Annual Rainbow gathering wrapping up


Theo, left, holds crystals in the palm of his hands as Emily, right, talks about the beliefs of the Rainbows while gathered around a camp fire at their camp site Wednesday morning in the Ocala National Forest near Salt Springs.

Doug Engle/ Ocala Star-Banner
Published: Friday, February 22, 2013 at 6:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 22, 2013 at 6:23 p.m.

OCALA - The way to the Rainbow Family of Living Light gathering in the Ocala National Forest is not an easy one.

From Ocala, it's a 30-mile drive east on State Road 40, another seven or eight miles north on State Road 19 and then a mile down an orange clay road, through scrub and skinny pines, until you begin to feel isolated and a bit vulnerable.

There, up in the distance, some figures squat in the dirt at the "main gate" and eye your approach as they rise to flag you down. You no longer feel isolated, just vulnerable.

An affable Rainbow named Patches leans down by the car window, his orange dreadlocks swinging like rope around his shoulders, and hails you with the group's traditional greeting, "Welcome home, brother."

Patches gets down to business. He describes the basic layout of the sprawling camp and runs through a very short list of rules that includes how to park along the side of the road to satisfy the forest rangers who patrol the area. Then he invites you to come back to the front gate for breakfast at the makeshift "kitchen" that has been erected in a small, shaded clearing just off the road.

Having been properly welcomed, you continue driving down the bumpy road toward a row of old cars, VW vans and decommissioned school buses that ferry some of the more fortunate Rainbows between month-long gatherings from coast to coast.

Most of the rest bum rides from the ones with cars or march out with 40 pounds of camping gear and essentials strapped to their backs knowing someone — likely a trucker — will pluck them from long, lonely stretches of asphalt.

"Someone always picks you up," says Jesse, a 37-year-old with a jet black ponytail who began following the nomadic Rainbow Family a couple of years ago.

Closer to "Middle Gate," a trail that leads back into the forest, there is a growing sense of being transported back to 1968. A school bus repainted olive green and adorned with peace signs and a "Just be nice" sticker is loaded with belongings strewn across the seats and pushed up against the windows. Three 20-something women chat on the side of the road near a car, one of them casually stripping off a tie-dyed shirt and black bra without taking any notice of the vehicles passing her and without drawing even a curious glance from any of the Rainbow men chatting nearby.

The Rainbow gathering is a camp in only the loosest sense of the word. There are a few places that seem to have purpose — the crude kitchen at the front of the 300-acre compound, and Main Circle, where Rainbows gather at dusk to sing, dance, eat and commune, for instance.

But mostly, the camp is an amalgam of faded pup tents dropped haphazardly into palmetto thickets here and there, or pieces of tarp strung between skinny trees along narrow trails.

On Tuesday, when the gathering was supposed to be reaching its apex, many of the Rainbows had already broken camp and were straggling out of town along SR 19 or SR 40 on their way to their next destination.

For some, that means "housing up" for a few days or weeks with friends or family to take advantage of plumbing and warm beds. For others, it means getting on the road to the next gathering spot.

Deep in the woods, four young hippies squat by a small campfire and mull their next move without much urgency. They'll probably head to the Rainbow gathering in Apalachicola, in the Florida Panhandle. After that, it's anyone's guess.

•••

The Rainbows' annual pilgrimages to the Ocala National Forest, Sarasota and the Panhandle are calculated to take advantage of the mild Florida winters. As spring approaches, the Rainbows migrate northward, camping for days or weeks at a time in various states, until they surge by the tens of thousands into Montana for the national gathering the week of July 4.

They like some places better than others. "Georgia sucks," one man says. "The cops hassle the hell out of you. And you can't hold a sign by the side of the road anywhere in Mississippi."

But they love Alabama and adore Louisiana, which they say is extremely tolerant.

Florida, not so much.

"I can't wait to get out of here," says Mase, who began coming to Rainbow gatherings a couple of years ago but isn't sure he's been fully accepted into the family yet because the elders haven't knighted him with a name like Tigger or Grandpa Woodstock.

"LEOs (law enforcement officers) hassle you bad here," he says. "They stop and run checks on you just for walking down the street."

Whatever antipathy the Rainbows feel toward Florida, however, is minor compared to the resentment many locals feel toward them.

Ocala and especially the tiny, rural communities dotting the Ocala National Forest have had a tense relationship with the Rainbows for years. Many residents and merchants can recount in vivid detail unpleasant encounters with this modern-day hippie clan, from panhandling and shoplifting to public nudity and public urination.

The Marion County Sheriff's Office, which helps the U.S. Forest Service police the gatherings, makes dozens of arrests and counsels store managers on the best strategies for dealing with vagrancy and packs of Rainbows who pile into supermarkets to overwhelm employees so a few can sneak out with food and supplies.

"Basically, they're liars and thieves and they'll steal anything that's not nailed down," says Rick, a local who declined to give his last name but has watched the Rainbow procession through the rural Forest Corners community for two years.

"And they stink," he said. "You walk in a grocery store and they're three aisles away and you know they're there. They're persona non grata at all locations."

The Rainbows wince at such characterizations, although they concede the point on grooming after living two weeks in the woods without a shower or change of clothes.

Much of their negative image, they say, is fostered by misinformed denizens of "Babylon," which is what they call mainstream American towns and cities. There are some problems, they admit, but those are exaggerated. And the problems that do arise generally are created by rough-and-tumble vagrants who graft themselves onto the Rainbow family but don't share its values.

Michael Niman, a communications professor at State University of New York at Buffalo, agrees.

Niman, who has studied the Rainbow movement for more than 20 years and has written two books on them, said the camp in the Ocala National Forest is unique among gatherings in the United States because there is more drinking and more violence.

Rainbows, Niman said, are idealists who preach peace and tolerance and are self-sufficient.

"They're not supposed to be filling up hospital emergency rooms. They're not supposed to be panhandling the locals," he said. "Real Rainbows are acutely aware that they are guests in communities. That may not be the case in Ocala."

Niman said the Ocala gathering attracts many vagrants who look the part but don't subscribe to the Rainbow principles of non-violence and harmony with their surroundings.

He said the Rainbow gatherings are welcomed elsewhere in the United States, even in very traditional communities in western Pennsylvania and Texas, because the movement's emphasis on peace and tolerance taps into values shared by conservatives.

But the sheer volume of drinkers, train-hoppers and misanthropic wanderers who pile into the Ocala gathering overwhelms the sense of peaceful "Shantasina" the Rainbows try to foster, and the gathering can take on a decidedly aggressive edge.

Indeed, Rainbows say the occupants of the heavy-drinking "A Camp" (for Alcohol Camp) near the front of the gathering serve as unofficial enforcers, beating up fellow campers accused of breaking the rules and dragging them off the premises.

"They're pretty much hammered (drunk) from the time they wake up until the time they pass out," said a 22-year-old Rainbow from Ocala who introduced himself as Out There.

It doesn't surprise Niman.

"That's why most real Rainbows I know avoid the Rainbow gathering in Ocala completely," he said.

District Ranger Michael Herrin of the U.S. Forest Service said it's worse this year.

"This year, there was more violence than there had been in the past three or four years," he said. "There were fights almost daily."

To their credit, though, the Rainbows obey the rules concerning wildlife, trees and campfires.

"And they do a fairly good job of cleaning up after themselves before they leave," Herrin said,

•••

The young Rainbows squatting by the smoldering campfire a mile and a half down the trail from Middle Gate reveal a jumble of contradictions about what "real Rainbows" believe.

Like drugs.

Mase and Kyle, both 26, say synthetic drugs are strictly taboo and enthusiastically endorse marijuana, mushrooms and other substances that grow naturally. But then another young Rainbow with a shock of brown hair standing straight up announces he would give anything for a tab of LSD, and some in the group nod in agreement.

These young Rainbows also can't agree whether the crystals they carry around actually release positive energy.

Theo, a wispy thin camper wearing only pajama bottoms and whose face is unaccountably caked in black soot, swears they do. He discovered this during a bad psychedelic trip.

"I was having a bad time," he says. "A friend of mine put a piece of petrified wood in my hand and I felt amazing. I didn't even know my hand was wrapped around it. All the visions just organized into perfect geometric shapes."

Emily, who is staring at a piece of quartz in her hand while listening to Theo's story, attempts an explanation of their power: "I think each crystal vibrates at its own frequency and releases a certain amount of energy."

But Kyle says the power of crystals is a placebo. "I think the energy is more of a human perspective," he says. "It's what each individual brings to it."

And the group nods its agreement, including Emily.

"Sometimes I think it's just cool to have it," she decides.

But they agree on a few key things.

They agree with Kyle, for instance, that rule No. 1 at the Rainbow gatherings is "Bury your s---."

They also agree that "the government" engages in thought control, both through the rigid application of public school curriculum and through the chemicals it forces Americans to ingest.

"See that?" Theo says, pointing to a jet contrail in the sky. "That's a chem trail. The government is spraying us right now." The group nods.

They also agree that they prefer the freedom of life on the road to the daily grind and self-absorbed, dog-eat-dog world from which they came.

All held jobs at one point or went to school. Mase was a cook, Kyle delivered pizzas before he lost his license, Jesse was in the Navy and Emily was a college student for a time.

This is a better life than "living in a box, going to the same job day after day and doing the same thing," according to Mase.

"Babylon" Jesse says solemnly.

Yet Babylon is where they go for their staples: food, water, camping gear, toilet paper. It's where they go for a hot shower to rinse weeks worth of grime from their bodies, laundromats to clean their clothes, and even warm beds when they tire of sleeping on cold, hard ground. It's where they go to scour restaurant Dumpsters for food and to collect food stamps so they can stock up for their next gathering.

And Babylon, ironically, is also where they go in search of aid from kindly strangers.

They panhandle at Forest Corners or at Walmart in Silver Springs and petition customers at McDonald's for burgers. Those who drive even plead with convenience store patrons to give them gas.

One recent Sunday in tiny Barberville, a rural intersection on the way from Ocala to Daytona, a large black Suburban teeming with Rainbows eased up to the gas island at a convenience store on its way out of the Ocala National Forest.

Several of the store's patrons craned their necks to see the spectacle as the Suburban disgorged its occupants, who were shoeless and colorfully festooned with feathers, beads, crystals and too-tight halter tops. One carried a tambourine and another adjusted the hand-crafted wreath sitting slightly askew on her matted hair.

The women surveyed the parking lot and with practiced confidence began beseeching customers for gas.

A few ignored them and ducked into their cars. But a 30-ish-looking cowboy with a military-style haircut and an expensive customized pickup filled the Suburban with gas, touching off an assault of appreciative bear hugs and handshakes from the giddy Rainbows.

The group at the campfire doesn't see the irony in the fact that Rainbows — at least here in Ocala — are dependent on the citizens of a society they lament.

"A lot of people who help us out are people who are stuck in their box but want to break out like us and don't know how," Jesse said.

"It kind of restores your faith in humanity to know that people are willing to help you if you really need it," Emily adds.

•••

These young Rainbows may return to the world for good one day. They haven't decided. Some look admiringly on the elders of the movement who still travel around the United States and think they, too, could live like this indefinitely.

Not Mase.

"I don't personally plan on doing this forever, but I want to see the rest of the United States. I want to find a new home, and I'm not going to find it sitting in one spot."

Jesse, who hit the road several years ago to escape two failed marriages and a bad relationship with his mother, isn't ready to go back. He's healing, he says.

"One day I'll find my place."

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