Feel the Om...

Vail Daily News/July 11, 2006
By Nicole Frey

Routt County - An elderly man with gray dreadlocks down to his waist and a weatherworn face closed his eyes and blew into a conch shell.

The sound echoed over the meadow and up the hillside. And the people responded.

Thousands of Rainbow Family members - hippies/pseudo hippies, regular Joes and everything in between — started moving from the campground in the woods down to the wide expanse of the meadow.

Like the widening rings in an onion, thousands of Rainbows joined hands to make half a dozen circles in the meadow — Om circles. Then, together, thousands of men, women and children of a multitude of races and creeds raised their voices in a chorus of “ohm.” When the chant finally died, the family raised their arms skyward and shouted in celebration.

They celebrated being together, peace, unity, love and freedom. But the littlest among the family knew at the end of the chant came a treat — dinner.

Feeding the multitudes

Dozens of Rainbows carried large pots of piping hot food down the hillside into the middle of the circles. Other family members were recruited to serve, and while the Rainbow Family Gathering is known for its laissez-faire attitude, dinner was a strict undertaking.

“The health and safety of your family depends on you,” the servers were told. Handed plastic gloves, they were coached on how to serve to ensure there would be no cross-contamination. Children came to the center first to collect their fill, and then servers carried the rest to the waiting adults now seated on the grass.

“There’s 5,000 people and everyone got fed in 30 minutes and we had, like, seven courses that day, and it’s all vegetarian and very clean,” said Chris Woody, a Rainbow who works as a server at Mazzola’s Italian Restaurant and Lounge in Steamboat Springs, near Big Red Park, where the gathering was held.

With dinner over, it was time for a pipe. The sweet smell of marijuana, smoked with little to no concern for its illegal status, floated through the after-dinner crowd.

Clusters of people broke out their instruments and started impromptu jam sessions. Violins, tubas, flutes and bongos harmonized. Those who couldn’t play, sang, and those who couldn’t sing, danced. Smiles and hugs were dished out with wild, joyous abandon.

Shouldn’t be here

The sun was low in the sky when we — three reporters — arrived at the first series of Forest Service checkpoints.

“You realize this is an illegal gathering and you can be cited for being here?” one ranger said severely.

“The mosquitoes are vicious,” another ranger said. “They’ve been sucking people dry. They’re looking for new blood.”

Like mosquitoes were going to stop thousands of Rainbow Family members from gathering like they have since 1972.

The rangers glared but waved us through. Three young men in a white sedan weren’t as lucky.

“We’re going to tear your car apart,” a ranger told the driver.

An hour later, with a lighter stash of marijuana and a ticket for possession of an illegal substance, the men made it in.

Coming home

Proceeding to the parking area, we’re stopped again - but this man wasn’t in uniform.

The Raven leaned on the window frame and greeted us.

“Welcome home,” he said.

It was the first of hundreds of “Welcome Homes” we heard and eventually offered to other Rainbow Family members.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from, when you’re here, you’re home,” said Todd, who made the journey to the gathering from Montreal.

With all the hassle of getting there and getting in, why bother?

“Because there’s something here that you’re not getting anywhere else,” said Max, a middle-aged Rastafarian. “We know everybody, man. It’s a culture of intimacy with a currency of reputation.”

The Raven said he and a group of others had arrived May 9 to ready the site for the 15,000 Rainbow who gathered on Forest Service land the week of the Fourth of July.

“When we got here, we had plenty of pot to smoke and plenty of beer, but we are running out of pot,” he said. “So, you got any pot?”

Shanti Sena — Hippie police

Hiking out of the massive, wooded parking area, it was another 1.3 miles to the trailhead and entrance to the campground - and that’s only if you’re unencumbered.

For those burdened with packs, strollers, wagons, suitcases, grocery bags and babies, it took longer. But for those willing to wait, shuttles - cars or trucks manned by willing Rainbows - arrived at the entrance to the parking lot to carry people to the trailhead.

Starting our ascent to the trailhead, we had our first encounter with the Shanti Sena, or peace keepers. Dozens of people frantically called on the hippie police after a car disregarded a man directing traffic to the parking area and ran into him, pushing him several hundred feet.

The Shanti Sena were overtaken by police and Forest Service personnel who bandaged the wounded man’s leg and detained the wayward driver.

What humans have in common

Dark had long fallen by the time we reached the edge of the gathering, made up of miles of trail lined by campgrounds, cafes, kitchens, medical stations, information booths and other attractions.

At about midnight, many campers had bedded down for the night, especially the ones with children, but the Early Bird Café was hopping. Officially closed down for the night, Early Bird started serving breakfast at 4 a.m., but after hours, it was a prime spot for those who want to indulge, trip and hang out.

The Hare Krishnas were also up late. A portly, mustached man decried the evils of materialism and the beauty industry - it’s a tired tirade but his audience listened enraptured nonetheless.

“The soul is indestructible, and it’s function is to love,” he said.

Even at that late hour, the Hare Krishnas continued to make vats of chai tea they happily served to visitors.

“(The Rainbows) find their sole purpose is to feed people because that’s the one thing that all humans have in common: You have to eat … and no one should be hungry,” Woody said.

We were confused - after all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, right?

“No, it’s a givin thing,” Todd said.

Changing but still the same

Some Rainbows refer to the campground as Zion - a pure land -- while decrying the evil world outside as Babylon, but others warned against this.

“Babylon is your sister,” said Max. “Sure, she may have made some bad decisions … but when she comes home, she still gets a spot on the couch.”

Others, like James in The Rain, have seen the gathering fall from grace. Take the trading circle, for instance, a place where people trade or buy goods from hemp dog leashes to Nutella chocolate spread.

“I avoid that place unless I really need something,” said James In The Rain said, who has attended all but one gathering. “They’ve all got ‘business eyes.’ It’s not the real spirit of the festival.”

“Business eyes” may have been epitomized by a 12-year-old boy. Standing by his blanket in the trading circle, he offered to trade his violin for 8 ounces of marijuana.

“I’m going to take it to the outside and sell it,” he said.

Violet, a mother of three with another on the way, lamented this attitude and acknowledged the gathering isn’t perfect.

“There are ‘Drainbows’ too,” said Violet who has been a member of the Rainbow Family for 10 years. “They’re people who eat the food and don’t do anything. They sit by the fire all day. They don’t help out like the rest of us.”

Violet works in Kiddie Village, the Rainbow daycare. From serving food to digging latrines - the most honored job - there’s work for everyone.

Still light in the rainbow

But Violet holds on to what drew her to the Rainbows in the first place, something that still exists.

“I could be myself here,” she said. “I can be a hippie or mainstream or whatever. I can wear dreads or not. I feel like my kids are safer here than in the regular world. For the most part it’s still the same. The spirit is still intact.”

Woody was first introduced to the Rainbows in 1993 at a New York City club, Wetlands, where they would meet every Monday night. Initially drawn to the drumming, he said he stayed because he liked the Rainbow way of helping your fellow man.

“It’s just true and honest,” he said. “It’s not about what you wear. It’s not about how you talk, what color your skin is. When I’m out here, it feels like the only honest and real thing left in society. All you have to do is ask someone for a favor, and they’ll carry your stuff 10 miles if they have to.”

Glowing Feather was amazed by how the Rainbows instantly embraced him in the 1970s.

“I was a Vietnam veteran, and these people accepted me,” said Glowing Feather, who is now an elder in the Rainbow Council, a group who meets daily and decides where the next gathering will be. “They’re not anti anything. They’re pro love.”

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