Photo by Chad Harder
By Barrett Golding 7/5/2002
The Rainbow Family gathers every year, the first week of July. Nearly 20,000 hippies are camping in Montana's Beaverhead Forest. On the highway, I pass peace signs painted on vans, and flowers on buses. I pick up hitchhikers with long skirts and tie-die shirts. It's a 100-mile drive from where I live; in time, though, it's around 1969.
An old logging road leads up to a green meadow. To the west is a pine forest, to the east, a grassy hill, and above, several 9,000- and 10,000-foot peaks. The meadow is a mile long, a half-mile wide, and constantly filled with people. In the trade circle, they barter beads for bongos and bongs. They eat at Lovin Ovens, they chant to Mother Earth, and they crash in teepees and tents. "Welcome home" they say to each other. "Where are you from?" "Everywhere." "Nowhere." "Why have you come?" "Love."
They believe corporate culture is killing America, and they believe the world needs more peace. The gathering is part-reunion, part-protest: 20,000 people off the grid, praying, meditating, getting along co-operatively. There are mountains, music, naked long-haired kids sitting in circles, playing flutes and smoking pot.
Rainbow Gathering participant: There's every kind of person here: thieves and rapists, and some of the most enlightened, benevolent people in the world.
In the '60s, everything was possible, but nothing was real.
The sound of thunder brings howls from the trees.
The crowd: "The moon's coming up. It's moonrise."
Night falls, and the campfires light. A thousand instruments come out to play.
It's easy to think these people are naïve, but maybe that's what it takes to raise a sound like this to the heavens.
I wander off to find my campsite. As I slip into my sleeping bag, a beautiful young woman comes up. She asks if I have a spare pair of socks. I'm from Montana -- of course, I have extra socks. I reach in my pack and give her a pair. She wanders back into the dark.
At sunrise, no one is speaking. All morning, there's silence, meditation. This is July 4th: their prayer for peace. By the time the sun hits high noon, everybody's in the meadow. A mantra begins …
Like the psalm, it makes a joyful noise.
Sound: "Ohm" builds and breaks into cheers.
Are these people for real? Yeah, they are. They know what it means to make a community within America, but also what to do without it. Nearly 20,000 of them can live for a week in the woods, cooking, singing, staying healthy, filtering water, and burying feces. That's real. Some stay longer to clean up. A month from now, you'll hardly know anybody was here.
On the way home, just a few miles down the highway, a cop pulls me over. Do you have any weapons? No. Do you have any drugs? No. He's a kid, probably just deputized for the week. Do you have any drugs? he asks again. I say: "Do a lot of people answer yes to that? They just hand over their drugs? You catch a lot of criminals that way?"
Get out, he says. I'm gonna search your car.
"I don't want you to search my car." You don't have a choice, he says. But I know the law: "probable cause," versus illegal search and seizure. But by now, two state troopers are here, hands on their guns, saying it's a matter of officer safety.
Ten miles away, 20,000 have gathered to pray for peace…10 miles away.
But I've come down from the mountain and I'm back in America -- land of the free, home of the brave, and three guys with guns bothering one with none. I've left the gathering, and I've come back home.
I'm back home.
Producer Barrett Golding lives outside of Bozeman, Montana. The Rainbow music recordings are by Hawker, and the guitar is by Don Ross.
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