Take Me to Your Leader
A huge annual gathering of hippies freaks out the National Forest Service
By Sam MacDonald
REASON * February 2001
It was 4 a.m., we were more than 300 miles from the Gathering, and the
police were already hot on our trail.
Not that they could have missed us. As three tired, unshaven men struggling
over the Montana mountains at 45 miles per hour in a 1969 Volkswagen bus,
we meant only one thing to the authorities sworn to protect the public from
the Rainbow Family Gathering of Light. Hippies. Worse: hippies without
permits, a combination that put The Man in a particularly grumpy state of mind.
The Montana State Highway Patrol car blazed past us going up the hill, and
then the officer decided to give us another look. He slowed to a crawl,
becoming the first and only motorist our bus passed on the entire
cross-country odyssey. He settled into tailgating position and followed us
for about a mile while we scrambled to remember whether we were carrying
any illegal substances. Tiring of that, he rolled up beside us and tried to
get a view inside, but eventually gave up the inspection and tore off, up
the steep grade.
He was only the first of many law enforcement officials who would give us a
closer look over the following week.
Every Fourth of July, the Rainbow Gathering draws up to 30,000 of the
strangest people in the world to a different national forest each year.
Most stay a few days, while others come weeks ahead and stay even longer.
The week-long "prayer for world peace" includes aging hippies, drug-addled
teen runaways, Hare Krishnas, and mainstream onlookers hungry for a taste
of the free-love '60s.
Almost all the Rainbows share an anti-authoritarian streak that flies in
the face of the National Forest Service's attempts to control the
Gathering. Federal law decrees that any group larger than 75 must obtain a
permit before assembling on National Forest property. Unlike the organizers
of other high-profile countercultural events, such as Burning Man, the
Rainbows have always refused, even when facing heavy fines and jail time.
This time was no different. Lawless, unplanned, and almost wholly free of
traditional leadership, the 28th annual Gathering was staged in the
Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest in southwestern Montana, much to the
chagrin of a special federal police unit designed to press the Rainbows
into submission. What's more, the estimated 23,000 campers, a big city by
Montana standards, managed to pull this off in a harsh physical environment
with almost no facilities.
Mad Mike, 21, is typical of many young Rainbows. While many older attendees
have families and full-time jobs in the outside world, the younger
generation tends to live the Rainbow life all year. A New Orleans native,
Mike has been bumping from city to city, taking odd jobs whenever possible,
living on the streets for over a year. He hitchhiked to the Gathering with
the clothes on his back, a tent, a blanket, and his guitar. He had no
money, no food, and no means to earn either. Still, sitting on the main
path strumming his instrument, he seemed healthy and happy to be with the
"Here, the Christians get along," he told us. "The Krishnas get along.
Everybody gets along. Everybody smiles and helps people out. When you're
walking down the path at night, you're not scared."
Mike had good reason to be pleased. Not only was he getting free meals at
the community kitchens, but he had made a niche for himself as the Heady
On his first day at the Gathering, Mike composed a ditty on his guitar, a
catchy little tune with the constant refrain, "Who's got my heady nuggets?
Who's got my heady nuggets? Who's got my heady nuggets for me?" ("Heady
nuggets," Mike explained, means particularly good marijuana.) About half
the people at the Gathering were humming his tune by the second day, and
most of them did indeed have some heady nuggets for their favorite new
composer. People constantly stopped to sit on the path and congratulate him
on the song. They almost invariably shared a bowl of their finest marijuana
in the process.
Mike went on to compose another song, called "Hippie Princess," for the
rare moments when he had managed to accumulate a pocketful of heady
nuggets. Its lyrics begged various females to "let me feel your aura and
I'll load your bong." He would not comment on the effectiveness of this effort.
"I definitely think about making money in a real job, but I don't know,"
Mike mused. "I think I'll see how easy it is to follow these guys around
Mad Mike was not alone. Buzz, 28, had hitched in from Denver with Freedom, 19.
"We came here with nothing but the clothes on our backs, nothing," Buzz
said. "Within two days we had a phat tent, and someone said they would kick
us a sleeping bag when they leave." The pair scored the gear by sitting on
the path, asking passers-by if they could "spare any warmth."
Many older Rainbows refer to people like Buzz and Freedom as
"Drainbows", campers who contribute little to the common cause but act as a
drain on the limited supply of food, water, and drugs. Still, the Gathering
survives without any centralized authority to spur the free riders to
action. Everyone who is hungry gets fed, and everyone in need of heady
nuggets finds plenty along the way.
The planning process for the 2000 event began at the 1999 Gathering, in
Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest. Hippies hunkered around campfires
tossed out ideas for the new venue: Vermont, Arizona, Utah. All 19,000 of
them left without a clear sense of where this year's Gathering would be. So
how did they all end up in the same Montana meadow just 12 months later?
The answer to that question lies at the heart of the Rainbow experience.
The Forest Service contends that an established group of Rainbows, usually
called "focalizers," is the de facto Rainbow organization, deciding where
and how the Gatherings should be conducted.
The Forest Service needs the Rainbows to have leaders. Otherwise, there
would be no one to cite for refusing to sign the permit, unless it called
in the National Guard to cite all 23,000 attendees. The feds have often
cited a few people at past events, usually leading to fines of less than
$100. But they seem to be losing patience. In Erie, Pennsylvania, last
June, U.S. District Judge Maurice B. Cohill Jr. sentenced three Rainbows
cited at last year's gathering to one month in jail; he also tacked on some
hefty fines. "While the 'mouse that roared' syndrome sometimes has the
appeal of tweaking the authorities on the nose," Cohill said in his
decision, "we hope that the time to stop has finally arrived."
The feds cited three more campers for failing to sign permits this year.
They were scheduled to appear in federal court in Montana in December.
It's hard to say why the Forest Service chose to cite these particular
people, or why it did not choose more. The Rainbow Guide, the "unofficial"
Rainbow handbook distributed free at the Gathering, lists the names and
addresses of 24 individuals and organizations that call themselves
focalizers, and about 400 more who readily admit to being Rainbows. Still,
only three people received citations. None were listed as focalizers.
The Rainbows' legal defense usually comes in two parts. First, they say the
permit requirement violates their constitutional right to assemble freely.
Second, they say that since the group has no leader, no one is authorized
to speak for it or to sign any permits in its name.
The Rainbows claim they have no formal organization and no leaders, that
the entire event is nothing more than a "tribal anarchy" run through
spontaneous order. According to the Guide, "Our Gatherings are open to all
peaceful people. There is no membership, no administration. There are no
leaders. No one is turned away. Any non-violent person with a belly button
is welcome. You are a Rainbow by simply deciding that you are one, and your
voice is equal to that of any other Rainbow, be it your 1st Gathering or
There is, indeed, no central Rainbow authority in any traditional sense.
The core group consists of clans scattered throughout the world. Rainbows
in New York City meet weekly for potluck dinners and drum circles in area
parks, and similar gatherings take place in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and
other cities. Following the national event in Montana, regional gatherings
were planned for Colorado and Alaska. The Rainbow Guide lists addresses in
at least 10 foreign countries.
The national gathering unites all these clans for a week. Information about
dates and locations spreads through the loose web of "scouts" and
focalizers. According to The Rainbow Guide, experienced scouts scour the
nation for appropriate sites throughout the year, sharing information with
regional focalizers. Then they meet for a Spring Scouting Rendezvous, where
their choices are narrowed. Later, usually sometime in June, just weeks
before the Gathering, focalizers meet to announce the location and
distribute the information through hotlines and, more recently, Web sites.
Becoming a focalizer or a scout is about the easiest thing in the world to
do. At the Gathering, all you have to do is attend the Family Council
meeting at high noon, where major Rainbow business is conducted through
prayer and consensus building. Volunteer for something, and before you know
it you're a focalizer.
Consider Owl, the fellow manning this year's Info Center, a makeshift
lean-to with a map of the site, a message board, and various handouts. He
was the focalizer "in charge" of sanitation. How did he get the job?
Owl, who works as a consultant for a home security company, has been
attending national and regional gatherings since 1985. One year, concerned
about the cleanliness of the hand-dug "shitter" trenches, he brought about
$400 worth of sanitation equipment along with him.
"No one told me to," he told us. "I just saw something I thought needed to
get done, so I brought it."
Owl's knowledge of sanitation was useful, and people began consulting with
him about the best way to dig the shitters. He referred to himself as the
"head of sanitation." Which he probably is. But that is not to say that he
is actually in charge of anything. He was never elected or appointed to an
official position. He has no authority to tell people where to dig a
latrine. He does not dig them all himself. Still, the trenches got dug,
people used them, and for the most part they avoided the infirmities one
might expect when 23,000 marijuana aficionados eat, sleep, and shit in the
same general area for an extended period of time.
While Owl seemed to be the man who knew the most about sanitation, digging
the slit trenches was a community responsibility. A sign at the Info Center
encouraged the volunteer spirit: "Need something to do? Ask for someone
with a shovel. Dig a shitter." Anyone who didn't know how would be referred
to Owl or another Rainbow who knew. Surprisingly, despite the free love and
easy drugs on hand to occupy everyone's time, volunteers surfaced to dig
whenever the need arose.
According to Owl, the authorities dislike the Gathering because they can't
control the people involved or take any profits off the top. "They hate it
because we are not building a stadium, like professional sports," he
explained. "There is no transfer of funds. There is no way the government
can tax us." There is no Rainbow Family organization, he stressed. "None of
us comes here as part of the Rainbow Family. We come out as individuals. It
just so happens that we have no official legal standing as an organization,
and the police can't stand that."
Owl was interrupted by a young man who stopped to ask for trash bags. He
was heading out of the Gathering and planned to pick up garbage on the way.
At first, Owl thought he'd have to send the kid away empty-handed, but then
he looked around the lean-to and found a few bags that someone had donated
to the cause.
And so it goes with Rainbow focalizers. Someone has to guide the event. In
the case of sanitation, Owl is widely considered something of a shitter
guru. Still, he isn't a leader, not in the usual sense of the word. He just
saw something that needed to be done, and he did it.
In this informal manner, 23,000 bellies were regularly filled, largely
through neighborhood kitchens that sprang up around the site and fed the
masses for free. The kitchens, often affiliated with various clans from
around the country, operated almost continuously. Offerings included bread
and granola baked in mud ovens constructed on site. Unlike Burning Man,
where participants are expected to haul in everything they need, or
Woodstock '99, where promoters charged drunken, dehydrated teenagers $4 or
more for bottles of water, the Gathering allows people to show up with
nothing but the shirts on their backs and walk away a few pounds heavier.
Merry Sunshine, operated away from the main circle of activity, was one of
the few kitchens that offered meat. It also provided any and all takers
with clean drinking water, a hot commodity in Montana, where cows grazing
on National Forest land have had the polluting effect you'd expect. Perhaps
even more popular was the kitchen's makeshift solar shower.
NZANE, an energetic, bearded man in a wheelchair, he had lost a leg, and
almost lost an arm, in a motorcycle accident, was a cook at Merry Sunshine.
According to him, putting the whole operation together, counting food,
equipment, and other supplies, probably cost about $15,000.
Labor, on the other hand, was free. After eating at the kitchen, my
photographer went to work washing dishes. Later, he volunteered to dam a
stream to make it easier to fetch shower water. A Rainbow from Amsterdam
who stopped by for water ended up taking over dish duty, and an
exceptionally dirty young man walking along the trail gathered firewood for
the kitchen while waiting for his turn in the shower. It was impossible to
tell who actually came with the kitchen and who had stopped by to help.
"There's no organization here," admitted NZANE. "It's just whoever picks up
the ball and runs with it. Someone always seems to do it."
While Merry Sunshine did offer food free for the taking, the kitchen did
not participate in the Gathering's largest daily spectacle: dinner in the
Main Circle. Every day around twilight, thousands of hungry Rainbows would
gather in the meadow and arrange themselves in concentric circles. After a
series of messages and some group meditation, volunteers from the various
kitchens would arrive with coolers full of their finest offerings,
distributing the free food to everyone sitting in the circle.
While the kitchens provided most of the food themselves, the Rainbows also
organized a "magic hat" parade, a small band of still more volunteers that
tramped around the circle singing the magic hat song while everyone but the
Drainbows donated what they could to the cause. The money was then handled
by a team of at least five respected Rainbow elders, who spent it on any
needed supplies. They distributed the rest to the participating kitchens to
make sure there would be food the following day.
While the Rainbows do an impressive job of guiding their anarchic community
through the various hardships of living outdoors, the going isn't always
First, the participants show a strong aversion to the use of money. On my
first day at the Gathering, I made my way to the large "trading village" in
the hope of scoring a trinket to impress my own hippie princess back home.
The large circle included scores of Rainbows displaying everything from
beads and handmade crafts to psychedelic mushrooms and rolling papers.
It soon became clear that no one was interested in my money. Trying to buy
a bowl from a teenage girl, I asked what she was hoping to trade. When she
told me she needed gas money to get home, I jumped at the opportunity. She
sneered at my useless wad of bills. "Look man," she said, "I really try to
keep money out of the trade." Instead, she was hoping to trade with people
willing to siphon fuel directly out of their cars.
After several similar encounters, I realized that the closest thing to
money at the Rainbow Gathering was green of another sort: marijuana. Weed
was acceptable as a trade in almost any circumstance, an informal medium of
exchange. Unfortunately, we didn't have any, so we had to go to A-Camp.
A-Camp was the only place at the Gathering where alcohol was widely
accepted. Rainbows discourage its use but established the enclave because
some members are alcoholics and can't go long without a drink. It was also,
we were told, the only place where money was seen as an acceptable marker
So off we trudged, but only grudgingly. On the way into the Gathering, we
had walked by A-Camp at about 6 a.m. The serious alcoholics on hand were
either still or already drunk. A fight had broken out over an offensive
remark one Rainbow had made about Guatemala: Someone sent his pit bull
after the offender, and the entire encampment, including at least 50
people, was in an uproar for 20 minutes. The ubiquitous fighting made it
clear that America's only legal intoxicant is probably its most disruptive.
Still, we persevered. We made our way back to the bus and fetched a 12-pack
of beer and a bottle of single malt we had in reserve. That and a few good
old American dollars landed us a sizable sack of decent-looking marijuana.
We then hiked a mile back to the trading circle, where we finally had some
acceptable bait for trading. I had no problem landing myself a handmade
hippie purse and a few other trinkets for the folks back home. While the
ladder of transactions worked and the notion of smokable currency did
appeal to my deviant nature, the inefficiency of the process was a lesson
in the value and convenience of paper money.
The Rainbows also had occasional problems dealing with the mass of people
crowding the paths. One night at dinner, the concentric circles simply
failed to materialize. With no one in charge, it was impossible to
effectively direct the largely drug-muddled crowd into compliance. Sitting
in an unfortunate spot, we watched as the food reached everyone but those
of us stuck on the outside.
But for the most part, the Rainbows' nonsystem worked. No one starved, and
no one died of exposure in the chilly Montana nights. That is an admirable
accomplishment for 23,000 hippies who strike fear and loathing in the
hearts of the National Forest Service.
The Forest Service's National Incident Management Team usually deals with
large-scale emergencies, such as raging forest fires. It is also the entity
responsible for dealing with the Rainbow Gathering, which the federal
government obviously views as a national incident.
Based at the Dillon Middle School about an hour away from the Gathering,
the team of about 40 officers coordinated law enforcement's response to the
event. Its tactics included aerial flyovers, mounted patrols through the
Gathering, increased state and local patrols on area roads, and, as
mentioned, citing a few Rainbows for failing to sign the required permit.
According to Sharon Sweeney, an information officer stationed temporarily
in Dillon, the federal government allocated $400,000 to the Rainbow
Kevin Kennedy, another officer on the scene, said the event went off with
few major incidents. "It's actually been pretty smooth," he said. "We've
had a pretty strong law enforcement presence because of the permit issue."
The biggest offenses Kennedy reported were a man caught with 500 hits of
LSD and a drunken A-Camper who attempted to run over his girlfriend with
his truck during a fight.
According to National Forest Service statistics, there were a total of 42
felony arrests, 136 misdemeanor arrests, 23 warrants served, 580 citations,
and 931 warnings at the Rainbow site between June 6 and July 7. Of those,
162 were drug-related, while 881 involved traffic and vehicles; 21 related
to "nudity." Authorities also handled five natal incidents (births or
labor), 13 ambulance transports, and 52 hospital visits.
Sweeney stressed that the Forest Service's major concern is environmental
impact. "The site is a mess," she said. "We don't know what long-term
impacts the slit trenches will have. There are 23,000 people out there
trampling a delicate meadow area. We're talking about a really short
growing season here. We don't know how long it will take the area to recover."
Lurking behind those concerns, though, is another issue: the Rainbows'
refusal to sign the required permit. "If they had a permit we could work
with them to select a site that could handle that many people," said Buck
Feist, another information officer based temporarily in Dillon for the
Gathering. The permit procedure is free, Feist said, and the decision to
grant it or not is in no way based on the cultural or religious views of
the people applying, indeed, Feist adds, the Forest Service considers large
groups such as the Rainbows an "appropriate use." Asked if there was a
National Forest site anywhere in the country that would be acceptable for a
crowd as large as the Rainbow Family, Feist said he didn't know. "They
haven't applied for a permit, so we haven't entered into that discussion."
Feist denied the Rainbows' claim that the permit requirement violates their
constitutional right to assemble. He also rejected the possibility that the
Rainbows could work with the Forest Service to select a more
environmentally acceptable site but still refuse to sign a permit on
constitutional grounds. "There is a process," he said. "We can't work with
them until they sign the permit."
So on what grounds were some people picked out for citations while most
"These were folks who seemed to be in more of a leadership role," Sweeney said.
"Granted, there is no one leader."
And if there were, he or she wouldn't necessarily be facing charges. "I
went to the main council at the gathering for the first time since 1992
this year," said Barry "Plunker" Adams, a 55-year-old migrant ranch hand
and one of the three Rainbows charged this year for gathering without a
permit. "I haven't been that involved in the gathering for years and years.
I did a little this year, and I did help clean up like I do every year.
What the government did was hand a ticket to a volunteer janitor."
Neither Feist nor Sweeney could point to a single specific long-term
negative environmental impact suffered at any of the previous 27 Rainbow
Gatherings. The worst they could recall was a widespread breakout of a
gastrointestinal disease after a meeting in North Carolina. Since the
National Incident Management Team had been involved in only the last three
national events, Sweeney said, they lack sufficient data to make any
On the other hand, the Rainbows proudly display the final impact studies
conducted by the Forest Service after each Gathering. Scores of hard-core
Rainbows stay behind each year to pick up trash, reseed trampled ground,
bury latrines, and conduct other hard work, such as corralling abandoned
dogs. The federal impact studies are designed to study the effectiveness of
the cleanup crew and gauge the long-term environmental impact of each
Gathering. Last year's study concluded that "there will be minimal
long-term negative resource impacts" to the site. "One Heritage site was
damaged during the event," it noted. "All other resource impacts have been
adequately addressed, mitigated or rehabilitated."
This year's study hasn't been completed, but Bill Fox, head of the Forest
Service team that monitors the Rainbows, said there have been some
problems. "Cleanup of the garbage has been OK, but there is a lot of
compacted soil," he said. "There were some slit trenches that were not
properly filled, and there were a lot of trails that were not completely
obliterated. I think the forest is very up-set over that." According to
Fox, the basic geographical realities of Beaverhead-Deerlodge, such as its
hard soil and short growing season, made it a particularly difficult area
to restore. And that, he argued, is why the Rainbows should sign the permit
and cooperate with the authorities to select more appropriate sites in the
But according to Barry Adams, it's the Forest Service that won't cooperate.
"I tried this year to do my best to work with the Forest Service," he said.
"I wanted to act in a Good Samaritan relationship. I care about this
forest. I'm a native Montanan. But Bill Fox told me there would be no
talking to anybody. He told me no one would talk to anybody until a permit
was signed." Adams said he invited officials to participate in the
consensus-building councils that guide the Rainbow tribes, but they
refused. "They could work this out by accepting the process we use, but
they have chosen not to do that," he said. "We don't have a process that
they recognize, but we have a process. If they would have come out and sat
at the council, we might not have gotten full consensus, but we would have
gotten an operation plan."
Fox denied that Adams or any other Rainbows made such conciliatory
overtures. "I think that in Barry's mind he might think he did that, but he
did not get in touch with the forest supervisor," he said. "He is not being
truthful on that issue." Either way, he added, no talks could have taken
place before someone signed on the dotted line for the Rainbows. "The
regulations say you have to have a permit," he said. "We would have been
violating our own policy."
The issue is now in the hands of the federal court. Adams and the other two
Rainbows each face possible jail time and a $5,000 fine. The larger
dispute, meanwhile, shows no signs of disappearing.
Volunteer scouts are already searching the country for next year's site.
According to an unofficial Rainbow Web site (welcomehome.org), the focus is
somewhere in Washington or Idaho. As always, all interested parties are
told to check back sometime next June to confirm the actual place.
Bill Fox said he'll be there. Barry Adams said he will too, as long as he
isn't in jail. Adams added that he still won't put his name on the Forest
Service permit. Ever. And Fox said he'll keep pressuring the Rainbows until
---- Sam MacDonald (SMacdon921@aol.com) is a reporter for the Laurel Leader, a community newspaper in Laurel, Maryland.
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