Rainbow Family grows to 20,000

Singing at the gathering
John L. White/The Arizona Republic

Kyle, of Washington, strums his guitar as food is served during the Rainbow Family gathering at Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Law-enforcement officials surround the gathering area, but "family" members insist that their reunion is peaceful.

By Bob Golfen
The Arizona Republic
July 4, 1998

SPRINGERVILLE - A frenzied beat rises from dozens of pounding drums as a milling, tie-dyed crowd of Rainbow Family members dance and sing, wildly proclaiming their message of freedom, harmony and togetherness.

Long hair flying, bare feet caked in dust, and dressed in a motley array of colors, the latter-day hippies look as though they've come through a time warp from the '60s. Young people dressed as flower children mingle with grizzled Woodstock veterans.

As if on cue, most of the crowd huddle for a lengthy group hug with a cast of thousands voicing a collective "om" in the fading light.

It's a strange and unlikely scene on this isolated alpine meadow deep in the Ponderosa pines where more than 20,000 men, women and children, plus thousands of wandering dogs, have come for the 27th annual Rainbow Family of Living Light National Gathering.

"I think this is just beautiful," says a 22-year-old Philadelphian who identified himself as Abraham. "It's a demonstration of how we can all live together."

With the air of a Grateful Dead concert, a gypsy camp and a Medieval fair, the Rainbow Family has come together to enjoy a temporary paradise of autonomy and anarchy, thumbing its nose at the uptight workaday world.

People are dressed or undressed as they please, sometimes with a bizarre effect. The sweet smell of marijuana smoke wafts on the breeze.

Abraham, wearing a multicolored robe that hangs over his blue jeans, stands on the edge of the swirling crowd as he reflects on how it might look to the outside world.

"I think this could seem scary for a lot of people," he says.

But what Rainbow people call "mainstream society" seems far away from this meadow. So does the ring of Apache County sheriff's deputies, Department of Public Safety patrolmen and U.S. Forest Service rangers who are stationed just beyond the gathering's perimeter and on all the access roads.

The loose-knit reunion is expected to attract more than 20,000 peace advocates, social activists, zealots, idealists and street people to this patch of Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest west of Springerville for a massive camp-out that culminates in a meditative July Fourth prayer for peace.

Law-enforcement people say the event should have no effect on Valley people's plans for July Fourth trips to Springerville, Greer, Big Lake or other nearby areas. Aside from heavier traffic, there should be no effect on vacationers as long as they stay out of the immediate area of Carnero Lake, about 16 miles west of Springerville.
A group hug
John L. White/The Arizona Republic

Kimmi Kat (left) and Leaf participate in a group hug while dancing at the gathering. About 20,000 people have come to the weeklong gathering, which ends Sunday.

The gathering officially started Sunday, but people began arriving for the event several weeks ago. As people enter the site, they are greeted with "Welcome home," the Rainbow gatherings' cheery slogan. That's also the name of the group's Web site, www.welcomehome.org.

The sheer scale of the event near the small lake has struck a nerve in this rural area, especially among Forest Service people who are concerned about what a huge crowd could do to the fragile ecology of the high desert area.

There's been much discussion about whether the Rainbow Family will successfully clean up after itself, policing the grounds when the event is over and repairing the inevitable damage from the many thousands of camping, walking, eating and latrine-using people.

There's also controversy about water rights and, as usual, the group's refusal to gain a permit from the Forest Service.

"We have an obligation to that resource to make sure it's protected," says Faith Duncan, a Forest Service spokeswoman. "I can understand why people want to pray for peace on Earth, but I have concerns for the Earth as well, and protecting it for our children."

About 40 DPS officers and 60 Forest Service personnel are on the National Incident Management Team that has taken up headquarters at the Round Valley Middle School in Eagar to monitor the gathering, joining the Sheriff's Department and local law enforcement.

All of which seems absurd to Rainbow veterans, who point out the passive nature of the gatherings and claim a past record of peaceful camp-outs and successful cleanups.

"This is something the Forest Service should be proud is happening," says Garrick Beck, one of the founders of the Rainbow Family gatherings. "Young people can come up here and have an educational, peaceful experience."

Beck says the Forest Service creates an atmosphere of hysteria in communities where the gatherings occur, spreading rumors and inflating the effects on the areas.

Brian Michaels, of Eugene, Ore., disputes the notion that the Rainbow Family is a cult, pointing out that there is no sort of organized indoctrination or religious bent.

"It's a blending of everything," he says. "In a broader way, it's the same in all of America, that we all want to work together. We add to the notion that we all want to do it for free. There really is no centralized group who ruins it. Something of a paradox, but there's a kind of poetry to it."

There is the inevitable culture shock between conservative residents of the twin towns of Springerville and Eagar, with a permanent population of about 5,000, and the influx of strange-looking beings. Many encounters are at the local Safeway supermarket, where groups of Rainbow people gather to collect bulk food items at bargain prices.

"Oh, they're nice enough," said a middle-aged Eagar woman after shopping at Safeway, "and I like the way that one fellow plays guitar.

"If only they weren't so dirty."

But in contrast to earlier reports of shoplifting and other store thefts, Safeway employees say they've had no problems with the strangers -- other than their appearance, that is.

There have been some reported instances of panhandling, but most area residents say the Rainbow gathering has not affected them.

Mostly, the Rainbow people stay in their encampment, with chance sightings by local people who see them on the highway, hunkered down in brightly painted buses and beat-up cars, or hitchhiking.

There have been some minor incidents, mostly traffic and illegal-drug citations, and an arrest Tuesday of a Rainbow camper who is accused of harassing a mounted Forest Service patrolman, says Forest Service spokeswoman Rose Davis. The arrest nearly turned ugly when a crowd surrounded the officers trying to make the arrest.

Eventually, officers from Arizona Game and Fish, DPS and the Sheriff's Department were called to the scene, arresting an unidentified man on suspicion of interfering with the mounted officer.

Standing beside one of the gates where people enter the gathering site, Apache County sheriff's spokesman Jim Morse says there have been no serious infractions observed by the deputies.

"They're very friendly, warm and open," Morse says of the Rainbow people, "and we haven't had any kind of problems so far." Because the group has a good record of policing itself and dealing with any troublemakers, he adds, law-enforcement officials feel no need to enter the gathering.

The Rainbow people and the Forest Service have been at odds for weeks over the legally required permit for such an event. The issue is simple: The Forest Service says the gathering needs a permit, the gathering says it doesn't.

A magistrate in Flagstaff heard the case June 26, but no decision is expected on the situation before the end of the gathering on Sunday.

Copyright 1998, The Arizona Republic
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