July 5, 1998, New York Times

Arizona Forest Hosts a Different Kind of Family Reunion


AGAR, Ariz. -- Down a dusty, rocky trail and through a knot of pine trees, past a naked guy chewing leaves, a fully clothed Christian choir and a retired Jewish pie thrower, is the meadow where the Rainbow Family is holding its 27th annual gathering to party and pray for peace.

As many as 14,000 members of this family of old hippies and young converts, of blacks and whites, of American Indians and recent immigrants, of babies and grandparents, have come from across the country to the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, just west of this two-stoplight town near the New Mexico border, for an annual gathering that lasts for about three weeks.

They gather to tune in love and to tune out what some Rainbow members call Babylon, the outside world of stock markets, guns, wars and drug tests.

"We don't want our children to see guns," said Barry Adams, one of the founders of the family. "We want our children to see tools and paint brushes and peace."

A 24-year-old woman whom everyone calls Maddog said: "Coming here is like medicine for my spirit. This is like my family reunion."

In the past, the site of the gathering, which is held in a different national park or forest each year, was spread by word of month. Now, word is largely spread through the Web.

"We aren't stuck in the '60s," Adams said with a wink.

By the Fourth of July, the peak of the Rainbow reunion, as many as 20,000 men, women and children may be camping out in tents, tepees or under the stars.

The U.S. Forest Service has dispatched a National Incident Team and a contingent of at least 40 officers and other staff members to keep an eye on the Rainbows, who have been known to fill their peace pipes with marijuana.

The Apache County sheriff, the Arizona Public Safety Department and four towns, including Eagar, have sent in officers to patrol the edges of the sprawling encampment.

"All the extra law enforcement in town is causing more tension than the Rainbows," said Francies Leyba, 40, a night manager at the Best Western motel in Eagar. "The police are stopping everybody."

Mrs. Leyba, who has not been to the camp and has no intention of going, said she was stopped by police the other day for making a turn without signaling. That has never happened before, she said.

"I don't know what all the fuss is about," she added. "It's just a bunch of hippies playing music and drinking beer."

The Rainbows are also using water that the Forest Service and another nearby town, Springerville, insist they are not entitled to. The Rainbows have set up a series of pipes leading from a nearby spring to their makeshift kitchens on the edge of the meadow.

The Forest Service says the water belongs to Springerville and two private owners. The Rainbows say the water is in a national forest and therefore, at least some of it belongs to the people.

Citing their First Amendment rights of peaceable assembly and free speech, the Rainbows have also refused, as they usually do, to seek or sign a permit to use the park for gatherings of more than 75 people. Two of their members volunteered to receive Forest Service citations; if convicted, they could be jailed for six months for not having a permit.

Faith Duncan, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said dealing with the Rainbows is often a challenge. "Tempers can flare," she said.

More than a dozen people, primarily Rainbows, have been arrested or have been given citations, mostly for possessing marijuana or for minor traffic violations. But Ms. Duncan said the main concern of the Forest Service is that the park not be damaged by the hundreds of cars and vans and the thousands of people converging on it at one time.

This year there is an added concern: fire. The forest is dry and a campfire restriction is in effect.

The Rainbows say they are being exceedingly careful. They also say they have been holding so many rain dances that their feet are sore. Drake Beacon, a family member from New York City who has attended the gatherings for 20 years, patrols the camp site every night with a group of volunteers, putting out any camp fires. Other groups are assigned to clean up and stay for weeks after every gathering to restore whatever park or forest they use.

During a three-hour walk through the camp Wednesday, past some jugglers under a tree and an Indian on horseback, only a few people were seen smoking cigarettes and even fewer were smoking marijuana, although one man walked through the crowd pleading for some marijuana.

"Sometimes it's just like New York City around here," said a man called Peace Eagle. "You've got a few con men on the fringes and the cops running around making everyone nervous."

The camp is divided into more than a dozen smaller camps, including Carnivore Cafi, Musical Veggie Cafi, Height Street Camp, Hobo Hilton and Little Rascals Hideaway. There also is Anonymous Camp, which is for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.

And there is a camp for children called Kiddie Village, where a woman from Tucson who calls herself Bird Song was helping to cook a meal. Bird Song had brought two of her three children to the gathering, including her 15-year-old son, who was helping care for the smaller children in the camp.

"There are no single parents here," Bird Song said. "They say it takes a village to raise a child. This is a village."

The campers in Kiddie Village are an eclectic group that includes people who cannot remember the last time they had a job as well as people like Lynne Reister, a 56-year-old marine surveyor from Seattle who says she cannot remember the last time she did not have a job.

The village is also home to Aaron Kay, one of several Jews in the camp who have set up a kosher kitchen. Kay is from New York City, where he was known as the Pie Man because of his propensity for throwing pies into the faces of public figures and politicians, including former California Gov. Jerry Brown. "He's the only one I ever apologized to," Kay said, "because he went in a more progressive direction."

But Kay, 48, said he had not thrown a pie at anyone since 1992. "I've retired," he said. "I can't run anymore."

People greet each other with hugs, smiles and the Rainbow Family's motto, "Welcome Home."

Last year was Cora Lee's first Rainbow reunion. When she made the trip from her home in Amherst, Mass., she did not know what to expect from so many hippies gathered in one place this side of 1969. But after a few days, she said, she felt comfortable walking through the woods with nothing on but her smile.

"I never felt any danger," she said. "I never felt I had to be afraid of men. This is a place of love."

But Eric Baca, who has been attending Rainbow reunions for several years, said there are some people who bring their racist and sexist attitudes with them. He also complained that some of the younger Rainbows do not seem as willing to help with chores.

"Every family has a few problems," he said. "That doesn't mean you stop being a family."

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company