The Rainbow Gathering

Posted on March 11th, 2010 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , , , , .

Every year since 1972, the Rainbow Family of Living Light has been holding its Summer gathering in the National Forests of the United States, bouncing to a different state each year, from coast to coast. A loose network of hippie tribes that celebrate their diversity, the Rainbow People caravan cross-country for the annual back-to-nature affair that starts building in June and climaxes with a silent meditation for world peace when the rest of America is setting off fireworks on July 4.



The Rainbow Gathering is usually held in a place of great natural beauty, with several camps scattered throughout the woods around a big central meadow where nightly councils, daily drum-circles and the July 4 meditation are convened. The camps—from just a cluster of tents to elaborate affairs with operating kitchens and rustic performance stages—are run by everything from long-haired Jesus freaks and Hare Krishnas to nomadic ecstasy-seekers (“bliss bunnies”) and rasta-hippie hybrids; earthy rural homesteaders to grungy urban anarchists; middle-class weekend warriors to outright hobos. 

The event is by consensus non-commercial, with no money exchanged on site (although a Magic Hat is passed around at the main circle for supply-run donations). There’s no electricity, and no port-o-sans. Unless you are a weekend warrior who parachutes in for the big party on the Fourth, be prepared to put shovel to earth digging a latrine—or at least knife to cutting-board peeling potatoes. Also be prepared to hoof it through the woods a couple of miles to get there: parking is off-site, with a shuttle bus to a trailhead. When you get to the site, there’s a Welcome Home center with maps and information to get you oriented. Pack in your own food, and pack out your (non-biodegradable) trash. 

Health care at the Gatherings is provided at the CALM tent—like MASH, except it stands for Center for Alternative Living Medicine instead of Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. CALM is a loose coalition of licensed medical doctors, nurses, chiropractors, acupuncturists, holistic healers, homeopaths and herbalists that grew out of the gatherings. There’s also a Kiddie Village, where volunteers provide childcare. 

In addition to the Summer national gathering, there are smaller regional gatherings held throughout the year around the USA. A Winter Gathering is held most years in Florida’s Ocala National Forest. The most hardcore Rainbow People drift from gathering to gathering throughout the year, but most of the local gatherings draw people from within the region. So when the national Gathering is held in their area, the local Rainbows will be ready, experienced and organized. 

In short, the Rainbow Gathering aspires to be a temporary living alternative to mass society, and a working model of a world based on cooperation and giving rather than competition and money. There is an ethic of maximum freedom and tolerance. This extends to nudity, drug use and all manner of generally uninhibited behavior. 



There have, predictably, been some problems with the authorities over the years—about which more below. With so many people (up to 15,000) camped in one place, its important to maintain awareness of common-sense hygiene. If you establish a camp, be careful about where you dig your latrine (“shitter” in Rainbow lingo), lest folks get the “Rainbow runs.” This hasn’t been a problem in recent years. Rainbow scouts secure water sources on site as early as May, cordoning off the springs to keep campers away, so everyone stays healthy. 



There is fairly open use of cannabis—and peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, and other psychedelics—at the Rainbow Gatherings, in line with the ethics of meditation and ecstasy. Organics are emphasized, and synthetic or processed drugs generally discouraged. Sharing is widespread; dealing is frowned upon by everybody. 

Garrick Beck, who has been on board the Rainbow Family from the very beginning (and now sells semi-precious gems at his Santa Fe shop, Natural Stones), says the gatherings are “an experiment in expanded freedom.” But he warns they are “not a protected zone” from the law. Negotiating a balance with the authorities to maintain the Gathering as a free zone has been a challenge for the Rainbow People. 

The Rainbows’ own unarmed security volunteers, called Shanti Sena (for Mahatma Gandhi’s “Peace Army” during India’s liberation struggle) cooperates with law enforcement only in issues concerning violence. “We are concerned with behavior, not what is in your mouth or your pocket,” Garrick says. “If you get high before going to the drum circle or taking a hike or making love or whatever, we don’t have a problem with it. But if the police find you smoking on the trail, you are going to get busted.” 

Like the law, the degree of enforcement pressure varies from state to state. The local sheriff can be aggressive or laissez-faire. The National Forest Service also has an enforcement arm which is on hand, although with little more of a consistent policy. 

An early manifesto of the movement, the Rainbow Oracle, included a section entitled “On Marijuana as Sacrament,” referencing Genesis 1:12 and the Indian Vedas. Garrick says the Rainbows see cannabis as “part of the general tradition of herblore that also includes valerian, black cohosh, white willow bark—the ancient pharmacopeia of nature. My personal belief is that it should be legal not only for medicinal use but recreational use—that humans have the right to this experience.” 

“Jefferson wrote about freedom of mind,” Garrick adds, and he’s right. (The reference is the third president’s June 18, 1799 letter to William Green Mumford.) “Freedom of mind is priceless beyond bounds and needs to be encouraged in order to help humanity evolve. But that’s me talking. Again, the issue is behavior. As long as you are not a threat to others or totally disoriented, people will leave you alone.” 

Alcohol has long been discouraged at the Gatherings, with the hobos and winos maintaining their own “A-Camp” apart from the others. (They also pass around a “magic hat” for booze runs, but don’t mistake it for the real one!) At the Rainbow Gatherings  in Europe (held since 1983), in contrast, there is a tradition of moderate use, as opposed to abstinence-vs-abuse polarization. This is now starting to take hold in the US gatherings too, with a little discrete wine-sipping at some camps. There are also cannabis-free camps, just like alcohol-free and  tobacco-free camps. 



The Rainbows’ biggest hassle with the law hasn’t actually concerned pot, but the simple right to gather. “We thought they would come after us because of drugs, but instead they came after us over freedom of assembly,” Garrick says. In 2002, he did three months in the federal prison at Florence, Colorado, for refusing to sign a permit for the 1999 Gathering in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest. The “Allegheny Three”—Garrick, Joanee Freedom and Stephen Principle—insisted they were not leaders and therefore were not empowered to sign. They fought the illegal camping charge on First Amendment grounds. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, and they each did a short prison stint. 

The unpermitted Gathering was basically tolerated by the National Forest Service until the regulations were tweaked under Reagan. Tickets were first dismissed by the courts as unconstitutional—until the NFS tweaked the regs again in 1995. The courts started upholding the tickets, leaving the Rainbows with a dilemma.  

At the 2003 Gathering in Utah, Garrick agreed to sign a permit, hoping for a cooperative attitude in return. Instead, he says, there was a huge federal police presence. Tensions escalated, and one kid threw  a rock through a patrol car’s windshield—which the Rainbows paid for. At the 2004 Gathering in California, there was an anonymous “ghost signer”—but the NFS subsequently amended the regs to demand the signatory be on site and available. 

At the 2005 Gathering in West Virginia, someone signed who had been working with the Forest Service on the environmental impact issues. At the 2006 Gathering in Colorado, the Rainbows again refused to sign, and NFS police—drilled at the Homeland Security Department’s Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Georgia—threw up roadblocks and ticketed thousands of campers just for being there. They actually set up a special court at a firehouse up in the mountains, with a federal magistrate presiding. $40 fines were imposed for those who didn’t fight the charges, with some half of these suspended. There were also a few small cannabis possession cases. 

In 2007, thankfully, what Garrick calls a “method of accommodation” was reached. The Rainbows, gathering in Arkansas, agreed to sign a “special use application”—but not a permit. This was accepted by the bureaucracy. “The good guys in the Forest Service prevailed,” in Garrick’s words. 

Under this arrangement, the contact person signs “as a volunteer to communicate between the gatherers and the Forest Service”—as opposed to an official leader who signs a permit. An “operating plan” dealing with such issues as land use, garbage disposal and medevac is worked out. In the section of the application that references the permit, the signer writes “not applicable.” “The right of assembly belongs to free individuals,” says Garrick. 

This arrangement also worked at the 2008 Gathering in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest—although there was one ugly incident, in which NFS officers pointed weapons at children, fired rubber bullets and pepper spray at Gatherers, and arrested five. The ugliness was likely sparked by an attempted marijuana bust. Garrick credits “the Gandhian training of Shanti Sena for defusing the situation.” 

The 2009 Gathering is to be held in New Mexico, and the Rainbows are hopeful that the Forest Service will be cooperative. 

Even if the permitting dilemma has been resolved, there will still be a need for common-sense caution. One experienced Rainbow camper warns: “Police carefully watch all roads leading to the Gathering. A broken tail light can be an excuse to search the car. I’ve sat in the courtrooms after a Gathering to watch the long line of Rainbows paying hefty fines and small jail terms for numerous petty offenses, mostly vehicle equipment problems, expired plates and insurance, and drug busts.  Be sure the car and driver are legal.” 



Garrick Beck says the showdown with the feds changed his view of the Rainbow Gatherings. “In the beginning, I viewed the Gatherings as spiritual events where people from diverse backgrounds and cultures and geographies could come together and find the common things that make community and day-to-day life beautiful.” 

“But because of the assault on our rights of assembly,” he continues, “I began to see the Gatherings as more political, a place where we can exchange ideas and discuss the polis in the old Greek word—ideas on our society and community, and how do we self-organize.” 

He notes that the Gathering is run by a Family Council, “where the feather is passed around and people get to talk. We have an open mike instead of electing representatives.” (Although with no electricity, the “mike” is metaphorical, of course.) 

“We are standing up for the right to gather on the public lands,” Garrick boasts. “This mantle has fallen on our rainbow-colored shoulders. This is a political statement for the world.” Garrick calls the amalgam of Rainbow’s quietistic roots with its current more activist stance “spiritual anarchism—as opposed to violent anarchism.” 

He speaks proudly of the 2006 Spring equinox gathering that was held in eastern Turkey. “There were Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, socialists, anarchists. There were Turks, Kurds, Iraqis (Shia and Sunni), Iranians, Russians, Chechnyans, Romanians, Hungarians, Greeks, Cypriots, Ukrainians, Dutch, Germans, Scandinavians, Italians, even Americans. They let their children play together, share each other’s recipes. That’s how we can get along. Its not a pie-in-the sky routine, its right here on Earth. Sharing and caring is the essence of spirituality, the number one lesson that is at the core of every religion.” 

Adopted from the book Cannabis Trips: A Global Guide that Leaves No Turn Unstoned, now available from Ivy Group

All photos from

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