For 25 years, the Rainbow Family has gathered each Fourth of July to create a community outside of mainstream society


BIRCH TREE, Mo. -- I'm tailgating an old brown school bus, with Minnesota plates, as it lumbers south on Route 99, a roller-coaster, two-lane blacktop in Oregon County about 200 miles south of St. Louis. Buses like the one jouncing in front of me -- festooned with bumper stickers and held together with duct tape -- are familiar pieces of Americana.

To peg these gonzo vehicles or their occupants as vestiges of the 1960s, however, would be a mistake. Jerry Garcia and Timothy Leary are both dead and moldering in the grave, but the Rainbow Family is very much alive, and entering its second generation.
Each summer for the last quarter-of-a-century, thousands of denizens of the American counterculture have met at some remote site within the vast U.S. Forest Service system. This year the nomadic convergence is centered in the Mark Twain National Forest near Thomasville, Mo., deep in the Missouri Ozarks.
The Rainbows simply call their strange annual convention a gathering. It begins in late June and reaches a fever-pitch on the Fourth of July, when thousands of blissed-out campers join hands in a giant circle to pray for world peace.
Within the confines of this self-imposed ghetto, rigid class stratification briefly disappears. For some, the gathering is merely a vacation, a respite from the increasingly oppressive dominant culture. For others, it is part of a nomadic lifestyle not unlike the hoboes and itinerant workers that roamed the country earlier in this century.
What distinguishes the Rainbow Family most from previous subcultures is its weird amalgamation of belief systems. Rainbow philosophy, if there is such a thing, incorporates Christian theology, Eastern mysticism, Native American myths and animism, the worship of nature. Politically, they are anarchists, with no leaders or visible hierarchy.
On the surface then, there appears to be nothing holding this group together. But behind the expressions of peace and love, which are so freely spoken at Rainbow gatherings, there lies a festering alienation with modern society. Whether they drive from Vermont in a late-model Saab or hitchhike from some podunk town in Oklahoma it makes no difference. These people may be trapped in the system like everybody else, but none of them are buying the hype.
This ain't no Lollapolooza. This ain't no H.O.R.D.E. Fest. This ain't no foolin' around. This is the real funk -- body odor, naked torsos, incessant drum beats pounding on the horizon, the sun baking the mud between thousands of toes, and the smell of burning cannabis drifting through the air. Aside from the distinct possibility of being hassled by the cops, the only price of admission for participating in this social experiment, is the will to withstand the more unpleasant aspects of the natural world: mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers and poison ivy.
Despite these perils, the Forest Service estimated Monday that more than 8,000 people have already arrived at the site. The agency anticipates the population may swell to more than 10,000 at the peak of the gathering.


"This is a village that for 25 years, in some mysterious way, seems to appear and be somewhere with thousands of people for six weeks or so and then it disappears. It's an amazing thing watching it develop," says Art., who like many Rainbows shuns his last name.
Art is one of the veteran Rainbow scouts who selected this year's gathering site. Crouching on the ground, he pulls a frayed topographical map out of his soiled shoulder bag, and uses a blade of grass to point out our position along Spring Creek.
With his graying beard, floppy felt hat and blue eyes gleaming from behind wire-rimmed glasses, Art seems more like the ghost of John Muir or Walt Whitman than a hippie.
He says that aside from the standard mystical attributes, a site must meet three criteria: Enough open ground to park thousands of vehicles; large meadows to accommodate ceremonies and council meetings; and an ample source of clean water -- the latter being the determining factor in this year's selection.
The site near Thomasville winds for more than three miles through the valley of a small tributary of the Eleven Point River, one of the cleanest streams in North America. But Art and his fellow scouts understand their temporary community cannot depend on surface water, because it could be contaminated with fecal bacteria from dogs, humans or wildlife.
Instead of drawing directly from the creek, the Rainbow plumbers have tapped into springs on the nearby hillsides, relying on gravity to push the water through plastic pipe. The largest of these springs, which is not designated on the any map, has an estimated flow of 35 gallons per minute. That amount is sufficient to supply four kitchens in the valley. The plumbers laid a mile of pipe to accomplish this task.
After the completion of the project, they cordoned off the area and posted signs warning campers to stay clear of the water source, which is now harnessed to a tangle of black plastic pipes that converge under a rock outcropping.
Last Wednesday, I tagged along with Art most of the morning to observe a Rainbow organizer in action. In order to circumvent the hubbub of Bus Village, he walked quickly down an adjacent logging road, his trouser legs stuffed inside a pair a scuffed, round-toed cowboy boots. He is noticeably sure-footed, and although not a tall man, has a bounding gait. In one hand, he carried a tin cup half-filled with tepid coffee, with the other he brushed aside low-hanging branches. His conversation with me was often interrupted to greet passersby by name. At Popcorn Palace, one of many Rainbow kitchens, he dipped his cup in a caldron of coffee. On a few other occasions, he also accepted tokes off a pipe or a joint, but never tarried for more than a few minutes. Art's destination that day was a spring near Tea Time kitchen, where he and a friend planned to make improvements to the water system.
Along the way, he talked about the conformity of the "real world," which has kept him veering down the Rainbow trail well into middle age. The images he conjured up were filled with American flags and references to the Vietnam War, memories that apparently still haunt him. He revealed little about his personal life other than to relate that he has spent sometime living in Northern New Mexico. He was less reticent about his opinion of the federal government, especially the Forest Service bureaucracy, which he described in this manner:
"Receding desks upon desks, where a guy somewhere says, `alright, ... here's what we're going to do this morning. And all these guys then start throwing this from the top of the pyramid of desks back to each other in triplicate and send it out to us as regulations."
When I left Art, he was tossing large rocks down a forested slope, helping to build yet another catch basin for a small spring.
Before the last Rainbow departs the gathering later this month, all the plumbing will be dismantled and carted away. The carefully crafted clay ovens will return to the earth. Kitchens with names like Granola, Grand Funk and Lovin' Touch will disappear. And the meadows will be reseeded with native grasses. By then, all the alcoholics will have split from A-Camp. All the RVs will have departed Bus Village. The "Welcome Home" banner will have been untied from the trees that straddle the entrance.
What will remain is a fleeting sense of community among a group of people who are strangers in their own land. People, who regardless of their station in life, have come to feel that they are part of an unacknowledged American diaspora. This legacy is now being handed down to their children, many of whom have attended Rainbow gatherings since they were born. Talk to 15-year-old Kaya from Austin, or 20-year-old Diana from California or 17-year-old Henry from Utah and they will all say there is a kinship at the gatherings that is lacking elsewhere.
Although his father smokes marijuana, Henry says he does not. "I don't even drink coffee," he says. His campsite is littered with dumbeks, the equivalent of Israeli bongos. Henry digs drumming late at night.


Hackneyed and lame news stories that focus on New Age eccentricities, illicit drug use and promiscuity say far more about the sad state of American journalism than they do the Rainbow Family. None of those perceived social problems are unique to gatherings. Indeed, all three have been associated with the current residents at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C .
The period preceding the Fourth of July brings with it a dearth of hard news. Official sources go on vacation, government agencies operate at reduced levels and state legislatures are often in recess. As a result, wherever the Rainbows congregate over the holiday, they become at best a diversion, and at worst scapegoats.
Moreover, the extent of the mainstream media's negative image of the Rainbows may reflect not only the personal bias of a reporter, but also the social climate within any given region at the time of an annual gathering. For example, in 1985, when the Rainbows last gathered in Missouri, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports were relatively benign. In comparison, this year's coverage showed a complete lack of balance. Public castigation of the Rainbows by the St. Louis daily newspaper intimates that the community at large is more intolerant of differences than it was even during the Reagan era. This is, indeed, a sobering thought.
Diatribes directed at the Rainbow Family by the mainstream press help reinforce stereotypes that foster bigotry, ignorance and violence. Over time, they could ultimately create an atmosphere favorable to the kind of pogroms that have been carried out in the past against other persecuted minorities.
If this seems like an exaggeration, consider the law enforcement operation currently directed against the Rainbow Family in the Mark Twain National Forest. Roadblocks have been set up on both sides of Forest Road 3173, and all drivers are being required to furnish federal authorities with driver's licenses and vehicle registrations. Forest Services officers at the roadblocks last Wednesday refused to cite the specific statute that allowed them to indiscriminately stop citizens without cause.
Carolyn Callahan, the Forest Service spokeswoman, says the roadblocks were put in place "to create an awareness of our presence." Four drug arrests have been made so far, Callahan says. Callahan declined to estimate the cost of the law enforcement operation. The Forest Service has called in not only its own officers from around the country, but also the mounted U.S. Park Police and U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents. The heavily armed federal officers have been patrolling the site on horseback, ATVs, mountain bikes and on foot. Given the generally peaceable nature of past Rainbow gatherings, these measures seem excessive.