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The Virgin Gathering
North Carolina, 1987
The first time I heard of the Rainbow Gathering was in the summer of 1977, when I was working for the Sundance Café, a vegetarian restaurant a half a block from Central Avenue and the edge of the campus of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
This place called itself a "worker's collective"; it was supposedly not officially owned by any one person, but by all who worked there, and there were lots of Marxist concepts expressed in the many meetings held and the numerous "agreements" made to manage the day-to-day workings of the business. It was a magnet for people of all kinds of hippie, New Age, New Left, and other sorts of "alternative" likings.
One afternoon in June I had to run a short errand for the restaurant in my own car, and one of my co-workers brought to me two customers who were traveling thru town and had asked him about getting a ride nearer to downtown, where the bus station was. I told them to get in, and to start some in-car chat, I asked where they were going. The one who had got into the passenger seat beside me answered in a quiet soft voice, "We're going to the Rainbow Gathering."
He was dressed in tattered denim bell-bottom trousers with many patches out of mismatching cloth, a flowing peasant shirt, and beads and jewelry hanging all over him. His blond hair was shoulder length and he had a wisp of a beard, all untrimmed and uncombed – the classic flower child hippie. He talked slowly and softly, always keeping a little smile on his lips, and he seemed to be in a blissful trance.
I questioned him a little further and he told me it was a big meeting going on in southern New Mexico. He wasn't too talkative, however, so I mostly just left him alone. I looked at him a few times, and he always looked back with the same vacant euphoric expression with eyes that seemed to be looking through me and beyond.
This "gathering" was a few hundred miles away – too far for me to want to go to when I was just getting started in this new job at the restaurant and had rather little money – so I didn't take him up on his invitation to come. I also figured it must be a meeting of mostly other people like him, and he had impressed me as being rather out of touch with reality, like some of the other psychedelic space cadets that passed thru the restaurant daily.
Some of the local newspapers ran some articles about it a week later. An opening line I remember from one of the "underground newspapers" was, "Casual nudity, open sharing of marijuana, and New Age spiritual rituals were some of the outstanding features of the Rainbow Gathering held this last week in the Gila National Forest." It had a picture of some people standing in a circle with their arms around each other's shoulders and waists, and a few of them were displaying bare buttocks to the camera.
In the following months I heard more people talking about it around the restaurant. It seemed like a mass hippie convention, a bunch of freaks camping out in the woods and having a big love-in. It was a pretty sizeable assembly of people, several thousand strong, and it was always held on National Forest land.
My second close encounter was two years later, in June of 1979, and by then the restaurant had gone out of business, I had given up on finding work in Albuquerque, and I was on the road – sleeping in the back of my Volkswagen squareback and going from one day-labor job to another in one town after another, hoping for eventually a new place to call home.
In the course of my travels I had stopped for a night at a place called "Healing Waters" in southeastern Arizona near Safford, on a tract of hot springs that a bunch of eclectic spiritual types were trying to start a commune and spa resort on. There I heard that the Rainbow Gathering was happening not more than a hundred miles away, and by then my perception of distances had changed to where that much now seemed like a short hop. This time I was persuadable to try it, even tho I was more concerned at the time with finding a place where I could find work and settle down again in, and didn't really want to be diverted from this main quest.
My car at the time was giving me many mechanical troubles, and one afternoon another person who was also staying at the commune gave me a ride to Safford so I could buy some auto parts. We got to talking about the Rainbow Gathering, and he said, "I live in Bisbee, a small town where the people are mostly very conservative, and some of my neighbors who go to the Baptist church were telling me, 'don't go to that, they are not good people, it's dangerous', and so on and so on…"
I asked, "Why? Because…?", not finishing the sentence because I was suspecting a certain answer, and he completed it by saying, "Because people run around naked and take drugs."
The conversation went on, and he said that there were many serious aspects to it too, many people practicing assorted rituals of New Age spirituality.
The following morning I had a French girl with her puppets sitting in the passenger seat ready to ride to the gathering with me, but a few miles after leaving the community my engine started missing and jerking again. So I took her back to the commune, said "sorry", and then nursed the car back to Safford. After just happening to be able to buy just the one distributor wire I needed from a salvage yard while having just the right amount of money left, and getting the engine purring again, I decided to get my ass to Texas like I had previously decided, while the getting was still good.
For the next eight years the gathering never came near Austin, where I settled (if you can call living in your car and parking it in and around the same town for several years settling). It seemed that the Rainbow Gathering was always in some place in the Rocky Mountain west, the areas the intellectual New Agers seemed to prefer, the places with mountains and arty appeal, and it never came to places with more redneck reputations in the east and south.
For a while I even said, if the subject ever came up in a conversation, "I'll go to the Rainbow Gathering the first time they have it in Texas," with the silent and sarcastic implication that this would never happen. (After I started going to gatherings, I learned that my surmisings were false; they had gone to Michigan, Missouri, and Pennsylvania during the time I was in Austin.) But my curiosity about the Rainbow Gathering never waned completely.
In June of 1987 I was again on the road escaping recession and unemployment, and the ride was now a Chevrolet half-ton pickup with a homemade pop-up camper on the back. Again I had two hippies coming up to me inquiring about a ride, this time at an interstate rest area in the mountains of eastern Tennessee, and again they mentioned the Rainbow Gathering. These two appeared much more deliberate and together than the first two in Albuquerque. They told me it was going to be nearby in the Appalachians this year. "Yeah, there are people in the seed camps for it right now."
This was enough to break down my prejudices; now they were having it in the heart of Dixie! They looked for a ride elsewhere after I told them I was going to be sleeping the night in the rest stop. The next morning, driving alone, I got off at the next exit and looked around on the country roads nearby for a while, but found nothing that looked like a Rainbow Gathering.
Three weeks later I was working at what had started as a day labor job that I had scored out of the state employment office in Charlottesville, Virginia. After a week of first cleaning out an old attic space covered with pigeon shit and then impressing them enough with my assorted construction skills, they had just asked me to stay on steady at their company. It was called Gropen Signs, and that's what they made and installed.
I went on a weekend excursion to Washington, D.C., and I saw in a City Paper I had picked up (the "arts and entertainment" free tabloid newspaper) a classified ad for the Rainbow Gathering. It said at the bottom: For information, write: followed by a P.O. box address in Newport, Tennessee. That was in the southeast corner of the state. I said to myself that that would be just a day's cruise down I-81, so I decided to go. It was too late to have tried writing a letter, and I didn't yet have any mailing address for myself anyway, so I decided to just drive down and look for it.
The dates given in the ad were July 1 to July 7. That year the 4th was on Saturday and the three-day weekend started on Friday. I talked my new boss into Thursday off and the following Monday as well, telling him I was going on a trip. While trying to find a way to explain where I was going, I told him "it's like a big hippie convention". While in the truck on the way down, I joked to myself, "I'm gonna run around naked and take drugs."
At about 3 in the afternoon on Thursday the 2nd, I came off I-40 at the exit into Newport and drove up the main drag looking for anything that said anything about the Rainbow Gathering. I didn't know if there might be some signs or banners or something pointing the way. But I found nothing even hinting of a Rainbow Gathering.
After passing thru several stoplights and almost ready to give up, I spied a food co-op with hippily decorated signs, and in the parking lot out front was a Volkswagen van with similar colorful designs painted on it, and New Mexico license plates.
I decided here might a good place to look for hippies who might know where a Rainbow Gathering is, so I parked and went inside. In one of the aisles I asked the first guy I saw who had long hair, "Excuse me, but have you heard of the Rainbow Gathering?"
He answered, "Why yes. As a matter of fact, I am one of the regional focalizers."
Then I asked, "Do you know where it is?", and he then wrote down some highway directions and drew a map on a piece of paper we found. I thanked him, and he said, "Well, now you're home". I was later to hear a lot of that last word.
The way to the gathering from Newport started on US 411, a mostly two lane road in a general west-southwesterly direction. After passing the town of Maryville I turned to the left onto US 129, which led southeast over the crest of the Smoky Mountains into North Carolina and the Nantahalla National Forest. This road was narrow and twisty, with many switchback curves that sometimes took me down to 20 mph, and I drove on and on for two hours that seemed much longer than that, continuing to see no signs of a Rainbow Gathering.
I started muttering to myself, "No signs of it, no signs of it", and the road just kept stretching on more as I went over each hill crest. Again I was starting to despair of ever finding it. But then I descended into a narrow valley, and around a curve it suddenly opened up into a broad floodplain along a river – and it was filled with parked cars and vans as far as I could see. I felt my tension release and float away, and I gleefully said to myself, "Signs of it!"
I continued on the road into the mass of motor vehicles and found in the middle a few people walking about and talking thru windows to people in cars. One beckoned me to stop, I asked him how to get in, and he showed me a line of cars and told me to get in it. But the end of that line was now to the rear of me, and he told me I would have to drive on further to "the end" before I would be allowed to turn around and come back.
I drove on, very slowly because there were people all along the road and sometimes walking out onto it, for about a half mile before I saw a place where people were U-turning. I turned around went all the way back to the place where I had first espied the parking lot before turning around and trying again.
And I missed the turnoff again, and went to the end and back around one more time. Normally I would have been angry and complaining, but by now I had got into a mood of "whatever comes now is part of the show", so I even started giggling as I was driving.
I finally got it right and got into the slow moving line of cars. One time I lost my patience and honked my horn, which was an old-time one that I had installed in place of the original; one that went oogah oogah like the "Dive! Dive!" signal in submarine movies. I started scolding myself for losing it, but a guy came up to me laughing and saying, "All right, I know all about you guys. Aro-o-o-gah, aro-o-o-o-gah."
As I had progressed to where I was third from the beginning of the line, I heard a discussion among some people there that ended with, "OK, we'll let these last three in." I was asked if I had a "live-in vehicle", to which I was able to answer truthfully, "Yes," and I was beckoned thru a gateway of upright poles to a gravel road leading up a mountainside.
A bit of Rainbow folklore is, "If Spirit needs you to be at the gathering, it will lead you there." My case was certainly one to support this. There was now a long chain of coincidental meetings and happenings at just the right places at the right times, and if any one of them had not occurred it would have resulted in my not finding this gathering.
Just after I got thru the gate I crossed a narrow bridge over a stream, then I passed thru several cars and SUVs with police lights on top, in both Forest Service green and the colors of some local departments, and uniformed men standing by them. I was not beckoned to stop by any of them, but the number and density of the official vehicles was enough to be intimidating.
The road beyond was a Forest Service road of graded dirt that led up a mountainside, wrapping itself around folds in the land with frequent hairpin turns, and some treacherously steep slopes along the side – and no guardrails. I was soon stopped and asked by someone if I could give some people a ride, and when I said yes the passenger door was opened and two women jumped into the cab.
My sleeping quarters in the bed of my pickup had a lid that folded down flat for driving, and was hinged on the right side so it could be raised into a roof sloping upward to the left. It had some windows and a door that could be folded down inside when the lid was lowered. Several other people started to sling backpacks and sleeping bags and climb onto this lid, and I started worrying if it would break under the weight. I got out and did some arranging and finally pleaded that I couldn't have too many people on it. I was finally able to proceed onward with only five people on the back, and several piles of camping gear.
The woman sitting next to me said hi and then started to pour out her current troubles to me like I were her psychiatrist or hairdresser. She had just been down to the parking area to check up on her car and had not been able to get it going but was on her way back up to meet someone for some other obligation, and she was all worried. "All my possessions and all my life are in that car." She was middle aged with dark frizzy hair and dark circles around her eyes which seemed to amplify the intensity of her gaze. Her speech resonated with even more intensity of feeling.
In the back I could hear more highly animated conversations. There were many groups of people hiking up and down the road, and I was asked to stop several times by riders who wanted to talk with some of them. In the air all around was more emotional intensity, a highly charged atmosphere of passionate involvement in everything that was being done.
I thought to myself, "I'm surrounded by a bunch of people who are as crazy as I am."
Being amid all this freakdom, and remembering that this was 1987, twenty years after the fabled Summer of Love, I started singing a Beatles song with a slight change, "It is twenty years ago today." The woman sitting by the passenger door completed the verse, "Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play", but neither of us sang it any further. By now it was like I was in a stoned out and giggly rush, even tho it was to be an hour or so before I would be offered some hits on an actual joint.I continued up, slowly to avoid all the people. Off one hairpin curve I saw the rear of a truck that had gone over the side and was now resting against a tree, amid a commotion of people around it. At another place I had to stay stopped for what seemed like ten minutes while the woman by the door talked thru the window with an old man with a big bushy beard who seemed rather drunk.
Near the top of the hill the road started to widen and level out, and there were two slender whittled down tree branches leaned across the road to prevent vehicles from going further. A long-haired and bearded man beckoned me to stop, and when I did, all the riders got out or jumped off, some yelling to me thank yous. The man came up to my window and said, "Welcome home".
After asking me if I was just getting in, he told me to turn around and go back down the road and find a place to park in the lines of cars along the side of the road. I only had to go about a hundred yards before I found a space big enough on the outside edge of the road. I parked, lowered the tailgate, raised the lid and put a supporting pole beneath it, folded up the window and door, removed the pole and rested the lid on top of them – putting it in sleeping configuration.
Then I walked back up, carrying nothing in my hands or on my back, ready to just open up to whatever was going to happen. I got back to the rustic gate and the people taking care of the incoming cars, and heard more people saying "welcome home" to me. This phrase kept coming up again and again as I continued on the road and started talking to people, "Are you just in? Welcome home.". An elementary school age boy stopped me and said, "Welcome home", while his parents were watching. Later that evening I was to see a guy walking around with a little sampler keyboard that said "welcome home" up and down the scale as he pressed the keys.
There had apparently been intermittent rain showers all day, and whenever I went off the edge of the road the ground was muddy. I returned to my truck and changed into a pair of Vietnam style jungle boots, but I kept on the blue jeans and tee shirt I had worn on the drive in, adding only a windbreaker jacket. I took some time to munch on some of the tortilla chips and the cold cuts that I had in the ice chest I kept in the back, and to drink a can of Coca-Cola. Then I ventured back up again.
Past the entrance the road curved to the right, then straightened out for several hundred yards before turning to the right again in the distance, thru tall evergreen and deciduous trees, some with vines hanging from them, typical southern Appalachian mixed forest. There was a line of cars, trucks, and vans parked bumper to bumper along each side. There were people milling about everywhere. This, as I was later to learn, was the most populous time in a gathering, when many were just getting in for its climax on the Fourth of July.
By now the sun was setting. It had been sunny since I had arrived, but now clouds were starting to move in. I walked into the deepening dusk into a world more wondrously weird than any twilight zone I had ever imagined.
There was a kaleidoscope of clothing. Tie-dyed tee shirts in bright rainbow colors. Leather vests with fringes and vests of blue denim with insignia patches sewn on.
Old blue jeans, jeans with patches of mismatching material, bellbottom pants, old blue jeans made into bellbottoms by splitting the seams near the bottoms of the legs and inserting mismatched materials. Jeans cut off to make them into shorts. Blue denim bib overalls. Army pants with big cargo pockets in olive drab and camouflage patterns.
Lots of hats: woven Guatemalan dreadlock hats, cowboy hats with feathers, straw hayseed hats, bandanas tied around as headbands.
Some of the women wore ankle length tiered skirts or granny dresses in calico prints. Some of them wore cotton wraparound skirts in Madras patterns.
And there were men wearing skirts as well. Most of them wore this same kind of wraparound, but there were others wearing sometimes frilly patterns that were definitely feminine. They were always long with hemlines below the knee; none of them had on minis.
Most of the outfits I would definitely have called hippie, but there were other subcultures represented as well. Punk rockers, all in black with Mohawk and other flamboyant hairdos, with tattoos, and rings in pierced ears and noses. Harley-Davidson biker ensembles of blue jeans, high top boots, leather vests, and bandanas. Cowboy outfits straight out of Shepler's: jeans with big belt buckles topped by straw Stetson hats and fringed leather jackets. There were saffron orange robes of Krishna devotees and other religious robes of white or tan, sometimes topped with turbans.
And there were lots of people dressed in plain old mainstream clothes, tee or polo shirts over Bermuda shorts, crew socks, and sneakers or jogging shoes, topped off with a baseball cap that had an adjustable plastic band in the back. There were people of all ages, grey-haired to teenager, and lots of parents with children.
I don't distinctly remember seeing someone walking around completely naked that first evening, but I saw a few women walking around bare breasted, and many of the men were shirtless. But the evening air was starting to cool off, and this was a time when people were starting to want to put clothing on instead of take it off.
It didn't take long to find a group of people standing in a circle passing around a joint, and I was able to just walk up, ask if I could have a hit, and take a place in the circle. For the rest of the evening I was able to mooch more tokes just about any time I smelled the smoke wafting my way, and this was sometimes so often that I started letting opportunities pass by.
The preponderance of people under the influence of this drug gave this assembly a different air from an affair where there are lots of people drinking alcohol – and other than the old man I had seen on the way up, I saw nobody who appeared drunk that evening. Nobody was walking around with beer bottles or plastic cups or otherwise drinking openly.
For those unfamiliar with the effects of marijuana, I can try to describe them briefly, but my attempt must fail to convey their all-embracing intensity. The main effect is amplification. Colors become brighter or darker, sounds become more brilliant or more mellow, subtle differences become more pronounced, it's easier to discern subtle details. Emotional reactions to art are also increased, a happy song makes you feel happier, a sad turn in a movie makes you want to cry more. And things seem funnier. The giggle fit that feeds on itself and goes on and on is one of legendary results of pot.
This all brings on a second effect, concentration. Your attention becomes more focused on what it is directed to, and you can more easily ignore stimuli that might distract you. You get more wrapped up in experiences and they leave greater impressions on your memory.
And with this concentration comes amplification of all the ways this thing you are concentrating on make you feel good. Doing the things you like to do feels even better, and this brings on a third effect: a general euphoria when you can keep on doing them. Marijuana acts like a euphoriant on the endocrine juices that control your moods.
And this brings on passivity. Physical activities that you enjoy you can engage in with more vigor, but unpleasant effort becomes even more intolerable.
There is an exception to this: if you are finally trying to do something that you feel is some kind of moral obligation, like finally doing a task that you have been putting off for a long time, the satisfaction you feel at finally achieving it can also be amplified enough to overcome the unpleasantness that was making you procrastinate.
In either case, when you are wrapped up in and grooving on something, aggressive stuff that requires effort becomes unattractive. Adrenaline is in some ways an antidote to tetrahydrocannibinol. Fear and anger bring you down, and so does any behavior that brings these on. You'd rather try to smooth things over with anybody you come into conflict with than try to assert your way aggressively on them.
A bunch of people drinking often talk about people they don't like and laugh and tell stories about how they succeeded in putting them down. In contrast to this, a bunch of people smoking pot can often be recognized by their giggling over simple incongruities, and at their own blundering while under the influence. You can tell by the stoned laugh, "Huh, huh, huh, huh…", said rapidly, that their sentences end with.
So an easy-going air prevailed among the people out on the road and in the public areas, one which opened up to you, accepted you, and invited you in. You could go up to groups of strangers and join in their conversations. If people saw you looking at them they would respond with smiles and waves, rather than defensively like drunks.
People would say "brother" when they wanted to get my attention. This word was also used as an interjection of politeness, like "sir" in the straight world. "Excuse me, brother." "Brother, would you like some of this…" "Brother" and "sister" were also ordinary words for "man" or "woman". "I was talking to this brother…", "That sister over there can help you…"
I would hear from time to time in the distance a group of voices hollering, "We lo-o-o-o-ove yo-o-o-o-ou", drawing it out in deliberately dissonant chords. Sometimes that would be answered by another chorus from a different direction in the woods.
Love, that word was seen all over the place, on people's clothing, on the sides of vehicles. We Love You was frequently at the end of felt tip penned signs telling you where to wash your dishes or throw your garbage or to please stay out of some place.
I saw people hugging each other all over the place, men with other men as well as with women. Hugs were offered to me along with the welcome homes. I saw a few people going around together calling out, "Hug patrol, hug patrol…" and giving them to passersby.
Back in the nooks and crannies of the individual kitchens and camps I was later to witness some conflict and drama, but out in the places where there were lots of people there was a peaceful, easy feeling. It was like the love-in I had gone to in San Diego in 1967.
Not too far from the entrance I went by an old and repainted school bus, the kind with a flat hood in front over the engine. Out in front of it on the road were two women being interviewed by a guy with a microphone and several bags hanging from his shoulders, while another man stood behind him with a video camera. These people were dressed in ordinary clothes, and looked like they were from a commercial news source. I couldn't hear the conversation clearly, but the word "hippie" emerged a few times.
There was an awning made of a blue tarp hung over the front door of the bus, and some folding lawn chairs set out under it. Inside the bus I could see a few people sitting around a table. I wondered if I was looking into some kind of headquarters where things were being directed. It looked like at least a few things here were rudimentarily organized.
Years of experience hanging around assorted "alternative" ventures – like the vegetarian restaurant, the hot springs commune, or the political groups at the university – had conditioned in me responses that could alternately be called objectivity or cynicism, and I had come to the Rainbow Gathering with no starry notions of finding a peace, love, and freedom utopia. And I wasn't ready to believe anybody who told me "there are no leaders here".
At the Sundance Café they said they had a "workers collective" where there were no leaders. But I observed how some people had knowledge and skills that others didn't, and how those who didn't often voluntarily followed the directions of those who did because they wanted to learn, or in some cases were completely lost about what to do.
These more knowledgeable people often had strong and imposing personalities, and could even at times get their way with tactics bordering on intimidation, while others gained by gentler means the respect and following of others. These others then went on to exert peer pressure on any new people coming into the group. No individual there had the power to fire someone else, but those who didn't fit the expectations of this de facto leadership would eventually leave voluntarily after repeated chastisement and disapproval by all the others.
I immediately began to hypothesize to myself what the real interpersonal dynamics of all this were – how things were really organized, what kinds of disagreements, arguments, political maneuverings, and outright ego-trippings went on here. Inside that bus I imagined that I might find some of the oligarchy that really organized and directed this apparent anarchy.
But by now any cynicism was giving way to a profound feeling of awe at the size and power of all this. This was major!
Here were thousands of people together making a powerful vibration, a collective spirit and that picked you up and moved you. The Spirit of '67 was still very much alive and creating, in spite of all that I had read and heard about how it had died. And it was all happening here in North Carolina, far from San Francisco, in the heart of the Confederacy, in the middle of what was supposed to be redneck land.
I walked on. A little further down the road from the bus I heard the ringing of finger cymbals, the boom-tapping of mridanga drums, congas with a big head and a little one on opposite ends, and the accordion like drone of a harmonium, a little box with a keyboard and a hand-operated bellows. As I approached it I heard people singing:
Ha-re Krish-na, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Ha-re Ra-ma, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare
I got around to the other side of a hill to the right and saw a group of devotees in their saffron robes leading a larger audience of people in non-religious Rainbow attire. The man playing the harmonium sang this maha mantra solo to any of a variety of melodies, then the audience responded by singing the same tune he just used.
The road went on to what looked like an intersection, with wide paths leading in both directions into clearings in the woods. I went to the left into one meadow, then thru a wall of trees into another large one. I came upon a big bonfire in a pit several yards across. By it there were 20 or 30 people playing an assortment of hand drums – djembes, congas, ashikos, bongos – in an African sounding beat with many syncopated notes. It was all being improvised, and one rhythm would permutate into another. Other people around the fire were dancing, wriggling their bodies, and waving their arms in frantic displays.
From there on I spent a few hours walking in the dark along the many trails that snaked thru the woods, often not really knowing where I was, but not having any real desire to know as long as I felt I could eventually find my way back to the road. I went from one campfire to another and one cluster of people around one to another, walking thru a circus of a hundred rings.
At some of the fires there were people with acoustic guitars, singing mostly songs I heard on the classic rock station, with a lot of Bob Marley reggae and Grateful Dead added – but with no amplifiers or other electricity. There were no radios or boom boxes to be heard, and live performances were everywhere. Listeners joined in harmony on choruses:
"I've got a peaceful, easy feeling…"
"these songs of freedom, are all we ever had…"
"you might say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one…"
I passed streams of people silhouetted by fires in the distance, saw spots of light from flashlight beams bouncing around on the ground, and heard snatches of conversation laced with mans, oh wows, dudes, trippins, and far outs. Dogs, sometimes in packs of several, ran and around and thru the people. Whoops and screams and party noises resounded thru the woods. A kaleidoscope show for the eyes and for the ears, and also for the nostrils: campfire smoke, marijuana smoke, food cooking in kitchen pots, body odors, foot odors, the contents of latrines, incense, citronella candles.
After a few hours of this it started to feel late for me, and I got back on the road and went back to my truck to go to bed. As I passed the entrance, an older man there watching it was being asked by a pair of teenage boys where they could find "some doses". "We've just driven 200 miles." The man asked back semi-scornfully, "Did you come here expecting to find that?" "Yeah," said one of the boys, and he rambled on in a tone of righteous desperation as I heard his voice fade to the rear as I walked on.
I awoke in my truck maybe an hour after sunrise the next morning. As usual after just getting up, I had to take a crap, but I wasn't too keen on using one of the latrines I had sometimes sensed the nearness of but not really seen last night. As I always had during the years I worked construction and lived in my truck, I had the necessary folding trench shovel, roll of paper, spray bottle, and soap dish to go up the hill into the woods out of sight from the road and take a solitary.
I really wanted to start dressing for the occasion, but the nearest thing I had to hippie clothes were the shirts I wore while doing construction. I put on a long sleeved shirt that had been intended to be worn with a suit coat and tie, but which I had bought at the Salvation Army thrift store and covered with several colors of splotches over the course of several painting jobs. I continued with the jungle boots.
I had figured out by now that I should carry around something to drink and eat out of, so I put a plastic cup and dish along with a fork, a spoon and a spray bottle into a small backpack and started carrying it with me everywhere. I also packed an old plastic soda bottle filled with drinking water.
The hubbub and hullabaloo of the previous evening was gone; now there were only a few people up and walking about, and it was relatively quiet – but like in a jungle I kept hearing intermittent sounds in the distance, of people talking and shouting, of flutes or drums, of dogs barking.
I went down towards the main intersection and went the other way from last night into another clearing. It was filled to the tree lines with dome tents of various colors and sizes, all crammed together with barely enough walking room between them. The morning sun was now beginning to get bright, making the remaining moisture from the rains last night glisten, and wisps of evaporating mist were wafting up from the grass all around.
A few of the people in the tents were starting to wake up and emerge, but there were still few human voices to be heard. Into the stillness a man started singing a capella in a smooth trained voice:
I can see clearly now the rain is gone
It's gonna be a bri-i-i-ight sunshiny da-a-ay.
Back on the road in the daylight I was able to get a good look at the vehicles that were parked up and down the road. There were several large school busses and many vans, lots of them Volkswagens, that had been converted into campers and motor homes, with seats taken out and replaced with beds and cabinets. Some school busses had smokestacks sticking up out of their roofs. Some had back shelves added on, with bicycles, propane tanks, axes and shovels, and dairy crates with bags of stuff inside all lashed to their railings with bungee cords. One bus had the body of a van welded to its roof, making a windowed cupola.
Many were painted all over with colorful designs and pictures: rainbows, Om symbols, yin-and-yangs, human faces, and a few had elaborate landscapes airbrushed on their sides. There were rear ends covered with bumper stickers advocating every liberal cause you could imagine: peace, ecology, marijuana legalization, anti-racism, Native Americans, gays and lesbians. Grateful Dead logos were many places to be seen: The skull with the red and blue circle in it divided by a silver zigzag, the line of dancing bears, What a long strange trip it has been.
Last night I had not eaten any of the food that was being offered, but the morning I was hungrier, and I started to seek out some food in the kitchens. After rounding the second bend in the road I went over a small hill and found in a little ravine a kitchen that the people around were calling "Hippie Hollow", and this brought back memories of lying in the sun naked on the rocks 20 miles to the west of Austin. I asked if there was any connection between this place and Hippie Hollow on the shores of Lake Travis, but I was told that there wasn't any.
They had a square sheet of steel about a yard wide set on some rocks and bridging over a fire, and on it they were cooking pancakes with an assortment of fruits and nuts in them. The cook had a large stainless steel bowl, and he was ladling out the batter onto this griddle. They were only able to cook about a half-dozen at a time, and there were many others waiting, and it seemed like about a half an hour before I got one.
While waiting I was able to sit on the hill near the grill rather than having to stand in a line, and I studied the activities of the crew. A man who was fetching more food for the cook asked if anybody wanted to help out, and one of the people waiting said, "I can help serve." The first man snapped back contemptuously, saying he meant chopping some wood or going to get water, "doing some real work". "These guys just want to do something easy and say they're helping out."
I was only able to get one pancake after the wait, so I left that bit of drama behind and started to go around and look for more places where they were serving food. I found another line of people and waited in that for about twenty minutes until I finally got up to a woman behind a counter made of sticks lashed together with string, upon which was set a large stainless steel pot. I got one serving spoon glop of some hominy gritsy stuff, and when I asked for more I was admonished that there were lots of others waiting to be served.
I ventured back to the road. Now more people were up and out. The sun was now coming out seriously, and the air was warming up and getting muggy. I started to see more people in more stages of undress. One costume I started seeing on a lot of women was a single sarong scarf tied around her waist, with nothing else underneath and nothing else above, and maybe some kind of footwear, tho more often she was barefoot.
There was a beautiful red-headed woman in front of a car by the side of the road, naked and giving herself a shower from a solar heated water bag. She had large freckles all over her body and a bush as bright an orange as her hair. As I came up a man was asking her if she was Irish, and she answered yes. Every time I spied her later in the gathering I looked with anticipation, but she didn't seem to return my interest.
There were other people of both sexes walking around completely nude except for maybe sandals. You would see naked people standing in line right next to clothed ones, with the others acting as if this were normal and engaging them in casual conversations.
I really remember a young and slender black woman with a face like one of Diana Ross's Supremes walking around totally stark asking everybody if they knew where she could get some tofu for her dog. "All the kitchens say they can't give me any because they need it for the people. I don't feed my dog meat. I really need to find some tofu, that's all I can get him to eat…" She didn't find anyone to help her, and she walked away down the path with her buns bouncing.
I went on looking for some more for food for myself, since I was still feeling hungry, and saw a few more lines that were too long for me to have the patience to stand in for what little it looked like I was going to be able to get. In a swell of frustration I went back to the place I had seen last evening with the Krishna devotees. I figured at least they might know how to serve masses of people efficiently, having observed them serving prasadam at several temples that I had visited in the course of my travels. I was correct; I only had to wait for about five minutes for some sweet oatmeal with raisins, served out of plastic 5-gallon buckets.
Their kitchen was inside a corral made of long rails made from dead tree branches nailed to larger posts made of the same, or lashed to tree trunks. They had constructed a sizeable stove out of rocks mortared together with mud, with grills made from sections of iron porch railing laid flat over the fire.
I sat down to eat by some large piles of tree branches meant to be firewood, and a devotee was chopping some of them up into smaller pieces. He had been talking to another man, not in devotee's robes, and I heard, "what's the matter, afraid of doing a little work?" The guy said back that he "wasn't psychologically up to any work right now."
The devotee didn't answer but just shook his head contemptuously. After hearing this so soon after the chastising by the pancake grill, I started to sense a work ethic in some of the Rainbows that brought on frustration with others who didn't share it.
There was a row of three 5-gallon buckets on the ground, one with sudsy soapy water, one with some rinse water that was starting to get rather gray, and a third one with water that smelled of laundry bleach. This was where you washed your dishes after eating. I passed my bowl thru the three, but felt moved to chase the last rinse with some clear water from my own spray bottle. I then picked up an axe and hung around for a little while more, chopping up some wood.
By now my hunger had been satisfied to where food was no longer commanding my attention, and I set out to seriously explore the place by the light of day. There was another well traveled and trampled path to the left from the road between the entrance and the large intersection. Shortly after turning onto it there was a shady stretch and a line of people sitting by blankets spread on the ground at both edges of the trail. People were calling this Trading Circle (tho in shape it was more like two parallel lines). Upon the blankets were laid out displays of goods, and to get any of them for yourself, you had to have other objects to trade; you weren't supposed to pay any money.
There were assorted objets de hippie art: bumper stickers and decals in psychedelic designs, glass pipes, roach clips, and other dope paraphernalia, copies of High Times and underground comic books, CDs of reggae and rock, bootleg cassettes of Grateful Dead concerts, tie-dyed clothing. There were essential camping implements: flashlights, batteries, knives, can openers, propane bottles, sometimes larger stuff like sleeping bags and tents.
I also sensed some Rainbow taboos that were defined by other things that were available here, stuff that you couldn't get in the kitchens and was scarce at the rest of the gathering, things like candy bars and cans of soda pop; cans of tuna, sardines, and Spam; packages of ramen noodles and instant soup. Here apparently was a Rainbow version of a black market.
But the alcohol taboo still held here; I didn't see any containers of booze displayed. There were many pouches of tobacco and rolling papers, and these were in high demand. Many of the people at the gathering, I'd say a majority, smoked tobacco, usually in the form of hand-rolled cigarettes.
Beyond Trading Circle the path went alongside a creek and brought me to the edges of another chain of meadows. One was full of kids playing, and I found out this place was called Kiddie Village by some, Kid Village by others. They had the largest and most elaborate kitchen on the site. There were parents sitting around in groups talking while all their kids were running around on the grass. Some of the children were only partially dressed and a few were completely nude. Again the parents and the other people around acted like this was normal and unremarkable.
A little way further there was a small clearing and a big sign saying: Sister space. Sisters only!!! There was nobody there at the time I passed, and I didn't dare to venture in to see what would happen.
Underneath a grove of trees down by the creek was a small rock stove with two large pots, and man next to them with a ladle filling people's cups. From time to time he hollered into the woods, "What time is it?", and voices would come yelling back, "It's tea time". I gathered from the conversations that this was the name of that kitchen.
The man asked me if I would like some tea. I said yes. Then he asked, "Would you like the regular tea, or the electric tea?" I chose electric and gave him my cup to be filled. After filling it, he said, his voice rising and falling emphatically, "You have been informed…that you are drinking…electric tea!" I hung around for maybe fifteen minutes longer, and he said to another person more matter-of-factly that it had had some LSD put in it. But I didn't feel any rush from it that was discernable above the marijuana buzz that was a constant that day.
I crossed over on a connecting path to the big meadow, and started to see how the gathering had some infrastructure. By the edge near the entrance as you came from the road there was a large olive-drab army tent, just like the kind you saw in the introduction to the TV show M*A*S*H, and there was a posterboard sign by an entrance with a hand drawn red cross and in big letters: MASH. Beneath that was written C.A.L.M. Center for Alternative Living Medicine. Appropriately, this was an infirmary, and inside there were cots and tables covered with bandages and bottles of pills and herbal extracts. I asked somebody later about the two names and he said that some people didn't like the military associations with the name MASH, and were trying to gradually change what people were calling it.
In the trees on another side of the meadow was a structure of vertical posts sunk into the ground with crossbeams at the top and plastic tarps stretched over them. This had an ornately hand-lettered sign saying: Information. Nearby were several bulletin boards made of plywood sheets mounted on upright logs placed in holes made with a posthole digger. A multitude of little pieces of paper tacked or stapled to them were fluttering in the breeze.
There were railings all around the edge at waist height, and narrow plywood strips on the one in front making a long shelf. On this was an array of literature for many different causes. There were some people sitting behind this counter on a big log that that been laid crosswise on some short posts at each end, and they were answering people's questions. I didn't have any for them at the time. There were several stacks of an annual Rainbow newspaper in tabloid size called All Ways Free that was covered with ornate hand drawn pictures and psychedelic rock band poster style lettering. I picked one up to read later. I also picked up a xerographed sheet of paper which one of the persons behind the counter told me was "Rap 107". This was something I would later see passed out at all gatherings in the future, in several different versions. I don't know if the one below is the exact one I saw there in 1987, but it is the oldest version that I still have:
On the other side was Rap 701:
Most of the instructions in that paper I saw actually being carried out by the gathering participants. I saw no tree stumps or scars on trees to indicate that anyone had been chopping live wood. There were plenty of trees around that had died and fallen naturally, and these were being mined industriously for construction and firewood by people with bow saws and axes. I saw very little litter to be found on the ground, and I saw a few people picking trash up that they did find and putting it into pockets or a bag.
At several locations I saw recycling stations. These were usually a horizontal rail on two vertical posts, with plastic garbage bags tied on to it with their tops open, ready for things to be put in. Tied to the rail were seven paper signs in the seven colors of the rainbow that said: Free, Lost 'N' Found, Plastic, Compost, Paper, Glass, and Metal.
At "Info", which was the usual way of saying Information, there was a stack of papers that had this explanation of the way the recycling stations were arranged:
Most of the latrines that I saw (which nobody in conversation ever called “latrines” but always “shitters”) were long narrow open trenches, with no cover of any kind. By some of them you’d see an old coffee can full of campfire ashes, by others a can of “lime”, limestone ground up into a white powder, and by other others a shovel or coffee can stuck in the pile of dirt nearby. Sprinkling any one of these three things on your turds reduced the odor and discouraged flies. There was usually a plastic water jug and a coffee can holding a roll of toilet paper. I didn’t use any of these shitters myself for the whole time I was at this first gathering. (The descriptions I just gave are from experiences after this one.) Those three mornings I was here I went off into the woods by myself with my own tools.
Near the dishwashing stations in the kitchens were round pits gradually filling with food garbage (which nobody in conversation ever called "garbage" but always "compost"), and some, but not all, of the kitchens had a water jug with a spigot for people to wash their hands under as they stood in line approaching the serving counter. Not far from the compost pits were "gray water pits" where people poured out their used dishwater.
Some other instructions in that list did not seem to be followed by many of the gathering participants. There were lots of dogs, and some of them were running around loose in packs. However, I didn't step in any dog shit as I walked the trails; it was at least kept out of the public areas. I saw out in the open no weapons, alcohol, or violence.
Late in the afternoon my random wanderings brought me back towards the main meadow. Thru the trees I saw people standing close to each other in an arc. I came up closer and saw beyond them people sitting on the ground, and beyond them I could see the other side of a large circle of sitting people with others standing behind.
I saw a man out in the middle giving some kind of speech, and he was followed by a succession of others, both men and women. I had trouble hearing what was said for a while, until I maneuvered my way up to the front row of the circle.
I don't remember too much about those speakers except for one. She was a woman with sandy blonde hair and a slim acrobat's build that she showed off with occasional cartwheels. She said, "I am Swami Mommy, the goddess of garbage".
She was wearing a baseball cap that had Garbage in hand drawn letters on the front, and a restaurant cook's apron that she had written on in magic marker: Swami Mommy says: recycle.
Then she said, "What I am going to talk to you about right now is…", and she turned around and then spread her arms in a ta-daa gesture. "The latrines! Now we know we all have to doo-doo. Is there anybody here who doesn't have to…" She spread her legs and went into a semi-squat. "Doo-doo?"
Then she stood up and looked around and said with a laugh, "I know some of you are going to tell me you don't have to and I've heard all about that, but seriously, we all know we have to… doo-doo. Well, let me show you how to use the latrine so you can doo-doo."
She then pantomimed all the motions of using the shitter. She squatted and made a grunt, then produced some toilet paper and wiped herself, then went over to the pile of ashes and picked up the empty coffee can and scooped something up and turned back around and shook the can out on top of where she had doo-dooed. All of these motions were decorated with the flourishes of an acrobat and ballet dancer. Then she picked up a plastic gallon jug of water and poured it out over one of her hands and then rubbed them together to wash them.
I saw her again several times after that, talking with someone in her hat that said Garbage. She was the one who was passing out the 7 Garbage Chakras diagrams that the recycling stations were laid out according to.
Earlier in the day I had overheard someone talking with some friends on the trail that they were going to cook a whole side of beef in one of the kitchens. This was in contrast to some words I had heard in a conversation earlier near the main circle, when some other people were talking about how attendance wasn't as high as they had expected, and a woman said, "Maybe it's because they've heard that they're serving meat in Main Circle." All of the food I had seen in the kitchens that morning had been purely vegetarian.
I walked up the person I had just heard and asked about it, and he pointed out to me a distant place down the trail. There I found a place with a tarp and a counter that looked like a kitchen, and there was a person behind it who was leaning down to get something. I asked if they were serving beef, and he stood back up. A scruffy and wrinkled face on top of a biker jacket looked at me with something that might have been a scowl, but was probably just his neutral expression, and said, "Yes, an hour before sundown, pot luck."
When I returned at that time I found a line that must have had three hundred people in it, wrapped around the edges of the small meadow the kitchen was in a corner of. I got into it at the end, and saw the end steadily retreat behind me as more people joined. It apparently wasn't potluck, because nobody else was carrying any food, and there was no collection of dishes on the counter up front.
I found out from all the conversations around that this was called Barbarian Camp. Their cry was "Jamba!", and I repeatedly heard people saying it. Someone told me that they had pointedly carried a side of meat hanging from a pole right thru the middle of Main Circle the day before. There were all kinds of people around saying words to the effect of "I'm ready for some meat". "I want some of that cow". Some people started saying "moo-o-o-o…" together like they were chanting Om, and soon most of the meadow was doing it.
So here was something that was a taboo in most places in the gathering being defiantly broken by a small group of rebels within. There was some disagreement about a few certain principles. There were some Rainbow rules that some would defiantly break in places like here and the Trading Circle this morning.
But the line wasn't moving, and it didn't move, and it still didn't move, and it looked like they hadn't even started serving up at the front. Someone had come out and announced to the line, "We'll be starting in just a few minutes. Now we're going to serve healthy, we'll make sure everyone gets a large enough serving." But that had been quite a few minutes ago, and I wondered how they were going to stretch even half a steer among all those people. The likelihood was now even more that they would run out before I got up to the front.
Finally my optimism and patience ran out and I left. I found some curried vegetables and basmati rice at the Krishna kitchen after getting into another long line, but one in which you kept walking, even if slowly. There was a conversation in the line about the length of it, and one woman said, "the Krishnas have good food". For me they had turned into the reliable default when the other kitchens were failing me.
I wanted to go back to the truck and the ice chest, and get horizontal for a while. It was dark by the time I woke back up and I walked back up to the main meadow. I walked around, listening to drums and looking at dancers, sitting down at fires, eavesdropping on conversations all around me.
I overheard a man coming over to tell one of his friends, "In the next clearing there is going on one of the most outrageously professional performances you've ever witnessed." I went over and found an elaborate stage constructed of supporting logs covered over with sheets of plywood. As I came in, there was a guy with a line of drinking glasses partially filled with different levels of water on a little table in front of him. He rubbed the tops of the glasses to make them produce notes as he played Stairway to Heaven. He was followed by a guitarist, and I made a fast dash back to my truck to fetch my clarinet. When I returned, another guitarist was singing, and I was able to sit near the stage and jam with him for a bit.
Off to the right near the front of the stage was a woman dancing nude, and people were shining flashlights up and down making little circles of light move over her body. After a while she stopped and shouted out, "Now I want everybody here who has a body to get up here and dance!" But nobody did in response.
I wasn't too satisfied with how my clarinet playing was coming out. The reed didn't feel right and I put it back in its case after only a few songs, then just sat and listened. More singers and guitarists followed, sometimes with drums, and they all were just like the man said, outrageously excellent.
After an hour or so I got up and took my clarinet back to the truck. I picked up my guitar, and returned to the big intersection and turned toward the big meadow. I wandered around a bit looking for more jam opportunities until I found in the pre-meadow a few people with fiddles, a banjo, and a guitar. I had heard old time fiddle music before a few times back in Austin, but this was the first time I had heard it played by people here in its Appalachian homeland.
They skipped thru the rapid eighth notes with mechanical precision and organic feeling, and I tried to follow along on my guitar and felt pushed to my limits. I hadn't heard too many of the tunes they were playing before, and the changes came fast and often unexpectedly. They finally started into Whiskey before Breakfast, with its B section where the chords go down the scale changing every two beats, and I finally had to give up in awe. Next to me was another guitarist to whom a woman playing fiddle said, "You're really hanging in there", and that furthered my own growing feelings of inadequacy. I stayed around for a few more (simpler) tunes, but it was obvious that I'd continue having a hard time hearing my thrift shop guitar amid them, and I was just plain out of my league with these people.
I just listened for a while longer. Someone came over and tried to talk them into going over to the other show and playing there, but the woman with the fiddle said she really wanted to just stay here, and all the others then agreed.
I finally left them, saying to myself as I walked away, "I want to learn this music." I took my guitar back to the truck, and when I got there I decided I was finally tired and drowsy and crawled inside to go to sleep.
The next morning was the Fourth of July, and after I crawled out of my truck I found a place up the nearby mountain slope to take care of my bowels. Then took my backpack and walked up the road to the population. As I walked in I heard nobody talking, and when I went into kitchens the people there tried to communicate to me with hand gestures. This was the day of the Silent Meditation for World Peace that I had seen signs about: silence from dawn to noon.
The silence wasn't absolutely perfect, every ten or twenty minutes there might be some people walking by talking to each other, but the preponderant majority of people were respecting it. There were no drums in the distance, something that had been an almost constant presence the preceding two days. The sounds of nature came thru again, birds tweeting, crickets chirping, and the wind rustling the leaves in the trees. An eerie air surrounded the activity of all the people around me.
I found some food at the Krishna kitchen, then I wandered into the main meadow. There were maybe half a hundred people there already when I came in, as the sun was just beginning to climb above the tops of the trees at the edge.
Near the middle of the meadow a pole about half a foot in diameter and maybe ten feet long had been stood upright with one end partially sunk into the ground. It was made from a tree trunk that had had the bark and branches stripped off it, and there were several small carvings in the pole, making it look a little like a totem pole. Around the bottom were piled several large rocks, and placed on the rocks was a variety of religious charms and trinkets: little pictures, crosses, statuettes, cotton banners with oriental writing on them. There were some snapshots of people and many crystals of quartz. Burning incense sticks were stuck here and there into cracks in the rocks.
Four lines of a few people each sat crosslegged with their backs to the pole and to the persons immediately behind them, the lines radiating outward from the pole in a cross pattern. As the morning progressed, more people came up and joined these lines. I vividly remember one woman who was dressed in a buckskin vest with Indian patterns embroidered in it, and a headband with a single feather sticking up from the back of her head. She wore nothing else under the vest, and you could see the sides of her bosom. She looked almost exactly like a painting on the cover of a Heavy Metal comic book.
Between these lines various people walked up to the pole and sometimes around it and performed assorted religious gestures: hands held together in prayer, heads bowing, arms upstretched toward the sky, a feather held in both hands and raised above the head. They would bless the pole and sometimes turn and bless all the people sitting. They would do their thing for a few minutes and then leave, to be replaced by others walking in.
Throughout all this activity nobody spoke a word, and silence reigned all over the meadow. But occasionally from the woods I would hear isolated individuals in the distance yelling things. I remember "Jamba" and "We need more Harleys".Around the pole at a further distance were people sitting on the grass or on blankets, facing the pole, in a growing series of loosely arranged concentric circles. I found a place on the grass at the end of one arc of people and sat myself down, and watched more and more people arrive as the morning progressed.
The lack of words brought the visual senses to the fore, and there was arrayed before me another kaleidoscopic people show. There were costumes of every subculture in the counterculture. Some people looked like they had put on their psychedelic Sunday best.
There were other people just looking around digging the show too, and none of the people I looked at showed any signs of being bothered by it. Many women smiled back at me as if they found me attractive, and men also smiled back.
Some people sat crosslegged in the lotus position of yoga; others were kneeling with their feet tucked under their behinds in the Japanese manner. Others went on their knees and bowed forward and placed their hands on the ground in an Allah akbar position, or stretched their arms out in front and clasped their hands like a Krishna devotee saying "Jai". But most were just sitting or reclining in a relaxed way.
The sun got higher and hotter, and many people began taking clothes off. Bare chests and breasts came out, and a few people got all the way nude. I decided that this would be a good time to catch up on the Lake Travis suntan that I had not had much time to renew this summer while traveling. I took off all my clothes and folded up my jeans to have something to sit on. I was now wishing I had brought some sandals, because the only thing I now had for my feet were the jungle boots which felt a bit awkward and uncomfortable with no socks or other clothes.
My carcass got a soothing sun bath, and so did my ego. A few women here and there smiled like they liked what they saw, and a few rows in front of me a woman turned herself to sit sideways, then again and again turned her head and eyes toward me. And I looked around to find another female face, young and blonde, smiling my way.
More and more people came, until the meadow got rather densely packed with people. The sun climbed higher until it was almost noon. Then, on no really apparent signal from any one person, a few people started to stand up, then others upon seeing the first started to get up too. Soon everybody in the meadow was standing. I hurried to get my boots on my feet as I stood up myself.
Then people reached out to others beside them and started to hold hands. Soon there were several concentric circles of people, all with hands joined, except for a few who rested their arms on the shoulders of those next to them, as did the man to the left of me. He was a young dude with long hair, also nude, and I realized at that moment that I still had some latent homophobia; I had to just let my own arm hang down by my side, I couldn't bring myself to put it around him.
While we had all still been seated, there was a sister in a peasant blouse and long tiered skirt several feet away from me who looked so much like a woman I had known at the Sundance Café that I did a double take when I first saw her. We had exchanged a few smiles. Now that we were standing, she was on the other side of the man to the right of me. She reached across behind his back to take hold of my hand.
Then a few people started to say, "O-o-o-o-m", then others picked it up, and soon the long drawn out O vowel filled the air. They were saying "Om", pronounced to rhyme with "home", the sacred syllable of Hinduism. It went on for many minutes, some people dropping out to breathe for a moment while others were starting in, making a choral voice that changed its tone and color as it went on and on. All the voices settled into harmonies, and a resonant major chord emerged that sometimes had sevenths added.
The Om got louder, and then people with hands joined started to raise them up high above their heads. Then the Om gave way to loud cheers, whoops and hollers, then drums started to play and some people started dancing and others started hugging – and the Silence was over.
With a loud boom somebody got all the drums together into a solid rhythm, and I saw a chubby middle aged couple start to dance naked, soon to be surrounded by a writhing, wiggling, and flailing crowd. I lost track of the woman who was holding my hand in the chaos that ensued and I walked toward the edge of the meadow to find a little refuge from the confusion.
I was trying to get around a crowd of people on a trail by walking thru some high weeds at the side of it, and got stung twice by some bees that I had disturbed. That raised some six inch wide welts on my left leg that didn't subside until the next morning.
What went on later that afternoon and into the evening I now don't remember too much of, just sort of a blur of repeats of what I had already seen. I was getting psychologically as well as physically tired. My mind had been on sensory overload for the past two days, and I had not been getting as much food as I was used to. There were a lot of not easily definable emotions starting to build that I was having the increasing desire to go to some place quiet and sort out.
I do remember one thing: the voice of a woman on the road near the entrance to the main meadow, "Panhandling for some toilet paper. Anybody got any?"
I ate at the Krishna kitchen again, and later on emptied the ice chest in my truck of everything I had brought except for a few cans of Coke. As the shadows of the trees were growing long on the road as I was walking back to my truck just before sunset, I started thinking about all the skirts I had seen on the guys, and the thought of doing something started to sit in my mind.
I had been playing with women's clothes ever since the summer between the sixth and seventh grade when I discovered some hanging zippered plastic bags in the attic with some of my sister's old formal gowns inside, and like most, I was in the closet about it. I had been carrying a drag bag in my truck, a zippered gym tote bag full of items that I had bought in the ladies' wear department, and I opened it on nights when I was all alone in a campground on a weeknight, or sleeping by myself on a construction site out in the country.
I had a bright chrome yellow cotton/polyester knit tank top sun dress in the style that was very popular in the 1980s. I thought of putting that on and walking back up the trail into the midst of the people. But I finally decided not to.
But the thought of doing that turned into a recurring fantasy the following winter.
The next morning I went to Trading Circle to see if I could score some weed to take with me when I left the gathering. I went from one blanket to another asking the people behind them, saying "I have some cans of Coca-Cola, or U.S. currency. One person had a baggie of pot on display, and he said back to me, "I know they say they don't want me to do this, but I can let you have it for ten dollars. The thought of coming here to look was one that hadn't come to me until after I had left my truck, and I didn't have any money with me.
I walked fast back to my truck and fetched the money, then when I came back, I didn't see the baggie where it had been. I asked the guy about it and he gave me a brief look of suspicious bewilderment before starting to speak, "Huh? It's gone." I went back to looking, and finally found a guy who would trade me a joint for a can of Coke.
I don't really remember if I had found any breakfast that morning, but I do remember a hunger that had been accumulating for the past three days that I couldn't bear any more. At about 10 in the morning I started up the truck, went back down the hill and onto the highway heading east, looking for the first restaurant I could find.
I had to drive thru more mountains for about three hours before I found a hamburger stand, and I ordered the biggest cheeseburger they had with fries and a Coke. There was a newspaper box with the paper from a nearby small town, and I bought one when I saw an article headline on the front page that said: Rainbow Family throws a party. Drugs, Nudity, Jail full. The article described mostly the Fourth of July activities in a somewhat sarcastic manner, prominently mentioning how loud the partying was after the end of the silent mediation.
About halfway across North Carolina I found a state park with a campground by a river, and on that Sunday evening there were few enough people there that I was able to find a campsite with solitude. As the last of the blue left the sky I sat on the driver's seat in my truck, smoked a portion of the joint I had traded the Coke for, and thought for a long time.
I had seen evidence of all the same disagreements and arguments and people saying they're going to do things that they don't that I had encountered among the hippies at the Sundance Café and a volunteer drug counseling office at the university. I didn't for a minute believe that I had come into a peace and love utopia, and a lot of jaded sarcasm that the failure of the restaurant had left in me was still present after eight years.
I saw evidence of conflict among different subgroups of this group in the defiant demonstration at the Barbarian Camp, and the occasional people who hollered in the woods during the Fourth of July silence.
I had witnessed lots of gross inefficiencies – in the kitchen lines I had stood in, in the packs of dogs that I saw running around loose, in the woman who had to panhandle for some toilet paper, in the long time it took me to get my truck into the gathering when I arrived.
But I couldn't deny the size and the power. They were able to pull off an event of this magnitude and keep it up for fifteen years, in spite of government forces trying to stop them. They could make a place where you indeed could run around naked and take drugs, and feel that the other people around were protecting you.
And I had seen evidences of profound creativity among some of the people there, in the musicians I heard, in the art on the sides of their busses and in the pages of their All Ways Free, in their Seven Garbage Chakras.
And I had been among people who would talk to me, a stranger, as intimately as if I had been their years-long friend. Everybody else was a weirdo here, so I felt normal. And there had been quite a few women I thought attractive, some of whom acted like they thought the same of me.
Sitting alone in my truck, I was able to define the components of my feelings, but I wasn't able to come to any overall conclusions. I didn't really know if I wanted to return to another Rainbow Gathering or not.
The rest of the chapters:
2. The Confirmation Gathering – Texas, 1988
3. The Felipe Gathering – Pennsylvania regional, 1988
4. The Bug Gathering – Vermont regional, 1989
6. The Rain Gathering – regional on the border of Virginia & West Virginia, 1989
7. The Cross-sectional Study – North Carolina, New York, & West Virginia regionals, 1990
8. The Climbing Gathering – Vermont, 1991
9. The No Rain Gathering – regional on the border of Virginia & West Virginia, 1991
10. The Nuthouse – Washington, D.C. & surrounding area, 1991 into 1992
11. The Withdrawal – 1992 into 1993
12. The Hungry Drum Gathering – Kentucky, 1993
13. The Rainbow Guide – 1993 to 1995
14. The Marathon Gathering – New Mexico, 1995
15. The Too Easy Gathering – Missouri, 1996
16. The Shanti Sena Gathering – Oregon, 1997
17. The Warm Fuzzy Gathering – Arizona, 1998
18. The Second Hungry Drum Gathering – Pennsylvania, 1999
19. The Montana Gathering – Montana, 2000
20. Vision Council – Montana, 2000
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