Counterculture ‘Rainbow Family’ gathers to promote world peace
MODOC NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. – Lucky Sunshine Day says he arrived at this year’s Rainbow Family Gathering “a moon cycle ago,” measuring time much as he has the 20 years of his life.
He spent much of his youth traveling aboard a Rainbow bus with his parents, Flower and Two Rock, hitching a ride to this year’s event deep in the woods of northern California.
“It’s about love, it’s about community, it’s about family,” he said. “We’re here to restore the earth to its natural state.”
This year’s annual peace gathering got off to a bad start when one participant beat another nearly to death with a shovel for driving too fast through a campground.
The early violence was an aberration for an event where violations generally involve recreational drugs, occasional nudity or an unleashed dog, said participants and law enforcement officials, who have had a running 30-year dispute over policing the event.
The counterculture festival culminates Sunday when more than 10,000 self-described hippies from at least 40 states and eight nations are expected to hold hands in a circle, silently praying for world peace from dawn until noon.
Twenty years ago the Rainbows hitchhiked and shared rides in peace buses and Volkswagen vans to these same lovely hills and meadows tucked in the Modoc National Forest, 26 miles over rough gravel roads from the tiny town of Likely. The pilgrimage more than doubled the population of Modoc County, hidden in California’s remote northeast corner.
Though the Gathering officially is July 1-7, some of the “road dogs” had been in the area for weeks, helping find and set up the camp, and will spend weeks more cleaning up. The later arrivals were just as likely to arrive in Audis, Volvos or sport utility vehicles, “weekend hippies” who had pulled out their tie-dyed T-shirts and Grateful Dead stickers for the occasion.
“You find a vast segment of society here, from lawyers to people who are living on the street trying to get along,” said Happy, 46, who like most participants gave only his Rainbow name.
“Everybody with a bellybutton is a Rainbow. Some people just don’t know it yet,” said Sarieah, cradling her 2 1/2-year-old daughter Zakiaya on her hip.
For some, the event is a religious experience.
“While other people are shooting off fireworks, we’re praying for world peace,” said Faith, a 29-year-old midwife from Texas. “My hair is standing on edge just thinking about it.”
For others, the annual Gathering is a party in the woods.
Marijuana is omnipresent, though alcohol is discouraged. The reason is that 10,000 drunken hippies are a riot waiting to happen, while 10,000 stoned hippies are merely mellow, explained Glowing Feather, a Vietnam veteran who has been a Rainbow since the first event in 1972.
Though donations are accepted, the food is free, served communally at kitchens each with their own specialty: organic food, vegetarian, vegan, Hare Krishna fare, coffee, even a bakery _ the only place where drumming was discouraged because the cakes might fall.
Elsewhere, as the full moon came up the drums came out, filling the woods with a hypnotic tribal beat. Rainbows consider themselves a tribe, or a gathering of tribes, and have drawn much of their language and tradition from American Indians.
Yet their choice of a site drew protests from the Fort Bidwell Indian Community Council, which worried diggings of latrines in particular would harm ancestral artifacts.
The U.S. Forest Service has been trying to regulate the Rainbows’ activities since the first Gathering in 1972, but only since last year has it succeeded in issuing the group a group-use permit for what previously had been officially illegal events.
The Rainbows have no leadership, only unofficial elders and organizers, and decide everything by consensus at council meetings. Most refuse to acknowledge they need a permit to freely assemble on public land.
“Whenever there’s a problem, we deal with it. We call the sheriff,” said Kalif, the head gatekeeper. “They spend an enormous amount of money for no purpose, to harass Americans camping in the national forest for the Fourth of July _ what’s more American than that?”
Kalif turned in his longtime friend, Harry “Hugs” O’Neill, 47, of Whitehorn, Calif., on June 22 after O’Neill allegedly used a shovel to smash the windshield of a pickup truck and beat the vehicle’s two occupants. O’Neill remains jailed on felony assault and battery charges.
Christopher Witcher, 47, of Roan Mountain, Tenn., nearly died from injuries that included a punctured lung, ruptured spleen and head injuries, police said. Kelly Cook, 44, of Brosnan, Texas, suffered a head wound but later returned to the Gathering.
The hostility between law enforcement and Rainbows echoes from the ’60s, with both sides well practiced at their roles.
A half-dozen Rainbows held hands and sang “Give Peace a Chance” as Forest Service rangers on horseback with riot batons and bulletproof vests enforced an order that one kitchen be moved because it was within 300 feet of a waterway.
Sheriff’s deputies and senior Forest Service officials said the event was going smoothly with the grudging cooperation of most Rainbows.
The Forest Service has budgeted $720,000 for a National Incident Management Team to oversee this year’s event in much the same way the service would react to a large wildfire, though overall costs will run much higher.
The impact on Modoc County has been minimal, officials said, aside from extra patrols and placing portable toilets where they can be used by Rainbows headed to or from the Gathering.
Rod Weed, who with his wife owns both The Most Likely Cafe and the Likely General Store, two of the nearest town’s three retail businesses, hired eight extra employees and ordered more groceries to handle the rush. Rainbow organizers offered to fix any problems he might encounter, as they did the last time in 1984, the last time they were in Modoc County.
“A lot of the older ones are still around, but a lot are re-creations, or second generation,” said Weed. “Some are true believers, some are wannabes, and some are here for the party.”
On the Net:
Unofficial Rainbow Family site: http://www.welcomehome.org/rainbow.html