MODOC NATIONAL FOREST – Lucky Sunshine Day says he arrived at this year’s Rainbow Family Gathering “a moon cycle ago,” measuring time as he has for much of the 20 years of his life.
As a child, he traveled to the Gatherings aboard a Rainbow bus with his parents, Flower and Two Rock – most participants give only their Rainbow names. This year, he hitched a ride to the event deep in the woods of northeastern 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 was jailed for allegedly beating another nearly to death with a shovel for driving too fast through a campground.
But that 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 30 years of uneasy relations around the country.
On Sunday, the high point of the July 1-7 conclave, more than 16,000 self-described hippies from at least 40 states and eight nations were expected to hold hands in a circle, silently praying for world peace from dawn until noon.
This year’s Gathering is being held in an area of hills and meadows in the Modoc National Forest, 26 miles over rough gravel roads from the tiny town of Likely.
Some of the “road dogs” – Rainbows who travel constantly between events with no permanent home or job – had been in the area for weeks, helping set up the camp, and will spend weeks more cleaning up.
Others, the “weekend hippies,” were likely to arrive in Audis, Volvos or sport utility vehicles after pulling out 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.
“Everybody with a bellybutton is a Rainbow. Some people just don’t know it yet,” said Sarieah, cradling her 2½-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, it’s a party in the woods.
Marijuana is everywhere but 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 Rainbow since the first event in 1972.
By Saturday afternoon, there had been 11 arrests, most for interfering with a police officer.
Though donations are accepted, the food is free, served communally at kitchens that have specialties: organic food, vegetarian, vegan, Hare Krishna, coffee, even a bakery – the only place where drumming was discouraged because the cakes might fall.
The drums fill the woods with a hypnotic tribal beat when the full moon came up. Rainbows consider themselves a tribe, or a gathering of tribes, and have drawn much of their language and tradition from American Indians.
However, their choice of a site drew protests from the Fort Bidwell Indian Community Council, which worried that digging of latrines in particular would harm ancestral artifacts.
The U.S. Forest Service has been trying to regulate the Rainbows’ activities since the Gatherings started, 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 say they 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.
“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?” said Kalif, the head gatekeeper.
The Forest Service budgeted $720,000 for a National Incident Management Team to oversee this year’s event in much the same way it would react to a large wildfire. Modoc County assigned extra patrols and stationing portable toilets for people headed to or from the Gathering.
And in nearby Likely, Rod Weed, co-owner with his wife of the Likely General Store and the Most Likely Cafe, two of the town’s three retail businesses, hired eight extra employees and ordered more groceries. Rainbow organizers offered to fix any problems he might encounter, as they did 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.”