The gathering was in the pristine wilderness of Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest, with thousands of hippies spread out in colorful campsites across the high meadows and deep woods in a kind of supernal Woodstock less the soundtrack. These get-togethers have happened every year since 1972, each time in a different state and always in national forests over the week of July 4th. In the mid-Seventies those in attendance numbered few more than a thousand but since then, like dandelions in the side yard, they've multiplied each year without encouragement.
This year the local forestry service estimates that 16,000 hippies made the trek from as far away as California, Arizona, Georgia, and virtually all points in between to hike miles into the woods and join what a friend called a huge scout jamboree but with long hair and funny shoes. Perhaps most surprising, some two-thirds of them were in their twenties or teens and many refrained from drugs. There was no shortage of glassy-eyed trippers pleading "Dose me!" But distinguishing them from earlier psychedelic tyros is the presence of an older generation that knows the downside of heedless excess and has taken responsibility for guiding them along a more thoughtful path. That generation forms the core of the Rainbow "family," and the way they keep these sprawling, anarchic events together not only gives new meaning to the phrase "loosely organized," but turns out to be one of the more interesting things about them.
We arrived late the night after the big Fourth of July peace vigil and were quickly adopted by two Rainbows: Daniel Clearwater, a tall, soft-spoken man with long dark hair and a beard and his ladyfriend Marcy, a graduate student and former Humboldt County, California marijuana bud manicurist gone straight. Marcy gave us a big hug and said "Welcome home," something Rainbows like to say to each other. We were invited to stay at their campsite, and the next morning over coffee in a converted schoolbus they talked about how the gatherings work. Marcy, who counsels cancer patients in everyday life, was a volunteer for CALM (Center for Alternative Living Medicine), a medical facility with tents and centers throughout the site as well as a makeshift ambulance, a venerable Chevy stationwagon with a mattress in back. CALM offers free first aid and herbal therapies, and through it the gatherings serve as an information exchange for unconventional therapies.
Marcy made gentle fun of other events, like the Oregon County Fair, where "upscale hippies in velveteen dresses"--she did a kind of hoi polloi stroll here for emphasis--"pay to get in and pay for food and everything else." Not so at Rainbow Gatherings. You can contribute wherever you like, but it's not required. CALM is free, the shuttles are free, most major camps have free kitchens, there's a trading circle where goods are bartered but no money is allowed, and at the sweat lodge and the Rube Goldberg set-up for hot showers the only price of admission is more wood for the fire. The one place cash is actively solicited is for the Magic Hat, a kind of Rainbow offering plate from which money filters out to wherever it's needed. Buteven there, as with the Metropolitan Museum, it's strictly pay what you wish.
As we sat in the bus talking with Marcy and Daniel, our conversation was frequently interrupted by messages coming in over the handheld CB radio he kept cradled in one arm with its antenna stuck out a window. He was one of a dozen or so Rainbows who roam the gathering with similar handsets. Their rambling CB network is a constant source of news about the movement of shuttles along forestry roads, medical emergencies, general gossip, problematic rumors for the Rumor Mongers, and bad trips for the Shanti Sena.
The Rumor Mongers are Rainbows assigned to track down and either verify or terminate the constant rumors that ripple like crosscurrents through a gathering. While we were there, these included one (false) that vast numbers of people leaving the site were being arrested and held incommunicado at a local elementary school, another that a bus from Arizona had been busted with 16,000 hits of LSD (true, as it turned out), and recurring variations on the theme of a satanic pact between the FBI and the mad genius hippies who have kept this unlikely event going all these years. The Shanti Sena ("peace eyes") have even more exotic responsibilities, for they're expected to handle the extraordinary freakouts that an ethic of total openness sometimes invites. When it became clear recently that a known child-abuser was haunting the gatherings, it was the Shanti Sena who kept someone with him at all times-- talking with him and trying to help him through his obsession (and who cooperated with authorities when he proved incorrigible).
Although everyone at a gathering is expected to fulfill such functions if the need arises, some are clearly more adept than others. At the big Saturday night dance at Bus Village, a mountaintop cluster of vehicles resembling nothing so much as the camp for a late Twentieth Century wagon train, we had an opportunity to watch three experienced Shanti Sena in action. Rolling Thunder- -a West Coast electric band using a generator and portable sound stage--was well into its first set, with the cheerful throng of leaping and twirling hippies approaching critical mass, when a huge half-naked man with a belly like a beer keg, matted hair askew, and wildly bulging eyes began charging back and forth through the crowd on what was clearly a bad trip. At the end of each charge he would stop and spin around with arms outstretched, as if to warn everyone away, then stand there growling and shouting in angry doggerel before charging through the dancing crowd again. Within minutes two slender long- haired men, one wearing white face paint, and a graceful blond woman dressed all in black emerged from the onlookers and surrounded him. Laughing and teasing him the woman danced backward, drawing her volatile subject away from the center of things, with her partners looping and weaving around him and insulating him from the others. Several times he was briefly distracted but broke away for another charge into the ecstatic, mostly oblivious crowd. But the trio would filter through the dancers and re-emerge around him, insulating and drawing him out once again, never talking but playing with his attention in an odd, childish way. Under this peculiar onslaught he gradually became disoriented and finally collapsed in confusion to sit staring dumbly upward as the facepainted man danced over him, tracing strange patterns in the air with his hands. In the end, with one of them hovering nearby in case of a relapse, they left him grinning and talking to himself about the undisciplined behavior of two small stuffed penguins they had given him--not an ideal solution but a clear improvement.
We would be remiss if we didn't point out that incidents like this were exceptional. Taken as a whole, the gathering was a surprisingly authentic instance of that mix of heartfelt sharing, easy metaphysics, tribalism, and happy-go-lucky absurdity that first made the flower children of the Sixties media darlings. The Rainbows believe their philosophy can help the different segments of society coexist in harmony, and it's true that from A-Camp (for those who liked to get drunk and riotous) through the Krishna settlement (Hindu chanting) and Kiddie Village (day care) to the self-styled Faerie Camp (with brightly colored strands of sequins and spangles drifting down from branches overhead), everyone did seem to get along well, although we didn't see anyone there from Morgan Stanley.
Our last stop Saturday night was after midnight at the Yuppie Scum camp, where Captain Crunch--infamous phone freak and Rainbow emeritis--was hosting a wine and cheese party for the CALM volunteers. The camp was set in a secluded hollow far back in the woods, with the night sky virtually closed off above by the forest canopy. An ancient four-foot wide sycamore at the clearing's center was hung with odd icons and lit by candles. On an earthen ridge overlooking it was a circular white patio table around which the celebrants rubbed elbows, crowding in beneath a fringed and brightly striped umbrella. Aside from occaisional grumblings about the lack of an uplink for his cellular phone, Crunch was in an expansive mood and invited us to join them. Across the table a grinning hippy chef was frying Porcini mushrooms (street value: $200 lb.) in olive oil and sea salt over a portable Coleman burner and passing them around. We tried some and they were excellent--rich, chewy, and, we were told, unusually high in protein. The party was relaxed and affable.
Asked about whether, with their growing size, the Rainbows might cast their net too wide Crunch said, "Our net is already cast, not just here but in South America, Europe, and all over the world. It's growing each year and the more people the better." Do they have trouble obtaining permits here in the States? "Gatherings always take place on public land. We never ask for permits, we just show up. Not many people realize it but we are the main guardians in this country of the First Amendment right to peaceable assembly. They tried taking us to court [in Texas, in 1988], but we won. Besides," he added, "we do things right. If the regulations say latrines should be six feet deep, we dig them to eight; if health guidelines call for boiling the kitchen water ten minutes, we boil it for fifteen; we separate and recycle all the garbage; and when it's over a lot of us stay to clean up and reseed the paths. By the time we leave here, this whole area will be pristine."
Ten days after the event, Rob Iwamoto, the local district forest ranger, gave the Rainbows high marks. "There are nearly 200 of them still up there," he said. "They're focusing a lot of energy on the cleanup and they're doing a good job." But, he added, it was taking longer than he had hoped. He was concerned that, with the Rainbows' somewhat attenuated time sense, they might not get around to seeding the grass in time for it to mature before first frost, in which case it will all have to be replanted next year. He mentioned another time problem too. "We're up against a deadline. Our fiscal year ends in September, and with all this to keep track of, our program is probably a good three months behind in the district." He was also concerned about the long term effects on water quality on the mountain and the prospect that hundreds of campers who come back year after year to the site will have to be turned away until it regenerates.
Addison county sheriff Jim Coons was happier. He told us, "From a broad perspective, we're quite pleased. There were no major incidents." Altogether his department issued 16 DWIs, made 17 criminal arrests, wrote 136 summonses for traffic charges and 229 for defective equipment ("I never saw so many vehicles in poor condition," he said), and solved--with help from the Rainbows-- one dognapping. In general, the Vermont police took a benign view: minor quantities of drugs were confiscated, while those holding them were simply documented and sent on their way.
But beyond that, there is the impact such an enormous event can have on a rural area. A letter addressed from one local resident to both the Vermont legislature and President Bush came into our hands, and reads in part, "Before this ostentatious display happens again in our national forest the lawmakers in Washington need to get off their cans and pass laws preventing one massive group from collecting on these glorious pieces of property ever again."
The issues and attitudes that polarized this country two decades ago have clearly not been laid to rest, and for all the Rainbow's emphasis on heterogeneity it's an open question whether their indulgent outlook and communal philosophy--that good people share whatever they have--will ever integrate smoothly with a larger culture rooted in self-denial and the belief that good people don't impose on their neighbors. But in Kiddy Village on Sunday, eating black bean and macaroni stew, stir fried veggies, and fresh- baked pan bread served up by smiling earth mothers while naked children ran by chasing dogs and the blue plastic tarps spread overhead against the sun rippled in a light breeze, we sat cross-legged looking out on a chain of distant mountains and felt that it might be something worth hoping for.
Meanwhile, the Rainbows continue along their own path. Planning has already begun for next year's gathering. Circles are a constant theme at these events. The Fourth of July peace vigil, the gathering's focal point, culminates in a mass chanting of the OM by thousands of people facing into a circle. Daily business is conducted in a meeting at Main Circle-- it's heralded around noon each day by the sound of pounding drums drifting across the mountain--where anyone who shows up gets to take up whatever they think is important with whoever else is there. Before meals one often finds dozens of people with their hands joined in a circle as some voice their hopes and concerns and offer up prayers to various gods, goddesses, and tribal totems.
The last great circle at a gathering is the Vision Council, which takes place on the final day and decides where the next event will be held. It was crowded by the time we arrived, with people seated five and ten deep around a central clearing and their numbers growing steadily. We listened as speakers took turns holding the talking stick, a six-foot staff topped by an eagle feather--a tradition initiated by the grandson of Black Elk at a particularly contentious vision council some years back--and described their visions for the following year. A thoughtful woman called for "completing the circle" and returning to Colorado, where the gatherings began in 1972, while others argued that they should visit all fifty states first. Someone speculated that things are going so poorly in the world, if they waited another thirty years there might be no circle left to close. A young man spoke of the vision he had for a gathering "out in the sun on a high desert plain, surrounded by empty space for miles in every direction."
It was time for us to go. We were beginning to think about mundane considerations, like traffic into the city on Sunday night, but we stayed for one more speaker. Filippe, a native American and former Marine who was saved from alchoholism by the Rainbows, said if they went to South Dakota "in humility, without arrogance in our hearts," he would try to persuade elders of the Sioux Nation to join in the gathering. That, it seems to us, would complete a much larger circle.