The Rainbow Family Gathering takes place the first week in July at one of the National Forests in the USA. It is a giant peace gathering where people come from all walks of life to camp in the woods and meditate, dance, pray, coexist, and be one with nature. I attended one of these gatherings at the Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina in 1987.
I arrived in Knoxville, Tennessee, at about 11 pm after having spent two hours in the Memphis airport. I was meeting a friend coming in from a different part of the country and she showed up about midnight. I was tired. My friend Sheila’s bag did not show up. It was still in Chicago. It was 1:30 or 2:00 am before I finally got to bed. After returning to the airport to pick up the lost luggage, and last minute organizing, we finally got on the road about 2:30 the next day.
The drive was a feast for the eyes. We climbed up mountains around turns exposing beautiful views. Every thing was lush and green. At about 4 pm we found the turn-off for the gathering and cars parked by the side of the road for miles. And lots of policemen. Sheila dropped me and our gear at the bridge to the camp and went off to park the car. Policemen kept their eyes on everybody.
Once I hit the bridge a man with a gold star on his forehead and a big grin helped me to get the packs to the other side of the bridge and told me there was a shuttle up around the corner. He said “Welcome Home, sister!” and gave me a big hug. I sat down on the bridge and waited. It took Sheila about 45 minutes to return. We waited a while longer and then a big school bus showed up. We piled luggage and people onto it like a Latin American mountain bus. All jammed in. As we went up the mountain every so often the bus driver would yell, ”lean left!”, and we would all lean. I was sitting next to a woman who had just driven straight through from Madison, Wisconsin with her 5 year old boy. She had a t-shirt on that said ‘The Women of Isis’.
We went pretty far up this mountain on the bus. Finally we stopped and unloaded and walked about three-quarter mile up the road to where the trail starts. For about the last quarter mile there were “cars” parked all along one side of the road with people living there. This was call the Bus Village. To the right of the road was a large meadow and to the left a very muddy steep trail. Onward and upward with a backpack, a tent, and a sleeping bag on my back and only my tennis shoes on my feet. Tents were on both sides of the trail in the woods all the way up.
After a while we came upon the main Meadow where the Council was discussing whether kitchens should be allowed to serve meat. We rested for a bit and continued up the slimy muddy trail. We had to cross two small streams and maneuver a lot of muck. After a while we came to another smaller meadow. I thought I was doing to die. I was so hot and thirsty. We stopped and drank a bunch of water – all we had. Sheila decided to go do some scouting while I stayed with the gear. I just sat in the meadow and people watched. At the top of the meadow was the Jamba Kitchen serving the evil meat. Over to one side was an area marked off by rocks to be a communal gathering fire area. Over to the other edge was a large encampment with people’s clothes hanging on a line and pretty soon I noticed a man sitting on the ground busying himself with domestic matters and right next to him was a wheel chair. People had carried this man up the mountain in his wheelchair. I watched him and his woman round up four “volunteers” to carry him down the mountain. Amazing.
There were all kinds of people in various stages of undress. One thing I noticed was there were a lot of topless women but very few who were totally nude while there were a lot of nude men. After a while Sheila came back and said we should go check out another trail. Off we went further up the mountain. Later when we checked the camp map we discovered that we weren’t even on it. We had gone so far. But, we found a nice place by a stream and pitched our tent. By the time we were all set up it was 8 pm. A long day.
Next morning we got up and made hot chocolate and our neighbors came over to make tea with our hot water. After breakfast we slid down through the mud and slime to the main Meadow where the Council was again meeting. On the way there we passed through the Trading Center where people had wares displayed for trade. Stones, jewelry, scarfs, tie die, food, cigarettes.
We sat down to listen to the Council. A man was standing and told the story of how this particular gathering came to be. The State tried to get an injunction to keep us away and ordered a court appearance. Meanwhile the Rainbow Family filed with the Federal court to have it go there instead. The State court took one look at them and told them they should be in Federal court. The State and the Rainbow Family were told to get together and work things out because although the Federal judge upheld the laws about mass gatherings, he also relayed that they were really un-enforecble. So the State came up with 23 rules we had to agree to. They were almost all thing the Rainbow Family do anyway. Be careful of the water, the trees, the land, fire, etc. One rule said they had to put a sign up a the bottom of the mountain stating: “Caution! A permit is required for more than 5,000 people to gather and no permit has been obtained” or something like that. The Council member said they were erecting a big colorful beautiful sign and right next to it they would put up the First Amendment. There was much discussion on the whole thing.
We wandered around a little, listened to some music – guitars, even a piano, singing, all real mellow. Back at our tent, I could hear the stream flowing, trees rustling and every so often people would wander by. The drums were always beating in the distance and every once in a while the conch would sound. I could hear the rain approaching through the forest. It rained off and on most of the time.
The next day a sanitation inspector and several men from the forestry service came to inspect the campsite. They checked kitchens, water supplies, latrines, etc. They seemed like friendly people.
On July 4 there was a big celebration. From dawn until noon there was a silent vigil for peace throughout the camp. We made it down to the main Meadow about 1 pm when the chanting was just ending and the raising of the Rainbow American Flag took place. Then the music started and everybody danced and danced.