Generation gap appears in Rainbow Gathering

The Denver Post/July 9, 2006
By Steve Lipsher

Hahn's Peak Village, Colorado — Aaron Griffin was 3 months old when his parents brought him to his first Rainbow Gathering; his buddy Jeshuel Hubbard hadn't even been born.

Today, the 19-year-olds mark the new generation of the Rainbow Family of Living Light, a disorganized collection of counterculture connoisseurs congregating in the woods for 35 years.

"I just got my first real job, paying taxes, $15 an hour. It has its place," said Griffin, sporting several days of scruff on his cheeks beneath his Boston Red Sox cap. "But we come here to listen to what people have to say. It's like a tribal reawakening."

Scattered over nearly 4 square miles of the Routt National Forest some 35 miles north of Steamboat Springs, this year's gathering, ending today, reflects the young and the old: neo-hippies and drifters, Deadheads and Earth Mothers.

They make up a group in which everyone is accepted but in which a generation gap is developing.

A new guard of hard-edged teens, many urban runaways wearing grime-laden clothes, tribal tattoos and feral looks, are becoming more dominant as the older hippies, with their long, frizzy beards and gray ponytails, fade away.

"A lot of the older Rainbows don't come anymore because of the younger people," said Little Bear, a 54-year-old veteran of the gatherings.

One thing is clear: Whoever arrives makes their mark.

The estimated 15,000 members of the Rainbow Family who spent up to a week camping in the woods left a big imprint on the land, the Forest Service said Friday.

Aerial photographs show the campers carved 40-50 miles of trails in the woods and a nearby meadow, Forest Service spokeswoman Denise Ottaviano said. "There was just a shocking amount of trails through that area," she said. "Just simply by being there they had an impact on the land."

After the crowd peaked on July 4 for an annual peace prayer, Rainbows have been leaving the area in a steady stream. Officials estimate about 7,500 remained Friday morning.

The group camped without a permit, in violation of federal rules. Law enforcement officers from the Forest Service and state and county agencies issued more than 500 citations, most for illegal camping, drugs or alcohol.

Several hundred Rainbows were expected to stay behind after Friday's official end to the gathering. Members say they will remain on the land into August, helping to clean up, reseed, remove footbridges and return the land to its natural state.

Forest Service specialists, including experts in soil and water plan to supervise the restoration.

This, says elder statesmen Little Bear, is what the Rainbow Family represents: a philosophy as well as a lifestyle, emphasizing human bonding, compassion and communal living.

Anxiety and worry are emotions the Rainbows by and large try to shed for these weeklong get-togethers. The group has no hierarchy or organizational structure. No commercial activity is allowed, but barter is encouraged.

And things occur on Rainbow time, which means not by the clock.

Spontaneity and do-it-yourself democracy, from communal kitchens and free-massage tents to volunteer-staffed first aid centers, are held out as the highest social expression. Passing strangers say they love one another.

At the Blue Stars Rest Stop tent, James Bradford, a massage therapist from Cape Cod, Mass., was playing an Australian didgeridoo. Passers-by stopped and listened to the moaning, throaty tones. Some entered to sit around the altar that Bradford created not long after his first Rainbow experience in 1992.

The altar collection began with seashells that once belonged to his grandmother, he said, and has grown every year through new donations. Every year, he returns with the expanded collection because he said the items are part of what creates the Blue Stars' sense of peace.

Rainbow veteran Richard Reames suggests that the gatherings can be positive experiences even for the hard cases, introducing them to a community of people who care and will take them in.

"Folks see these street kids in the city and tell them about Rainbow as an option," he said. "What do these kids do afterwards? Maybe they go back to their old lives. Maybe not. It depends on how it affects them in the heart."

The New York Times and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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