Jackson -- After a morning of silent reflection, thousands of members of the Rainbow Family gathered in a huge circle in a mountain meadow Tuesday to pray for peace and Mother Earth.
This is the day that Ive been planning for two years, said Owen Rued of Onalaska, Wash., as he sat on a sagebrush-covered hillside, watching the circle grow.
Every July Fourth since 1972, Rainbow Family members have gathered somewhere on National Forest lands for a noontime prayer.
This year the Forest Service estimates that about 22,000 have made their way to the Big Hole Valley in southwestern Montana for the annual event.
In the morning hours leading up to the time when they join hands and create a circle that stretches for miles, the only sounds in the little mountain valley are an occasional dogs bark, the snap of a tarp and singing birds. Otherwise the men and women at the camp respect a call for silence to allow for reflection.
The circle begins small, but swells quickly as people leave their camps scattered among the lodgepole forest.
People come from all over the world to be here, said Rued, who is attending his fifth gathering.
People come here for healing. It comes in a variety of ways, he said. For many, its a spiritual healing, but whatever you might need you can find here.
Down in the valley, the sound of drums and other musical instruments begins off toward the portion of the camp known as Kiddy Village. A few moments later a large group of children and others begin to make their way toward the meadow.
Soon a parade in the valley forms an inner circle, the people holding hands begin to whoop with their hands raised in the air. Those on the hills begin to yell We love you.
With that, many turn to hug their neighbor before making their way off the slope toward the excited sounds of banging drums and happy voices.
It was incredible, wasnt it, says a woman from Hamilton named Serenity, a retired small business consultant attending her first gathering.
Paul Siegler of Boulder, Colo., who has attended several other Rainbow gatherings, said the gatherings are a sign of hope.
I see so many people willing to get together and get along, he says. People here are willing to live outside the dominant paradigm the one of mass consumption, isolation, and a disconnected society.
Thousands of members of the Rainbow Family are expected to begin leaving the site near Jackson over the next few days as this years world gathering winds down.