24 hours at the Utah Rainbow gathering

Friday , July 04, 2014 - 5:45 AM

The directions are simple.

From Heber City, head east on Center Street. Travel for 15 miles on a paved road until you reach the Uinta Forest Service boundary. At the boundary, the road turns to gravel. Rattle five miles down the washboarded dirt road, then take a left. The vast rows of cars are the first sign you've made it to the 2014 Rainbow Gathering.

There are brand new Subarus, old delivery vans painted with murals, rows of converted school buses, clunker campers and clusters of U.S. Forest Service trucks. Most of the license plates are from Oregon ,Washington and California. There’s also a smattering of green Colorado plates and a decent amount from Texas. A few are from Utah.

Couples and groups of friends load up their packs, hand drums, coolers and art supplies and head toward the shuttle stop. Along the way, old- timers camped along the side of the road call out, “Welcome Home!”

The shuttles aren’t running, either because they ran out of gas or because law enforcement officers had them all stopped for a surprise search, according to rumor. The shuttles only shave a mile or two off the trek anyway, since the gathering site can only be accessed by foot. The two- to three-mile hike isn’t particularly easy, especially when carrying enough food, water and musical instruments to last a week. Its apex is fondly called “Heart Attack Mesa.” 

The trek doesn’t deter many. The U.S. Forest Service reported around 4,500 people attending the gathering that Monday. There are also around 2,000 dogs. Per federal law, they’re supposed to be on leash. Many are, but the leash isn’t usually attached to a human.

“It’s the largest non-organization of non-members in the world,” explained a Utah local wearing a faded Kermit the Frog T-shirt, a conical straw hat and hot sauce pajama pants. He goes by the alias “Radin.” This is his 12th gathering.

The Rainbow Family members have been described as “counterculture” and “hippies,” but the group is diverse. Some are career nomads, others are there on vacation from their regular nine-to-five jobs.

Members organize themselves into factions with food at their center. They form their camps around kitchens, which churn out communal meals for around 20 to 100 people. Soup is particularly popular. Beyond eats, the kitchens provide group identities based on different themes. Families go to the Kid Village kitchen. The Fat Kids kitchen hosts teens. G-Funk, short for Granola Funk Theater, has a stage for variety shows. Lovin' Ovens makes elaborate baked goods. The Popcorners cook up gourmet popcorn. Iris has big bonfires and even bigger drum circles. Shinning Light houses nomadic anarchists. There are kitchens for Christians, Hare Krishnas and casual encounters. More arrive each day. All are free to pitch their tents, string up a tarp or throw down a sleeping bag at any kitchen, just pick the vibe that most appeals.

Walking through camp, everyone smiles and offers a greeting, either “welcome home” or “loving you.” Everyone, that is, except federal law enforcement officers.

“There was a raid earlier today, a bunch of cops came riding through here on horses,” Radin says, gesturing up the hillside above his tent. “If you see any cops yell ‘six-up,’ then everyone can hide their stash.”

Gatherings have a reputation for drugs, probably because they’re plentiful. Generous stoners pass out free pot to anyone who hasn’t yet had a hit. Not all choose to pass their Monday afternoon in an altered state, however. Plenty of kitchens pass around tea and coffee instead of weed. Alcohol is generally not allowed, and no smoking of any kind is allowed around camps with kids. 

A Rainbow gathering is not a place to seek solitude in the woods. Pit toilets are dug near every kitchen, although it’s nearly impossible to find privacy. There’s a tent behind every corner and a dog sniffing through every shrub. Musicians wander up and down every trail playing mandolins, saxophones and out-of-tune banjos. Groups sit in every clearing, sharing stories of their travels.

There’s no money at the gathering. Campers are expected to contribute supplies to their kitchens, but it’s not required. The roaming Nic@Nite troop, “nic” being short for nicotine, takes tobacco and other smokeable plant donations. They spend the day rolling them into cigarettes, which they dole out for free. They wear dark clothes, they’re easy to recognize and they’re popular.

Instead of money, the Rainbow family has a vibrant trade economy, and it’s a good way to strike up conversation. There’s a central trading circle, where family members roll out blankets with polished stones, souvenir patches, pins and pipes. From kitchen to kitchen, Rainbowers do surprise swaps through random pocket trades. Reach in, grab what you have and hand it over, just as long as it’s not garbage. There’s also a road block that requires a “joke, toke or smoke” to pass.

At 6 p.m., the bulk of the gathering’s campers assemble at the main meadow to hear the day’s announcements and share a massive pot of soup. The big news is about a guy named Dan, who has wandered off and got lost in the woods. On the count of three, the group chants “Home! Home! Home!” to help guide Dan back. The Rainbow family then stands, locks hands and issues a collective “om” before taking off the bowls suspended around their necks and dishing up soup.

When the sun sets low, folks return to their respective kitchens to cook up more food and build campfires. A young woman named Skye with short brown hair and a long blue skirt wanders from kitchen to kitchen, a nervous wreck. She lost her 10-week-old kitten. Someone eventually finds the kitten 10 feet away from her camp, hiding in a bucket.

As the evening gets darker, the fires get bigger and the drum circles become louder. Kitchens serve zuzus, sweet treats usually made from deep-fried candy bars. The sound and smoke fill the air until early the next morning.

Sharps and his friend Magpie are up by 7 a.m., smoking weed and laying out shinny rocks to barter at the trading circle. They arrived soon after Rainbow scouts announced the official gathering location in late June.

“Today’s the day the gathering officially starts,” Sharps says. “Everything before this was seed camp.”

Sharps hitched his way to Utah from Tennessee. It’s his fifth gathering so far, and he says this one’s set to be huge. He estimates it’ll take at least a month to clean it up. 

“It’s crazy the amount of stuff people leave behind,” he says. “Sometimes people leave their whole camp. Maybe they got arrested. Maybe a new opportunity came their way and they jumped on it.”

Rainbow volunteers work with the Forest Service to develop a management plan to protect natural resources. Volunteers hang signs everywhere reminding campers to keep their impact to a minimum. Most explain the basics of using a “pooper,” although they use more colorful language to describe it. A less graphic sign reads “This is not a festival. This is our home. Respect our home. Respect our family.” Another says “Clean up starts the moment you arrive. Pack it in, pack it out.” 

According to Jeff Schramm with the Heber Kamas Ranger District, the efforts have mostly been successful. They’ve had to direct some campers to move their sites away from a stream, which has 100-foot buffer to protect its riparian ecosystem. Otherwise, the Rainbow Family appears to be upholding their obligations under the management agreement.

“One thing I have noticed is I don’t see a lot of garbage coming out,” he says. “That’s a good thing. It means they’re bringing food out in containers that don’t result in a lot of waste going to the landfill.”

Still, the relationship between Rainbowers and federal law enforcement remains tenuous at best. Raids, citations and unfair treatment by “six-up” officers is a common source of conversation at the gathering, particularly Tuesday morning. The U.S. District Attorney’s office in Utah set up a mobile court back on the main road for the Rainbowers to settle or dispute their citations. The community calendar announced they’d be hearing cases starting at 11 a.m.

“We don’t like cops around here,” Sharps says.

"They’re still family,“ Magpie says.

“Yeah, I like ‘em and respect them as people, but I don’t want to hang out with ‘em,” Sharps says.

By 11:45 a.m., around 20 Rainbow family members had caught a shuttle or hitched their way to the court site. They lounged in the grass just beyond the yellow-taped waiting area. The court itself was set up in a travel trailer. Josh and Drew, who declined to give their last names, waited for their friend Brad. Brad got busted when their van was pulled over and searched while en route to the gathering site. 

"We’re trying to figure out if it’s worth going to court, since they didn’t have a warrant and they didn’t really properly do the search,“ Josh says.

After a few minutes, Brad returned to his friends with a big smile.

"I got it expunged,” he says, sounding both excited and relieved.

The U.S. Attorneys Office reports 71 citations have been issued at the gathering so far. Most are for minor controlled substance possession, off-leash dogs, expired vehicle plates, possession of fireworks and open containers in cars. Nearly all have been settled for fines and community service work, which mostly involves cleaning up the gathering site once the family disperses. Tom Greenwood, who goes by Windwolf, received a citation for having his dog off leash. He’s one of only four people so far who have have opted to go to trial instead. For him, it’s a form of protest against what he sees as unfair law enforcement raids. 

“What we’re talking about here are victimless, non-violent crimes,” he says. “If they’re trying to ’help’ people, show me someone who’s been helped.”

A shuttle pulls up, and a Rainbow volunteer distributes jugs of water to those still waiting in the afternoon heat. Family members exchange the stories behind their citations as well as their frustration with the system. Pac Rac, who drove to the gathering from Virginia in his Toyota Corolla, says he was pulled over seven times between town and the gathering. The biggest source of frustration seems to come from feeling both targeted and misunderstood. 

"There are prejudices—what does the word ’hippie’ spark in your mind?“ says Rabbi Moshegeller. ”Ignorance, like always, produces fear. Then, when locals come into the gatherings or attend the town meetings, they find the fears they have were unfounded.“

The gathering is expected to peak on July 4, with as many as 10,000 people. According to an ”open letter to folks living in Utah and surrounding areas“ found on the Rainbow Family of Living Light unofficial website, locals are encouraged to attend.

”You are as much a part of this gathering as anyone,“ the letter says. 

Contact outdoors and environment reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter @LeiaLarsen or on Facebook at facebook.com/leiaoutside.

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