Rainbow camp culture

Deseret Morning News/July 2, 2003
By Joe Bauman

Lyman Lake, Summit County -- A Salt Lake man who calls himself "John Doeman" offers a definition of who belongs to the Rainbow Family, the counterculture tribe collecting on the north slope of the Uinta Mountains:

"If you've got a belly button you're a member of our family," he said, as the drummer next to him paused in his rapping, "whether you like it or not."

A definition that inclusive suits the scattered, leaderless camps sprawling through forests and over meadows in Wasatch-Cache National Forest near the Utah-Wyoming border. The gathering has been drawing people from around the country for more than a week, though its formal start was Tuesday. It is to end in another week.

Tuesday morning, the official count of visitors stood at 3,600, said spokeswoman Becky Banker of the Forest Service's Evanston, Wyo., district. "But we do know that there has been a heavy influx" since then.

Although many come from distant cities, for 90 percent of the campers, this is their only "home," Doeman claimed, for they spend their lives on the road, trekking from one gathering to another.

Life in the wilds

Simply reaching the camp at Lyman Lake, about four hours from Salt Lake City, can be an arduous trip over mountain highways and deep-forest roads and trails.

Once there, arriving campers and visitors come upon hundreds of people sitting on logs in the shade or congregating in large informal circles. Others work in makeshift kitchens, doling out free stew or cookies - sometimes dumping food onto cupped hands when the dishes run out.

Occasionally one might catch an unpleasant whiff. Volunteers have built latrines, but at least one carried a sign telling users that if they must do "No. 1," go to the bushes, don't waste the latrine.

Signs pepper the encampment warning not to wash in or near the streams and not to do anything else that could harm the area's rare cutthroat trout.

For a gathering supposedly notorious for nudity and drug use, the camp was remarkably free of either on Tuesday. A bong, used to smoke marijuana, was offered for trade. A woman asked others if they had any pot. Out of the thousands present at that time, only four people were fully or partially nude.

The campers wore ordinary clothing, hippie regalia, tie-died shirts, scarves, Gypsy jewelry - even a vaquero costume. "Think globally, drink local," read one man's shirt.

Some men were as heavily haired and bearded as Yetis.

Yoga classes, dance instruction, drum circles, chatting and large, free kitchens kept many busy.

An Indian in turban and robe hauled water supplies down a trail.

One woman pushed her gear and supplies to the camp in a baby carriage.

'Family reunion'

Lilasara, a delicate woman with a parasol, journeyed to Utah from San Diego with her 12-year-old son, Josiah. The boy has been to "all but one" of the annual gatherings since he was born, she said.

"It's like a family reunion that we come to every year," she said.

Besides the parasol, they were protecting themselves from the fierce sunlight by staying in the shade. "We're covered with mosquito repellent," Lilasara added. "We are prepared. We feed ourselves. We take care of ourselves."

A 19-year-old woman from Russelville, Ark., was making her first trip to a Rainbow gathering.

What's interesting about the event? "Oh, man, just things like this," she said, while one friend played drums and another prepared to strum his guitar. "I mean, this is what's going on the entire time."

She said she has met all sorts of new people, learning lessons and hearing stories. She is happy about "not having to worry about Babylon's problems out here, because this is a world to itself."

Brian, her guitar-playing friend, sported impressive dreadlocks. He said he is enjoying "the beauty that Ja (Rastafarian for God) has provided us."

On his guitar were stickers announcing "Bush lies" and "Question authority," along with a picture of the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie.

The gatherings are a time to "get all the kids together and, like, share things, love and care for each other," Brian said. "You know, just have fun."

Megan, a 27-year-old graphics designer from Utah, said the gathering is teaching her not to be so self-sufficient.

"It's hard for me, because I don't know how to ask for what I want," she said. "So I'm spending a week here learning how to ask for what I need, what I want, what I think I deserve."

"Lovin' you guys," said a girl as she left the group. "Lovin' you," responded a young woman.

Protecting the forest

Bernard Asay of Wasatch National Forest's Evanston District and two other Forest Service officials inspected streams through the meadow, checking to see if the Rainbow campers were protecting the aquatic resource.

"A lot of them are real careful about it, but there's a lot of folks here that just don't know," he said. "And it's kind of a constant job of education."

Once people know about protecting the trout, they're almost always willing to move their camps or take other action to protect the fish. They have built small log bridges at points suggested by the service and posted signs about protecting the streams.

The quest

At a gathering called "Dunlun Village," Michael Hunter, a Seattle drummer, was leading a group of about a dozen men and women in elaborate dance steps from Guinea, western Africa. Beneath a green canopy, five men were drumming on large bass drums that lay horizontally on the ground and smaller drums they carried on slings.

"I love this music," Hunter said. He feels that, just as a poem is not full until it is read and heard, the music isn't complete until it has dancing.

"I was teaching only because I suck the least," he said. This particular dance is a ceremony to give the young men of a village prowess.

The dancing is a good way to "focus your energy, ground yourself into your body. . . . Above all, this is fun."

Next to "Krishna Village" is "Jesus Village," a collection of tents and a homegrown kitchen, with free Bibles and "free prayers."

"You've got a different culture of people," said "Jeremiah," who came from Hendersonville, N.C., to provide Christian ministry to anyone who would listen. "Maybe almost like a third-generation kind of hippie culture."

Resting under trees beside his tent, he said many of the Rainbow people "seem to be on a quest to find something that satisfies them . . . (in) many different varieties, forms and fashions."

Most "want to be like a loving group of people that, you know, show much more kindness and brotherhood than we see in our modern society. That's pretty commendable."

Drugs are how they are trying to find it, sometimes. But those are "empty holes," he said. His objective is to love and understand people and value them as humans.

Wayne, who came from Minneapolis to work in the camp's Jesus Kitchen, noted this is the ninth year for his group to attend the gathering.

"We cook everything here and feed people all day long and have a worship and community service at night," he said.

In the background, drumming and Hare Krishna chants wafted through the mountain air.

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