It was sometime after midnight, and a steady, cold rain was falling. Thunder broke above the mountain ridge, seemingly only feet above my tent. Neither the stormy symphony nor the pillow wrapped around my head came close to muffling the combined thumps of more than 100 drums that climbed to a rhythmic cacophony and filled every space in the dark pine forest. Pounding endlessly day and night, hundreds of calloused hands struck the stretched skins, hammering out a sort of heartbeat. It rose and fell, slowed and quickened collectively. At times it was almost gentle and timid; then, without warning, it built to a frantic pace. Regardless of the tempo, the primitive palpitation always sounded as though it was seeking something out. It never ceased.
It was my fourth night in the Santa Fe National Forest, and I’d yet to grow accustomed to the constant drumming accompanying the more than 10,000 attendees at this year’s national Rainbow Gathering—a temporary intentional community comprised of hippies, nomads and Earth children seeking to live in harmony with nature. Actually, I hadn’t managed to acclimate to anything at the gathering. Not the sounds, not the smells, not the complete disregard for nearly every societal norm. They call themselves a family, made up of tribes and clans that travel and live together, some year-round, and some only part-time. They shun the world as we know it and seek to create their own using public lands and the First Amendment. They hold smaller gatherings throughout the year then come together at a different national forest each year for a huge family reunion.
I had tried being open-minded, empathetic, treating the whole thing as an anthropological study, but I just couldn’t do it. In a desperate attempt to see eye-to-eye with this Rainbow family, I had even broken an eight-year hallucinogen-free run and eaten a mixture of honey and psychedelic mushrooms. But there I was, in the midst of a mellow trip, further from understanding them than I had been when I arrived. Their customs, traditions and endless maze of contradictory beliefs had brought my frustration to a tipping point matched in intensity by their most frenzied drumming. Though I had planned to stay for seven days, I was done. I wanted to go home.
Twenty-six miles from Cuba, N.M., deep in the forest, I parked my Jeep precariously close to a steep ravine’s edge. Having somehow managed to follow the vague directions nonchalantly offered by a dreadlocked man wearing a dusty blazer, who steered gatherers into parking configurations cooked up in his blissed-out head, I pulled into a spot some 10 miles from his original suggestion. It was a tight squeeze between a Toyota and a log marking the spot behind me as decidedly “taken.”
From there it took three trips, loaded down with newly purchased camping gear and hailed by calls of “Welcome home!” to find and set up camp. My friend Naomi and I were joined by 22-year-old Bonnie and 58-year-old Dave, who we’d arranged to pick up in Albuquerque through a rideshare board. Bonnie was a Rainbow Gathering veteran who’d offered to show us the ropes, and Dave was her roommate along for the experience.
Our campsite was a mile up and down hills from the trailhead. The distance mattered little when compared to the view. Perched on a grassy, flower-covered ledge that dropped gently into a tree-filled valley, the hike seemed worth it. A nearby kitchen called Deep Faith only verified our decision. Cavernous pots filled with simmering beans and rice sat atop a fire-baked mud oven and sent steamy aromas through our campsite. I dropped in on the open-air kitchen and asked to snap a few pictures. My request appeared to irritate the kitchen workers; their irritation deepened when I admitted I was from a newspaper. They turned their backs to me, covering their heads with their sweatshirt hoods, as I tried to capture the rustic feel of the handcrafted oven.
Exhausted from miles of trekking through the woods and racing to set up camp before ominous clouds released their rain, we stuck close to camp and rested for the night. I became aware of the drums minutes after snuggling into my sleeping bag. With my eyes closed, I imagined I was sleeping in a South American jungle on the verge of discovering a fabled tribe.
The morning brought sunshine and a visit from a neighboring camper, Brent. His ready smile and hint of lingering baby fat epitomized the rainbow spirit I had read about while researching this nomadic tribe known as the Rainbow family.
He joined us for tea and admired the valley view for a moment, then pointed out the slit trench at the bottom of the hill. Affectionately called “shitters” by the family, the four-foot-long, narrow holes were as modern as toilets got at the Gathering. It was only minutes before someone came along and unknowingly gave us a graphic demonstration of shitter protocol. What a view, indeed.
Brent sent prayers and blessings our way, suggesting I join him the next day for a nature walk hosted by an herbalist, and headed off to meet friends. We set out ourselves to see what we could see.
We wandered down the main trail through the trade route, a stretch of well-worn forest path flanked on either side by family hocking their wares: hemp necklaces, cigarettes, ramen, crystals, herbs, candy—you name it. No money is exchanged at the Gathering, only bartering is allowed. Most vendors had wish lists consisting of items they’d be willing to trade for. A typical wish list might read, “Bud, mescaline, shrooms, acid, ride to NYC.”
The trail was clogged with people making deals and people just trying to bum anything for free. Fighting my way through the throngs of people—some of whom had been in the woods for weeks readying the campsite—I was occasionally assaulted by body odor so sharp my eyes watered. Surprisingly, the smell didn’t originate from those who would be described as hippies but rather from gutter punks. Dickens would have called them street urchins. They were a rough bunch, sneering and grabbing, their darting eyes observing it all with suspicion.
As we reached the end of the crowd, we came upon a man trading intangibles. He was offering unconditional love in exchange for funny dances, cartwheels or silly walks. I managed a vaudevillian trot as I passed by, starting to feel myself getting into the spirit of things. I smiled often, and each time someone addressed me as "sister” or “mama,” I responded in kind. I hugged strangers, ignoring the invasion of my personal space even when those embraces lasted for minutes at a time, incorporating an awkward intimacy into what should have been a casual greeting. Babylon—the "real world" in Rainbow vernacular—began to melt away. I was in the woods with family, and I was going with it. I mean, if the only requirement for membership was having a bellybutton, then I qualified. Right?
Mealtimes could be quite a production. Signaled by the blowing of a conch, Gatherers materialized in the main meadow, streaming out from the surrounding forest and arranging themselves in concentric circles. Once assembled, all would join hands and a collective “ohm” would reverberate through the lush green clearing. Brent explained the ohm as being the sound of creation. Whatever it was, the collective hum was not only audible but palpable, as well. Its low vibration radiated out from ribcages, traveling down outstretched arms and from hand to hand.
Meals were prepared and served by a number of kitchens with colorful names like Musical Veggies, Granola Funk and Turtle Soup. They’d make the rounds, handing out rice balls and ladling vegetable stews followed close behind by an obviously seasoned Gatherer shouting, “Yeast! I got your brewer’s yeast!”
Bonnie explained the yeast was used to supplement the vegetarian fare, helping to fill in any nutritional voids. I only partook once. Receiving a generous “sprinkling,” the yeast outweighed my stew, transforming the already bland portion into a thick, chalky, inedible paste.
Fortunately, after nightfall, several kitchens upped the culinary ante. Teasing impossibly tasty dishes from roaring fires and letting out their own sounds of creation, cries announcing their efforts rang out from the hills.
“Oz has pizza in the woods!”
“Sushi at Deep Faith!”
“Get your asses over to Shut Up and Eat It for deep-fried zuzus!”
Oz’ thin-crust pizza was satisfying on many levels. It was perfectly executed in both crust and sauce, and unlike most of the Gathering’s meals, it proudly displayed meat atop the cheesy slices. More surprising than the pepperoni was the cooking method. The deep-woods chefs had managed to heft an actual oven up a steep hill to their site. Hooked up to propane tanks, the appliance seemed as at home as it would in, well, a home.
Deep Faith’s vegetable sushi was packed with fresh and pickled veggies, a welcome break from camping’s nonperishable fare. But Shut Up and Eat It stole the show. Gatherers refer to sweet treats as “zuzus.” Shut Up raised the stakes to state-fair standards by deep-frying battered chunks of caramel apples. The chefs made candy-studded trail mix look like packing peanuts.
Late-night hunting and gathering excursions became a saving grace for me. Not only was my palate comforted, but the stunning ingenuity employed for no other reason than to make others happy most clearly embodied, at least to me, the rumored spirit of the Rainbow family.
I busied myself with camp chores and daily hikes to my car to charge my phone. In between I joined Brent on the nature walk led by 7Song, an herbalist from Ithica. He possessed a refreshing amount of cynicism, telling us, “Even though my name is 7Song, get rid of your Native American fantasies. I’m a Jew from New York.”
As he pointed out native plants and described their uses, he was careful to warn against using them irresponsibly. Cradling an osha plant’s lacy blossom, he quizzed the 50 or so students on its Latin name, praised it for its ability to relieve altitude sickness and cautioned would-be herbalists to not be overeager in prescribing. Pointing out that any herb could interact differently with pre-existing conditions or the use of other medications, he wasn’t shy about expressing his belief that Rainbow Gatherers were likely to disregard his advice and gobble up anything growing like it was Tylenol.
I sat in on massage circles, tranced out to drum circles, carried wood to community fires, donated money for community food and supplies, endlessly bummed out cigarettes and otherwise did my best to be an active participant.
I even became a one-woman candy patrol, handing out nearly 300 Dum Dums that I’d brought in from Babylon to the muddy, the young, the naked and the stoned. It was as I strolled about, distributing lollipops just for the hell of it, that my frustration began to peak.
It was July 4, Interdependence Day, a day set aside for morning silence and praying for peace followed by nonstop partying. The morning silence was observed by some. Others just took to whispering. Rain drenched the Gatherers and turned the camp to a mud slick. Many took refuge beneath trees, umbrellas and plastic ponchos, while others didn’t even don basic clothing.
Despite the downpour, Gatherers were determined to celebrate. The morning silence was broken by yet another ohm chorus, a children’s parade through the meadow, and drumming, dancing and all other forms of revelry.
Handing out candy, I got a chance to encounter nearly every type of Gatherer. Some were excited by the free offering, some were uninterested. Some were disgusted at the sight of refined sugar on a stick, some only accepted after verifying they were vegan-appropriate. More than a few accepted my offer with a healthy amount of suspicion, and several of the gutter punk variety snatched the candies quickly as though I might change my mind and rescind the offer.
My bag emptied, I once again headed to my car to plug in my phone and enjoy a little air-conditioning. I struggled up the muddy hills, slipping and sliding all along the way. Approaching my car, I noticed something wasn’t quite right.
It seemed I had unknowingly broken a rule, a rule of the unorganized organization’s gathering, which professed to have no rules.
My first indication was a hazy coating of some substance on my windshield. I assumed it was tree sap, but I quickly realized no trees hung over my car. Puzzled, I slid into the passenger seat and set to charging my phone. As I settled into the seat, I turned my head to gaze out the driver’s side window, and there it was. Scrawled across two windows was the description of my sin, “To the shit who parked in a supply vehicals [sic] parking spot / your [sic] lucky I didn’t slash your tires.”
The message was written in a gooey, translucent substance. As I wondered what had been used to so succinctly spell out my transgression, my eyes fell on a tube of Carmex shoved into the frame of my side-view mirror.
I was officially pissed. My car had been parked in the same spot for four days. I had been told by someone with some air of authority to park in that spot. I had been careful to not park in the log-marked spot. What the fuck had I done to deserve greasy, petroleum-based vandalism?
I sat in my car for an hour going over the week’s events. I felt certain I had done my best to understand the Gathering and contribute to it. Sure, at the end of each day I had been exhausted and increasingly fed up with the Gatherers’ idiosyncrasies. I struggled to find it charming when I realized clocks were unwelcome, that scheduled events happened when they happened. I tried not to judge when I came across small children covered in dirt and snot, wearing filthy clothes and no shoes. Each time I was scolded for small infractions like using a flashlight, carrying a camera or not sounding a warning when police were spotted, I smiled and adjusted. When people let their dogs shit all over the place, causing the meadow to turn into a fecal minefield, I simply held my nose and watched my step.
I had struggled to understand why marijuana, LSD, peyote and mushrooms were welcome but hard drugs and alcohol were frowned upon. Why, if all were welcome and there were no rules, were drinkers kept by the parking lot separate from the larger Gathering?
I tried to empathize with Gatherers’ animosity toward Forest Service and law enforcement officers. Hundreds of Gatherers were pulled over, searched and issued citations for offenses ranging from dirty license plates to possession. Bonnie had been busted for less than two grams of weed and insisted the officers had no probable cause to search the vehicle she was riding in. My own encounters had been peaceful until a Forest Service agent tried to put the fear of God in me by giving my car, parked on that ravine’s edge, a forceful shove while I sat in it. I hugged the dashboard as he walked off laughing. But I grew tired of the Gatherers taunting the officers and shouting obscenities when their target was a group of officials who had formed a search party interested only in locating a Gatherer’s missing 4-year-old daughter.
To be fair, not everything contributing to my frustration was the Rainbow’s doing. Wet clothes and bedding were dragging me down, and an angry sunburn wasn’t helping. Naomi had taken a tumble on her way to the shitter, injuring her leg and slowing us all down. Ants, termites, biting flies and mosquitoes assaulted us day and night, and thick mud clung to our shoes. A lack of privacy and bathing lent to our discomfort.
It wasn’t all bad. Each night I returned to camp and unloaded my misery on the always gentle Brent. He would consider my complaints then encourage me to give the Rainbow another chance. From his point of view, the Gathering was a successful experiment in communal living, while I didn’t see much difference between the Gathering and Babylon.
In both places, some people worked tirelessly to build and maintain the community while some seemed only to greedily reap what had been so diligently sowed. Both places were home to loving individuals and a disproportionate amount of assholes. Both places walked a thin line between embracing nature and holding it at bay.
My final evening saw Brent and me once again hashing out our opposing perspectives. He was sticking to his ideals; I was sticking to my pragmatism. As the electric charge of psilocybin crept through the center of my bones, I agreed to search out the Rainbow’s meaning one last time. A vivid rainbow appeared above us, causing Brent to leap up, certain it was an omen. I laughed along with him and we made our way to a bonfire seeking warmth and common ground.
I’d love to end my tale by telling you I connected with the universe and discovered a pot of warm fuzzies at the end of the rainbow, that I communed with the Great Spirit and received deliverance from my many conflicts, but I can’t. Instead, I found myself once again surrounded by street kids. I stared into the fire as steam rose from my soggy shoes, floating through my final hours in the forest while my scraggly brothers and sisters debated the finer points of scamming the welfare system and offered advice as to the most effective ways to blow up squirrels and pigeons.
I retreated to my damp sleeping bag, wrapped myself in a blanket of drumbeats and sought refuge in the knowledge that I would be heading home in the morning. I felt no shame in cutting out two days early, only relief. I would pack my impressions of Bonnie and Brent into my bag, taking them home as souvenirs. They had been patient ambassadors, Rainbow representatives charged with translating a strange culture into an experience that could be grasped by a cynical Babylonian. They did their damnedest. But no amount of sage smudging or meditating in nature could convince me to apply for citizenship. My allegiance lies with Babylon and all its horrific, materialistic glory. Things might be screwed up here, even tragic, but we’re aware of our faults and trying to overcome them; we’re not hiding from them in the woods hoping they’ll just go away.