Take Me to Your Leader

A huge annual gathering of hippies freaks out the National Forest Service

It was 4 a.m., we were more than 300 miles from the Gathering, and the police were already hot on our trail.

Not that they could have missed us. As three tired, unshaven men struggling over the Montana mountains at 45 miles per hour in a 1969 Volkswagen bus, we meant only one thing to the authorities sworn to protect the public from the Rainbow Family Gathering of Light. Hippies. Worse: hippies without permits, a combination that put The Man in a particularly grumpy state of mind.

The Montana State Highway Patrol car blazed past us going up the hill, and then the officer decided to give us another look. He slowed to a crawl, becoming the first and only motorist our bus passed on the entire cross-country odyssey. He settled into tailgating position and followed us for about a mile while we scrambled to remember whether we were carrying any illegal substances. Tiring of that, he rolled up beside us and tried to get a view inside, but eventually gave up the inspection and tore off, up the steep grade.

He was only the first of many law enforcement officials who would give us a closer look over the following week.

Every Fourth of July, the Rainbow Gathering draws up to 30,000 of the strangest people in the world to a different national forest each year. Most stay a few days, while others come weeks ahead and stay even longer. The week-long "prayer for world peace" includes aging hippies, drug-addled teen runaways, Hare Krishnas, and mainstream onlookers hungry for a taste of the free-love ’60s.

Almost all the Rainbows share an anti-authoritarian streak that flies in the face of the National Forest Service’s attempts to control the Gathering. Federal law decrees that any group larger than 75 must obtain a permit before assembling on National Forest property. Unlike the organizers of other high-profile countercultural events, such as Burning Man, the Rainbows have always refused, even when facing heavy fines and jail time.

This time was no different. Lawless, unplanned, and almost wholly free of traditional leadership, the 28th annual Gathering was staged in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest in southwestern Montana, much to the chagrin of a special federal police unit designed to press the Rainbows into submission. What’s more, the estimated 23,000 campers—a big city by Montana standards—managed to pull this off in a harsh physical environment with almost no facilities.

Mad Mike, 21, is typical of many young Rainbows. While many older attendees have families and full-time jobs in the outside world, the younger generation tends to live the Rainbow life all year. A New Orleans native, Mike has been bumping from city to city, taking odd jobs whenever possible, living on the streets for over a year. He hitchhiked to the Gathering with the clothes on his back, a tent, a blanket, and his guitar. He had no money, no food, and no means to earn either. Still, sitting on the main path strumming his instrument, he seemed healthy and happy to be with the Rainbows.

"Here, the Christians get along," he told us. "The Krishnas get along. Everybody gets along. Everybody smiles and helps people out. When you’re walking down the path at night, you’re not scared."

Mike had good reason to be pleased. Not only was he getting free meals at the community kitchens, but he had made a niche for himself as the Heady Nugget Guy.

On his first day at the Gathering, Mike composed a ditty on his guitar, a catchy little tune with the constant refrain, "Who’s got my heady nuggets? Who’s got my heady nuggets? Who’s got my heady nuggets for me?" ("Heady nuggets," Mike explained, means particularly good marijuana.) About half the people at the Gathering were humming his tune by the second day, and most of them did indeed have some heady nuggets for their favorite new composer. People constantly stopped to sit on the path and congratulate him on the song. They almost invariably shared a bowl of their finest marijuana in the process.

Mike went on to compose another song, called "Hippie Princess," for the rare moments when he had managed to accumulate a pocketful of heady nuggets. Its lyrics begged various females to "let me feel your aura and I’ll load your bong." He would not comment on the effectiveness of this effort.

"I definitely think about making money in a real job, but I don’t know," Mike mused. "I think I’ll see how easy it is to follow these guys around for awhile."

Mad Mike was not alone. Buzz, 28, had hitched in from Denver with Freedom, 19.

"We came here with nothing but the clothes on our backs—nothing," Buzz said. "Within two days we had a phat tent, and someone said they would kick us a sleeping bag when they leave." The pair scored the gear by sitting on the path, asking passers-by if they could "spare any warmth."

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