To offer a glimpse inside the mist-shrouded and mysterious camps of these many and variegated magical peoples who migrate to alternating states’ wild places each summer for this celebratory rendezvous: wander with me now, if your imagination will allow, down a mountainous dirt road, sometimes only one lane-wide. You’ll notice stone cairns denoting that you’re on the right track, else indicating where to turn. At main gate you’ll be met by someone or other likely wearing tie-dies and uttering the traditional greeting “Welcome Home,” and likely offering a hug and maybe a toke off a joint.
Between parking and the main meadow you may encounter “A-Camp,” the only place where alcohol is acceptable at a Rainbow Gathering (one of very few basic guidelines or “rules” at Rainbow Gatherings other than common decency and respect). This is certainly the least mellow fire-circle to sit around at night. Said group might be described as not unlike bikers without hogs to ride and who also happen to have heightened environmental consciences,6 else as gutter-punks who left the gutter behind for a seat by a rushing mountain river, but couldn’t yet leave the 40oz back in the city. Bus Village(s) are obviously located where there is viable parking, thus also towards the outskirts, and are often site of a veritable art exhibition with VW Bugs and Buses and even sailboats soldered atop old school buses, as well as other modern gypsy-style hippy wagons custom-designed and embellished as if the certain product of an intense acid trip.
After a mile or two hike towards the interior of the gathering, you’ll notice an increasing density of tents and hodgepodge campsites with Buddhist prayer-flags or tie-died tapestries bearing depictions of Hindu deities or Jimi Hendrix or a Grateful Dead bear or peace signs flying from tree branches. Music from distant drums or from a flutist making merry whilst wandering in a nearby field of flowers or spilling out from a guitar held tenderly by some brother or sister kickin’ it by a smoldering log or the din of some random crew crying out “We love you!!!” in order to elicit the same peace-cry from some other kitchen or fire-pit circle, else some likely synchronized combination of these sounds meets your ears as you get closer to main meadow.
Kitchens begin to appear randomly amidst the forest’s kaleidoscope camouflage, complete with cooking-fires, countertops built of woven sticks, and sometimes earthen-ovens to bake pizza or brownies for the masses. Community fire pits also increase alongside the trail, and all sorts of beautiful people start to manifest out of the forest greenery and the shadows of tall trees. Naked earth-goddess-mammas wearing only glittery body-paint and fairy-wings walk by, gazing at backpack-clad newcomers with exceedingly dilated pupils and blissful smiles as they offer the appropriate “Welcome Home,” and often offer a bare-breasted hug to whatever random homecoming hippie, male or female. Keep in mind, however, this is no free-love fest in the late-60’s sense, and respect and reverence accompanies the nakedness here, through and through. Adults and children play in the field and forest, and wild people in many states of dress and consciousness sit and dance ‘round wild drum circles that often last all night.
If you pass by Yoga Meadow, you might see a certified tai chi master giving lessons for free next to an Ashtanga yoga instructor, likewise teaching willing practitioners an ancient healing art for no charge. You would almost certainly hear chants of “Hare Krishna . . .” if you passed near the ISKCON tent (they make really tasty if over-sweetened Indian food, and pretty descent chai, by the way), hymns to Jesus if you happen by “Jesus Camp,” or perhaps pagan chants to Mother Earth or a Hebrew prayer or random (or synchronistically spoken) Sanskrit mantras issued from some circle or other within the greater circle of the gathering site.
Laughter and kind greetings and the smell of weed are in the air just about everywhere, and an overall harmony generally ensues in the midst of so much diversity. I’ve never yet heard of a skirmish between the Jesus-campers and Fairy-Camp (gay/lesbian camp) at a gathering, nor of any pitched battles between Serenity Ridge (an AA/Twelve-Step kitchen) and A-Camp.
I admit I have yet to see a Halal camp pop-up at such an event, though I once happened upon a Kosher camp called “Jerusalem Kitchen” at a National Rainbow Gathering. Indeed, I’d imagine there’d be a much better chance of peace in the Middle East if you sat Jerusalem Kitchen down with whatever Islamic crew might consent to come to a Rainbow Gathering—“Mecca-Camp,” maybe (yes, there is certainly such thing as a Muslim hippie). Simply fill a hookah with some good Lebanese hash and passed around some mushroom tea, and then let these peace-loving tree-huggers come up with the solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Else perhaps bring Israel’s Knesset together with the Palestinian National Assembly on a small tropical island and dose the falafel or matzo for a similar outcome—though likely with a higher dosage required.
In the somewhat-center of this site of several thousands camped together peacefully there is a large meadow with a “Peace-Pole” posted in the middle, symbolizing the central theme of these gatherings. Food is free here, though everybody’s s’pose to lend a hand where they can. Exchange of cash money is anathema here (unless to contribute to the “Magic Hat” fund for food and other necessities), and credit cards are not accepted. Trade-circle is the central marketplace, where blankets laid-out display hand-made drums, blown-glass pipes, hemp everything, tools and cool hippie clothes and chocolate bars—for trade only. Cannabis is the most stable currency (though that’s the case in the U.S. generally), weed is smoked freely and reverently everywhere, and psychedelic explorations are not discouraged—though drugs are not allowed.
Shanti-sena, or “peace-force” (à la Gandhi), made up of anyone and everyone at a gathering, keeps good order and deals fairly with conflicts. If any responsible adults happen to hear someone call out this Sanskrit mantra they are obliged to make a beeline to the scene of whatever conflict to help resolve, and might be noted that the mere intonation of these syllables is supposed to invoke peace. Nonetheless, the Fed’s can’t seem to stay away, sending in the LEO’s with firearms to harass the peaceful under the guise of “protect and serve.” These “forest-cops” with their side-arms are often told, generally politely, that we don’t much appreciate “guns in our church,” and these intruders are always preceded by calls of “Six-up!!!” to let others down the trail know they ought to extinguish and pocket all pipes and joints till the nuisance passes. Other Forest Service personnel who sometimes show up, biologists or botanists or water-quality surveyors and so forth, are generally received as less intrusive guests than the ones who think we need policing and who carry pistols into our peaceful assemblies and places of prayer.
I have actually heard of more than one “defection” from the Fed’s ranks to the freak-side. Indeed, I’ve been made privy to multiple reports of forest rangers deciding it wasn’t too late to “tune-in” and so forth, stripping off light-green uniforms and joining their long-lost family in a joyful reunion (often after having been offered a tiny piece of perforated paper or a chunk of chocolate covered fungus).
All in all, this rag-tag gathering of peaceful dissidents maintain a pretty tight ship, with no leaders and no designated or elected representatives, no centralized planning to speak of, and consensus as the primary “rule of order.” On the Fourth of July, upwards of twenty to fifty-thousand freaks stand in a massive circle round the “Peace-Pole” to utter the sacred syllable “AUM” (which is, by the way, the root of the Judeo-Christian “Amen,” and Muslim “Amin”—there is a subtly pronounced “ñ” at the end of AUM) intended to promote world peace and harmony.
By the time clean-up crew is gone, scarce a trace of these thousands is left to sully the wilderness scene, and even skeptical forestry bureaucrats and field agents are generally surprised that a bunch of pot smokers and trippers are so fucking conscientious and such responsible stewards of the land. No fire pit is left intact, shitters and compost holes are buried and concealed, trails unmade and reseeded with native seed, and every last trace of human habitation or litter is remediated or removed. You’d be hard-pressed to find even a single cigarette filter remaining amongst the natural forest floor debris by the time we’re all gone.