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June 22, 2006 News » Cover Story

Om on the range 

The Rainbow Family welcomes itself back to Colorado

click to enlarge The Rainbow Family hoped to incite world peace at this - 1992 gathering in Gunnison National Forest. - GABE KIRCHHEIMER/GABEKPHOTO.COM
  • Gabe Kirchheimer/
  • The Rainbow Family hoped to incite world peace at this 1992 gathering in Gunnison National Forest.

Willie has Confederate colors emblazoned on his ball cap and a rainbow tie-dye T-shirt that reads, "have a smoke not a stroke." Mouse wears a black leather jacket spray-painted with "eat shit and live" on the back. The two men, both with goatees and dressed in camouflage pants, look like a surly and unlikely greeting committee until they flash their gap-toothed smiles and shout, "Welcome home, brother."

Willie and Mouse are part of the "Front Gate" corps for the Rainbow Family of Living Light, the world's biggest annual hippie gathering. Willie even has an "FG" tattoo to prove his loyalty to his post.

"I'm a hippie redneck in disguise," he says, having come all the way from Alabama with his wife, Teresa, for this year's gathering at Big Red Park in the Routt National Forest, 30 miles north of Steamboat Springs.

The Rainbow Family is a "dis-organization," a collection of tens of thousands of souls who descend on some section of the country's national forests every July for a gathering to pray for world peace. Over about 30 days, no money exchanges hands, save for donations placed into a "magic hat" after meals. Food and clothes, cigarettes and joints are given away to those in need. There is a Kiddie Village, and every year at least a handful of babies are born at the gathering. No one knows how many are conceived.

Alcohol is generally shunned, and drinkers are restricted to a segregated area known as "A-Camp." The gathering has its own medical teams and peacekeepers.

The Family is at once a blunt representation of American counterculture, and also a cross-section of American society, counting attorneys and artists, doctors and drunks, military vets and mechanics, hoboes and homemakers.

Willie and Mouse are part of an advance group of about 150 who have poured in from smaller regional Rainbow gatherings, "holding camps" around Colorado, and the road. Over the next few weeks, more will pass through nearly every town and hitch along every highway in the Centennial State until they arrive at Big Red Park. And for about a month, they will form a community of 20,000-plus equaling the entire population of Routt County.

"Colorado is kind of ground zero for the Rainbow Family," says Bill Fox, special agent in charge for the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain region. It was outside of Granby that the group assembled for the first time, in 1972. Now, Fox says, the annual gathering is "like a little town springing up in the national forest."

Except that this town operates under its own codes and rules for public safety, health, sanitation, environmental protection and personal conduct none of which involve any paperwork.

Shut Up and Eat It

Forest Service officials, like Fox, who have monitored these gatherings for 35 years, say the events aren't all peace and love. The Rainbow Family purposely poises itself on the brink of anarchy, and government representatives say its gatherings attract dangerous and idle masses that can overwhelm county and state services, disregard local communities, and destroy the natural resources the group claims to worship.

click to enlarge Willie and Mouse, the gatekeepers of the gathering. - PHOTO BY JOSHUAL ZAFFOS
  • Photo by Joshual Zaffos
  • Willie and Mouse, the gatekeepers of the gathering.

In order to deal, the Forest Service has a National Incident Management Team, consisting of law enforcement officers and resource advisers, that coordinates with local and state officials. The model is equivalent in command and management structure to the teams the agency assembles to combat a raging wildfire. The federal government treats the Rainbow Family like the anthropological equivalent of a natural disaster.

Never mind the dreadlocks, the drum circles and the derogatory words of the Forest Service, say the Rainbows their gathering is no calamity.

"There's control in the middle of the chaos," says Willie.

Rainbows believe they are a fully functioning cooperative community, and many speak of their gathering sites as sacred places. Their annual national meetings and the smaller regional ones during the rest of the year are not just outdoor festivals.

Scouts have selected Big Red Park because of its open meadows to accommodate camps, prayer circles and parking for about 6,000 vehicles. With a gravity-drawn water system, they can develop a spring. And, as of press time, the county had imposed no fire restrictions.

Cowboy Rockstar is a 20-year-old kid from Chicago who has spent the last year traveling on a school bus with other Rainbows. He calls the Family gathering grounds "Zion" and, along with everyone else, refers to the outside world where people own things and hold jobs as "Babylon."

Cowboy had earned an associate's degree in film production and edited music videos, among other activities, to pay the bills for a few years. Then he rode off from Babylon.

"Just being that guy on the corner, playing guitar and not getting a cent, and seeing how people looked at you," he says of his dropout existence. Now, he's the veteran and usual driver of his bus troupe, which doubles as the Shut Up and Eat It kitchen at gatherings.

About 20 kitchens like this one will serve free food every day throughout the gathering. Everyone gets a meal, women and children first, before anyone gets seconds.

"We feed on a Hobbit schedule," one of Cowboy's comrades says. "Breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies ..." His toes resemble those on Frodo's gnarly feet.

"I can't say the Rainbow Family is perfect," says Cowboy, as he picks up a guitar, "but it's the closest thing to perfect so far."

The center of the universe

click to enlarge Johnny Law meets the Rainbows. - PHOTO BY JOSHUAL ZAFFOS
  • Photo by Joshual Zaffos
  • Johnny Law meets the Rainbows.

The first congregation of the Rainbow Family of Living Light occurred at the center of the universe. According to Arapaho Indians, that's Table Mountain, outside of Granby in the Roosevelt National Forest. In 1972, after three years of planning, members of communes, back-to-the-land hippies, counterculture dropouts and others looking for spiritual enlightenment or a trippy buzz headed for Colorado. The organizers "prophets" hoped to attract 144,000 people, representing God's chosen ones named in the Book of Revelations. On the Fourth of July, the tribes were to gather, hold hands, om and, according to the plan, either initiate world peace or Armageddon.

"I reckoned it was like a Woodstock with no music," says Nancy Stuart, a longtime resident of the Granby area and now a Grand County commissioner. "They were just a bunch of young people with some diversity."

But not everyone welcomed the Rainbows as a cultural curiosity. Stuart remembers that the local diner wouldn't serve food to any man with hair down to his shoulders. A liquor store would only sell alcohol to hippies through a side window. Some townies saw the cosmic crowd as a logistical and economic nightmare during the busiest week of the year, and they treated the pot-smoking masses with disgust.

A state court order prevented the Rainbow Family from formally gathering on Table Mountain, but a local landowner, Paul Geisendorfer, said members could camp on his land at nearby Strawberry Lake.

By the morning of the Fourth, about 15,000 brothers and sisters had arrived, and a few thousand hiked to Table Mountain, where they held hands and prayed for peace on Earth.

Rob Savoye, a computer consultant who lives in Nederland and has attended gatherings since 1977, says the prayer circle takes its inspiration from the "Hundredth Monkey Effect." The phenomenon suggests that once a critical number of beings learns some new concept, the behavior will instantaneously spread among the greater population.

"The idea is that [with] thousands of people praying for world peace, maybe it'll work," says Savoye, who was among 20 scouts who spent six weeks choosing this year's gathering site at Big Red Park.

Alas, for the Rainbow pilgrims of 1972, war continued in Vietnam and Cambodia and Armageddon never got under way. But Colorado turned into the birthplace of the Rainbow Family. The event developed into an annual peace gathering, set in a different national forest and state each year. Everywhere it goes, it divides community members into two camps: those raring to welcome the Family, and those reluctant.

If the gathering happened in Grand County this year, says Stuart, "The reaction would probably be the same it was in the '70s."

Soil compaction and hippie copulation

The annual arrival of 20,000 hippies in a national forest is hard to ignore, but for a long time the Forest Service had a tricky time keeping track of the Rainbows.

The agency "didn't know where and when they were going next," Bill Fox says.

click to enlarge Wizard William, in full regalia. - GETTY IMAGES
  • Getty Images
  • Wizard William, in full regalia.

Fox worked his first gathering as a law enforcement officer in 1992, when the Family gathered in the Gunnison National Forest outside of Paonia, a town of 1,500 people.

"The Forest Service used fire teams to manage Rainbow gatherings," remembers Fox. "The problem is, none of these fire teams had any experience managing large social events."

The lack of expertise made it difficult for the agency to monitor or manage the gathering. That was fine by the Rainbow Family, which felt and feels it could monitor and manage itself. But that year, the Forest Service and the state of Colorado took criticism from some locals, county officials and the media for a lack of preparation and an inability to handle problems during and after the gathering.

"From a law enforcement standpoint, the Rainbows promote themselves as a pretty mellow group, but there were some pretty violent people out there," says Harry Shiles, a law enforcement officer at the 1992 gathering, and current patrol captain in charge of six national forests in southwestern Colorado. Before the end of the 1992 gathering, there were 43 arrests at the gathering area, five reports of sexual assault and a couple's death caused by an overdose of muscle relaxers.

Reports of Rainbows walking naked through a McDonald's in Delta, feeding directly out of a City Market salad bar and "copulating" in the supermarket parking lot became legendary examples of the negative impact the Family could have on communities.

And then there was the physical impact on the land.

"For folks to say there weren't really any impacts [in 1992], that's not the case," says Shiles. The Family mostly removed its trash and buried its human waste, he says, but the parking areas were compacted, there were dozens of new trails, dogs were left behind, and the wildlife disappeared from the forest for the next five years. Even with the Rainbows' heightened awareness of and love for the Earth, 20,000 people camped for a full month is a stone-cold bummer for a forest.

Looking back on the 1992 gathering, Shiles says his agency's response "wasn't a whole lot more than reaction. Now versus then, we're more proactive in dealing with the problems."

"The biggest problem back in '92," adds Fox, "was that the Forest Service didn't have a non-commercial use permit."

"The Rainbows aren't different'

Two major changes ensued. In September 1995, following years of legal battles, the Forest Service established a non-commercial use permit for any group of 75 or more using a national forest. Then, in 1998, the agency assembled its National Incident Management Team specifically to handle the Rainbow Family gatherings and other large events.

The team includes 10 core members, 30 law enforcement officers (LEOs) and a group of resource advisers that coordinate with other local and state government agencies, sheriff's offices and police forces.

click to enlarge The Raven attended his first gathering in 1977. - PHOTO BY JOSHUAL ZAFFOS
  • Photo by Joshual Zaffos
  • The Raven attended his first gathering in 1977.

"We're trying to minimize resource impact and protect the health and safety of forest users," says Denise Ottaviano, a spokesperson for the Incident Management Team. "[The Rainbows] make an attempt to minimize their impact, but when you have 20,000 people on one area, there's always going to be resource damage."

Ottaviano says the permit process was created to give formal guidance on site selection and allow for enforcement of sanitation and safety conditions. "The permit does not interfere with the content of the group event," she adds.

But Rainbows say the agency created the permit just to stifle their gatherings, and indeed, the permit was developed after the Forest Service lost several court cases to the Family.

"If you have the right to free assembly, you shouldn't have to ask permission," says Badjer, an elder, or "high holy," as the old-timers are called. Like many other Rainbows, he wears a black band on his arm to mourn the apparent loss of their First Amendment rights.

"The Rainbow Family has a constitutional right to have the event, so we're not trying to stop it," says Ottaviano. "They have a legal responsibility to obtain the special-use permit to hold an event on the land. That goes for Girl Scouts and for music festivals. The Rainbows aren't different than anyone else."

Rainbows have tried to duck signing the permit, which landed Badjer in jail in 2001 and 2002 for non-compliance on behalf of the group. And the Forest Service is now winning the court cases.

The Forest Service "Gestapo'

The Rainbows, of course, believe they are different. Since they are not an incorporated entity, like the Girl Scouts, music promoters or even churches, they say there is no organizational leader or representative that can speak or sign for the entire group.

Badjer attended the first gathering in 1972 outside Granby, and says the Forest Service has "been trying to shut us down ever since." The permit process is part of a larger progression, he says, in which the Forest Service is taking an increasingly adversarial position towards the Family's congregations on national forest land. "I used to serve as a liaison with the Forest Service," collaborating with the agency on sanitation, safety and site rehabilitation, says Badjer. "Now they have a Gestapo."

"We used to joke that Forest Service people were just like Rainbows with green uniforms," says Rob Savoye. At the gatherings, he operates a ham radio tower and coordinates Medevacs when necessary, although in the last few years, he says the Incident Management Team has tried to prevent both efforts being done by Family members.

Increased harassment and citations, the armed presence of LEOs, and a federal judge and court set up to sentence Rainbows, adds Savoye, have deflated the number of people coming to gatherings. Would-be Rainbows expect to live within the rules of the Family, not those of the Forest Service and Babylon.

"[Forest Service representatives] love to propagate the rumor [of a connection with violent hate groups] because they want people to be scared. There's nothing to be scared of," says Savoye, who says as much on, a Web site he runs as a Family clearinghouse.

click to enlarge Rob Savoye, a computer consultant from Nederland. - PHOTO BY JOSHUAL ZAFFOS
  • Photo by Joshual Zaffos
  • Rob Savoye, a computer consultant from Nederland.

A Forest Service briefing pamphlet prepared for Colorado counties warns community members that the gathering attracts "drifters, criminals, homeless people, runaways, sexual predators, drug addicts, skinheads and members of violent groups ranging from the Earth Liberation Front to the Ku Klux Klan."

"I mean, give me a break," says Savoye, "We're about as opposite of the Aryan Nation as you can get. Most locals realize [the gathering] isn't a big deal.

"But, for the Forest Service, it needs to be a big deal, because they have a budget for 12 months, which the agency needs to justify."

The Incident Management Team has a $750,000 operating budget for this year, which is spent managing the Rainbow gathering and other large events in the national forests. The Rainbow Family isn't alone in thinking the command structure is excessive.

Tale of two cities

Bob Henry Baber is a self-proclaimed "ol' hippie," but he's also the mayor of Richwood, W. Va., a struggling coal town outside of the Monongahela National Forest, where the Family held its 2005 national gathering. While other nearby communities wanted nothing to do with the Rainbows, Baber and Richwood literally unfurled a "Welcome Home" banner for the Family.

When Baber visited the Rainbows at their gathering site, he says he was a little thrown off by the A-Camp ranks of Willie, Mouse and company working the Front Gate parking area. But once Baber made the mile-long hike to the camps and kitchens, he says the area was "just peace and love and goodness and generosity."

"I never saw any one bit of any activity that required any Forest Service legal intervention," says Baber. He calls the Incident Management Team "bizarre and unnecessary," and adds that his town wasn't put off by the Rainbows or their behavior.

In fact, Richwood invited Rainbow artisans to set up shop in empty storefronts after the gathering. A few did stay, while another couple built a sculpture for the town public garden, and businesses cleared six months of sales in one month's time.

The gathering was "the beginning of the seedbed for the revitalization of Richwood," says Baber.

Of course, there's a big difference between a coal bust-town in West Virginia and a ski boomtown in Colorado, like Steamboat Springs.

"Certainly [the gathering] can generate business, but it can also take away business," says Susan Saari, the manager of the Clark General Store, located between Steamboat Springs and the gathering site on County Road 129. The store will probably be a nexus for Rainbows in need of gas, alcohol, munchies and cell phone coverage. Saari plans to hire a manager for the small liquor store within, double her overall staff, and even get an armed security guard.

click to enlarge Cowboy Rockstar travels year-round with fellow - Rainbows. - PHOTO BY JOSHUAL ZAFFOS
  • Photo by Joshual Zaffos
  • Cowboy Rockstar travels year-round with fellow Rainbows.

"We welcome them, but at the same time, we're concerned because we're so small," says Saari. "We're ready for our busiest season of the year. Are we ready for 35,000 more? I don't know."

"It's important to stay away from the confrontation attitude," says Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger. He says the county, its sheriff's office and public health department are working with the Incident Management Team.

Monger doesn't expect to see too many Rainbows through Steamboat since it's 30 miles from Big Red Park until the gathering winds down. Then hippies should begin filtering out and hitching through town, and "drainbows" may stick around and buddy up with local vagrants.

Before then, Monger plans to take a peek at the fuss. "It would be interesting to go up there and check out the situation ... a little bit," he says. "I don't want to be a gawker or anything."

"Lifting the hills'

Perhaps Monger will visit the Rainbow Family on the Fourth of July, and even hold hands with Cowboy Rockstar and Badjer. Perhaps this will be the year that peace is spontaneously embraced around the globe.

Rob Savoye says that as many as 7,000 brothers and sisters will stand and hold hands for hours on the Fourth "Interdependence Day," as he calls it. When that many people begin to om, says Savoye, "it feels like we're lifting the hills, almost."

Just as much as their self-sufficiency, the Rainbows need this spiritual drive to distinguish their gathering. Savoye and others worry that if they concede that they need a permit, then they can be prohibited from gathering in the future if they don't sign it or comply with certain conditions, like trading latrines for portable toilets. And Savoye believes the next step would be an astronomical fee for the permit, similar to that paid by the Burning Man Festival.

The Bureau of Land Management charges the organizers of the Burning Man Festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada $750,000 each year. Consequently, the organizers charge festivalgoers between $185 and $250.

Savoye says the former commander of the Incident Management Team has proposed a $750,000 permit fee for the Rainbow gathering, an amount that would cover the team's operating budget. But a $250 admission ticket would make the Rainbow gathering just another outdoor festival, and thousands of Family members couldn't afford to attend.

"The mentality is totally different [between festivals like Burning Man and Rainbow gatherings]," says One-Legged Matt, as he cradles his puppy, Thor, outside the Shut Up and Eat It kitchen. "This is about world peace, about healing the planet. When I first found the Family, that's what I thought it was about partying. But when I om-ed with the family on the Fourth ..."

So, with the om at stake in the past few years, a Rainbow has signed the Forest Service permit and then gone into hiding during the gathering to avoid any scrutiny. As of press time, the Forest Service was performing its own annual ritual of temporarily blockading the site, handing out tickets for illegal "use and occupancy," and trying to coerce a Rainbow into signing the permit. "By not getting a permit, it puts the Rainbows in a bad light," says the Forest Service's Bill Fox, who denies any agency plans to charge for a permit. "I think a lot of people hear that [refusal to get a permit] and think that the Rainbow Family is arrogant, and they don't want to work with the Forest Service."

Fox doesn't know if the Forest Service will ever try to prevent the Family from gathering without a permit. The truth is, the agency probably wouldn't be able to disperse the masses without the help of the National Guard, which is occupied at the moment, on the borders and in Iraq.

But some Rainbows seem to recognize the issues that the Forest Service is using to push for shared authority and formal responsibility at the gathering. A few elders grumble that the creep of the festival culture and the growing acceptance of alcohol are watering down their mission of promoting peace. Fox says some have complained to him about a rising criminal element in recent years.

"You're going to have that certain little criminal element, but the question is: How are you going to deal with it?" asks The Raven, who attended his first gathering in 1977 and now drives around the country with his wife, Sharon, in a Cadillac limousine. Like Willie and Mouse, The Raven works the Front Gate and hangs out at A-Camp. He is also an ordained Christian minister of the Universal Life Church, and he believes the Rainbow Family of Living Light will deal with it the only way it knows: as church, community and clan.

"We get these gutter punk kids who ride the trains and who no one else will have," he says. "We're a family here."

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