet of Sturgis (population: 6,000) for a
weeklong orgy, he introduces us to Captain Coldcut, a
former butcher turned biker who is now a member of Mean
and Clean, "a national biker organization for recovering
substance abusers." And he faithfully reports without a
chuckle on the hippie police called Hug Patrollers who
maintain law and order at the annual gatherings of the
Rainbow Family by smothering disorderly types with hugs.
Disputing the widely held notion that America is
afflicted by uniformity and cultural homogeneity, Mr.
Sides contends that the U.S. is a land of "refined
fanaticism" where people have a strong desire to "slip
into the subcultural lagoon" inhabited by kindred
spirits. But in his travels he deliberately ignored
fraternal organizations in which he detected an element
of rehearsed eccentricity, preferring to spend his time
with "serious," albeit whacked-out, organizations
featuring a required annual pilgrimage. Thus, he did not
spend any time at the Rochester, N.Y., headquarters of
DENSA, an organization made up of people rejected by
MENSA, the club of folks with high IQs.
Instead, he wandered north to Nome, Alaska, where
every year a small group of intrepid dog-sled drivers
race across a 1,149-mile course plagued by blizzards,
wolves, bears, renegade moose, killer bison and ABC
Sports reporters and photographers. Predictably, the
author tracks down an old-timer who complains that things
aren't the way they used to be.
"They spoil the dogs now," gripes John Auliye, who
"mushed" a leg of the great 1925 relay when dozens of
sleds were needed to speed an antitoxin across the
Alaskan wilderness during a diphtheria epidemic. "When
we raced to Nome in '25, our dogs didn't wear booties."
Not all of Mr. Sides adventures are equally amusing.
The mushers, the bikers, the hippie burnouts and the
plutocrats masquerading as Boy Scouts in Bohemian Grove
all make for pretty interesting reading. So do the
thousands of Airstream RV owners, whose founding father,
Wally Byam, succumbed to a malady contracted while
leading a convoy of 41 recreational vehicles from
Capetown to Cairo in 1959. But the narrative runs out of
gas when he laboriously recounts the history of the
Church of God in Christ. The Tupperware story has been
done to death by the assorted Charles Kuralts in the
media. And of course no one, but no one, can make
fishing sound interesting.
But even when the going gets rough, Mr. Sides wry
narrative keeps the reader plugging along. He recounts
how the fake Indians who make up the Rainbow Family were
given the bum's rush in 1987 by a group of authentic
Native Americans after they had desecrated a Hopi burial
site. He notes that Marlon Brando rode a Triumph, not a
Harley, in the 1953 film "The Wild One," which launched
the motorcycle craze. He points out that when Tupperware
sales personnel bid farewell to one another, the official
wording is "Goodbye, Tupperfriends." And he dutifully
reports that the ancient Assyrian gods "did not subtract
from a man's adult lifespan the hours he spends fishing."
But chances are that they did subtract the hours spent
selling Tupperware.

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