Voices of experience: Maintain composure

Officials from past Rainbow gathering sites offer advice

The Steamboat Pilot, Colorado/June 17, 2006
By Scott Stanford

Heavy traffic, panhandling, loitering, drugs, assaults, abandoned cars, garbage, emergency room visits by mostly indigent persons and, even, the use of grocery store produce misters for personal hygiene. All are part of the annual gathering around the July 4 holiday, said officials in Pocahontas County, W.V., site of the 2005 gathering, and officials in Modoc County, Calif., site of the 2004 gathering.

"It's a neat experience if you have never been to one of the events, but it also is a nightmare," said Pocahontas County Sheriff Bob Alkire, who has been through two gatherings -- last year's and in 1980 in the Monongahela National Forest.

In 2005, "we had overdoses, stabbings and fights. They're going to overwhelm your hospital, and none of them has a nickel to pay for care. We started getting them around June 1, and the last ones didn't leave until Aug. 31. "

None of those interviewed said they would want to go through the experience again. All said the key for officials in Routt County, site of the 2006 gathering from July 1-7, is to be prepared and maintain their composure. All warned that most problems occur the week before the event as people are coming in and the week after, when they are leaving.

"A lot of people are up there just to be one with the earth; there are a lot of really good souls who come," said Kelly Crosby, the assistant public health director in Modoc County. "But you also have a lot of people who are there just to party -- to drink, do drugs and get naked."

The history

The Rainbow Family of Living Light and Trust is described by some as the largest non-organization of non-members in the world. The family has been holding the annual gathering -- a coming together of tribes -- since 1972. The gathering is dedicated to peace and spirituality. Many of the group's traditions are based upon Native American culture.

The gathering attracts all walks of life, Crosby said. She met doctors and lawyers at the 2004 gathering. She was impressed with the Center for Alternative Living Medicine -- the volunteers at the Rainbow Gathering who set up public health and sanitation systems and provide health care during the gatherings. Many of those volunteers are nurses and doctors.

Crosby monitored the water and sewer systems and kitchens during the 2004 gathering. A food borne illness outbreak and contaminated water supplies were her biggest fears; neither came to pass.

Mike Baines, the natural resources group leader for the Monongahela National Forest Office in Elkins, W.V., said the Rainbow Family knows how to handle water and sewer systems. "They have experience, because most of them have been doing this for 30 years," said Baines, who has been through two gatherings with the Forest Service. "They're pretty smart. They know not to dig a (sewer) trench above a spring or put a trench near a kitchen."

Most applauded the family's cleanup effort. "The cleanup went really well," said Lewis Haynes, a public affairs officer with the Modoc National Forest. "They did everything that was asked of them and worked closely with the public health department to ensure safety."

Rainbow Family literature encourages participants to take trash out -- down to every cigarette butt -- and restore the forestland. Alkire said last year's camp site is "just as nice or nicer than before the Rainbow Family got here."

Walt Weiford, the prosecuting attorney in Pocahontas County, said the gathering for peace and the prayer circle are something to witness.

"Some of the folks at the gathering are really interesting people to talk to," Weiford said. "They have great stories to tell. If you have never been, it can be worth your while to talk to them."

The younger generation

Many of those who come to the Rainbow Gathering have been doing so for 20 years or more. Alkire met "Badger" at the 1980 gathering in West Virginia and saw him again last year. Both times, Badger was leading efforts to keep the peace at the gathering.

Rod Weed owns the Likely General Store in Likely, Calif., the closest outlet for supplies to the 2004 gathering. Like Alkire, Weed saw Rainbow participants in 2004 who came through his store during the 1984 event.

Weed, Alkire and others said the difference between the gatherings in the 1980s and the ones taking place now is a younger element that has less respect and knowledge of the event's spiritual aspects.

"I definitely saw a difference in the people in 2004 (compared to) 1984," Weed said. "The older ones are the true nature-type people. The younger ones -- it's a whole different ballgame."

"Be prepared to see some bizarre stuff," Weiford said. "You're going to see people eating out of Dumpsters. You're going to see people using those misters in the fruit and vegetable aisle in your grocery store to bathe. There are a number of incidents of shoplifting."

Everyone who has been through the gathering warns against ‘A' Camp, the part of the gathering where heavy drinking occurs.

"'A' Camp is where most of the fights will be," Weiford said. "We had a couple of stabbings last year."

"The ‘A' Camp people are pretty obnoxious," Crosby said. "It's right at the front of the encampment, so it's hard to miss. So many of the younger ones are there, and they have no clue what the gathering is really all about."

At the site, kitchens are established around central themes. There is the Jesus Kitchen and the Kiddie Kitchen, Baines said. There also are skinheads and Hare Krishnas.

By the numbers

In California in 2004, the Rainbow Gathering peaked at about 19,000 participants, Forest Service officials estimated. Last year, the total was about 10,000. Denise Ottaviano, the public information officer for the incident management team assigned to this year's gathering, said gatherings held in the West normally are better attended than those in the East, so Routt County officials should be prepared for numbers closer to the California total.

The Forest Service reported 2,062 "contacts" during the 2004 event. There were nine felony arrests, 18 misdemeanor arrests, 548 warnings issued, 1,215 incidents reported and 272 citations issued. There were 20 accidents reported, including one that killed two people.

The Forest Service usually arranges for a federal magistrate to appear at a site nearby to dispose of the cases efficiently. This year, a federal magistrate will be available June 23 and July 5 at the North Routt Fire Station No. 2, Ottaviano said.

Getting bigger

Ottaviano estimated there are 400 people at the gathering site at Big Red Park about 30 miles north of Steamboat. The number grows each day, she said.

She said she already has received reports of shoplifting, panhandling and loitering, although reports of large-scale shoplifting at the Clark Store are inaccurate.

Yampa Valley Medical Center officials said one of the campers was treated at the hospital for a leg injury and then offered a cookie as payment.

Linda Wellemeyer, compliance officer at the Modoc Medical Center, said the hospital should expect similar incidents during the next two weeks.

"We saw quite a few patients with cuts, (patients) who needed prescriptions, (patients) who had been hurt in a fight ... things like that," Wellemeyer said. "There were a few accidents. Most of them came in before the event started, and most of them were indigent."

Law enforcement officers in West Virginia and California said stolen and abandoned vehicles were a major problem.

Modoc County officials took about a dozen vehicles to the county's landfill in 2004 to be destroyed. That was after the Rainbow's cleanup crew hauled off dozens more on their own, Weed said.

"A few of the folks stole vehicles and drove them in here and then left them," Weiford said about last year's event. "Others buy these junk cars that get them here and then they just leave them on the side of the road."

Bad history

No one died at the 2005 gathering. At the 1980 event in West Virginia, two women on their way to the gathering were shot and killed at close range. A group of five local men were suspected, and police eventually arrested and charged local resident Jacob Beard with the murders -- Alkire investigated the case, and Weiford was the prosecutor.

Beard was sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty in 1993. But his conviction was overturned later that year and a new trial ordered. In 2000, a jury found him not guilty.

Beard now resides in the area. Weiford said he thinks the murders -- and Beard's 2000 acquittal -- may have kept a lot of participants away from the 2005 gathering.

Too many people

One of the problems with the gathering is that it is held in small rural areas that simply aren't equipped to deal with the influx of people, officials said. The transient homeless people at a gathering often total more than the population of communities such as Alturas, Calif., and Marlinton, W.V.

Crosby said she had never dealt with anything on the scale of the Rainbow Gathering. She and her staff went to the site daily to distribute condoms, sunscreen, bug spray and other health care items.

They rounded up donations of items such as blankets and shoes to give away. She said the interaction of the public health team with the participants at the site was the best part of the event.

"It was very peaceful at the site for the most part, and they appreciated what we were doing," she said.

Access to the campsite is often limited to a single road ill-equipped to handle all the cars.

"We have a scenic two-lane highway up here that leads to the site," Alkire said. "For as far as the eye could see in both directions there were cars, bumper to bumper."

Although the cleanup in the national forest is very good, the amount of trash coming out of the site can be overwhelming. Weed said there usually are two Dumpsters in Likely that are emptied weekly. During the 2004 gathering, the county put eight Dumpsters in the community of 200 residents. The Dumpsters had to be emptied daily for a month, Weed said.

The Forest Service's commitment of an incident management team helps, but it isn't enough. Law enforcement, public health and sanitation crews work seven days a week for about three weeks during the gatherings.

The Forest Service finds itself strained by the events.

"One of the problems is, we don't get a lot of advance notification of where the gathering is going to be," said Baines, of the Forest Service office in West Virginia. "So you don't ever have the funding in your budget to handle an event like this. As it stands, even at full funding, our resources are stretched pretty thin. Throw in 10,000 or 15,000 people with a couple weeks advance notice, and you have problems."

The exodus

People start leaving the gathering as early as July 5. But many of the younger participants have just enough money to get to the event and no plans beyond the gathering.

"They're going to stand in town with signs that read, ‘If you want me to leave, give me money,'" Alkire said.

Officials said the anticipation of the event is often worse than the reality. "It wasn't a disaster, but it's not something you want to go through if you don't have to," Weiford said. "Most people regarded it as a nuisance, something they endured."

Crosby said she enjoyed parts of the experience, but that the tension between the Forest Service's incident management team and the Rainbow Family made it difficult.

"It went better than expected, but I don't think I would want to do it again," she said. "It was a lot of work. And I found it hard to work with the Forest Service team. They were pretty antagonistic toward the group."

Weed said at 57, he is too old to go through a third gathering, even though the event boosted his business in 1984 and 2004.

His advice to Routt County businesses is to stock up and remain calm.

"Ninety percent of it will go pretty smooth, but any time you get a crowd this large, there is going to be some bad apples," Weed said. "There will be some stuff happen that's not so good.

"Just remember -- it will go away."

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