Megan Schmunk, 18, of Fla.; Raye, 24, of Vermont; and Seth Chancey, 25, sit atop a bus along Flat Woods Road in the Cherokee National Forest. Rain Smith photo.
Hippies are here, hippies are here — and many, many more are on their way to Sullivan County.
On Wednesday morning along Mountain Road, bordering the southeast side of South Holston Lake, vehicles were parked bumper to bumper for two consecutive miles. The National Forest Service estimated 600 campers are spread throughout this stretch of the Cherokee Forest, while the participants themselves put numbers closer to 1,000.
But by July Fourth, when the Rainbow Family of Living Light’s national gathering reaches its peak, more than 10,000 are expected to be on hand. The group has no official structure or leadership, with praying for world peace often cited as the motivation.
They say they’ll clean up their camping areas and leave no trash behind. They promise the public a massive wave of crime will not sweep the community, as worldly possessions mean little to true Rainbowers. Many offer intimate motivations for attending — from the vibes of acceptance and true love, to skirting the trappings of “Babylon” — i.e., the social, political and economic structure of modern society.
Just don’t ask if it’s an escape from the “real world.”
“Man, this is the real world,” said Micah, 25, of California, as he sat on the steps of a brightly painted bus. The tilt of his head hinted he pities anyone who could make such a mistake.
Law enforcement plans
The U.S. Forest Service is the lead enforcement agency at the site, with assistance from the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office. The Sullivan County Commission has allocated an additional $25,000 to the sheriff’s office, which will pay for deputies to work the area 24 hours a day beginning July 1.
Sheriff Dave Brown of Skamania County, Wash., where last year’s national Rainbow Family gathering was held, has been in contact with Sullivan County police. He has provided an idea of what can be expected from the group.
“It felt like they were here 10 years,” he told the Times-News with a chuckle.
Brown and Chief Deputy Pat Bond said the gathering did bring an increase in crime, which is to be expected with a surge in population.
“You liken it to a small city,” said Bond of his agency’s experience last year with the Rainbow Family. “You have a group of individuals that occupy this area in the national forest. With that comes everything you have in a city. From felony assaults to misdemeanor assaults. Narcotic violations, DUI, everything that comes with a city.”
The Skamania County Sheriff’s Office reported 613 incidents over the Rainbow Family’s stay in Washington state. Those incidents resulted in 25 individual arrests including for drug possession, driving while suspended, assault, and assault with sexual motivation. There were also 30 missing persons reports, with everyone eventually accounted for.
Brown said the sampling of crime is not indicative of the majority of those in attendance.
“It’s unfair to say they’re all a bad element,” Brown said. “Many are well-educated, nice, fun to talk to.”
When asked if the environment of the gathering and sheer number of people forces law enforcement to turn a blind eye to some activity, particularly drug use, Brown momentarily hesitated. He then said the Skamania County Sheriff’s Office handled the gathering as more of a containment exercise and tried to “keep them in their area. Let them do their thing and move on.”
Brown also commended last year’s Rainbow Family for their cleanup efforts. Despite initial skepticism of their claims to leave the Washington forest spotless, Brown said they did “an outstanding job.”
Due to the anticipated Rainbow crowd in Cherokee Forest, the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office is asking local residents to avoid Mountain Road, or drive in the area with caution. Anyone with questions about the event and response of police is invited to call the sheriff’s office at 279-7500.
Love, peace and free coffee
The cars along Mountain Road are covered with dust stirred from the gravel surface. Peace signs and “Welcome Home” are scrawled on many of the windows. The tags appear, literally, to represent every state of the continental United States, from Maine to California.
Songs echo from over an embankment where hippies are taking a dip. Heading toward the chorus for a swim is Glowing Feather. He wears a tie-dye shirt and floppy top hat, dancing his way between fluorescent buses. He said he has attended Rainbow Family gatherings for 40 years.
“You come with love, you’ll receive love,” he said. “You come with judgment and hate, you’ll get hate or judgment. It’s all what you put out there.”
Brooke Kelley, 34, originally of Louisiana, sat on the ground behind her car, eating a bowl of vegetables for breakfast. She listened intently as A.C. Wolf, 37, relayed his inability to “find” or “get anything done” in “Babylon.”
“For a long time I had a job working IT, where I felt down,” said Wolf, originally from Boston. “At Rainbow I’m with people on my level. Rainbow is the only place I feel like people love me. They’ll say it, and I’ll tell them back. It’s good to exercise those neural pathways. I don’t get that anywhere else. ”
Kelley, Wolf and many others in attendance claim no permanent residence — they travel between regional and national Rainbow gatherings, often staying months at a time.
“The whole idea is to stake out land and retake it from the U.S. government,” said Kelley. “We’re told this land is our land. We sing it in the song. But you stay 30 days or three months, and the government will arrest you or ticket you.”
Kelley views Rainbow as a melding of politics and spirituality, “as they go hand in hand, and in society people separate them.”
She acknowledged the motives of some in attendance aren’t as ideological, and that’s fine, too, as the key to her lifestyle is acceptance.
“For some here it’s a big drug fest, and that’s OK,” Kelley said. “Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world do something that’s self-destructive. But all the kids that come to get (expletive) up on the Fourth of July, that’s not when (Rainbow gathering) starts. It’s already started.”
The parking area along Mountain Road is designated as A Camp. The “A” is for alcohol. A sign by the side of the road, at the head of a meandering 5- to 7-mile trail up the mountain, states no alcohol — or cell phones — beyond that point. One camper remarked that the alcohol zone acts as a nice “buffer” for the core gathering areas of Rainbow Family.
On Wednesday, a steady stream of people, all ages and sizes, filed up and down the trail with supplies. The dogs at their sides were just as varied, and stuck within a few feet of their masters.
The main gathering area and meadow is near the top of the trail, but a steady flow of camp sites flanks the thoroughfare. Nearly everyone trekking upward is waved or spoken to by Rainbowers sitting around their fires, or rousing from their tents and tarps. An elderly man sat under a tree strumming a banjo.
The necessities are free to everyone, with multiple kitchens established along the trail. If a camper’s needs extend beyond food and drink, trading is the form of commerce in Rainbow Family.
Some people attempted to set up half-hearted “roadblocks” along the trail. A young woman and man sitting along the side proclaimed “joke, smoke or toke” to all coming their direction. Two men were let through after dishing out some wit, which was unfit for print.
A couple of trailside campers passed burning marijuana back and forth; a woman strolled topless. No one batted an eye.
Cowboy Ogre offered fresh coffee to everyone who passed. The previous day he dispensed 25 gallons at his self-proclaimed “Cowboy’s Crazy Coffee Corner.”
“There’s people like me that can’t function in society,” he said. “But I can serve coffee here.”
At a kitchen site, Steps to Freedom was surveying a skillet of potatoes as they fried over a fire. He said he’s “about 50” and used to work in fast food. But shortly before attending his first Rainbow event in 1991 he sold all his possessions, knowing his life would never be the same.
He’s been on the road ever since, traveling from hippie gathering to hippie gathering.
“I’ve got traveling in my blood, the wanderer’s lust,” he said. “I was always broke while I was in Babylon. I wasn’t good at it. I’m good at this.”