Rainbow family attracts all kinds

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The Salt Lake Tribune, June 29, 2003
By Christopher Smart, The Salt Lake Tribune

     NEAR LYMAN LAKE, Uinta Mountains — Think of Woodstock without the music.

    Now think of Woodstock without the music, but with plenty of cold mud and swarms of mosquitoes.

    Welcome home, brother and sister. Your Rainbow Family loves you.

    Every summer for the past 32 years, people from across the nation have assembled in a forest somewhere to fill their spiritual cups — together. Neither the heat and flies of Michigan last summer nor the mud and mosquitoes of Utah’s Uinta Mountains this year can stand in their way. In the end, the elements are mere trifles for these free spirits.

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    Sometimes derided as dirty, sticky-fingered hippies, the Rainbows actually come from all walks of life. At this year’s gathering 15 miles up the North Slope Road off Mirror Lake Highway in northeastern Utah, you can find lawyers, emergency medical technicians, professional counselors, schoolteachers and others who lead — at least outwardly — regular lives.

    Along with them are vagabonds, musicians, artists, alcoholic drifters and a lot of young people searching earnestly for meaning. The Rainbow Family gathering is a snapshot of the counterculture and its yearning for values outside those of pop culture and capitalism trumpeted by the mass media. Call it a convention of the unconventional.

    Among the roughly 3,000 who have gathered so far (thousands more are expected by Friday) is a man from Berkeley, Calif., calling himself James In The Rain. He sits cross-legged under a large straw hat and waits calmly for a ride up the road to the meadow, where a giant prayer circle on the morning of the Fourth of July will cap the celebration. He has been attending these gatherings since the inaugural get-together in 1972.

    “I came to feel better about myself and about all Americans and all people. When you are here, you lose your fear and anger and gain trust and hope in people.”

    Spirituality and love are the buzz here, and the late 1960s are in the air. Walking into the Rainbow forest, people are greeted with hugs and salutations such as, “welcome home, brother,” and “lovin’ you, sister.” It is a reunion for people who recognize one another as kindred spirits, says a man who wants to be called Preacha Bill, a licensed practical nurse from Boulder, Colo.

    “I was disassociated from my biological family in 1979,” explains the blond curly headed Bill with a big grin. “But my friends introduced me to another family. I don’t see them but once a year, but they are my family.”

    Bill is among the Rainbows who operate the gathering’s medical service. Others build bridges across streams. Some dig latrines. Culinary-oriented Rainbows set up communal kitchens, where anyone with a bowl can eat, whether or not they can make a donation. Still others head up the “Shanti Sena” security patrol, whose job it is to keep the peace as much as it is to warn others of approaching Forest Service law officers.

    “We are supposed to be building a model peace community in nature,” explains Betsy Jacques, a Florida environmental science high school teacher who has been attending Rainbow Family gatherings for decades.

    “I really came as a sister to the family to bring my knowledge and expertise to teach the community how to protect its wilderness.”

    Adorned in a blue sweat shirt, Jacques sits beneath a colorful umbrella near Mirror Lake Highway holding a placard decrying the large number of dogs at this year’s gathering. “For years and years we asked people to leave their dogs at home. But now it’s like bring your pit bulls and let them fight.”

    Utopia is indeed difficult to create.

    Malcolm Jowers — the Forest Service’s special incident commander whom many Rainbows see as evil incarnate — is serious when he says Rainbows and everyone else will abide by forest regulations. “Law and order will not be negotiated.”

    Jowers, however, qualifies the nagging reports that Rainbows leave refuse. He concedes that when the family leaves, the meadows will be clean — including dog poop. Through the years, Rainbows have learned to comply with forest regulations by digging proper latrines and garbage pits. All cans and paper must be carried out.

    Rainbows are sensitive to allegations that they left garbage in Boise County, Idaho, in 2001 and insist it’s just not true. Older members teach younger ones the skills necessary to live in the forest without harming it, says Barry Sacharow, a 48-year-old Hollywood, Fla., man who makes his living doing “a little of this and a little of that.”

    “Many people come well-prepared,” he says. “There are an equal number who come only with the shirt on their back. But they find here people who are willing to help them and do it in a loving way.”

    Non-Rainbows may feel a twinge of cynicism as they near the gathering, passing A (alcohol) Camp, where the drinkers congregate. Most Rainbows shun alcohol. Nonetheless, their welcoming attitude allows for drinkers whose spirituality seems to flow from a bottle and whose camp appears less than pristine.

    But as the four-mile trek to the ceremonial meadow progresses, the atmosphere changes. There is a bartering mall, where crystals, jewelry, tobacco and other items can be traded. Farther up the trail, muddied by foot traffic across the damp meadow, various camps appear, bearing names such as Meditation Camp, Krishna Camp, Jerusalem Camp and one called Inn Decision. These groups often are defined by their kitchens — although not every camp has one — that take monikers such as Lovin’ Oven, Christian Kitchen and Madame Frogs’ Tea Kitchen.

    Along the trail, family members can be found reading, sewing, strumming guitars, slapping drums or just hanging out. The snowcapped Uinta Mountains tower in a bright, blue sky over alpine meadows. Bare-chested young women and men lounge in the grass smoking marijuana, while other more serious types philosophize in discussion groups. Were it not for the mud and mosquitoes, it might well be paradise.

    Greg Sherrill, a 47-year-old California man, describes himself as a “folkalizer” — one who facilitates such discussions. “It can be folk realizer,” he explains of his self-appointed calling, “or focus realizer, when the group dynamic is brought out.”

    Sherrill usually makes his home in a 35-foot recreational vehicle that he plies up and down the Golden State. “There are many elements that comprise the peace and healing movement,” he notes. “Organic farming, spirituality and political free speech.”

    These are things clean-cut Salt Lakers Rosie Jones, 22, and Cory Haroldsen, 23, are about to learn. And probably a lot more.

    “We just decided to swing up and see what it’s all about,” Jones says. “They have been really welcoming.”

    The scene is an eye-opener, Haroldsen adds. “This is different than anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s interesting.”

    Certainly the Rainbow gathering is a phenomenon. Or, as a floral-shirted 24-year-old man calling himself Krispy explains it: “I truly believe each person has their own color. Some people are purple and blue. And some are red and yellow. And when we all come together, it’s something powerful.”

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