JACKSON Of all the hundreds of strange happenings that Ridgway Police Chief Burton Shaver witnessed last summer, the young, 30-something woman dressed in hippy garb stands alone.
It was a hot, sticky July 3 and Shaver was helping with traffic control in this small Pennsylvania town. For weeks, thousands of Rainbow Family of Living Light members had found their way here to take part in the annual world gathering of the counterculture group.
Ridgway, with a population of about 7,000 and a police force of 13, was about six miles from big gathering site on the Allegheny National Forest. And it wasnít unusual for several thousand members of the Rainbows to be in town at any one time.
Shaver had just stepped out from a nearby air conditioned convenience store and was standing on the curb waiting to take over for the officer directing traffic when the woman approached. She was dressed like a typical Rainbow and she wanted to know how to get to New York City. He gave her directions and then almost as an after thought, he asked her why she was leaving one day before the big event. July 4 is the culmination of the Rainbow year, when all those at the gathering stop to hold hands and pray for peace and mother earth.
She looked up at me and thanked me for the directions. Then she told me she had to get back to the city to get some briefs done and that she was really looking forward to a long soak in a tub, said Shaver. Then she walked across the street and got into a brand new BMW convertible and drove away.
This 58-year-old grandfather said many things surprised him about last yearís Rainbow gathering. But when the word came that the Rainbow Family was going to set up camp nearby, Shaver said the townspeople were forewarned there would be rapists, child molesters, wanted felons and whatever else you could imagine lurking about. And people were nervous even scared. By the time it was all over, Shaver said the town hadnít been ravaged or plundered. Of the 119 arrests, about 50 percent of those were local talent, he said.
We just really didnít have any hardcore problems, Shaver said. I know some people arenít going to like me saying it, but we didnít have a single citizen raped or pillaged by the Rainbows. It just wasnít that bad.
Alana Dush, office manager for Johnís IGA in Ridgway, said the store had problems with shoplifting and soliciting for money. And the presence of Rainbows drove away regular customers, she said. I think we actually lost a little bit of business, Dush said. But I do have to say that the people (Rainbows) were nice and very polite; we had some little problems, but nothing terrible. There were just some customers who were offended by it.
Police Chief Shaver said heíd guess that the Rainbows dropped $1 million into the local economy during the gathering. Some businesses did better than others. Especially those that were willing toaccommodate the Rainbows, he said. I really do think the attitude of the community added to the success, said Shaver. We just werenít out to slam everyone with long hair up against the wall. People came down to the courthouse lawn and interacted with them.
John Chaballa, director of nursing for the hospital in Ridgway said they dealt with about 110 cases the worst was when two bikers were hit by a car. The hospital lost money on the Rainbow patients. Few of the Rainbows had insurance and most didnít have money to pay for treatment, he said.
Dale Dunshine of the Allegheny National Forest said environmental concerns were raised going into last yearís gathering. Heavy rain before the event created mud and the site looked like it would be heavily impacted, he said.
Afterwards, some Rainbow members stayed behind and did a good job rehabilitating the site, he said. Rainbows in my experience have always been very responsive in revegetating and cleaning up after the event, Dunshine said. They basically did whatever the district ranger asked them to do. Dunshine said water quality was also a concern considering how much raw sewage that 20,000 people generate and the time it takes for that all to break down. Initially, coliform levels or fecal contamination were higher than normal in the creek that ran through the site. Those levels returned to normal shortly after the Rainbows left, he said.
John McIvor, a district ranger for the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest near in Springerville, Ariz., had a different experience following the 1998 gathering. When the Rainbows couldnít meet Forest Service standards for rehabilitating the site, McIvor asked and received $2,215.24 to pay for the additional work. Weíre just not used to seeing people naked and using a garden hose to take a bath by the Mormon Church or changing their clothes in an isle in the grocery store, he said. It created quite a lot of stress for quite a few people.
Wednesday 14 June 2000