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Somewhere Over the Rainbow

   In the woods beyond Babylon with the Rainbow Family

It’s not a collection of vehicles you’re likely to see in the parking lots of the mall — half a hundred tightly packed cars and trucks, hand-painted microbuses and vans.

That’s what you pass as you walk down the fire lane, deeper into the woods. The license plates tell tales. New Jersey, Tennessee, Florida, California, Colorado, Oregon and Ohio. There are Missouri and Illinois plates, and others as well.

Most of the cars are dented, road-worn and festooned with bumper stickers. “Kill Your Television,” “Eracism,” “Love Your Mother (Earth, that is).”

About half way down the lane, a camp is set up and a voice calls out to you.

“Hello! We've got some food up here if you're hungry.”

A small group of people in overalls, flannels and fatigues greets you with smiles and a hail of hellos.

“Welcome home, brother,” a tall man with a short beard says. His name is “Renegade,” he says, and he points to the pot of food next to the fire. It’s beans. Looks like beans, anyway. You decide to pass on the chow.

You look around. Under the tarp a few sleeping bags and backpacks are strewn around the fire not far from a collection of rudimentary camping gear and a stack of supplies — boxes of bread, big bags of noodles, sacks and sacks of unknown foodstuff. There’s a lot of people to feed.

A guitar rests against a tree and a 9-year-old girl twirls a stick she’s whittled. An 11-year-old lounges on an open sleeping bag reading a fantasy book, and from somewhere off in the woods comes the sound of a flute.

A longhaired young man carries a pitcher and offers you some orange juice. “Got plenty of it,” he says. You decline and resist the urge to check a calendar.

What year is this anyway, 1968?

Not quite.

This is the Shawnee Regional Gathering of the Rainbow Family of Living Light. The “family” is a loosely knit band of hippies, hobos and flakes, mystics and seekers, gypsies, tramps and thieves.

For the past two weeks, several hundred Rainbows have been camped in the Shawnee National Forest near Little Grand Canyon in Jackson County, Illinois. Some have been here for a month or more, and although the gathering officially ended Tuesday night, some will stick around a few more weeks, enjoying the forest in autumn and cleaning up the site.

From here, the members disperse — some on foot, hitchhiking, others in vehicles — traveling to other gatherings across the United States, following the Rainbow Trail, as it’s called, all year long. It’s a caravan, a gypsy/hippie traveling subculture, a mobile commune, a Walden on wheels.

Some Rainbows are on the trail full time. But others are with the “family” for only a month or a few weeks, some for just a few nights. These people have roots and homes, and after the gatherings they return to their jobs and schools and the “real world.”

The real world. It’s called Babylon out here in the woods. Babylon, destined to fall. And almost every one of the Rainbow family members is out here trying to get away from it.

It’s a divergent group of men, women and children that encompasses all creeds, colors and religions. What they have in common is love of nature, love of their fellow man, an indifference toward the established political power structure and a rejection of most things material.

It feels like 1968, or before — when all you needed was love, when there was power in flowers, when a generation turned its back on what it perceived as a violent, patriarchal society that seemed driven by collective greed.

The Rainbow Family has roots that stretch back that far. The first annual national gathering was in 1971. And it’s grown. The feeling this year is that more than 20,000 people will show up for next July’s annual gathering in New Mexico.

This is one of the regional gatherings, which are held at various locations across the country, often simultaneously. People started coming in months ago. Some were still coming in last week. The early arrivals set up a seed camp and prepared the pre-selected site for the official gathering, which lasted from Oct. 1 to 11. After most of the family moves on, a group will stay behind a few more weeks to clean up.

You learn all of this from Renegade and the people at Front Gate, which is the welcoming campsite. Down the fire trail is Bus Village, where people who live out of their vehicles may park. Crude latrines are set up here and there.

Foot trails lead you through the woods and downhill to the main camp area. It’s a veritable village down there. Tents and sleeping bags are tucked into the bluff and along the trails. A ladder fashioned out of dead wood and lashed with twine points to a small camp 20 feet up the face of the sandstone bluff. There’s a place called Kids Cave, which serves as a play area for the children. Bridges have been fashioned to make creek-fording easier. Field kitchens are spread out throughout the area. And everywhere you go, you see flutes, guitars and drums. Lots of drums.

Most of the people you meet are friendly. There are a few children, several people over 40, but most are in their late teens to mid-20s. There are a lot of beards and long hair, and a few pierced nostrils among the younger ones.

On the trail from the Front Gate you meet a cheerful young man who calls himself “Christmas.” He has one of those faces of hyperbole, with wide open eyes and a drop-open mouth that exaggerate his expressions of surprise and joy. He was picking flowers along the way.

“Oh, these are just to give away,” he tells you.

Sharing is one of the basic tenets among Rainbow people. People trade possessions often or just give their stuff away to someone who may need it more. You are frequently invited to sit a while, eat if there’s food, share the fire.

You also are frequently hit up for cigarettes. One thing in high demand is cigarettes, an addiction, apparently, that living in the woods can’t tame. You came down here with nearly a full pack, and after stopping so often, your supply has dwindled quickly. It was starting to get annoying, and you do a quick count.

On one of the paths you meet a guy named “Fozzy” who asks if you’d trade a cigarette for a small chunk of amethyst. That’s a switch; he’s offering a trade. So you give him one of your last Marlboros for a shard of quartz.

There’s always something cooking at the kitchens, which are known individually by such names as Granola Funk, Rasta and Everybody’s Kitchen. Most of the cooking is done over open fires, but ovens have been constructed out of flat stone, twigs and clay.

And somewhere down the trail and through the brush along Bear Creek is the ceremonial Main Circle. The circle, a big fire pit in the center of a clearing, is the scene of the evening meal and the place where business, such as it is, is taken care of.

The family functions by consensus. There are no leaders, no officers, no grand poobahs. Generally, during the evening at the Main Circle, someone with a concern may raise it and it is resolved through discussion until a consensus is reached. Since the Rainbows feel strongly about tolerance and love, few conflicts arise.

The family has been described as a “consensual anarchy” and as an “alternative culture that functions.” It functions because enough people pitch in. If a need is expressed, volunteers appear, the work gets done.

But the Rainbow family is more than a social experiment. There are strong spiritual aspects to it, too. The evening gatherings include a short group meditation where participants stand in a circle and “om” for a minute or two. There is a lot of drumming late into the night, and many times someone will invoke the spirit of the Mother, Earth.

At Granola Funk a young woman named Rosebud gives you an idea about how many Rainbow people feel. “This is our church,” she says, motioning to the forest around her.

The Rainbows often have run afoul of local people — not so much at this gathering, but elsewhere — because their talk, their appearance, their mysterious chanting and ceremonies are thought to be paganist or satanic.

But there are Christians here as well. God is a “father,” too. There were no animal sacrifices, no violent rituals.

“All religions are welcome here,” Rosebud says. “All kinds of people, every color of person is welcome. Rainbow is not just one thing.”

And it’s difficult to describe what Rainbow is, because if you ask 20 people for their motivations in joining the family, or for their definition of Rainbow, you'll get 20 different answers.

Curt Wilson, a Carbondale man who helped organize this regional gathering, put it this way:

“Rainbow is mainly about healing; it’s about connecting with the Earth; it’s about sharing your creativity and inspiring one another; it’s about being expressive, about working through your feelings, about reconnecting with love, reconnecting with God and with people who are interested in creating a higher quality of life.”

Wilson, who uses the Rainbow name of “Lotus,” talked too about how people come and when they go they always take something good with them.

“If anyone spends any time here at all, they will pick up on the positive spirit and take it back into the world with them.”

Yes, it sounds utopian. Everything is beautiful. Populate the world with the children of God and peace and love. And spread all the gentle goodwill you can.

But it isn’t all beautiful. There’s another side to this story, a ghetto rising behind the treeline where the colors of the rainbow are a little muddy and fade gradually to gray. Some of the smiles come with strained teeth and some of the hugs come with the smell of sweat. Personal hygiene is not a high priority out here in the woods.

Rainbow also attracts a few unsavory characters who are just out to sponge off the good hearts of the faithful.

“There’s one thing I’ve learned,” says John, a bright 17-year-old from Chicago who calls himself a road dog, “and that is there are Rainbows and there are Drainbows.”

Some people just join because they can get fed here, but they don’t do any work and they have less respect for the environment. Some just come out to party. Others use the gatherings as a base while they panhandle for cash or go dumpster diving for food and useful things behind stores in town. And some have been known to shoplift and steal things from homes near the gathering.

The gatherings have been known to attract runaways, although the true family members try to encourage them to go home, Renegade said.

Alcohol is not allowed beyond the Front Gate, but it’s difficult to contain completely. Hard drugs are outlawed, and there seemed to be no evidence of them anywhere. Marijuana, however, is acceptable, as one young man named Turtle Soup put it, because it is a non-violent drug.

But the prospect of smoking someone else’s marijuana is an attraction to many local kids, who come out looking to get high and hoping to see some naked hippie chicks.

That could be a bit of a problem.

“With any large group, though, you’re going to have a few strays,” Renegade said.

After spending parts of several days with these people, you can’t argue with him.

On the way out, you can’t help wondering if any of this will have a lasting effect. Is it true that even short-term visitors will bring a little bit of peace back to the real world, to Babylon? Can the core of Rainbow survive the peripheral Drainbow? Is this a serious, long-lasting, seed-generating movement? Or is it just a bunch of children playing house in the woods?

You're driving back up the fire lane now, trying to figure it out, when suddenly there’s a bang on the window. Someone is running beside the truck.

“Are you…” he's panting, “... are you heading into town?”

So you give him a ride, and you wonder if this is what they mean when they say everyone leaves the gatherings with something new, something good, something that embodies what Lotus called the positive spirit.

You’re leaving with a hitchhiker.

You smile at the thought. Your sarcasm is intact, your skepticism is still alive. And then the hitchhiker asks if you have an extra cigarette. You check your pack. One left.

“Well, I’ve got only one left,” you tell him. “I’ll share it with you.”

—  30 —

Collected written works  |  Gary Marx


Somewhere Over the 

     Rainbow: The People

     Who Live Outside


The Run for the Wall:

     Motorcycles and


Return of a Radical:

     Oscar Winner Barb

     Trent Returns to Old

     Stomping Grounds

Along the Jack’s Fork:

     Canoeing in the Ozarks