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Rainbow Family: Real or an illusion?

Chase Squires
Ed Andrieski/AP photoArt Goodtimes, a three-term county commissioner from Colorado's San Miguel County, pushes his camping gear to the annual Rainbow Family gathering in the forest north of Steamboat Springs on July 1.
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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS ” Pausing as he pushed a jogging stroller piled with supplies up a dusty hill, Art Goodtimes proudly called himself a holdover from the Summer of Love days in the 1960s.

With a bushy, gray beard and a bare, bulging belly, Goodtimes believes in the ideal offered by the Rainbow Family, the loose-knit band of hippies that preaches love, peace and harmony and is best known for its huge gatherings every July.

Yet the 60-year-old Goodtimes has seen enough of the world to know that enjoying a weeklong commune with thousands of others doesn’t make it real.



“It’s an experiment to see if we can live like this for at least a week, to see if we can get along,” said Goodtimes, who happens to be a three-term commissioner from Colorado’s San Miguel County.

And for a week, they do. Most of the time.



The Rainbow Family is a living relic of the 1960s, claiming to be the largest unorganized organization in the country. In fact, members revel in the disorganization.

There are smaller gatherings all year, but the big event comes in the first week of July when thousands gather in a national forest ” to the dismay of the U.S. Forest Service ” to exchange hugs, beat drums and just “be.”

There are no leaders or dues, no mantra or dogma. The gathering draws devout members of established religions, from Orthodox Jews to Christians and Hare Krishnas.



Longtime members speak of peace and harmony, while newcomers say they’re looking for something spiritual or a connection with people they can’t find in the outside world.

“You’ll find just about as many reasons to be here as there are people here,” said a member who goes only by his Rainbow name, Kyote.

Yet contradictions abound.

While gatherings are open to everyone, reporters weren’t allowed this year without a “Rainbow guide” who shouted “Press!” as he led a writer through the sprawling camps.

There are no leaders, but members frequently refer to elders. There are no work assignments, but everyone is expected to work. Food is free, but everyone is expected to contribute something and donate to the so-called Magic Hat.

And while many object to alcohol or drugs, there were scores of drug arrests at this year’s gathering and an entire tribe camps far from the others in an alcohol-fueled party zone known as “A-Camp.” At least one Rainbow said he was badly beaten in the camp.

The contradictions are part of the anarchy that makes the Rainbow Family what it is, said Michael Niman, a Buffalo State College professor who wrote a doctoral thesis and a book on the movement. He lived among the Rainbows in the 1980s and ’90s, once spending an entire year with members.

At its heart the movement is healthy, Niman said, and a pure example of American individualism amid growing government involvement in daily life.

“It’s our heritage as Americans to celebrate freedom,” Niman said. “The Rainbows haven’t really established a beachhead or liberated an island in the Caribbean and declared their independence, but what they have done is liberated a piece of time, that first week in July.”

Barry Adams, known to the Rainbows as Barry Plunker, is a founder of the movement. Disillusioned with society when he left the Army in 1966, Adams said he found happiness in San Francisco’s hippie movement.

Adams said he and a band of friends held their first Rainbow Family gathering in Colorado in 1972. This year, he surprised many by suggesting the group launch a federal lawsuit against what he feels is a growing crackdown by the Forest Service on the annual gathering, which includes a prayer circle dedicated to world peace.

“I never thought there would be a problem with our federal government for us to go out in the woods and pray,” Adams said.

This year, in the woods 30 miles north of Steamboat Springs, about 15,000 turned up. Nearly 600 citations were issued, with about half for camping illegally.

When they left, pit toilets were filled in, tons of garbage were carried out and a network of water pipes was removed. The Forest Service expects to help Rainbows plant seed from wild grasses on the trails left behind, erasing any trace the crowd was ever there.

There is no such thing as a typical Rainbow member. A sampling this year found a teacher, a college student, an attorney, a carpenter and a couple of self-professed drifters.

Brad Stone, an Illinois medical technician dreaming of medical school, said he’s a humanitarian who wants to help people. Longtime Rainbow “Bobcat” said at 57 he felt a duty to pass the spirit of peace to the younger generation, so he brought his 15-year-old granddaughter along this year. “Bilbo Baggins” said he goes to gatherings to demonstrate his First Amendment rights.

“There’s a healing here,” said 20-year veteran calling herself Red Woman. “This is where people can have love and acceptance.”

If some ideals didn’t match the realities ” the Forest Service disputes Rainbow claims that they always leave the forest better than they found it ” the spirit of the gathering feels genuine.

Members greet each other with “welcome home” and hugs are the norm. Those arriving with nothing are provided for. Those with plenty share.

“What we have is a huge giveaway,” Goodtimes said. “It just doesn’t happen in our society. There’s shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry.”

Then he looked down a row of cars lining a forest road and considered how much food had to be brought in. Goodtimes said the spirit behind the Rainbow Family is an ideal, but the gathering is an illusion.

“Look how unsustainable this is, really. You can’t keep this up,” he said. “It’s not like Rainbow stands outside the culture. But we can do this, if only for a week.”

Already, scout teams are eyeing Texas, Arkansas or Oklahoma for next year.

Playing off efforts by the Forest Service to regulate or stop the gatherings, an unofficial motto has become: “Ignore all rumors of cancellation.”

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On the Net:

Unofficial Rainbow site: http://welcomehere.org

Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado


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