COLVILLE NATIONAL FOREST – A U.S. Forest Service ranger sat cross-legged on the dusty ground, holding a wildflower as a symbol of his right to speak to the circle of hippies gathered around him in the woods.
Newport District Ranger John Buehler’s mission – to get a signature on a special-use permit for a group of 75 or more campers – would be a simple task were it not that these campers were Rainbow Family.
“We are a holy nation and a royal priesthood,” said a longtime participant in the non-hierarchical group. She explained that no one may presume to speak for the Family as a whole, much less sign a permit.
As many as 300 Rainbow Family, other wanderers and their dogs arrived in late August in an area of the Colville forest called Bartlett Meadows in Pend Oreille County. Most will be gone by the end of this week, leaving a small group behind to clean up.
The regional gathering is the vanguard of the thousands of people who are expected to inundate a Washington forest next summer.
According to welcomehere.org, an unofficial website of the Rainbow Family of Living Light, one of the state’s six national forests will be chosen as the site of the 2011 Annual Rainbow Gathering July 1-7.
The specific location will not be decided until mid-June, according to the website, but veterans of several annuals, who were gathered at the regional, said Rainbow “focalizers” were out scouting nearby sites in the Colville National Forest for the big one to come.
Rainbows in the woods
The Rainbow Family has been meeting in U.S. national forests since 1972. Its annual gathering, which attracts from 10,000 to 30,000 people, occurred once before in Washington – in the Colville National Forest in 1981.
This year’s annual gathering in the Allegheny National Forest of Pennsylvania attracted about 12,000 people.
“The regional does not determine the annual site; it provides the opportunity to familiarize us with the area,” said a young man who calls himself Useless, but proved himself to be anything but.
Remarkably, Buehler finally obtained a signature on a permit for the regional gathering last week. The egalitarian Rainbow Family, which has neither leaders nor formal membership, rarely signs, and several federal court battles have been waged over the issue.
The Forest Service said the permit was signed by Henry Valder, a Spokane civic gadfly who was present at the Rainbow council attended by Buehler. It could not be determined what, if any, connection Valder has with the Rainbow Family. Buehler’s signature also was on the permit, according to Forest Service spokesman Glen Sachet in Portland.
Barb Severson, the Forest Service’s special agent in charge for the Pacific Northwest region, said the authority of the agency to require permits for large groups has been upheld in federal court.
In the event the national gathering is in Washington state next year, Severson said, her office will coordinate with local organizations, including law enforcement and health care agencies, to prepare for it. The Rainbow Family typically gives short notice of their impending arrival at a site – if there is any notice at all.
The Forest Service assembles incident command teams to manage large gatherings, including Rainbow events, at a cost of $700,000 per year, not including law enforcement costs, according to the service’s website.
Rainbow cleanup teams remain behind after gatherings to minimize environmental impact. Sachet said the effectiveness of these efforts has been “varied.”
Making it happen
Useless, 37, is someone a Rainbow would call “a manifester,” a person who makes things happen for the good of the gathering. Food, water, firewood and fuel are all made manifest by people like Useless.
A veteran of numerous annual gatherings who travels “where the weather suits my clothes,” he came to the Colville to set up the Montana Mud kitchen, one of six large communal campsites responsible for feeding the “brothers and sisters” attending the regional event.
Rainbow gatherings are cashless societies where necessities such as food and water are free, and luxuries like flashlights, tools and smoking pipes are bartered.
“Food shouldn’t cost money,” Useless said.
With “hippie engineering,” he and his fellow Montana Mud cohorts built an oven out of a 55-gallon barrel, stone and mud under a 20-by-40-foot tarp that also covers a makeshift stage where a sonata for saxophone and djembe could be heard late into the night.
They arrived with two sacks of groceries and have been feeding “the multitudes” ever since with donations from local folks and by passing “the magic hat” among the Family.
The kitchen also is staffed by a registered nurse named Dragonfly who said she is from Denver. The crew maintains a trench latrine, which they cover with dirt and fire-pit ash.
Dragonfly advised new arrivals about an outbreak of head lice, which was believed to have been brought in by people who attended the annual gathering in Pennsylvania. An inspection and delousing station appeared to quash the infestation.
Down a dusty road from Montana Mud is the CALM Camp, or the Center for Alternative Living Medicine, which is typically staffed by naturopaths, holistic healers, herbalists and an EMT named John from Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
A new generation
It was at CALM, in the diffused light of a diaphanous canopy, that Gaia, a veteran of 15 annual gatherings, told the parable of the Rainbow Gathering at the mountain.
The Family climbed the circular path up the mountain, she said, but along the way believers grew tired and strayed off the path to perfect harmony. Only a few made it to the top meadow where they prayed for peace.
Those who strayed off the path presumably now reside in A Camp, where alcohol is permitted near the front gate of the Rainbow Gathering.
“They attract negative attention to the Rainbows,” Gaia said, “but at least this negative energy is kept out of the inner meadow.”
To pass into the center of a gathering is to enter an alternate universe where marijuana is taken openly and alcohol use is frowned upon.
“Now,” says Gaia, who is old enough to remember the Beat Generation, “a new generation is bringing its own morality to the gatherings, and though the ways of the young might not be in harmony with the old ways, this is the natural evolution.”
Kids will be kids, even among Rainbows.
Many of the participants at the regional gathering appeared to be in their teens or 20s, dreadlocked street kids from urban areas, typically traveling in pairs with bedrolls and dogs.
A shirtless young man from the East Coast currently residing at a Rainbow kitchen called Fat Kids asked why the media “is all interested in us when we are out here, but when we’re in town, we’re treated (badly).”
Another young man named Pat, who travels with a resonator guitar and a German shepherd named Sunhouse, said he has been on the road for eight years.
He worked at a coffee shop and a café in Los Angeles until the beater Chevy his dad gave him got impounded for a parking violation. He said he got fired from one meaningless job and quit the other, then hopped a freight train out of town.
Now he’s 27 and “trying to find a niche.”
Rainbows are not his niche, Pat said, but they are close. He is skeptical of the Rainbow traditions, but he still has respect and reverence for the land and what it means to be here.
“It’s not a rave,” he said of the gathering. “It’s about learning how to be self-reliant. There’s more to it than a festival.”