SPOKANE - A U.S. Forest Service ranger sat cross-legged on the dusty ground, holding a wildflower as a symbol of his right to speak to the circle of hippies gathered around him in the woods.
Newport District Ranger John Buehler’s mission to get a signature on a special-use permit for a group of 75 or more campers would be a simple task were it not that these campers were Rainbow Family.
“We are a holy nation and a royal priesthood,” said a longtime participant in the nonhierarchical group. She explained that no one may presume to speak for the group as a whole, much less sign a permit.
As many as 300 Rainbow Family, other wanderers and their dogs arrived in late August in an area of the Colville forest called Bartlett Meadows in Pend Oreille County. Most will be gone by the end of this week, leaving a small group behind to clean up.
The regional gathering is the vanguard of the thousands of people who are expected to inundate a Washington forest next summer.
According to welcome here.org, an unofficial website of the Rainbow Family of Living Light, one of the state’s six national forests will be chosen as the site of the 2011 Annual Rainbow Gathering, July 1-7.
The specific location will not be decided until mid-June, according to the website, but veterans of several annuals, who were gathered at the regional, said Rainbow “focalizers” were out scouting nearby sites in Colville National Forest for the big one to come.
The Rainbow Family has been meeting in U.S. national forests since 1972. Its annual gathering, which attracts from 10,000 to 30,000 people, occurred once before in Washington, in the Colville National Forest in 1981.
This year’s annual gathering in Allegheny National Forest of Pennsylvania attracted about 12,000 people.
“The regional does not determine the annual site; it provides the opportunity to familiarize us with the area,” said a young man who calls himself Useless but proved himself to be anything but.
In the event the national gathering is in Washington state next year, the Forest Service will coordinate with local organizations, including law enforcement and health care agencies, to prepare for it. The Rainbow Family typically gives short notice of its impending arrival at a site if there is any notice at all.
Useless, 37, is someone a Rainbow would call “a manifester,” a person who makes things happen for the good of the gathering.
A veteran of numerous annual gatherings who travels “where the weather suits my clothes,” he came to the Colville forest to set up the Montana Mud kitchen, one of six large communal campsites responsible for feeding the “brothers and sisters” attending the regional event.
Rainbow gatherings are cashless societies where necessities such as food and water are free and luxuries such as flashlights, tools and smoking pipes are bartered.
“Food shouldn’t cost money ,” Useless said.
With “hippie engineering,” he and his fellow Montana Mud cohorts built an oven out of a 55-gallon barrel, stone and mud under a 20-by-40-foot tarp that also covers a makeshift stage.
They arrived with two sacks of groceries and have been feeding “the multitudes” ever since with donations from local folks and by passing “the magic hat.”
The kitchen also is staffed by a registered nurse named Dragonfly who said she is from Denver. The crew maintains a trench latrine, which gets covered with dirt and fire-pit ash.
Dragonfly advised new arrivals about an outbreak of head lice, which was believed to have been brought in by people who attended the annual gathering in Pennsylvania. An inspection and delousing station appeared to quash the infestation.
ON THE MOUNTAIN
Down a dusty road from Montana Mud is the CALM Camp, or the Center for Alternative Living Medicine, which is typically staffed by naturopaths, holistic healers, herbalists and an EMT named John from Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
It was at CALM, in the diffused light of a diaphanous canopy, that Gaia, a veteran of 15 annual gatherings, told the parable of the Rainbow Gathering at the mountain.
The family climbed the circular path up the mountain, she said, but along the way believers grew tired and strayed off the path to perfect harmony. Only a few made it to the top meadow, where they prayed for peace.
Those who strayed off the path presumably now reside in A Camp, where alcohol is permitted near the front gate of the Rainbow Gathering.
“They attract negative attention to the Rainbows,” Gaia said, “but at least this negative energy is kept out of the inner meadow.”
To pass into the center of a gathering is to enter an alternate universe where marijuana is taken openly and alcohol use is frowned upon.
“Now,” says Gaia, who is old enough to remember the Beat Generation, “a new generation is bringing its own morality to the gatherings, and though the ways of the young might not be in harmony with the old ways, this is the natural evolution.”