Rainbow Gathering 2011

I haven’t communed with the Rainbow People since the early nineties moments before the digital era. Back then, we were a little more interested in acid techno, fascinated by day-glo colours and we noted that the colours of the rainbow failed to include ultra-violet. At least not without a techno pair of sunglasses but this Mediterranean branch of the Rainbow wouldn’t even allow cameras at their little gatherings. Let’s see how things are at the Real Rainbow, here in the Pacific North West, home to the hippies of America, where the whole peace and love thing started out, this green, open and inviting country, let’s see how the internet has changed things, now every phone’s got a camera and everyone’s got a phone…

The characters waiting for us at the Welcoming Gate staggered into the road like zombies on our approach, their eyes more on the cans and bottles of booze left behind under a tarp strung between two old vehicles. Around a smoking fire, sit a pile of punks, crusty and passing round one of the drinks. Here, of course, was an interesting phenomenon. Alcohol is kind of banned at the Rainbow; our Seattlean Travelling Companion said that she’d once seen a gang of Rainbow Warriors seize a man’s tent, confiscate his alcohol and emptied it out on the ground to accompanying drum beat and crystals. So here, at the edge of this dry-zone, the happy wet gather because this is their place at the edge, by the Outside. The secret sideshow to an underground event. Maybe they will catch a ride into the Gathering for the day – and come home well parched for those stashed and hidden beers. Maybe they’ll just spend the whole of next week right here, welcoming the people, giving them the directions from here on and accepting any alcohol (‘it’s no use to you in there, man’).

The first Rainbow gathering was in Colorado in 1972 and has been held every year since then, reaching up to 40 000 attendees in some years. There have been good gatherings and bad gatherings – most come together in a show of unity and a spirit of peace but some desperate and opportunist people are attracted by the large numbers of people and easy pickings. Robberies, murder and rape have been reported in previous years but (in that time-honoured cliché) less than would be expected in a town of comparable population size. The FBI do have a budget to allocate funds to whatever regional authorities end up hosting a particular year’s event but they never do much more than hang around the access roads. The essential elements of the Gathering have remained a constant wherever it occurs; from the scouting out a suitably off-grid location, setting up access trails, bridges and a water source and contacting the local Forest Rangers to the actual format of the festival: hundreds of camps generally clustered around two dozen kitchens centred on a place where everyone can come together. At the end of its 4th decade, the Rainbow is still massive, autonomous and strong.

After a few minutes laughing with the Welcoming Crew but not really contributing to their liquid cheer, (at which point the chief zombie realised that our van’s steering wheel was on the right hand side and staggered back in shock, leaving us a clear escape) we continued on down a long forest road. At 5 miles, the parked vehicles began – intermittent at first but quickly merging into a line broken by a potential space only occasionally. Every state except for Hawaii seems to be represented judging by the registration plates – many of them little hatchbacks from Oregon but others are crusty, rusty school-buses, roof-racks and trailers unloaded after a long journey from the east coast. There’s even a Ford Transit from Switzerland – covered in graffiti detailing their odyssey north from Argentina [we never found the occupants and the van left after a couple of days]. The school-buses are something. They are like proper old Traveller style I haven’t seen in a while, each one a distinctive work of art, and they hint and suggest the well-established hippy/bohemian lifestyles of the absent occupants. Of course, they got the land and space to establish that lifestyle – they got the various States with their different attitudes but they’re together in the language and the ideas that are expressed in it. They got critical mass with air to breath. First week in the US and I see a way of living that gets hunted down back in Europe; a culture that gets progressively criminalised or legislated out of existence.

As we trudged past the Bus Village and getting close to the Main Trail, these thoughts in my head, we had to make way for the ever-increasing amount of Shuttles, pick-ups and vans full of arrivals with their rucksacks, cars and jeeps with people clinging onto the back. The dust kicked up from the road and the general noise and hustle and bustle of that serious business of arriving, all obscured the fact that everybody was having a good time – instead it looked a little like an evacuation from some disaster, refugees moving by any means possible .Refugees from the Outside World, the everyday apocalypse?

Going off the road, at the Main Trail Head, there is a steep path down a hillside into the woods. It is cooler, darker with sounds of human activity drifting through the trees from below and, following a deep and fast flowing creek for another half mile through mud, over logs and freshly built bridge-type constructions, there are camps set up everywhere, small fires, tarps rigged up, tents constructed and lots of people. Each camp has a name like ‘Angel Camp’ or ‘No Borders Camp’. ‘Satellite Camp’ has a sign inviting help with building an igloo, half-built out of the mounds of snow that dotted the forest floor.

It’s pretty much like walking through a jungle; coming out of the forest to see a big marshy meadow of glossy bright green, mutant cabbage plants and an enormous American flag at the far end that could hardly unfurl in the hot, meagre wind. The evening sun shone down on the people snaking a path around the field, the tents, tarps and tepees – it was a scene from a Vietnam film for a person such as myself; newly arrived in America and not yet visually immune to the ubiquitous Stars and Stripes. I was told me to keep my voice down and uncool, apocalypse-now vibes to myself.

We found our friends quicker than expected thanks to a map of the Gathering, collated and updated collectively at a central point with some guy who stood at one side explaining the whereabouts to people who couldn’t read, failed to understand the map or were lost. Nice map: It showed 124 camps already with the list growing – there’s a real buzz of excitement and talk from the crowd, luggage set aside and pointing at the latest name written out by an exhausted camp-builder. Not unlike one big happy coach-party arriving at the airport and checking out the Departures Board. And what is there to do once you’ve all settled in, relaxed, unpacked both mental and actual, shared a few peace pipes and said hello to the neighbours?

There’s the communal-holding-hand- in-silence ceremony, after which, food from all the various kitchens around the site is brought and given out, everyone sitting in a spiral queue as the great big pots travel slowly in circles. By night there are drums and dancing around the fire here; by day the dancing is around a totem pole, the very heart of the Gathering. There are many performances and shows around and there are workshops on loads of things such as ‘How to be a Rainbow Warrior’ and recycling, African drums and environmental/spiritual issues. This much we had already been told. And on the 4th July there’s silence everywhere until the Kids’ Parade comes through where you are.

But this festival is strung out over several square klicks and it’s on the good walk through mud and over wobbly bridges that it takes to get around that is when a lot of the fun happens. Deep in the woods, we met bear-elf thingies and cowboy gypsy type punks playing a banjo or accordion, flutes or just humming; ready to sing a bit louder when they hear an approach. There was the Random Pocket Trade, demands for zu-zus, and beggars fishing for a smoke with their empty (but, hey, so inviting) pipes suspended from a rod. At one point along the trail, before turning into the Central Circle field, these pot head fisher people suddenly multiplied, lining up tightly on each side, their pipes dangling at various widths across the path, cries of greetings and the stories to follow emanating from the gloomy undergrowth. This came to be known as Blaggers’ Alley. So I stopped and helped fill a pipe.

That was a mistake. The next port of call was the Trading Circle and, after a tranquil glide through the rainforest, chilled out and foggy, we broke out suddenly into a hot, sunny, area, packed with people trading stuff laid out on blankets, more musicians, jugglers and tribal people wandering around the hustle and bustle of a medieval market. We mooched around the stalls. There was a guy making scabbards and holsters from leather, a bloke selling transformers and their copper wire. I couldn’t see any Tarot-reading or Reiki to be honest. This was serious trading. Less of a garage sale or a car-boot sale but definitely along those lines. A whatever-bag-of-junk-you-can-haul-3-miles-through-the-woods sale, maybe. One guy had all that kind of stuff – phone chargers for out of date phones, metal brackets that may have held water bottles to bicycles, old copies of National Geographic, you know. I have been to plenty of festivals but I have never encountered such a thing. Sure there are plenty of festivals with stalls and stuff selling shit, maybe the odd caravan – maybe a whole market area. But never several hundred people setting up to simply to trade things – no cash involved. Well, the result is a lot of fun, trying to work out what people want for their items, whether the packet of pumpkin seeds I had on me was good for a whole Map of California and not just half of it, and that ten pounds of pumpkin seeds wouldn’t be enough for the hunting knife – even if they were wasabi flavoured. Trading is talking so it’s good to get the non-American accents out, show off the slang and get to meet these gentle traders, sitting down in the shade of a torn umbrella to negotiate and hear their story. Rainbow Gatherings are generally held on National Forest land where no commercial activity is permitted and I couldn’t work out to what extant this cash-less gathering stayed cash-less because of that rule reinforcing the natural instincts of a cash-less hippy. In the end, I noticed that with the removal of the dollar instead came tobacco or gas which retained value even if you didn’t smoke or drive a car.

After some Indian dhal at one of the many kitchens that served free food, we sat behind the pots and pans with the cooks and crew. We meet Barry, who I’m told, was one of the geezers who started the Rainbow. In the company of world travellers, tales are told around the fire of driving through Central America to the South or of sailing across the Pacific. Energetic voices stopping to take a pipe, their faces reflect the flickering flames where they aren’t hidden under enormous beards – a combination that makes lip-reading a challenge. Of course, everyone’s interested in how we drove across Russia and when I mention they want to build a Bering Tunnel to bridge Asia and America, Barry launches into a big talk about mysterious tunnels that They have built through the Earth. He has to put down his wooden staff so he can use both arms to gesticulate the main thrust of what he’s saying. He looks pretty fried but I don’t know. After a while he’s good enough to show us a quicker way back to the long, long, road where we are parked.
We trudge slowly up the hill, the temperature has dropped, the stars are brilliant, a slither of sky over the road cutting through the forest; we still pass people arriving, hauling their stuff in on trolleys and wheelbarrows, headlamps lighting the way. Maybe they’re carrying the tarps and poles for one of the sweat lodges going up; maybe they have the door, the grills or some other pieces of hardware for the pizza oven at the bakery which has been constructed from oil barrels and mud; maybe bigger torches for the stage at one of the camps – tomorrow night they are putting on a ‘Blind Date’ (anyone in animal costume preferred) and they don’t want a repeat of yesterday’s ‘Blind Date in the Dark’ which was outlit by a fire juggler fifty yards away and, at one point, by a particularly badly made spliff.

‘Welcome Home’ and ‘Love and U’, the never-ending incoming flow call out to us in a kind of mantra, heavy breath making clouds in the cold air and torchlight – maybe they have journeyed from far, far away, traveling for weeks, and, when they can now sense their destination, the greeting is part of a ritual to make manifest their arrival. ‘And welcome home to you,’ I reply, ‘love and U’. For some reason I feel just a little bit like an Arab.

We stayed at the Gathering for nearly a week. It turned out to be a beautiful event in a beautiful place. And, even if the hippies seem to be all about people with freedom in their hearts who have the easy way of talking to strangers who become friends, I hardly heard talk of a single crystal or sacred chakra the whole time. Of course, people exist all over the hippy scale and this event drew punks, off-grid cowboys, college people and urban dwellers – we met many who had never been to a Gathering, many who hadn’t been for years and a few who looked like they were permanently at some kind of Gathering or other – and they came from all over the States often with their families up to four generations strong.

We heard a few of the tales of drama on our way out – the vans that had been robbed, the heart attacks and water births. Nothing unusual for a town with a comparable population, etc etc – certainly a lot more interesting than the small uninteresting town we’d be talking about.

Half a mile down the road past the Welcoming Crew (now Bon Voyaging but still trying to blag booze and stuff), parked in a lay-by is the same old pirate asleep with the boat on the roof and a big black dog lying out the back that we had seen on our way nearly a week ago. I wonder if they ever made it in, I think to myself, as the dog flicks a tail lazily in the sun…

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