Looking for utopia

Rainbow Family keeps hippie culture alive

The Idaho Statesman/July 2, 2001
By Dana Oland

They were rebels in tie-dye and blue jeans. They protested and organized. They dropped out of the mainstream. They were hippies -- flower children, counter-culture revolutionaries, radicals with rules -- it was the 1960s and they were going to change the world.

"We were all different but we all had one thing in common. We were people and we had things to share," said Jim Teeter, a self-professed hippie from Nampa. "We were looking for utopia." It was a spirit born of idealism and a dissatisfaction with mainstream culture. It still lingers today for a large, easily identifiable subculture that now spans four decades.

Many find the spirit kept alive by the Rainbow Family, "the largest non-organization of non-members in the world," according to their unofficial Web site, which is as official as you can get. Some find the idea of utopia at the annual gatherings that bring nearly 20,000 people to one location to express and experience the hippie life. This week they meet in the Boise National Forest outside Lowman, bringing with them community kitchens, hemp jewelry, other items to trade, makeshift outhouses and prayers for peace. This year's gathering is more controversial than most because the location is considered an ecologically sensitive area home to fragile plants and endangered spawning salmon.

Teeter, 58, visited the gathering last week. "Welcome home" signs and the friendly atmosphere warmed his heart, he said. "I found a lot of things that really felt good from the '60s. People come up and sit down next to you and just start talking. I felt an immediate community, but you have to realize that I'm pretty in tune with that." Teeter, like many from his era, had the full hippie experience. He fought against the Vietnam War, he lived in a commune with '60s icon and author Ken Kesey, he dropped acid, opened his mind and then lost hope in the early 1970s.

Especially in 1972, when Richard Nixon won a second term, bombed Hanoi and mined Haiphong harbor. That was the year of the first Rainbow Family gathering. It was an attempt to rekindle the spirit, to find utopia again, said Barry Sacharow, a member of the Rainbow Family.

Sacharow, 46, spoke at his first anti-war rally when he was 13 because "that's where I needed to be," he said. He's considered himself part of the Rainbow Family since the '70s. He attended regional gatherings and started traveling to the national gatherings in 1995. There was a time when he stopped going to Rainbow events in the '80s.

"I married a woman who lived a more conventional life," Sacharow said from his home in Hollywood, Fla. "But from a cultural standpoint, I never left. My hair was always a different length. I stayed into the music."

When Sacharow's marriage ended, he flashed back and followed the Grateful Dead on the band's last tour. "Music events provide wonderful experiences to connect," said Sacharow, who was unable to make it to Idaho.

The energy of the Rainbow gatherings waned in the mid-1980s. During that time bands such as the Dead, with their thousands of cult-like followers called Deadheads, kept tie-dye and hippie ideals alive, Sacharow said. In 1986, the Rainbow gathering and the Deadheads connected. It brought an infusion of people and energy that swelled Rainbow Family ranks. It also brought in younger members and energy.

"These young people really get the philosophy," Teeter said. "They're kind of in that place where we started wondering. They're looking for what is real." The real hippie philosophy is a combination of spirituality borrowed from Christian, Native American and Buddhist beliefs, among others, Teeter said. It also encompasses concern about the environment, an opposition to conventional views and a disgruntlement with abuses by corporate America and the power of government, said Todd Gitlin, author of "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage."

"They are conscientious objectors to the mainstream American way of life. They still exist, probably in the six figures. Veterans of the '60s, living their lives, building networks and not sending out press releases about it," Gitlin said from his home in upstate New York. And they balk at authority, he said. The hippie movement grew out of the Beat Generation of the 1950s, Gitlin explained. Led by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and a handful of writers, musicians and friends, it spilled out of New York's Greenwich Village and San Francisco's North Beach.

"They were a small group who got a vast wave of publicity," Gitlin said. "Then that strand gets picked up by people who begin to feel alienated." The hippie movement was marked by sexual freedom, psychedelic drugs, mysticism and communal living as it rebelled against the rigid family and social structure of the '50s and '60s.

"Some were more spiritual, some more political, others were insurgent and combative. There were many different tenors," Gitlin said. The trigger point for the first generation of hippies was the conflict over American involvement in the Vietnam War. "The war cracked open a hole in the consensus that the American way of life is beautiful," Gitlin said.

There were other defining moments during the Vietnam War period: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (1963); the San Francisco "Summer of Love" (1964); mass bombings of Vietnam during the Tet offensive; the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.; and the National Democratic Convention in Chicago (all in 1968); Woodstock (1969); the shooting of students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio (1970).

In a sense, that's what's missing in today's hippies, said Theodore Roszak, who coined the term "counter culture" in his book, "The Making of a Counter Culture" in 1969. Roszak teaches history at California State University, Hayward. "They haven't really lived through anything. They've had no great crisis to overcome, no great historical moment. The only thing my students have lived through is a stock market run up and the Internet, which I don't find exciting at all."

Regardless, every generation needs to rebel, whether they see it that way or not, said Dan Jones, 49, a psychologist at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. "People may look back 30 years and see their actions as rebellion. But at the time they would just say they were just being themselves. 'That's just who I am, man,'" Jones said.

Jones spent his career working in and running university counseling centers. And was admittedly a hippie himself. He wore his hair long and marched in Washington, D.C., in 1972 with 100,000 others. He understands their way of dealing with the world, Jones said.

"If you're a conservative, you're sure you are right and there are definite right and wrong answers. If you're relativistic, you're sure there are no right or wrong answers. You do your thing, I'll do mine, and if we find each other, great."

That's part of the energy that tends to polarize things. Hippie groups tend to have no leaders; they like to see everyone as equal and don't believe in hierarchy, Jones said. "It's a great theory, but it doesn't always work." But many still try. Part of that phenomenon can be explained through adult psychological development, Jones said.

"Many of these young 18 and 19 year olds were soaking in these really radical ideas at an impressional age." It's now part of who they are and always will be, even if they shed their tie-dye, get jobs and buy into the mainstream, which many of the old hippies have. But they keep the ideals they learned as youths.

Jim Teeter left his hippie, communal lifestyle long ago. He married, has two children and owns a graphic design business with his wife, Sue. But he worked through the 1970s as a community organizer and was a VISTA volunteer. Today, he organizes community events. His latest project was the Eagle Island Experience, a hippie fest he wants to make an annual event.

He now plans to volunteer for Americorps to teach organizing techniques. Barry Sacharow sits on community boards in Hollywood, Fla., and plans to start a run for the Florida Legislature in 2004. Dan Jones suspects that more of the Rainbow Family are more like Teeter and Sacharow and less like the hippies they were 25 years ago.

"I doubt if all the Rainbow people are living as hippies in masses. They're running businesses and trying to keep their kids out of trouble. What they want is to escape for a while. Get back to a time when things were fun. When things were easy for them. When they felt like they could change the world."

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