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The Rainbow Family's annual be-in features thousands of people, music and light in the forest

Sunday, July 04, 1999

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

RIDGWAY, Pa. In high afternoon heat, along a dusty dirt road in the Allegheny National Forest, a barefoot hippie greeted carloads of new arrivals to this year's national Rainbow gathering with a friendly "Welcome home" and a tray of cool watermelon wedges.

  Members of the Rainbow Family of Living Light took part in a healing workshop called "Heartsong and Lifedance" as part of the gathering in the Allegheny National Forest in Ridgway, Elk County. The workshop was held until midnight with participants watching the full moon rise. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

It was a time-tripping introduction, a first peek at the Wonderland-like, counterculture assemblage of rebels and ramblers, dreamers and dopers, peaceniks and partyers, loose sprockets and societal spare parts who are still gathering as the Rainbow Family of Living Light, deep in the woods of Elk County, about a three-hour drive northeast of Pittsburgh.

What started in 1972 at a communal gathering in a Colorado national forest to pray for peace, pursue spiritual rejuvenation and renew '60s counterculture values has evolved into something more and something different.

"We started in the '60s and '70s as a collection of some far-out characters," said Michael John, 49, one of the family's recognized elders. "In 1972, we all saw a vision, but blasted off like rockets and never talked about what we saw.

"Now the gathering has evolved as an event with a form and its own innate energy, but has become more of a camp-out. We still have Fourth of July, the kitchens, the communal feeding and the family reunion, but we haven't been able to communicate or realize the vision" of creating world peace or some of the group's other lofty goals.

One piece of that form is the enforced silence that will occur from daybreak to noon today around the Peace Pole in the bumpy, boggy Main Meadow, a couple of football fields big, where most of the 20,000 Rainbows from all over the sprawling encampment will gather to pray for world peace.

The silence will be broken by a children's procession coming down to the meadow from Kids' Village, followed by wild drumming, euphoric dancing and the customary rolling of the watermelons down from the surrounding hills..

"There's a lot of focused energy there. It's why I come," said Tibor Breuer, 53, a self-described "aging hippie" and housing contractor from Olympia, Wash., whose son was born at the 1978 gathering. "The circling with everyone is an important part."

More colors

Those spiritual and religious underpinnings are still very much a Rainbow focus, but as the gatherings have grown, more colors have been added. Some are complementary; others clash.

In both cases, the Rainbows live up to their name.

  Gathered members raise their hands at the end of a pre-dinner meditation before sitting down in circles for meals delivered by various Rainbow Family kitchens. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

It's unclear if diversity has bred tolerance or the other way around, but the annual gathering, now in its 28th incarnation, has become a must stop for 20,000 people from all over the United States and Europe who literally and figuratively dance to the beat of a different drum. Many all night long.

At this year's gathering, there are men with bells woven into their beards. There aren't many places where those guys wouldn't turn heads, but this is one.

The heads themselves have all sorts of plumage. Some are shaved, others sprout green, purple or pink hair. A goodly number still fly graying, thinning, freak flags left over from the '60s.

Attire is retro casual -- slacker shorts, jeans, sarongs, tie-dyed anything. Many shed their clothes and their given names. A lot of the younger Rainbows have silver pierced into their faces, chests and belly buttons. More sport tattoos.

There are Krishnas, Christians, Buddhists and a contingent of Jews who have traveled direct from Jerusalem on a grant from the Israeli government.

About every fourth person on the three miles of ever muddy woodland trails along Bear and Otter creeks carries a musical instrument. Drums, guitars, tambourines and saxophones are most popular. And about every third person is trailed by a dog. The dogs generally get along, too.

Along that hippie mall, more than 40 Rainbow "tribes" set up "kitchens," some with pots and giant woks over open fires, others with baking ovens made from stone and mud. The kitchens feed the masses for free. Smoke from the cooking mingles with marijuana and incense to hang an aromatic haze over the valley.

Drums in the night

Night and day there is drumming, but the beat picks up at night. Under Monday's full moon, around a massive fire ring that sent sparks to the tree tops at the Granola Funk Kitchen, no fewer than 10 drums -- bass to bongo -- pounded out bumpy, driving beats that caused the crowd of more than 200 to writhe snakelike in the clearing.

  A father plays with his child after Rainbow Family dinner time. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

A Tuesday night slip-slide along the muddy paths uncovered live jams that included tunes by Dylan at the Bliss Kitchen, Cat Stevens at the Jerusalem Kosher Kitchen and Jim Croce at the Rainbow Crystal Kitchen. Beatles songs played on an upright piano floated out of the woodwork near the Main Meadow.

At the Milliways Cafe at the End of the Universe and Brothel, a politically incorrect but architecturally ambitious 12-foot-by-12-foot go-go cage complete with a sapling as central slither pole has been built out of sticks and twine for dancers.

In this universe, all were welcome, but some more than others.

On the outskirts of the gathering, which actively discourages alcohol consumption, is A-Camp, an often rowdy grouping that actively encourages it.

"Whatever you want to see, the good or the bad, you can find it here," Breuer said. "A-Camp is an insult to the gathering. If you want to join the Peeping Toms that don't have to peep you can do that, too."

"We have people from A to Z and back again," said Teya Jacobi, 52, a former lawyer who lives in Tucson, Ariz., and focuses now on "world peace, love and joy."

"We have people who care about the environment and others who don't. We have those who know how to camp and stay dry, and others who show up with just a blanket. They learn."

And there are the "Drainbows."

"They suck energy out of the gathering and don't put anything back in. They're looked down on, but they're accepted, too.

"Not only do we accept everyone, but we have a focus outside the gathering, when we join hands and pray for peace. That's what keeps me here."

Swelling crowd

The purposefully egalitarian nongroup, which has no official leaders, started to coalesce nine miles and a steep half-hour hike west of Ridgway in the last two weeks of June, but really came together early last week.

After heavy thunderstorms Monday night, tents seemed to sprout like magic rip-stop nylon mushrooms among the tall cherry and oaks and knee-high ferns. The Forest Service crowd estimate had jumped from 2,000 to 15,000 between Monday and Wednesday, on its way to 20,000 or more today.

  David Dreskin, 21, center, of Livingston, N.J., blows a horn to draw people to a kosher meal of stir-fried eggs, couscous and tea prepared by Jewish members of the Rainbow Family. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

The growth of the gathering has brought unwanted attention from law enforcement officers -- LEOs, in Rainbow parlance -- whose presence borders on intimidation.

The state police have approximately 100 extra troopers assigned to the area and the U.S. Forest Service has brought in its National Incident Management team at a cost of $500,000 to "manage" the gathering.

The police patrols, which pass Rainbow parking areas and shuttle drop-off locations about every five minutes, raise clouds of dust and anxiety. They have towed cars parked along the dirt roads and cited Rainbows for such minor traffic code violations as pendants hanging from rear-view mirrors, cluttered dashboards and malfunctioning license plate lights.

On Wednesday afternoon, one state trooper waited until nine Rainbows clamored into the back of a pickup truck used to shuttle the three miles between approved parking areas and a trailhead to announce on his loudspeaker that state law forbids anyone under the age of 18 from riding in the back of a truck.

And state police helicopters buzzed the gathering at tree-top level for more than a half hour on at least two occasions last week. On Wednesday, two dozen Rainbows waiting for a shuttle in a clearing along a forest road expressed their displeasure by dropping trou and mooning the hovering whirlybird.

"It's been said at past gatherings that there are three dogs for every Rainbow, but here I think there is one LEO for every 10 Rainbows," said David Alexander English, 41, a dreadlocked artist and astrologer who is one of the new generation of elders. "The police management style can only be described as heavy-handed. People are being stopped on suspicion of being a Rainbow."

English said that the police are making it hard for citizens, and he included Rainbows in that group, to use the public lands of the national forest.

"That seems to go against the new Forest Service policy of moving away from clear-cutting and toward true multiple use of the national forests by the public," he said.

Ridgway residents also have complained in the local papers about being stopped for minor traffic violations when they drive on roads near the gathering.

It isn't the first time the Rainbows have bridled at Forest Service muscle. Checkpoints and roadblocks used at the Rainbow's 1996 gathering in Missouri bought the government agency a federal lawsuit that was decided in the Rainbows' favor last week.

Noting that the gauntlet of checkpoints at the gathering of 15,000 uncovered only four felony drug cases worth pursuing, Senior U.S. District Judge Russell Clark said targeting the group was unacceptable and ordered it stopped.

"Subjecting Rainbow Family members to a 'shakedown' to achieve ignominious results," Clark wrote in his opinion, "should strike fear into any citizen who values ... personal liberty."

Rose Davis, a Forest Service spokeswoman with the National Incident Management team, said checkpoints hadn't been used since 1996. She said police patrols through Friday had issued 147 violation notices, the majority for traffic violations.

"We believe it's a good use of taxpayer resources to provide for public safety in the area," she said. She knew of no felony reports.

'It's peaceful'

Despite the police presence and the trials of camping in the backwoods with 20,000 people, the Rainbows keep on keepin' on. 'Why?' is a legitimate question.

"It's peaceful. Everyone is searching for positive growth and how the world can be better," said Tea Cloud, 20, an art student from New York City who is camped with his girlfriend, Leia, 20, halfway up the hillside behind the Milliways Kitchen and go-go cage.

"This is another world. Out there, people are out to get you. Here, they're out to help you. It's tribal. There's a common bond that makes you family."

In the end it is that enriching intimacy, born of 28 years of coming together, that keeps people coming back.

"You won't find more wonderful people anywhere," said Roscoe Douberly, 53, a systems analyst for the Marine Corps from Fredericksburg, Va., who is attending his 12th gathering.

He hiked in Tuesday afternoon, pushing a two-wheeled dolly over-packed with camp gear and a guitar. When he arrived at Bliss Kitchen in the early afternoon, he was red-faced and sweating, but smiling.

"Every time we do this it proves something," Douberly said after hoots of recognition and a round of heartfelt hugs. "It proves that on this joyous occasion we can come together from wherever and there can be peace."

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