The Floating World 

The media portrayed the Rainbow Family as wacked-out hippies. But for one writer, you not only had to be there - you had to take part.

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The Rainbow Gathering’s traditional cop warning call was telegraphed from camp to camp, person to person. “Six up!” for the six-pointed star used by officers who police the national forests. The call was soon followed by two brown-uniformed Forest Service gendarmes on horseback, looking slightly embarrassed at the ringing chorus that preceded them as they clopped along the sunny path through the trees from the main meadow, where the massive Rainbow Family gathered morning and night for food, song, drumming and prayer. A faint cloud of cooking smoke from one of the free kitchens wafted through tall pines on each side of the path. A dozen or so people sitting in the shade of the trees suddenly burst into laughter.

Newly arrived “Just call me Geek,” a computer programmer from Berkeley, had just told the group resting near Barf Kitchen what newspapers were saying about the Rainbow Family and its temporary home.

Geek, wearing spotless Bermudas, a tank top and a bandana around his short hair, laughed as he related how nearly all the press photos were of the same few tie-dyed, tatted, dreadlocked drummers.

“Oh, yeah, from A-camp,” said Ken, who had hitchhiked to the remote Utah site from Michigan.

“Maybe the press could get it right if they ever made it past the parking lots,” said Bop sarcastically. He was in the Uintas for his fifth Rainbow Gathering.

If the press had taken the Rainbow Family seriously, reporters might have learned earlier of the death of a teenager from a drug overdose, which might have given the outside world an even more distorted picture of what went on.

There were very few of the photo-op tattooed, dreadlocked, tie-dyed drummers outside of A-camp, which was the first settlement on the road to the main gathering. “A” was for alcohol, and that camp was for tramps and drunks, the hoboed homeless stashed at the edge of the gathering like remittance men, many of whom got a kick out of performing for the reporters who stopped there and wrote about the bad actors of A-camp as if they were the whole of the Rainbow Family.

Through the miles of the rest of the gathering, there were thousands of other drummers, guitar players and others who brought violins, saxophones, even didgeridoos for the impromptu jam sessions. But ordinary-looking people did not make the news. Reporters and photographers preferred the outrageous factor. There were many stories about the one constantly naked guy, but no descriptions of the majority, who mostly wore pants, shorts, shirts or long flowing skirts. The surprising fact that there were more dreadlocks on females than males escaped notice.

Many Mr. Joneses knew something was happening there, but they did not know what it was. I guess you not only had to be there. You had to take part.

I did not go as a reporter. In fact, I had no intention of going at all. But early that Friday morning, I had a sudden, inexplicable desire to be at the gathering, that I belonged there for the next few days. I have since learned that many people had similar impulses—some acted on them, some didn’t. Within 20 minutes, I had canceled my weekend plans, packed the car with food on hand and camping gear I had not used for years, grabbed a few rolls of toilet paper (even people who act impulsively have moments of lucidity) and a backpack of clothing and took off, with only a vague set of directions downloaded hurriedly from the Rainbow site. Words to a Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” kept repeating in my mind, “So tired of the straight life; with vultures and thieves at your back. ...”

God, it had been so long since I went on an adventure! For the first time in years—no, decades—I was letting myself go with the flow.

So it was only natural, when the feeling came that I should get off the road and check my tires at the gas station just past the Park City exit, I did. Standing by the air hose were three guys; a clean-cut older gray beard and two young men, one somewhat scary looking in leather, spikes and dusty Doc Martens.

Later, all of what followed seemed strange. Why did I roll down the window of my air conditioned car and ask these strangers, “Do you know the way to the Rainbow Gathering?” When they said that was where they were heading and asked for a ride, the everyday me thought, “Oh no! How do I get out of this!” The everyday me never picks up hitchhikers. So it surprised me then—and still does now—that I said yes and began my Rainbow adventure with three strangers along for the ride who soon re-taught me that appearances can be deceiving.

The clean-cut older guy was Jim, a homeless drifter who had hitchhiked from Minnesota. It was his 28th gathering; he said he’d been to every one since they began in the ’70s. The scary leather long-haired spiker was Scott, a business major at the U. He and friend Brian were from Draper.

None of us knew how to get there, but we had map instructions. Unfortunately, each map was different, and there were no road signs. We pulled off I-80 at Fort Bridger in Wyoming, and Scott went into a restaurant to ask directions.

It was right out of Bob Seger’s song “Turn the Page.”

At the counter sat a line of men, every one wearing a tan cowboy hat. We could see through the window as they turned in unison to stare at Scott. Their mouths turned down and their shoulders hunched up. It was like the redneck Rockettes.

Suddenly, I was back in the ’70s—which is what people usually mean when they think of the ’60s—getting that righteous but outnumbered feeling. I remembered how the press defined that time and how their definition then also bore little resemblance to reality. The hippie era was never homogeneous; it was more like four somewhat separate factions: political; back to the land; hippie in hair/appearance/fashion; druggie; or some combination—with the last

faction most often spilling over into the others.

The flashback ended as Scott came back to the car without incident, saying no one there knew where the gathering was. Then Brian recalled that he had an atlas, and we compared it to our various maps to figured out the general direction in which we needed to go.

The next three hours of back and forth re-tracking would have been a nightmare bummer in everyday life, but when it’s really all good, there’s no problem. Other cars were also looking for the elusive Highway 208 that led to the gathering. We picked up a parade of five lost vehicles: a man in a red Bronco with New Mexico plates; some Texans; a couple of cars from California; one car from Michigan. It took hours of the process of elimination to locate the unmarked 208, and without anyone being irritated, we were slowly on our way, at under 10 mph, bouncing in a compact car not meant to ride over 26 miles of unpaved, rocky ranchland road. Brian had a Doors CD, and we kept playing “Break on Through to the Other Side.”

Our parade of cars dropped off one by one as we hit the parking lots. Groups of hitchhikers with backpacks and bedrolls lined the dirt road. There was a shuttle run by Rainbow Family members, volunteers with a truck or van who would drive the six miles to the lots to pick people up and bring them to the site. Signs saying “Welcome Home,” the blessing of the Rainbow Gathering, were everywhere. So were little stacks of rocks, another sign that the Rainbow Family is nearby.

Based on my never-fail theory that there would always be a space for a small car, we drove to the very trailhead of the main gathering. There was a campfire going within the trees and, like a gift, room for my car. Before we could ask permission to share the couple’s fire, the man asked if we were hungry.

As twilight fell and the forest air cooled, we stayed warm by the campfire with the couple, their dog and kitten and others who gradually wandered in. We shared brown trout the man had caught the week before and frozen for this evening. Then we cleared some flat places, spread out our sleeping bags and slept, woken at daylight by the buzz and bite of the gathering’s bane: voracious mosquitoes that came in hordes every dawn and dusk. Scott and Brian wandered off, hoping to find a friend who was there somewhere. Jim and I lazed around a while, then began the day. At the gathering, you wander, stopping here and there at whim. Everything is in a constant flow, as if time does not move in fast forward, leaving things behind. Rainbow Family members call it “The Floating World.” I don’t know if there was a connection, but the phrase is also used to refer to the world of courtesans in early Japan. It was so called because it was connected to, but distinctly separate from, the real world. The phrase seemed apt.

I took off my watch, carefully stashing it in a corner of my car trunk.

At the trailhead to the main meadow was a tall, beautifully carved wood figure, in the curved, sinuous shape, with a sign saying “Lion of Judah Camp.” It was like a fairy-tale home in the woods. Rugged chainsaw carvings of bears made from tree trunks surrounded beautifully carved and painted wood benches and tables set around a cookfire with a huge, constantly bubbling pot of a soupish stew and a pot of coffee, there for the taking.

We walked up to the fire, built inside the drum of an old washing machine, and were offered pancakes and syrup by Bigfoot, one of the gathering’s stalwarts. The washing machine drum served as a source of warmth and conversation as well as cooking. The kitchen area was neatly arranged with foam plates, plastic utensils, spatulas, potholders and spices arranged around a chopping block and cooking area. Behind it, a pantry held shelves of food items used to make the free meals, and next to that was a large tarp-covered sleeping area. The structures were made of sanded tree trunks lashed together with hemp rope, made into rooms and shelters with tarps.

A path led to a large gray tarp that sheltered the latrine, which was a large, deep, exposed pit with fixed tree trunks to sit on, toilet paper, a jug of water for hand washing and a constantly refilled can of fire ashes to dump on your dump so flies and odor were minimized. After so many gatherings, making the camp had become a routine that had everything neat and clean and cozy and functional. After takedown, the tree trunks, lashings, tarps and decor would be packed into an RV to wait for the next gathering.

Lion of Judah was a Christian camp, an enclave of annual friends who met at each gathering. Though they offered free food, they were not operating a kitchen. Most of the large camps and many of the kitchens were run by Christians, but their proselytizing was low key, like nearly everything else.

One exception was the Nic at Night camp. This was a group of smokers who found it worthy to beg constantly and loudly for nicotine at night. They would start their shouts, chants and begging for cigarettes and tobacco as the sun went down and keep it up all night, causing no end of annoyance among those who unwittingly camped near them. Less annoying was the nightly drum circle, which drummed all night long. If you were far enough away, the faint rhythms were exotically soothing.

Jim and I decided to wander together, but we had no idea how long that would last. Change and flow was how it was: The present moment was all that existed, and it could shift with no hard feelings; all plans were really just maybes.

We started down the main drag, a wide dirt path leading to the main meadow. Our first stop was in front of a blanket where a young woman named Sage was offering crystals for trade. Money is illegal tender at the gathering; few will take it. I asked her to reserve a pointed piece of clear quartz for me, telling her I wasn’t sure when I’d be back.

We wandered slowly, picking up scenes and bits of conversations like snapshots. A woman wandered with two goats, obviously proud of the attention she was getting. A boy asked for a girl’s phone number and she laughed. “PHONE number! “ she said, “I live in my car!” Tents of all colors and sizes dotted the forest floor between the trees. We stopped to rest at a tented camp, and that was where we learned from someone who had a walkie-talkie of the death of the young boy from an overdose. Ten pills of methadone, someone said. A moment of prayer was called for, and everyone silently bowed their heads.

“SIX UUUUP!” Clop, clop, clop.

There was no rush to hide anything. Whatever dope was done, and of course there was dope done, was so discreet and private that it was unseen unless searched out. During my three days there, I smelled only one whiff of grass without seeing where it came from.

Nor did I see or smell what Geek called the widely reported “shit factor.” News stories mentioned the negative impact expected from the wastes of all those people trampling the forest environment. Had there been much public pooping, noses would have noticed. But the only bad smell turned out to be a marshy bog along the main drag. There were many carefully dug latrines, and people used them. The paths and forest floor were surprisingly clean. Trash bags at designated garbage dumps were cleared several times a day. Jim would groan stiffly as he frequently bent to pick up the few errant bottle caps and pieces of paper. Soon I was doing it too. Despite shit factor concerns, during my entire stay, the only litter I saw on the ground off the main path were (I counted) four cigarette filters and about five wads of tissue.

The path was marked with long tree branches. At the creek crossings, which had log raft bridges, signs asked people to stay out of the water, warning that fish eggs needed to be left alone to hatch. There were no footprints, no dog prints, in the marshy ground beside the creeks, no bent plants to show anyone had trespassed away from the log crossings. The creeks were as pristine as the meadows, which were covered in yellow and purple flowers that remained unpicked because signs asked everyone to stay off the meadows. No fools gamboled upon the uncrushed grass. There were clearings that were barren of grass, although it was impossible to tell if the Rainbow Family was the cause.

It was nearly a three-mile walk to the main meadow. The path was as crowded as a city’s main street. Subdued by news of the death, Jim and I stopped at a conversation pit made of an octagon of flat tree trunks. We sat as people came and went, and it struck me how much of a person’s true nature was revealed when they were without title, background or any kind of identifying possessions that showed rank or social context. Loving, timid, bossy, conning, phony, giving, wise, selfish—it was obvious and immediately known to all.

A case in point: One of those who had built the octagon had some fudge; not enough to share, as she wanted to eat some herself. A heavy-set woman wearing gold jewelry sat down and asked for a piece, and Ebbie, who apparently is famous as the fudge lady, gave her a small one. She demanded more, making Ebbie laugh in an embarrassed way as she re-wrapped the fudge and put it away. One could almost see the words forming on the heavy woman’s frowning face: “Do you know who I am?” No one knew who she was. No one cared. After a disdaining sniff, the woman hefted herself up and wandered away.

We passed people with wagons, hauling their packed camps back to their cars, others with you-haul-’em flatbed trailers carrying in food for the free kitchens. Finally, we came to the trading blankets in front of the main meadow.

The trading post is one of the main attractions of the gathering. Traders lay out their goods on blankets, everything from beautifully crafted jewelry to glass pipes, crystals, sugar, flutes, books and CDs. Some write out a wish list and lay it down. “You need a pillow?” said a boy with a backpack as he pointed at the wish list in front of a blanket of miscellaneous items beyond which sat a young girl. He pulled one out of his pack and picked up a carved wooden bird. The girl nodded, he put the figurine in his pack and walked on. A woman offered a pair of her handmade knee-high buckskin moccasins for a necklace with two stunningly detailed, tiny bead dragons surrounding a large faceted crystal encased in silver. “Do you have them in size 11?” asked the trader. She thought there might be a pair back in their van, could he hold the necklace? Yes, of course.

A bare-chested woman lay stretched out on a body painting blanket. Her nipples were already done in a believable brown to keep them from sunburn, while colorful flowers were being painted on the rest of her breasts. It took a second look to realize the colorful shirt on a woman standing nearby was also just paint over skin.

I stopped by a blanket of jewelry made from crystals. On one side were clear glass pendants, the size of a pinball, with explosions of color put inside by the glass blower.

As I examined them, the trader said, “Take one.”

I just stared at him. “Go ahead. Take one.” I selected one with a yellow and blue flair in the center, and noticed he was badly sunburned. “Can I give you some sunscreen?” I asked. So my trade was the rubbing of sunscreen over his reddened shoulders and back.

I wanted to wear my pendant, however, so a few blankets down, where a man was making beaded hemp necklaces, I showed him the glass pendant and asked for a strand of hemp to tie it around my neck. Instead, he handed me one of his most intricate finished necklaces, stood up to fasten it on me, and said, “Welcome home.”

That was when I started sobbing. At the time, I knew why. I don’t know now. I’ve blocked it out, mostly.

Jim and I were still wandering together. The main meadow was nearly empty in the heat of the day, and we were both tired, so we started back. Ebbie was still at the octagon, and unasked, she gave me a small piece of fudge. I asked for the recipe, and she borrowed a pen and wrote it out. It’s on my refrigerator now.

We stopped at a jam session by one of the free kitchens. A man was oozing out some great saxophone licks, his shiny brass instrument looking a little out of place in the rustic setting. But soon an angelic looking young girl opened her violin case, and the enclave was rocking.

Further up the trail, gospel songs floated softly from a Christian jam session. Thelma, who had been at the Lion of Judah camp, was there singing as a tall man with long dark hair played guitar. We left as they were getting ready to hold a service, but others were flocking in.

Nearby, a preacher was asking passersby if they knew Jesus. Most kept walking, but a few stopped to listen. At first I wondered why he didn’t join the nearby camp, but then an answer suggested itself: No matter how dirty your feet or how wild your eyes, a little thunder in the name of the Lord will get you respect and, often, followers. You can be somebody.

We kept walking. Soon we came to Sage’s blanket. She was still holding the crystal for me. I pulled out the five dollar bill in my pocket and said, “I’m sorry, all I have is money.”

She looked shocked. “Oh, I don’t take money.” I put the useless paper back in my pocket, touching the tiny push-button light on my key ring. Okay! “How about this?” “Oh, yeah!” she said, smiling and handing me the piece of quartz.

Back by Lion of Judah camp, I got some hamburger from my car and went to the kitchen to cook it. I made burgers for Bigfoot and for Justine, who was the operator of the camp, and for her children. Then I chopped vegetables for the pot of soup.

Justine was nearly worn out from all the people who came demanding food, without offering to pitch in or even wash their own plastic utensils and foam plates. “We’re not a kitchen, we’re a camp. We share, but we’re a private group. A camp,” she said wearily.

I remembered how, when I was cooking the burgers, people drawn by the smell came to the cook fire to ask for one. When they were directed to the communal pot of soup instead, some made rude comments. While peace, love and giving empower the Rainbow Gathering, there is a small group of non-contributing freeloaders.

Some came to the gathering completely unprepared, trusting others to take care of them. For example, Lion of Judah was the only camp with a steady supply of water. A 500-gallon tank was regularly taken into town and filled. Other kitchens and camps had only the filtered forest water that was piped throughout the gathering. But that water wasn’t filtered enough. It was making people, and their dogs, sick. People started bringing their jugs to the camp’s tank, and water was freely given, though Justine and Bigfoot had to pay to obtain it. I tried to remember peace, love and acceptance when freeloaders used the precious water to wash their dirty dishes, with

out asking permission or thanking anyone.

But it irritated me, especially when the huge tank was emptied in just one day.

Saturday afternoon, everyone in the camp sat around the big cookfire, telling jokes and stories. The goat woman came but left soon when her goats did not give her the attention she seemed to crave. John, who had played guitar in the Christian jam session earlier in the day, wandered in. Lyn, a woman who was staying in the camp, brought in her “Holy Man,” a guru from India for whom she was going to help start a ministry. Lyn was a massage therapist from Colorado, and I traded her a little bottle of bubble stuff for a backrub. Her Holy Man spoke English well. He went around the camp giving everyone hugs.

Suddenly, we heard shouts, “Fire! Fire!” Thick smoke was streaming up from the trees across the road. Without a word, people grabbed the camp shovels and the big blue Aquatainers of water and ran to where someone had not completely put out a camp fire before leaving. The nearby dry peat had smoldered, then ignited. It was a windy afternoon, with strong gusts.

As some 30 people stomped and drenched the underbrush, tossing shovels of dampened dirt over the peat, I realized how vulnerable we all were. This was a gathering of thousands of people, children and dogs among them, camping in the very dry woods. A fire might only be containable briefly and could then flash out of control. With that wind, a fire could spread fast, and people on top of this mountain could not likely outrun it.

A flash of fear came but quickly went. My own calmness surprised me. Even more surprising was the complete lack of panic in anyone else. Yes, we could die. And your point is?

That was when I knew this floating world was really out of and apart from any time and place in the real word, and I knew why doctors and lawyers and successful business people—and yes, freeloaders—come back year after year, why the Rainbow Family keeps reproducing. At that moment I knew what it was, but now, after some days have passed, I can only wonder why I wasn’t more worried about that fire. Again, what was it?

Sunday, I had to leave. I gave everything I had left away. Jim got my big summer sausage and block of cheese. Hugging me, he said, “I’ll see you again in this world.” Rolls of toilet paper went to the camp. I handed out bottles of water to people waiting along the road for the shuttle. I wished I’d had more to give.

Two young men were hitching along the road. They were dirty and hairy. I had no intention of stopping. I wanted to get into town fast, to wash my hands from a tap and sit on a flushable toilet. I certainly didn’t want to buy their breakfasts or make them wait in the car while I had mine.

But of course I stopped. “Can you take us to the parking lot?” one asked.

“Sure,” I said, getting out to put my sleeping bag and backpack in the trunk.

As I took them to their new Lexus SUV, in which they were going back to medical school in Chicago, we passed A-camp, plastered with patriotic “United We Stand” posters. A child by the side of the road flashed us a peace sign.

I dropped the hitchhikers off and drove back over the rocks and ruts I had bounced along three days earlier. I wondered what the papers were saying now, and why reporters always used quotes from Forest Service officials but never had interviews with the clean up crew who spend the week after each gathering scouring the forest to remove every trace of human presence. I wondered why it was semi-OK for snowmobiles, ATVs and motorcycles to cut trails and scare wildlife in national forests, but the Rainbow Gathering brings only official criticism and disdain. Already, I have had to explain to friends how it really isn’t that weird, that it wasn’t like the newspapers said, that—well, that you had to be there. And you had to take part.

It was two days before I remembered my watch.

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About The Author

Wina Sturgeon

Wina Sturgeon is an outdoor adventurer and a Salt Lake City freelance writer.

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