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."

Many older Rainbows refer to people like Buzz and Freedom as "Drainbows"—campers who contribute little to the common cause but act as a drain on the limited supply of food, water, and drugs. Still, the Gathering survives without any centralized authority to spur the free riders to action. Everyone who is hungry gets fed, and everyone in need of heady nuggets finds plenty along the way.

The planning process for the 2000 event began at the 1999 Gathering, in Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest. Hippies hunkered around campfires tossed out ideas for the new venue: Vermont, Arizona, Utah. All 19,000 of them left without a clear sense of where this year's Gathering would be. So how did they all end up in the same Montana meadow just 12 months later?

The answer to that question lies at the heart of the Rainbow experience. The Forest Service contends that an established group of Rainbows, usually called "focalizers," is the de facto Rainbow organization, deciding where and how the Gatherings should be conducted.

The Forest Service needs the Rainbows to have leaders. Otherwise, there would be no one to cite for refusing to sign the permit, unless it called in the National Guard to cite all 23,000 attendees. The feds have often cited a few people at past events, usually leading to fines of less than $100. But they seem to be losing patience. In Erie, Pennsylvania, last June, U.S. District Judge Maurice B. Cohill Jr. sentenced three Rainbows cited at last year's gathering to one month in jail; he also tacked on some hefty fines. "While the 'mouse that roared' syndrome sometimes has the appeal of tweaking the authorities on the nose," Cohill said in his decision, "we hope that the time to stop has finally arrived."

The feds cited three more campers for failing to sign permits this year. They were scheduled to appear in federal court in Montana in December.

It's hard to say why the Forest Service chose to cite these particular people, or why it did not choose more. The Rainbow Guide, the "unofficial" Rainbow handbook distributed free at the Gathering, lists the names and addresses of 24 individuals and organizations that call themselves focalizers, and about 400 more who readily admit to being Rainbows. Still, only three people received citations. None were listed as focalizers.

The Rainbows' legal defense usually comes in two parts. First, they say the permit requirement violates their constitutional right to assemble freely. Second, they say that since the group has no leader, no one is authorized to speak for it or to sign any permits in its name.

The Rainbows claim they have no formal organization and no leaders, that the entire event is nothing more than a "tribal anarchy" run through spontaneous order. According to the Guide, "Our Gatherings are open to all peaceful people. There is no membership, no administration. There are no leaders. No one is turned away. Any non-violent person with a belly button is welcome. You are a Rainbow by simply deciding that you are one, and your voice is equal to that of any other Rainbow, be it your 1st Gathering or your 20th."

There is, indeed, no central Rainbow authority in any traditional sense. The core group consists of clans scattered throughout the world. Rainbows in New York City meet weekly for potluck dinners and drum circles in area parks, and similar gatherings take place in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other cities. Following the national event in Montana, regional gatherings were planned for Colorado and Alaska. The Rainbow Guide lists addresses in at least 10 foreign countries.

The national gathering unites all these clans for a week. Information about dates and locations spreads through the loose web of "scouts" and focalizers. According to The Rainbow Guide, experienced scouts scour the nation for appropriate sites throughout the year, sharing information with regional focalizers. Then they meet for a Spring Scouting Rendezvous, where their choices are narrowed. Later—usually sometime in June, just weeks before the Gathering—focalizers meet to announce the location and distribute the information through hotlines and, more recently, Web sites.

Becoming a focalizer or a scout is about the easiest thing in the world to do. At the Gathering, all you have to do is attend the Family Council meeting at high noon, where major Rainbow business is conducted through prayer and consensus building. Volunteer for something, and before you know it you're a focalizer.

Consider Owl, the fellow manning this year's Info Center—a makeshift lean-to with a map of the site, a message board, and various handouts. He was the focalizer "in charge" of sanitation. How did he get the job?

Owl, who works as a consultant for a home security company, has been attending national and regional gatherings since 1985. One year, concerned about the cleanliness of the hand-dug "shitter" trenches, he brought about $400 worth of sanitation equipment along with him.

"No one told me to," he told us. "I just saw something I thought needed to get done, so I brought it."

Owl's knowledge of sanitation was useful, and people began consulting with him about the best way to dig the shitters. He referred to himself as the "head of sanitation." Which he probably is. But that is not to say that he is actually in charge of anything. He was never elected or appointed to an official position. He has no authority to tell people where to dig a latrine. He does not dig them all himself. Still, the trenches got dug, people used them, and for the most part they avoided the infirmities one might expect when 23,000 marijuana aficionados eat, sleep, and shit in the same general area for an extended period of time.

While Owl seemed to be the man who knew the most about sanitation, digging the slit trenches was a community responsibility. A sign at the Info Center encouraged the volunteer spirit: "Need something to do? Ask for someone with a shovel. Dig a shitter." Anyone who didn't know how would be referred to Owl or another Rainbow who knew. Surprisingly, despite the free love and easy drugs on hand to occupy everyone's time, volunteers surfaced to dig whenever the need arose.

According to Owl, the authorities dislike the Gathering because they can't control the people involved or take any profits off the top. "They hate it because we are not building a stadium, like professional sports," he explained. "There is no transfer of funds. There is no way the government can tax us." There is no Rainbow Family organization, he stressed. "None of us comes here as part of the Rainbow Family. We come out as individuals. It just so happens that we have no official legal standing as an organization, and the police can't stand that."

Owl was interrupted by a young man who stopped to ask for trash bags. He was heading out of the Gathering and planned to pick up garbage on the way. At first, Owl thought he'd have to send the kid away empty-handed, but then he looked around the lean-to and found a few bags that someone had donated to the cause.

And so it goes with Rainbow focalizers. Someone has to guide the event. In the case of sanitation, Owl is widely considered something of a shitter guru. Still, he isn't a leader—not in the usual sense of the word. He just saw something that needed to be done, and he did it.

In this informal manner, 23,000 bellies were regularly filled, largely through neighborhood kitchens that sprang up around the site and fed the masses for free. The kitchens, often affiliated with various clans from around the country, operated almost continuously. Offerings included bread and granola baked in mud ovens constructed on site. Unlike Burning Man, where participants are expected to haul in everything they need,
or Woodstock '99, where promoters charged drunken, dehydrated teenagers $4 or more for bottles of water, the Gathering allows people to show up with nothing but the shirts on their backs and walk away a few pounds heavier.

Merry Sunshine, operated away from the main circle of activity, was one of the few kitchens that offered meat. It also provided any and all takers with clean drinking water—a hot commodity in Montana, where cows grazing on National Forest land have had the polluting effect you'd expect. Perhaps even more popular was the kitchen's makeshift solar shower.

NZANE, an energetic, bearded man in a wheelchair—he had lost a leg, and almost lost an arm, in a motorcycle accident—was a cook at Merry Sunshine. According to him, putting the whole operation together, counting food, equipment, and other supplies, probably cost about $15,000.

Labor, on the other hand, was free. After eating at the kitchen, my photographer went to work washing dishes. Later, he volunteered to dam a stream to make it easier to fetch shower water. A Rainbow from Amsterdam who stopped by for water ended up taking over dish duty, and an exceptionally dirty young man walking along the trail gathered firewood for the kitchen while waiting for his turn in the shower. It was impossible to tell who actually came with the kitchen and who had stopped by to help.

"There's no organization here," admitted NZANE. "It's just whoever picks up the ball and runs with it. Someone always seems to do it."

While Merry Sunshine did offer food free for the taking, the kitchen did not participate in the Gathering's largest daily spectacle: dinner in the Main Circle. Every day around twilight, thousands of hungry Rainbows would gather in the meadow and arrange themselves in concentric circles. After a series of messages and some group meditation, volunteers from the various kitchens would arrive with coolers full of their finest offerings, distributing the free food to everyone sitting in the circle.

While the kitchens provided most of the food themselves, the Rainbows also organized a "magic hat" parade, a small band of still more volunteers that tramped around the circle singing the magic hat song while everyone but the Drainbows donated what they could to the cause. The money was then handled by a team of at least five respected Rainbow elders, who spent it on any needed supplies. They distributed the rest to the participating kitchens to make sure there would be food the following day.

While the Rainbows do an impressive job of guiding their anarchic community through the various hardships of living outdoors, the going isn't always smooth.

First, the participants show a strong aversion to the use of money. On my first day at the Gathering, I made my way to the large "trading village" in the hope of scoring a trinket to impress my own hippie princess back home. The large circle included scores of Rainbows displaying everything from beads and handmade crafts to psychedelic mushrooms and rolling papers.

It soon became clear that no one was interested in my money. Trying to buy a bowl from a teenage girl, I asked what she was hoping to trade. When she told me she needed gas money to get home, I jumped at the opportunity. She sneered at my useless wad of bills. "Look man," she said, "I really try to keep money out of the trade." Instead, she was hoping to trade with people willing to siphon fuel directly out of their cars.

After several similar encounters, I realized that the closest thing to money at the Rainbow Gathering was green of another sort: marijuana. Weed was acceptable as a trade in almost any circumstance—an informal medium of exchange. Unfortunately, we didn't have any, so we had to go to A-Camp.

A-Camp was the only place at the Gathering where alcohol was widely accepted. Rainbows discourage its use but established the enclave because some members are alcoholics and can't go long without a drink. It was also, we were told, the only place where money was seen as an acceptable marker of value.

So off we trudged, but only grudgingly. On the way into the Gathering, we had walked by A-Camp at about 6 a.m. The serious alcoholics on hand were either still or already drunk. A fight had broken out over an offensive remark one Rainbow had made about Guatemala: Someone sent his pit bull after the offender, and the entire encampment, including at least 50 people, was in an uproar for 20 minutes. The ubiquitous fighting made it clear that America's only legal intoxicant is probably its most disruptive.

Still, we persevered. We made our way back to the bus and fetched a 12-pack of beer and a bottle of single malt we had in reserve. That and a few good old American dollars landed us a sizable sack of decent-looking marijuana.

We then hiked a mile back to the trading circle, where we finally had some acceptable bait for trading. I had no problem landing myself a handmade hippie purse and a few other trinkets for the folks back home. While the ladder of transactions worked and the notion of smokable currency did appeal to my deviant nature, the inefficiency of the process was a lesson in the value and convenience of paper money.

The Rainbows also had occasional problems dealing with the mass of people crowding the paths. One night at dinner, the concentric circles simply failed to materialize. With no one in charge, it was impossible to effectively direct the largely drug-muddled crowd into compliance. Sitting in an unfortunate spot, we watched as the food reached everyone but those of us stuck on the outside.

But for the most part, the Rainbows' nonsystem worked. No one starved, and no one died of exposure in the chilly Montana nights. That is an admirable accomplishment for 23,000 hippies who strike fear and loathing in the hearts of the National Forest Service.

The Forest Service's National Incident Management Team usually deals with large-scale emergencies, such as raging forest fires. It is also the entity responsible for dealing with the Rainbow Gathering, which the federal government obviously views as a national incident.

Based at the Dillon Middle School about an hour away from the Gathering, the team of about 40 officers coordinated law enforcement's response to the event. Its tactics included aerial flyovers, mounted patrols through the Gathering, increased state and local patrols on area roads, and, as mentioned, citing a few Rainbows for failing to sign
the required permit. According to Sharon Sweeney, an information officer stationed temporarily in Dillon, the federal government allocated $400,000 to the Rainbow policing effort.

Kevin Kennedy, another officer on the scene, said the event went off with few major incidents. "It's actually been pretty smooth," he said. "We've had a pretty strong law enforcement presence because of the permit issue." The biggest offenses Kennedy reported were a man caught with 500 hits of LSD and a drunken A-Camper who attempted to run over his girlfriend with his truck during a fight.

According to National Forest Service statistics, there were a total of 42 felony arrests, 136 misdemeanor arrests, 23 warrants served, 580 citations, and 931 warnings at the Rainbow site between June 6 and July 7. Of those, 162 were drug-related, while 881 involved traffic and vehicles; 21 related to "nudity." Authorities also handled five natal incidents (births or labor), 13 ambulance transports, and 52 hospital visits.

Sweeney stressed that the Forest Service's major concern is environmental impact. "The site is a mess," she said. "We don't know what long-term impacts the slit trenches will have. There are 23,000 people out there trampling a delicate meadow area. We're talking about a really short growing season here. We don't know how long it will take the area to recover."

Lurking behind those concerns, though, is another issue: the Rainbows' refusal to sign the required permit. "If they had a permit we could work with them to select a site that could handle that many people," said Buck Feist, another information officer based temporarily in Dillon for the Gathering. The permit procedure is free, Feist said, and the decision to grant it or not is in no way based on the cultural or religious views of the people applying—indeed, Feist adds, the Forest Service considers large groups such as the Rainbows an "appropriate use." Asked if there was a National Forest site anywhere in the country that would be acceptable for a crowd as large as the Rainbow Family, Feist said he didn't know. "They haven't applied for a permit, so we haven't entered into that discussion."

Feist denied the Rainbows' claim that the permit requirement violates their constitutional right to assemble. He also rejected the possibility that
the Rainbows could work with the Forest Service to select a more environmentally acceptable site but still refuse to sign a permit on constitutional grounds. "There is a process," he said. "We can't work with them until they sign the permit."

So on what grounds were some people picked out for citations while most were not? "These were folks who seemed to be in more of a leadership role," Sweeney said. "Granted, there is no one leader."

And if there were, he or she wouldn't necessarily be facing charges. "I went to the main council at the gathering for the first time since 1992 this year," said Barry "Plunker" Adams, a 55-year-old migrant ranch hand and one of the three Rainbows charged this year for gathering without a permit. "I haven't been that involved in the gathering for years and years. I did a little this year, and I did help clean up like I do every year. What the government did was hand a ticket to a volunteer janitor."

Neither Feist nor Sweeney could point to a single specific long-term negative environmental impact suffered at any of the previous 27 Rainbow Gatherings. The worst they could recall was a widespread breakout of a gastrointestinal disease after a meeting in North Carolina. Since the National Incident Management Team had been involved in only the last three national events, Sweeney said, they lack sufficient data to make any conclusions.

On the other hand, the Rainbows proudly display the final impact studies conducted by the Forest Service after each Gathering. Scores of hard-core Rainbows stay behind each year to pick up trash, reseed trampled ground, bury latrines, and conduct other hard work, such as corralling abandoned dogs. The federal impact studies are designed to study the effectiveness of the cleanup crew and gauge the long-term environmental impact of each Gathering. Last year's study concluded that "there will be minimal long-term negative resource impacts" to the site. "One Heritage site was damaged during the event," it noted. "All other resource impacts have been adequately addressed, mitigated or rehabilitated."

This year's study hasn't been completed, but Bill Fox, head of the Forest Service team that monitors the Rainbows, said there have been some problems. "Cleanup of the garbage has been OK, but there is a lot of compacted soil," he said. "There were some slit trenches that were not properly filled, and there were a lot of trails that were not completely obliterated. I think the forest is very up-set over that." According to Fox, the basic geographical realities of Beaverhead-Deerlodge, such as its hard soil and short growing season, made it a particularly difficult area to restore. And that, he argued, is why the Rainbows should sign the permit and cooperate with the authorities to select more appropriate sites in the future.

But according to Barry Adams, it's the Forest Service that won't cooperate. "I tried this year to do my best to work with the Forest Service," he said. "I wanted to act in a Good Samaritan relationship. I care about this forest. I'm a native Montanan. But Bill Fox told me there would be no talking to anybody. He told me no one would talk to anybody until a permit was signed." Adams said he invited officials to participate in the consensus-building councils that guide the Rainbow tribes, but they refused. "They could work this out by accepting the process we use, but they have chosen not to do that," he said. "We don't have a process that they recognize, but we have a process. If they would have come out and sat at the council, we might not have gotten full consensus, but we would have gotten an operation plan."

Fox denied that Adams or any other Rainbows made such conciliatory overtures. "I think that in Barry's mind he might think he did that, but he did not get in touch with the forest supervisor," he said. "He is not being truthful on that issue." Either way, he added, no talks could have taken place before someone signed on the dotted line for the Rainbows. "The regulations say you have to have a permit," he said. "We would have been violating our own policy."

The issue is now in the hands of the federal court. Adams and the other two Rainbows each face possible jail time and a $5,000 fine. The larger dispute, meanwhile, shows no signs of disappearing.

Volunteer scouts are already searching the country for next year's site. According to an unofficial Rainbow Web site (, the focus is somewhere in Washington or Idaho. As always, all interested parties are told to check back sometime next June to confirm the actual place.

Bill Fox said he'll be there. Barry Adams said he will too—as long as he isn't in jail. Adams added that he still won't put his name on the Forest Service permit. Ever. And Fox said he'll keep pressuring the Rainbows until someone signs.