by Tamim Ansary
The other day I saw a curious item in the newspaper. It said this year’s “Rainbow Family Gathering” would take place in Vermont. I thought Huh? This thing is still happening? It happens every year? I went to one Rainbow Family Gathering, the first one. That was 44 years ago, in 1972.
Back then, I was a somewhat crazy 24-year-old living on Everett Street, in Portland, Oregon, with roommates. How many roommates? Can’t say. E-Street was a big ol’ mansion with an indistinct number of inhabitants. I had one of the six real bedrooms, but there was also a guy living in an alcove on the third floor, and another who had fixed up a space for himself behind the furnace in the basement, and on many nights there were people crashing in the living room and in other odd corners of the house, some of them people who’d been hanging around for weeks.
In the E-Street world, everybody knew civilization was coming to an end. The wars, the corruption, the scandals, the horrific crimes we constantly kept hearing about…. Plus–the oil was running out! Pollution was so bad a river in Ohio had actually literally caught on fire! And corporations were now bigger than countries—how much longer could the system last? The world was collapsing! But a new world would rise from the rubble, a better world, we had faith: and we would be its citizens.
That summer, a guy named Ace attached himself to us for a few weeks. He was kind of a jerk, and we sent him packing, but in his time with us he infected our household with a piece of news. That July, a seminal gathering of enlightened people would be taking place in Colorado at a place called Table Mountain.
Apparently, a patch of snow that looked like a white buffalo had appeared on the side of that mountain and was slipping down. Apparently, Native American visionary Black Elk had once said that when a white buffalo descended from the heavens, the world would end. Apparently, this prediction eerily echoed certain passages found in Revelations, or perhaps in the works of Nostradamus, or perhaps both. Experts skilled at interpreting mystical sources could pinpoint exactly when the apocalypse would happen. A group of Oregon communards calling themselves the Rainbow Family had called the gathering at Table Mountain for that end-of-the-world weekend. On Monday, the elect few who had attended the gathering would inherit the Earth.
This prediction struck me as laughable bullshit, but then I am cynical by nature. Most of my roommates took it seriously and vowed to go. Somehow, our house became a central organizing station for would-be attendees. One of us found a man who called himself “The Grand Master Mind Boggler.” He ran a grassroots hippie bus service in an old school bus known as the Green Tortoise, and he agreed to provide transportation for any travelers we lined up, or at least as many as would fit.
By the time the Green Tortoise was ready to leave, some mono-like flu had struck down all but three from my house. One was Andy the Cynic, who lived behind the furnace in our basement. Another was me—I thought it might be fun to witness the illuminati making fools of themselves. The third was Ken Kohlmeyer, our friendly neighborhood dope dealer one one of the pillars of our E-Street household.
The Grandmaster had removed all but one seat from the bus, so several dozen of us passengers lolled about on mattresses, drinking red wine and smoking dope. The Grandmaster had a girlfriend who sat up front with him in the only seat other than his own. She’d been a passenger on his last trip, and they’d struck up a romance. On this trip, however, his gaze was drawn to one of the new passengers. As the bus approached the Continental Divide, some sort of squabbling broke out up front. The bus stopped. The girlfriend stormed out in a huff, crossed the highway, and stuck out her thumb, The new passenger climbed into the girlfriend-seat.
Near the back of the bus, where Andy the Cynic and I were sitting, a girl named Stacy started spouting an extemporaneous poem about the girlfriend-shakeup. I remember the first two lines:
on the Continental Divide.
Stacy had taken off her shirt at this point. Earlier, she had told us that, back in Portland, she worked as a cocktail waitress at a topless bar. She had also mentioned that she didn’t like to wear clothes at home. Vacuuming was more enjoyable done topless, she said. Now, she lamented the injustice of social convention: men could go shirtless in public, but women? “We have to cover up, just because we have boobs.”
Andy said, “Well, you’re topless at work, you’re topless at home, and you’re topless now. I don’t see the problem.”
We pulled into a parking lot. From here, you could see the mountain looming over the valley and on its shrubless slopes, the enormous white patch of buffalo-shaped snow. This was the closest we could come to the spot where we would be surviving the collapse of civilization. It wasn’t close though: the designated spot was eleven miles away. And that spot wasn’t a campsite. In a national forest, the rules allow one to camp anywhere. The forest service had freaked out a bit when they learned that thousands of people would be picking the same “anywhere” on a certain weekend. (In the end, over 30,000 were at the gathering.) Officials tried to ban the meeting, but somehow it all got sorted out, so here we were.
And so were many others. People were arriving from all directions, in cars, in buses, on bicycles, on motorcycles, on foot. Many were lugging along knapsacks full of supplies; they intended to set up kitchens and serve free food. Our house was going to be one such kitchen. Friendly Ken had organized it with a few of his dope-dealer friends. We were going to serve porridge.
We shouldered our packs and started hiking. At first we were on a fairly broad, gravel forest service road, walking 20 or 30 abreast. Whenever we came to a slight rise, I could see people ahead of me and people behind me as far as the road was visible. That many people hiking together moves slowly. As we trundled along, I came to recognize people in my stretch of the crowd. We got to talking, we got to be friends. But people were moving at different paces over time, so the social group kept shifting. In that way, it struck me, the hike was like life itself. Your friends are the people who happen to be on the same road as you, for as long as you happen to be moving at more or less the same pace.
The road petered out and we got onto a path. the path shrank into a mere trail. When we finally made it to the designated location, what we found was a large meadow surrounded by wooded slopes. Some people were drawn to the meadow and that’s where they set up camp; others of us moved into the hills to camp among the trees. Curiously, the two locations attracted markedly different types. The meadow people were all healthy, self-improving, spiritual seekers chanting om and burning incense and getting high on God. The hill folk—which included me and my E-Street contingent—were the folks who had come to party. Alcohol was banned at the gathering, and people pretty much observed that ban; but weed? acid? peyote? Bring it on.
The nights were dark, in those woods. The trees screened out all moonlight, if there was any. In the darkest middle of the second night, someone in a nearby tent began to moan, “Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!” Clearly, some guy was having a bad acid trip. I’d had one of those. I thought maybe I should go help him, try to talk him down. Just then the stranger began to scream: “Don’t you get it! This is hell. We’re in hell, you fools! We’re all in hell. I’m just the first to realize it! I’m the first to realize it.”
A moment of stillness followed. Then Andy chuckled, and yelled, “I’m the second one to realize it! I’m the second one to realize it!”
Whoa: even I am not that cynical. Then again, after Andy’s response, the screaming did stop.
By day, the meadow people danced and chanted and did yoga and breathing exercises and formed circles and made garlands of flowers. Many—but not all—of them dispensed with the artifice of clothing.
The hill folk smoke dope and dropped acid and did extreme-sports things. Most of us—but not all—kept our clothes on.
Where the two cultures overlapped, there was sometimes friction. Once at the edge of the meadow, I saw a bearded Saddhu clad all in white, solemnly tapping various wooden, glass, and metal chimes he had hung from a rope strung between two trees, humming to the music he was making. Along came a tall, sun-browned, well-built, naked fellow from the hills, along with his tall, sun-browned, gorgeous, naked girlfriend. This demi-god picked up a stick and began tapping the chimes too. The Saddhu at first thought he’d won a convert. But then the hill man started tapping harder, more wildly, shaking the rope. The Saddhu tried to tell him this wasn’t how it was done, but the naked demigod ignored him. Someone touched the god’s elbow and said, “Brother. Please! Brother—it’s his religion.” But the naked man shook him off and attacked the chimes with the lusty enthusiasm of a Nietzschean Ubermensch, while his tall, beautiful, sun-browned naked girlfriend laughed and crowed her admiration of her man. Finally, having torn down the rope , scattered the chimes, and broken some of them, he put down his stick, satisfied with his performance. He and his girlfriend strolled away well-pleased with themselves.
There were some glaring problem with this location, which no one had thought about beforehand. For one thing, the only potable water was a trickle of a stream at the far end of the encampments. Since 30,000 people were trying to fill their jugs there, the line were long , the waits endless. I must admit, though, there was no fighting at the water hole. People just waited their turn and got to know whoever was near them.
Once, at the end of the line, I saw a burly man with so much beard and head hair he looked like a Neanderthal. Needless to say, he was naked. except for various medallions and totemic objects slung around his neck. As he stood there, along came another burly, hair-haloed naked fellow bestrung with totems. The two men eyed one another’s neck ornaments. Both started beaming. One identified himself to the other: “Bear Clan! You?” The other said joyfully, “Love Family. Brother!” And they embraced.
Here’s what I remember about that first Rainbow Family Gathering. Thirty thousand of us camped in the unspoiled woods to prove that humans could live on this planet without trashing it and wiping out ourselves and others. Within three days, we wore faint trails into wide dusty paths and spawned an urban center with a privileged center and surrounding slums, not unlike Karachi, only smaller, not because we meant harm, nor because we were stupid or unenlightened, but simply because we were there. What I see looking is that planning, management, laws, and government are not optional. Without them human lives don’t intertwine smoothly. At the time, I think my main takeaway was, “Phew! Fun…”
On the way back from Colorado, an amazing thing happened. Right about at the Continental Divide, our bus, our Green Tortoise, pulled over. Some dispute had broken out between The Grand Master Mind Boggler and his new girlfriend. She got out in a huff and stuck out her thumb. The bus took off. I noticed that someone new had taken the girlfriend-seat.