Seed Camp Journal: Notes from the 1999 Pennsylvania Rainbow Gathering
This narrative originally took form as a series of dispatches I sent off to the alt.gathering.rainbow newsgroup in the weeks leading up to the 1999 Pennsylvania Rainbow Gathering.
I was on the land from May 30th until July 15th. It was my ninth Gathering and I was fully engaged as both an observer and a participant. These stories and photos represent the Gathering as I saw it unfolding in front of me, an unusual and fascinating experience to say the least. I don't own a laptop and instead relied on the library in Ridgway (before I was booted off its two, otherwise unoccupied computers) and then St. Marys, ten miles down the road. My heartfelt thanks to the librarians who made it possible for me to continue reporting.
Table of Contents
Seed Camp Journal Entry #1: Welcome Home!
We're on the land in Pennsylvania!
I traveled up here on Sunday afternoon with Ellen and Thomas from Peace Park. When we arrived at Yellow Hammer Trails, site of the Spring Council, we found only a handful of people from Jesus Camp. Spring Council had consensed earlier in the day on a site just outside Ridgway, Pennsylvania in the southeast corner of the Allegheny National Forest. Crouching over a map in the fading sunlight, Thomas and I wrote down the new directions and set off to track down our friends.
It was well after dark when we found the Bear Creek Recreation Area outside of Ridgway. Little Hawk was the first parking attendant to stop and greet us on the gravel road going into the Gathering. He wore a brown, wide-brimmed hat and a bushy backwoodsman's beard. His eyes were confused and searching.
"Seed Camp? Whut Seed Camp?" He replied in a raspy, slurred voice when we asked him for directions.
Then, he took his flashlight and invited us to look at the scars from the 3rd degree burns that put him in a coma for two months last year after he mistakenly tried to put out a fire at the Arizona Gathering with a 2 1/2 gallon jug of gasoline.
"Yeah, I'm still alive," he concluded.
Thomas hopped out of the passenger seat of the van and gave this brooding, melancholy man a big hug. We then continued on into the gathering.
Lots of Hugs
It wasn't long before we spotted campfires and were greeted with hugs. For the first time in almost 11 months, I heard a chorus in the distance sing out, "Weee Luvvv Youuuu!...."
There were roughly 20 vehicles and 75 people camped out around the perimeter of a damp, horseshoe-shaped meadow that may later serve as Bus Village. A giddy, excited feeling hung in the air as our small band found itself thrown together on the night before beginning an immense undertaking. Galloping drumbeats started up at the large campfire at the far end of the meadow. A young man with a scar and stitch marks running the length of his torso gazed around the meadow which was bathed in the light of an almost full moon. This is his first Gathering and he was already swept up in the excitement.
"I don't believe it," he said. "This is so amazing!"
"This is nothing brother," the man standing next to him broke in. "Just wait 'til you see what's comin'."
Seed Camp Journal Entry #2: Walking the Site
I began the day with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a slice of watermelon. And I ended it in front of a campfire listening to people reading the poetry of Rumi, the 13th Century Sufi mystic. In between, I walked all around the Gathering site.
There will be no water shortage this year. The forest is dotted with freshwater springs and Main Meadow will be near the S-shaped confluence of Bear Creak and Little Otter Creek. Walking barefoot in those clear, cool streams, I could easily picture hundreds of naked hippies splashing and lounging about a month from now....There was concern expressed about rattlesnakes that may be living in some of the rockier areas of the site. However, Greenlight has promised to spend a night sleeping with the snakes to see if there is any actual danger.
Main Circle will be located in the middle of an enormous meadow. You first see the meadow at a distance while walking in on the trail above Little Otter Creek. It's a breathtaking sight. And at that moment you will understand why you journeyed so far to be here.
Ancient mountain ridges rise in the distance and the meadow itself tilts gently into a bog that lies at one end. The meadow is sprinkled with shrub-like serviceberry trees and white plastic tubes that contain dead fruit trees planted by the Forest Service. Twenty of us wandered through the meadow looking for the central energy point. A silver-bearded hippie from Woodstock groundscored a turkey feather and a sister quickly clasped it to a stick she had just found. The stick was planted in the ground and we held the first of what will be many Om Circles at that spot. The feather will later be used in council meetings. Who would imagine that an object of such humble origins will soon become the focal point of so many clashing egos?
Searching for Freshwater Springs
Later, I went searching for more freshwater springs with Michael, one of the Pennsylvania scouts. Scouting is about searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack. It is demanding work and Michael has been doing it every weekend since April.
We followed Pole Road Creek going away from Main Meadow. I sneezed and heard the sound echo up the long, narrow valley. There was a crashing sound and we caught a glimpse of a white tail deer bounding through the woody thicket. Though this site is water rich, possible springs are being tested (at $36 a pop)for excessive concentrations of iron and sulfur. Michael examined the wavy lines on his topo map and the contour of the land around us. Miles of PVC pipe will be laid in the coming weeks. Kitchens will pop up wherever there is a steady water supply. And, it all begins when a keen-eyed scout spots a trickle of water gurgling up through the soil.
Peace to All,
Seed Camp Journal Entry #3: A Rainy Day at Seed Camp
It has been raining sporadically since the middle of the night and a languid, unhurried mood has settled over Seed Camp.
The rains will replenish the springs and turn Main Meadow into a mud bog. It's a good time to drift into Ridgway, Babylon's last outpost. Or, to just hang out under blue tarps and talk for hours with people you didn't know when you woke up in the morning; a teen-age runaway from Springfield, Missouri who talks about her first trip to New York City, or an old road dog who can tell you the latest food stamp scams or which breed of dog to use when panhandling on a street corner with cardboard sign in hand.
As for Ridgway, it is starting to discover the Family. The grown-ups are holding meetings in order to prepare for "Hurricane Rainbow" while their children visit our small gypsy camp with increasing frequency.
A group of teen-agers, including four pretty young sisters, came up last night to check out the "big party in the woods". I stood around a small campfire and listened to a short, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl talk about her ancestry. She was wearing loose-hanging trousers and a red, white and blue bikini top and mentioned that she was actually part Indian. Tomorrow is the final day of classes at Ridgway High. It promises to be an interesting summer for the local youth.
Uncle Bill spotted some Forest Service LEO's (law enforcement officers)when he was in town this morning. Now that we've picked a site, the Incident Command Team (ICT) must be on its way. We'll have a council with the local district ranger 8 a.m tomorrow. Then, we'll start to get an idea of what sort of relationship we'll have with the Forest Service this year.
Peace to All,
Seed Camp Journal Entry #4: Leon Blashock Receives a Rainbow Name
District ranger Leon Blashock came to his first Rainbow Family Council this morning. And he left with a Rainbow name, "Gentle Bear".
Agreeing to Disagree
A large, easygoing man with graying-blond hair, Leon reassured us that he wanted to work with the Family.
"I want you to know that I totally support your right to gather," he said. Then he added, "it would be a lot easier if I had a signed permit."
Leon, like all district rangers is a natural resources man. His job is to facilitate the "multiple-use" of the Ridgway District of the Allegheny National Forest, of which he is in charge. By inclination, he is a public servant who wants the 20,000 plus people who are coming to the Gathering to have a pleasant and enjoyable experience.
However, he also has to listen to the demands of the Washington, D.C.-based law enforcement bureaucracy inside of the Forest Service. The Incident Command Post will be based out of Sheffield. And, he tried to assure us that LEO's (law enforcement officers) like Bill Fox and John Carpenter were also coming here to make the Gathering a positive experience for everyone.
So, imagine the dejected look on Leon's face when Joanne Freedom, T.C. and others reiterated that Rainbow has no leaders and that the First Amendment is the only permit we will ever need to hold these Gatherings. He was the bureaucrat who found himself trapped in the middle of something that he neither had started nor could resolve.
Opening the Gates
As everybody was eager to have a constructive meeting, we agreed to disagree on the question of the permit. We then pressed him to unlock the gates to Forest Service roads 161, 168 and 393 with an eye toward letting us use them for Main Supply, Welcome Home and Bus Village respectively.
These roads are normally closed off to vehicles. Leon wondered aloud what locals would say about his giving special treatment to the Rainbows. The council reminded him that 20,000 people were on the way. And if the gates remained locked, there would be massive traffic congestion all over the area during the 4th of July weekend.
He finally agreed to unlock the gates for the day so that some people could go scouting further into the forest.
"But, I'm not making any long-term promises for now," he said. "I've got to think about this."
As the meeting was winding down, Ruthie asked Leon if he had a Rainbow name.
"No, he replied. "I just use my given name."
Greenlight stroked his long, gray beard and suggested "Gentle Bear" since he was kind and gentle and big like a bear. Leon/Gentle Bear smiled and agreed to that name. He seemed happy about it.
Parting on good terms, we agreed to meet again at 8 a.m. on Friday, June 4th.
Peace to All,
Seed Camp Journal Entry #5: Local Media Coverage
The Forest Service disinformation machine is running at full speed and we are getting rapped in the local press.
The Incident Command Team swooped into town this week and held a public meeting in Ridgway on Tuesday (June 1) in which they darkly hinted at the menacing blob of scruffy, unwashed humanity that was fast approaching this fair community. And, the Ridgway Record ran front page articles ("Forest service gives update on Rainbow gathering" and "Cooperation key to managing Rainbow gathering") the next two days.
Fear and Loathing in Ridgway
In both articles, U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Bill Fox was quoted extensively. The only other source quoted was Forest Service information specialist Dale Dunshie. No Rainbows were contacted.
In the first article, Fox explained how the Rainbow Gatherings began in Colorado in 1972 as a prayer for peace. And he admitted, "a lot of Rainbows are very good folks," though "some of them are a little odd."
He then went on to explain that the harmless hippies of yesteryear had given way to a "younger, tougher element".
"That's where we tend to have the problems. We've seen a little bit more gang activity, we've seen a little more anti-government, more people prone to be anti-law enforcement, anti-authority."
Fox was at it again in the next day's article. "Significant drug activity occurs, there's a criminal element that inserts itself in that group," Fox said, adding that a number of Rainbows have told him over the years that because of a new, tougher element that's part of the Rainbow family, they are losing control of the gathering."
Fox then explained that Ridgway could expect to see "dumpster diving, shoplifting, possible burglaries and thefts" and "an overall increase in people milling around."
The reporter's conclusion: "It boils down to this: with such a mass of humanity converging on the ANF, the Forest Service advised local folks to be ready for anything."
I went to the Ridgway Library this afternoon to cull some Rainbow- friendly information off the World Wide Web. It seemed like time for an Unofficial Rainbow Press Packet. I printed out the front page of the Unofficial Rainbow Home Page, excerpts and reviews of Michael Niman's "People of the Rainbow" plus a photo essay I did on last year's Gathering. I put these in a glossy, $1.09 folder I bought at he Rite Aid Pharmacy along with a copy of last year's "All Ways Free", some leaflets from the Ocala Defense Fund and some other helpful URLs.
Inside the Ridgway Record
Bekki Guilyard is warm, friendly and intelligent. She is also the reporter who wrote this week's introductory articles to the Gathering. Her paper relies heavily on bureaucratic sources ("Warden recognizes correctional officer", "Commissioners adopt revised comprehensive plan" and "Three projects OK'd by heritage council")for its stories.
I found her hard at work in the far back corner of the Ridgway Record newsroom. She smiled and saluted me with arms raised in front of her and asked if I was one of the official Rainbow leaders. I assured her for the first of several times that I was ABSOLUTELY NOT a leader or spokesperson for anyone but myself.
I handed her the folder full of goodies and her eyes brightened. To her credit, she had already found the Unofficial Rainbow Home Page and was working on a more balanced story. She was surprised to learn that the Rainbows are camped only a few miles outside of town. Bill Fox had neglected to tell her that at his public briefing.
I talked a little bit about how the Forest Service had a well-rehearsed gameplan for framing media coverage around a law enforcement theme when the real story was to be found inside the Gathering. She agreed and lamented that she hadn't had more access to the Rainbow Family in recent weeks as it was known to be somewhere in the ANF. I invited her to come out to our camp in the woods. And, she said that she would try to get out early next week.
Peace to All,
Seed Camp Journal Entry #6: Negotiating with the Forest Service
District Ranger Leon "Gentle Bear" Blashock attended council again this morning to discuss Seed Camp logistics. More people were present than two days ago and they chimed in repeatedly with their observations and comments. There was a sense of impatience about when several gated roads would be opened so that we could advance into the site and begin Seed Camp in earnest.
Recent negative articles about the Gathering in the Ridgway Record poisoned the atmosphere to some extent. Leon wasn't quoted in either story. However, the pieces were generated by Forest Service colleagues assigned to the Incident Command Team. And, Leon was tarnished by the association.
"My relationship to you all is different than that of the law enforcement people," he said, trying to reassure us at the outset of the meeting. "And I want to keep it that way."
A Misunderstanding About the Gates
When Leon departed on Wednesday morning (June 2), we thought we had an agreement that he would at least temporarily open the gates to Forest Service Roads 161 (parking), 168 (Welcome Home/shuttle drop-off point) and 393 (bus village) to facilitate speedier scouting. Two days later, all three gates remained locked.
Leon explained that there had been a misunderstanding due to what he said were his "poor communication skills". Eyes began to roll. Is Leon a cautious steward of the land proceeding slowly, step-by-by step to make sure that the forest won't be trampled by hordes of hippies? Or is he delaying and taking the Family for a ride? We wanted to believe the former. But past history made us wary.
Leon announced that as soon as the meeting ended he would open up FS 161 and that it was very likely he would open FS 168 in the near future as our stated intention was to use it only as a trailhead. As for FS 393, he had serious reservations.
Gated Forest Service roads tend to be more poorly constructed, Leon said. And while exploring FS 393 yesterday in his Ford Bronco, he discovered that he had carved some deep ruts in the road. How, he asked, could we hope to bring in hundreds of busses and campers over the next month?
Leon & T.C.
It was then explained that the Family only wished to use certain parts of FS 393, which preceded the area where the ruts had occurred. Leon was doubtful but he agreed to walk the site with an engineer and one of the Rainbow scouts.
"When Leon?" T.C. asked.
Situated a few feet outside the circle, T.C. herded the meeting like an impatient sheepdog. He was as annoyed with the scattered hippie energy as he was with Leon's unclear promises. T.C. has thick, graying dreadlocks and he would alternately sit on a stump or pace around with a burning nub of a cigarette in hand. Throughout the meeting he would say things like, "Leon, I've got a problem", or "Leon, we've gotta talk about something".
A taut silence would hold for a second as T.C. leaned forward. And then zing! he would release his question or comment and it would always land dead-on target. T.C. was insistent and demanding. He teetered on the brink of being rude but never crossed it. It was effective. If Leon had any intention of backsliding or leaving things in a bureaucratic muddle, T.C. was blocking it.
Leon said that he would summon an engineer as soon as he could. And, he would keep us posted. Because it's Friday, it was important that the weekend not become another excuse for inaction. There was more bantering back and forth. Finally, Leon said that he would let us know by late in the afternoon whether or not he would have an engineer lined up for the following day.
That was OK by us. And after Leon left, we briefly counciled and discussed whether or not we should move camp over to FS 161. There wasn't much enthusiasm for the idea. Warm, blue skies returned this morning after three days of rain. And, the majority is content to stay a little while longer here at the campground off of FS 129, where there's a public outhouse stocked with toilet paper, a creek to splash around in and a kitchen that occasionally feeds people.
A-Camp is just down the road. They are a magnet for locals who want to party. They make a lot of noise at night. But, they haven't been disruptive enough to scare people away.
So far, no atrocities.
Seed Camp Journal Entry #7: Katuah Kitchen Arrives; Leon Delivers on His Promises
The first pieces of the Katuah Kitchen arrived on-site today. Uncle Bill, Trucker Bob, Paisley and myself hiked in from the top of FS 168. We pulled a cart piled high with blue tarps and rope, a large fry pan, a propane tank, a coffee pot (and grounds), a french fry maker, two enormous bottles of ketchup and more.
> We followed the winding, descending path for 1.5 miles, stopping several times to use a bow saw to clear fallen logs out of the trail. The forest was quiet and a few pieces of colored tape and some colored feathers were the only signs of any recent human presence.
"I sure am glad to be in the forest and out of that parking lot," Paisley said in his slow Southern drawl.
Moving Onto the Site
The scene at the Bear Creek campground off of FS 129 has been getting louder, noisier and more crowded. More and more locals have been coming by to mingle with A-Camp, which is nearby. Other Rainbows who are serious about doing Seed Camp work are moving over to FS 161 where a 4 foot-wide trail from the Back Gate to Main Circle is being bushwhacked open.
We didn't see any people until we ran into District Ranger Leon "Gentle Bear" Blashock and two Forest Service engineers.
Leon recruited a team of five experts (a hydrologist, a wildlife biologist, an archaeologist and two engineers)on short notice to help him prepare for the coming onslaught of people. He introduced each one of them to us at a council meeting earlier this morning. All five men are professionals who care deeply about the land and they were eager (despite it being a Saturday morning) to work with the Rainbows. Our previous concerns that Leon was procrastinating seemed unjustified.
Back on the trail into the gathering, we consulted Leon and the two engineers about the best place to put the kitchen. Paisley and Uncle Bill had flagged a good spring the day before, which was up the hill from Little Otter Creek. We wanted to park the kitchen in the same area, about a half-mile from Main Circle. Leon and the engineers scanned their maps and then gave their blessing.
The Katuah Family (based in the Smokey Mts. of northern Georgia, eastern Tennessee, the western Carolinas and southwestern Virginia) is planning on doing a large-scale kitchen this year in conjunction with the Piedmont Family, the Atlanta Family and Camp Zipolite. The plan is to do massive amounts of french fries by day and doughnuts by night. Food will be served at the bliss pit out front. And, wrestling matches will be provided for entertainment.
"It's a great sport. Probably the oldest known to man," Paisley said. "When there's 20,000 people here, I think a lot of people will be wrestling and a lot more people will be watching."
Now, there's a purple and white hammock strung up between two black cherry trees and a pile of kitchen equipment lying in a shady clearing full of ferns. A hunter's distant gunshots died out at dusk. Only the trickling of a nearby stream can be heard in the forest night. Tomorrow begins the work of building a kitchen from scratch.
Peace to All,
Seed Camp Journal Entry #8: Notes from a Slow Sunday Afternoon
Notes from a slow Sunday afternoon...a state trooper has been posted on Grant Road (which leads from Ridgway to FS 135)this weekend. The speed limit is 35 m.p.h and I saw him bust three locals in a half-hour. It's the beginning of the police gauntlet that will ring the Gathering as the month progresses...Most of the locals in Ridgway (Founded in 1823 and named for a rich Philadelphia merchant/land speculator named Jacob Ridgway) are really friendly. The little kids especially. They wave and flash the peace sign and shout to each other, "It's the Rainbow people!", whenever we drive by...There were two very positive articles about the gathering in the Friday (June 4) Ridgway Record ("Word is, Rainbow gathering is at Bear Creek" and "A little about the Rainbows"). And then yesterday there was a posse of drainbo's sparechanging outside the Sheetz convenience store...A steady trickle of people continues arriving. There are three kitchens and 100-150 people on site now. A large white banner with Rap 107 written on it flies over an otherwise empty Main Meadow/Main Marsh. The first makeshift bridges have been slung across the creeks that run through this site. And, the deerflies are voracious....
This site is ecologically sensitive and we have to be good to it. It has wetlands, fragile stream banks and an endangered species (the Indiana bat) which lives in the bark of standing dead trees. Clear cutting in the late 19th and early 20th Century wiped out the native species of Eastern hemlock, white pine and beech trees. A devastating forest fire in 1923 (started by a lightning strike and spread quickly due to the piles of brush left around from all the clear cutting) severely damaged the soil and the Bear Creek area is still recovering 75 years later. The timber companies split and the federal government took over the land in 1925 and has slowly nursed it back to good health. Such are the origins of the Allegheny National Forest. Something to think about as we walk lightly on the land.
Peace to All,
Seed Camp Journal Entry #9: Many Ways to Dig A Shitter
I dug my first gray water pit of the gathering today. The earth is soft and yielding here on these old mountain ridges. But, there are big rocks to be dislodged on the way down. I worked with a brother named Bliss and we slowly opened up the earth with a broken, $10 shovel and a post hole digger. From far up the hill, we could hear the drumming down below at Ananda (Bliss Consciousness) Kitchen.
It was good to have a shovel in hand. After a slow start to Seed Camp, we were finally swinging into action. Bliss and I thought we were working on a shitter (or, "slit-trench" as the Forest Service officially calls it) when Vinnie arrived to tell us that the long trench was actually going to be a gray water pit. Vinnie is an idealistic, hard-working brother who came to Spring Council when he read on the Internet that no kitchen was expected to be there. And, he has new ideas about shitter digging.
A Clash of Shitter Digging Philosophies
The classic Rainbow shitters (both the long slit trenches and the deep, square holes with a box and a toilet seat on top), Vinnie says, are not only breeders of disease-carrying flies but take as long as 12 years to decompose. If people would dig small, vertical holes straight into the ground, he says, things wouldn't be so nasty and decomposition would finish in only 3 years.
Small, eco-friendly shitters, or large shitters for the masses who will pour in during the week leading up to the 4th of July? I think the latter is more realistic. But, Vinnie has a novel idea. The science of shitter digging is probably far from being perfected.
Anyhow, the shitter-turned-gray water pit was finished and we returned to the kitchen. Looking around, I saw people busy doing various things. Hauling buckets of water, chopping veggies, cleaning their cups at the wash station, lazing around in the shade making music and waiting for a big pot of beans on the grill to finish cooking. It's starting to feel like a Gathering.
Seed Camp Journal Entry #10: More Negotiations with the Forest Service
The Rainbow Family and the US Forest Service ironed out operating plans today for both the annual Gathering of the Tribes and the subsequent cleanup.
The meeting between the Rainbow Family Council (which consists of whoever shows up) and district rangers Leon "Gentle Bear" Blashock and John "Working Horse" Schultz took place in the shade behind the Welcome Home information station on FS 161 leading into the Gathering. Cars occasionally drove by kicking up dust. A sister whose lower lip was swollen from a spider bite came by looking for medication. And, rice and veggies were being served in the smokey kitchen across the way.
There was a mutual determination to craft the clearest, most precise documents possible. And after four hours of negotiating line-by-line through the two documents, agreement was reached that was satisfactory to both the Forest Service and the world's largest non-organization. The give-and-take and the straightforward communication between the Rainbows and the district rangers belied the claims of Forest Service LEO's (law enforcement officers) that a special signed permit is needed to manage these Gatherings.
Dotting the i's and Crossing the t's
Most of the meeting was spent combing the operating plans for objectionable language. Many people were concerned about misunderstandings that marred cleanup at last year's Gathering in Arizona. Likewise, they were sensitive about any wording that implied that the Rainbow Family was an organization. There was a torrent of complaints and suggestions for rewording almost every line of the two agreements.
"Can you make that 'should' not 'will'?" One person asked..."I have another question on Paragraph 4," someone else said..." 'Improvements'. Let's make that 'pre-existing improvements'"...I like the word 'necessary' to be thrown in there..."Can we agree to 'may be agreed to be necessary'?"..."Wait, I have a problem when you say 'members'. That implies that the Rainbow Family is an organization"....
"You guys are worse than we are in management meetings," John Schultz joked, when another round of haggling began.
"Alls That I'm Asking Is That the Rainbows Fix Up What They Damage"
The operating plan covered 23 objectives ranging from shitter digging to firewood gathering to parking to protecting fragile riparian areas, etc. Most of the objectives listed ("No green timber will be cut", "stream crossings will be kept to a minimum", "no bathing or the use of soaps, detergents or cleansers in the streams") are in accord with traditional Rainbow practices. At the Rainbows' insistence, a plea for "No Guns in the Church" was inserted into the operating plan, though both district rangers emphasized that there was zero chance that the LEO's would abandon their sidearms.
The parking situation, right now, is still murky. The LEO's have begun issuing arbitrary and contradictory commands about where gatherers can and cannot park and whether or not the Family can set up gates into their own Gathering. For this and many other reasons, it was important for Leon to hash out these agreements so that he would have something clear and solid to carry back to the Incident Command Team ("Incident Creation Team"?) based in Sheffield.
"We're not on the same page yet," Leon said of his Forest Service colleagues. "But we will be."
As for the rehabilitation plan, it outlines how the site will be dismantled and disappeared in the weeks after the Gathering ends. It even includes how many lbs. of rye grass seed per acre will be used to reseed trails.
"Alls that I'm asking is that the Rainbows fix up what they damage," Leon said as the meeting finally concluded.
Peace to All,
Seed Camp Journal Entry #11: Lean Times at Seed Camp
G-Funk is in the house. And Everybody's Lovin' Ovens is up the creek (or "crick" as the locals say it) going toward Jesus Camp.
More and more kitchens are arriving and not a moment too soon. Food has been sparse with only a couple of kitchens (Ananda and Chico's Southern Yin-Yang) regularly producing meals. Increasingly large numbers of Rainbows have been spotted foraging outside their native forest habitat.
Hunger is a ravenous, gnawing experience. It tags along with you on the foot paths ("hey brother...") and over the makeshift bridges and up and down these old Pennsylvania hills. It can sharpen the senses, or it can leave you listless and lying around the edge of a kitchen hoping to catch a morsel of food. It fills the mind with vivid almost sensuous dreams of peanut butter, crumbly store bread and saltine crackers. There are two kinds of people during early Seed Camp: those who have a stash and those who don't.
And this will all pass in a few days. Popcorn Palace/It's a Beautiful Day Cafe is setting up just down the trail from Southern Yin-Yang. Ghetto and Raven's Nest are on the hill up from the railroad trestle that overlooks Bear Creek. Rainbow Crystal Kitchen is here, too. Felipe and the Kid Village crew limped into town this morning in their ancient, baby blue school bus.
It's been an unusually sluggish Seed Camp. Perhaps it's the muggy heat and the sprawling immensity of this site. Or, maybe we started a week too early. However, the Gathering is about to make a quantum leap in size and complexity. It's amazing to watch and contribute to.
I helped Granola Funk Express bring its stuff down the Supply Trail on Saturday. They are setting up on the Blue Trail along Bear Creek about 10 minutes from what is currently Main Meadow. The Funksters' plans, as usual, are ambitious. They plan to build a kitchen, a two-story tree house, a theatre, a Venetian bathhouse (with toga parties) and a "laundromat" where you can beat your clothes on a rock. They are hoping that 300 people a day will stop and plug in for a few hours at a time in a non-stop, all-out kitchen.
"This is a chance for the people in our kitchen to do a really awesome kitchen," one of the early arrivals said. "And our number one goal is good sanitation. That means people in the kitchen not only have clean hands but clean bodies, clean clothes, clean under the fingernails, everything." And in a moment of reflection he added, "The Funk is a spaceship. It takes up space. It's just not moving."
Smokey the Bear
Forest Service LEO's dropped off Smoky Bear pins and comic books ("The True Story of Smoky Bear") yesterday at Southern Yin-Yang Kitchen; a half-hearted attempt at "winning the hearts and minds" of the people. The comic book tells the story of a bear cub who miraculously survived a forest fire in New Mexico's Lincoln National Forest sometime in the 1950s and went on to become a national icon.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service LEO's and the Pennsylvania State Police are stepping up their patrols on all roads around the Gathering.
"I've never seen so many cops in town in my whole life!" said a local woman who gave me a lift into town.
Be especially careful when leaving local roads (speed limit: 35 m.p.h.) for Forest Service roads where white Ford Broncos with a single green stripe lie in wait to enforce unposted speeding laws.
What else?...I saw a young porcupine this morning. It slowly waddled across the trail in front of me; dark black and furry with pointed quills and a flat, beaver's tale. It disappeared into the high green ferns for a moment and then shimmied up a small tree, hugging the trunk like a koala bear....
Main Meadow/Main Marsh continues to be a source of contention. Part of it is a fragile riparian area that lies beneath all our camps and kitchens. Sometimes I say to myself, "What a mess!" when I think of this site. Yet, when I drift down to the lower end of the Meadow for a 9 o'clock sunset it all seems more beautiful than I had previously imagined. Fluorescent green fireflies flicker through the cool, twilight air while the stars come out overhead. A handful of drummers - none paying attention to the others - bang away at a freshly dug boogy pit while the frogs serenade the heavens from their marshy home.
Young bullfrogs diligently practice their mating calls and then they are drowned out by the long, low croaking sound of an elder.
Peace to All,
P.S. Ever wondered what day-to-day life is really like for the people of Chiapas? See http://www.myhouse.com/pub/cybertraveler/chiapas.html
P.P.S. We're behind on digging shitters. If you can get your hands on extra spades and picks, please drop them off at NERF Kitchen. I'll be around. We need to centralize a critical mass of tools in one place so that we can hold brief morning work councils there and then fan out in teams around the site and get a lot of work done. We waste far too much time when well-intentioned people have to go from kitchen to kitchen trying to bum a shovel here and a pick there. And kitchens are understandably nervous about loaning out there last tools to strangers who may never return. Let's see if we can find a better way.
P.P.P.S. On a different note, does anybody out there have one of those large glass jars that people normally use to squirrel away large collections of pennies?...I have something special in mind for it if you do. Please write.
June 17, 1999
The Rainbow Family Council consensed today to move Main Meadow up the ridge to a larger, drier meadow known as Eagles Roost. In recent days more and more of the site originally designated as Main Meadow was cordoned off due to its fragile, riparian nature. Awareness was growing that it couldn't host 20,000 people at the height of the Gathering. "The water is sacred," Felipe pointed out at yesterday's council. "If we desecrate it, what kind of message are we sending?" The question was, where do we go next?
Three More Meadows to Choose From
Scouts fanned out this morning to investigate several promising sites, two of which were located far from the center of the Gathering. It was crucial to make a decision ASAP. Word went out that things would be decided once and for all at today's 4:20 council.
The council was unusually focused from the first moment. Roughly 40 people were present and the feather journeyed around the circle once. Ideas and impressions were shared. People listened closely to the scouts' reports. At a crucial moment, the council process was working. We were thinking together.
Three new meadows were considered. The "daisy meadow" up by Bus Village was quickly rejected because it is too close to A-Camp and because it's not that much bigger than the present meadow.
"It's inconceivable that we would make a major shift in the Gathering to a meadow that's only a little bit better," said Guitar Bob.
The other choices were 1.) a small meadow located just down the way from the current one, or 2.) Eagles Roost, an open meadow, several football fields large, located at the far, southern end of the Gathering. It is covered in debris from a clear cut and, at this time, it lacks a water supply.
The first speakers were reluctantly in favor of moving uphill.
"If we can't do it down here," one sister said, "then I think we should do it up there."
"I'll feel a lot better if we gank this Gathering up the ridge," another sister said.
"It's a Hobson's Choice," said one of the scouts who looked over the two meadows. "There aren't really any good choices."
But, others felt it was essential to keep Main Circle at the center of the Gathering.
"I'm feeling that the center of all our energy is down in here," said one brother. "I don't think being down in this (other) meadow will do irreparable damage."
A representative from Granola Funk also spoke in favor of using the other, nearby meadow. G-Funk, Millieways and Sun Dog had already set up their kitchens along Bear Creek to be near Main Circle. They would be the victims of a solution to a problem that they didn't create.
The Turning Point
Then, a young, blonde-haired woman with sparkling blue eyes spoke. "This is a delicate area," she said. "And I'm feeling protective of it. This is a quiet valley. Its essence is Yin. When we want to connect with the Yang side of ourselves and play and be loud and explode, we should go to a place that can support that."
Her words were soft but firm. This was the turning point of the meeting. The feather was halfway around the circle and everyone else who spoke afterwards expressed support for going up the ridge.
"If we have to be inconvenienced and haul things uphill," someone said, "I don't see why with 30,000 people coming here, we can't do that."
"We are the custodians of the land," a brother said. "We belong to the Earth. It doesn't belong to us."
After 90 minutes of discussion, the feather arrived back at where it started. A call was made for consensus by silence to move Main Meadow up the ridge to the meadow known as Eagles Roost. A late-arriving brother blocked to ask a point of information. People groaned and there were shouts to try again. Someone asked how long the silence had to be.
"10 seconds," said David Alexander English.
People inhaled and waited, slowly counting the seconds in their heads. There was only stillness. We were reaching for the most elusive of Rainbow moments: collective clarity of mind. The silence remained unbroken. And people slowly began to exhale great sighs of relief. We had a new Main Meadow.
Peace to All,
Seed Camp Journal Entry #13: Ridgway Holds a Town Meeting
Drugs, deer and indecency were on peoples' minds at last night's town meeting in Ridgway as several hundred area residents came out to listen to the Forest Service, the Pennsylvania State Police and the Rainbow Family exchange their impressions on how the upcoming Gathering will impact the local area.
The Ridgway Fire Hall was packed when 15 of us arrived a half-hour late in Bam-Bam's van. The air in the room was tense and charged and Garrick Beck, one of the original Rainbows, was at the mike.
The locals sat close together at long tables that extended to the back of the room. Most of them were over 50 years old. Their faces were scrunched tight with concern. We faded back against one of the side walls. The locals have heard all about us. Now, we were going to hear from them.
Tough Questions for Garrick Beck
"Just how much bigger will A-Camp get?" One woman asked. "There's only 400 of you here and they are already causing lots of trouble."
"I've heard all kinds of stories about our children going up to your camp and getting drugs," said a concerned mom who walked right up to where Garrick was standing. "What I want to know is, would your security people (Shanti Sena) arrest a Rainbow who was caught selling or trading drugs."
Articulate, reasonable and well-organized, Garrick looked nothing like the stereotypical, dumpster-diving Rainbow. He wore pressed white trousers, a button-down shirt with blue and white vertical stripes, a faded ballcap and a gray ponytail. He was unfazed by the simmering animosity in the room. And he answered each question adroitly, like a man who had been on stage his whole life.
Regarding A-Camp, Garrick noted that we are a microcosm of society and that alcoholism is a pervasive social problem that Rainbow can't hope to solve by itself. As for drugs, he lamented "the problem of drug abuse" in society. The buying and selling of anything is strongly discouraged at the Gatherings, he said. Garrick also noted that he had heard of at least three accounts of locals coming up to the Gathering to sell drugs to the Rainbows. Then, agile as a cat, Garrick hopped back on-message.
"80% of the people who come to these Gatherings are in the workforce," he said. "We may have tie-dyes and paisleys on. But in reality, we're just like you. We have doctors and lawyers and people who work the grill at Taco Bell. There are teachers and nurses and carpenters and linoleum layers and people from every walk of life. We are a microcosm of society."
Jane Light Warrior
Raven from Ghetto Kitchen then spoke about how good hygiene is emphasized at Rainbow Gatherings. And, Jane Light Warrior of C.A.L.M. (Center for Alternative Living Medicine) talked about the Family's health care system.
She explained how the Gathering will be home for a week to the world's most diverse collection of natural healers. Rainbow healers, she assured the locals, try to avoid things like ambulance calls and prescription drugs in order to diagnose and treat the cause not the symptoms of a person's suffering. Witty and animated, Jane was only at a loss for words only once.
A woman from an area hospital asked Jane what she would do to guarantee the safety of her staff and equipment if they received an EMR call to enter the Gathering. Jane went off at length about one thing and then another, detailing C.A.L.M.'s methods and its successes and how it is working with local authorities. The woman still wasn't satisfied. Only at long last did Jane understand ("Ohhh...I get it!") what the woman was getting at: would we steal her ambulance?
"When Are You Going to Open the Gates for Us?"
There's a powerful undercurrent of local hostility against the Forest Service because of its control over local land and resources. It exercises an almost parental supervision of peoples' activities in these woods.
All logging, the area's major industry, has been suspended since April 1 while biologists study the condition of the endangered Indiana bat. Permits must be acquired for all hunting and fishing. And hunters have to walk long distances in and (more importantly) out of the forest because the gates are normally locked. It makes for an explosive brew of resentments.
The meeting, by its nature, seemed to attract people who had a grievance to air. Garrick and the others shrewdly stepped aside to let the Forest Service and the State Police take the floor for much of the rest of the evening.
"Is it true that Rainbows have licenses to hunt deer?" One man asked.
"My 11 year-old son was the victim of indecent exposure," said an irate father. "He was at the Gathering last weekend when two people in A-Camp had sex in their car right in front of him! I reported this and you all (the State Police) still haven't done anything. If I hunt deer without a permit, I'm busted! If I spit on the sidewalk, I'm busted! But these people do anything they want and you just tolerate it!"
"So am I going to have to walk all the way in from the top of the road when I go hunting this winter? Or, are you going to open the gates for me like you did the Rainbows?"
"How much money is being spent by you all (the Forest Service) at this Gathering to permit these two weeks of freedom for people who won't even clean up after themselves?"
"Because of the Indiana bat, we can't cut down wood in the forest. But you let the Rainbows do whatever they want without any permits."
"When are you going to open the gates for us?"
"I've heard that the Rainbows are unclean and that they walk barefoot into the grocery stores. Why can't they put their shoes on?"
Some of the locals were embarrassed and indignant about their neighbor's spitefulness. And, they too stood and spoke.
"I live right by one of the two grocery stores in town," one lady said. "And all the Rainbows I've seen were clean and had their shoes on. Just because they look a little different doesn't mean they aren't people like everyone else."
A Taste of Babylon
The meeting wound down at 9 p.m. and we chatted in the hallway with locals (including the fire chief who fondly recalled being at Woodstock) for another half hour before drifting over to a Uni-Mart convenience store to have some surprisingly good pizza. It was a cool, damp night and even the most hardened Rainbow had to come in from the cold and have a taste of Babylon.
We crowded into a couple of bright yellow tables that looked out on the barren gas station parking lot. A couple of old men sat quietly at the other table behind us. Garrick kept repeating an Einstein joke that no one got. Several people fell into discussing the idea of having preferences for good over bad vs. simply living in the Eternal Now. David English passed the hat and then went to place an order. The camaraderie and fellowship that was shared would make the pizzas taste that much better.
I slid out of my seat and turned to talk with the two old men. One had a light olive complexion with a long Roman nose. The other wore bib overalls and had the innocent, twinkling eyes of a small child and a roundish, moon-shaped face.
They had survived the Depression and the War and they were content to live out their lives in these old hills. They said times had never been better. The one with the long nose said he never ventured more than 30 miles from home because he had a terrible sense of direction. They sipped their coffee and said they weren't worried at all about the Gathering.
Peace to all,
Seed Camp Journal Entry #14: Main Meadow Moves Again
In a sudden magnetic reversal, the poles of this year's Gathering switched once again at today's Family council. The consensus that was achieved three days earlier to move Main Meadow up the ridge to a large, open meadow known as Eagles Roost was changed in favor of keeping the Gathering centered in the boggy meadow known as Main Marsh.
The two dozen or so people at this afternoon's council arrived in a mood to re-assess the earlier decision. Kitchen council had met earlier in the day and had issued an ultimatum: the kitchens would boycott serving dinner at Main Circle if it were held at the top of the ridge. Council can only talk and make decisions. The kitchens fill peoples' bellies. And, they were asserting their power.
Furthermore, the water supply up at Eagles Roost was uncertain. There were rumors (but so far nothing more) of springs being found. More and more people were complaining about the arduous, 15-minute uphill hike from Ananda Kitchen to the new Main Meadow. Also, only a small portion of the clear cut debris that covers that meadow had been cleared. The council's earlier decision sounded good in theory but wasn't being carried out in practice.
Searching for Daisy Meadow
Before today's council made its decision, it agreed to one sister's request to take the time out to investigate a third meadow. The council missed a turn-off on the trail, got lost and made a 270 degree arc around the Daisy Meadow, near Bus Village, before actually finding it. On the 21st day of Seed Camp, large numbers of people were still trying to scout this site.
Daisy Meadow is beautiful. It is also dry and clear of debris. But, all the walking around only further convinced the council that it was important to keep Main Meadow down at the bottom of the Gathering.
The dry part of Main Marsh that would serve as Main Circle is a narrow, rectangular swath of high ground. It is roughly 100 ft. wide by 300-400 feet long with small, shrub-like trees scattered about. Further down, the meadow turns into fragile wetland. It just might be possible to squeeze everybody in for large dinner circles and the July 4th Prayer and Meditation for World Peace. As the Gathering becomes larger, dinner will have to be served in long, tightly compressed concentric circles.
"Everybody's just gonna have to sit close together," one old hippie said when he heard the news that Main Circle had been moved, again.
Most people are simply relieved that all the flip-flopping is over, or appears to be over. The practical, day-to-day logistics of setting up the annual Gathering are enormous.
Yet, this debate offers us an unusual chance to look within ourselves and ask how much, if any, personal inconvenience would we accept if it really was essential to gank the Gathering up the ridge. We know what "Babylon" does to the Earth when its convenience is at stake. Would we allow anything to disrupt our party in the woods? If push came to shove, would we really be any different?
See Ya Soon,
Seed Camp Journal Entry #15: A Family Adventure
No one can say for certain any longer whether the Gathering "officially" begins on June 21, June 28 or July 1. Meanwhile, more people arrive every day and this very spread out village is starting to take form.
Main Supply is distributing food and supplies to 25-30 kitchens with priority going first to Kiddie Village and then to kitchens that serve Main Circle.
Nora, the great-granddaughter of a Cherokee Indian chief, and Doug began focalizing supply at the start of Seed Camp. They had neither a vehicle nor money and had to bum rides from other Rainbows in order to go out and mine the food-rich dumpsters of western Pennsylvania. They have since been joined by Feather, who has worked in the restaurant business. They now run a highly organized system out of an improvised supply shed on FS Road 161, next to Kinda Sorta Kitchen.
"We really encourage kitchens to feed Main Circle," Doug said. "If people don't come to Main Circle to eat, they aren't going to put money in the Magic Hat. And it's the Magic Hat that keeps the Family phat."
Dinner with the Rainbows
Main Circle dinner is still being held on the high end of Main Marsh where the main trail passes through like a four-lane freeway.
A couple of hundred people showed up last night. A juggler stood on the lower edge of the circle tossing weighted tennis balls in the air. There were announcements about dogs and sprained ankles and Dr. Bronner's soap (which takes 30 years to biodegrade in water) while coolers full of food waited to be served. And a couple of children zoomed through the circle pushing Tonka trucks in front of them.
After the Omming ceased, people wedged themselves in two concentric circles facing each other. The idea is to avoid disturbing the meadow for as long as possible. Five kitchens showed up with food. Millieways served potato and veggie soup and It's a Beautiful Day served pasta and veggie soup. Also, there was rice from Share Kitchen, curried rice from Ananda Kitchen and stir-fried rice and veggies from Raven's Ghetto Den. During the meal a barefoot woman named Maria collected $233 in Guitar Bob's old straw hat.
Local Curiosity Increases
Local media coverage has become more and more positive in recent weeks as reporters come out and visit the site. The Ridgway Record is also now printing unofficial press releases (See Below) from the "Rainbow Info Council".
"We try to be open to all points of view," said Bekki Guilyard, Editor of the Ridgway Record. "I believe if you give people enough information they can sort out the truth for themselves."
And, all that tantalizing information is making locals curious to see what's going on out in these woods.
I was hitchhiking back from the library (where I post all my stories) last Saturday when I was picked up by a family of four. Bob, who works at a powdered metal factory, and Clara rode in front of the family van. And I rode in back with their daughter Robin (13) and their son Chris (9).
"I don't usually pick up hitchhikers," Bob said. But, his curiosity was greater than his wariness. He asked me if I would guide them right into the Gathering. And, I agreed.
The kids marveled at finding a hippie so far out of his natural forest habitat. This was much better than watching "Wonder Years". They peppered me with questions - "Why do you all gather?", "What do you all do at a Gathering?", "Where do you all come from?", "How many people are coming?" - that I've come to take for granted. They then wanted to know where I come from, how I live and how I support myself.
"Don't you ever get tired of answering questions?" Chris asked.
We pulled off in a small clearing near the back gate at FS 168. A-Camp was miles away.
They were all soon winded by the 1 1/2 mile downward trek into the Gathering. The woods were still and they kept on asking how much further we had to go. Clara was amazed that people would carry all their gear and kitchen equipment into the Gathering. Finally, we spotted the blue tarp of Katuah/Zipolite Kitchen.
"Land ho!" I called out.
I showed them the water system, the heart-shaped firepit and the kitchen that was in the final stages of construction.
"We wouldn't be here if we didn't believe world peace was possible," said Paisley, the kitchen's focalizer. "you gotta have faith. There's going to be 20,000-30,000 of us here and we're all going to be living in peace."
"I Want to Be a Rainbow"
We followed the trail over to Ananda and found a booming drum circle. Bam-Bam and a dozen others were raging while pots of food simmered on the stove. A young man came up and asked Robin if she wanted to hold his pet python. All four of them looked around with wonder and amazement. They had never seen anything like it.
"I guess people wouldn't have been doing this for so many years if it wasn't a lot of fun," Bob concluded.
Still a tad chubby with fair skin and long, dark hair, Robin didn't like the walk in or the occasional mud in the trail. But once in the Gathering, her mood changed.
"This is soooo cool," she said over and over again. "I want to be a Rainbow."
We made it back over to dinner circle just in time for a group Om which Robin joined in ("that was soooo cool!") while her parents and brother stood back. They didn't have any bowls and Bob said that you don't just invite yourself to someone else's dinner. I ate swiftly from my coconut bowl and then we took off with 1 1/2 hours of daylight left in that long, lazy June evening. They were worried again about time.
"Co'mon, we gotta get going," Bob said. "I don't want to be lost in the forest when it's dark."
We hiked back up the trail and no one blew an artery. When we arrived at the gate, I gave my e-mail address to Bob and we promised to stay in touch. He wanted to bring other friends and relatives back out with his family for an overnight camping excursion later in the Gathering. It will be his first chance to use the tent that his daughter gave him for Father's Day five years ago.
Peace to All,
P.S. Here's a copy of a press release ("Rainbows issue unofficial release about gathering") that appeared in the Ridgway Record on June 23:
"The Rainbow Family's Info Council has issued its own news release regarding incidents at the gathering. Of course, with no recognized leaders, this is an unofficial press release.
"The Rainbow Info Council reports the following incidents for the 24-hour period ending June 21.
"There were 14,109 hugs shared, 163,978 smiles radiated, 3,406 free meals served, 1,236 songs sung around campfires, 23 cases of enlightenment obtained, 5,171 new friendships made and 212 good Karma citations issued to people who went out of their way to help haul in supplies on the trails leading into the gathering.
"These incidents, say the council. are expected to greatly increase in the next two weeks "and they will be closely monitored".
"According to the Rainbows, there are between 1,000 and 1,200 people on site, and as many as 25,000 to 30,000 are expected to attend the gathering at its peak on July 4.
"The Rainbow gathering is a free, non-commercial event that has taken place in a different national forest every year since 1972. According to the council, anyone who has a belly button is invited to attend."
P.P.S. There have been concerns expressed about water supplies at this Gathering. This is a water rich site and in spite of semi-drought conditions multiple springs have been tapped into and are delivering a steady stream of fresh water. I've been drinking it for weeks without any problem.
However, water still doesn't flow uphill. And, for those people who are camped on the upper ridge of the Gathering toward FS 161 and FS 393 (Bus Village) obtaining water is a more difficult process. Maintaining high quality drinking water throughout the Gathering is everyone's responsibility. Don't park your tent anywhere near a spring, even if it's the 3rd of July and good real estate is hard to come by. And if you do accidentally set up too close to a spring, don't be tweeky when you are asked to move. These areas are well-marked off and for good reason.
Everything is biggerin' and biggerin' at this point. The population of the Gathering has more than doubled to 4,000 this past weekend as a steady stream of cars has journeyed down FS Road 136 to the parking lot in a big, open field near Owls Nest. Woodlands that once belonged to the Seneca Indians are being densely inhabited for a few days by the longhaired descendents of the white men who paid off Chief Cornplanter in 1784 with $9,400 in guns, ammo, trinkets and firewater.
Dome tents are popping up throughout this long, narrow valley. It's hot and steamy and more and more people can be seen swimming at Cutey Booty Beach along the shores of Bear Creek.
People from Sun Dog lugged a piano all the way down to their kitchen/entertainment complex. Millieways has a nude-dancing cage. And Granola Funk is putting the finishing touches on its two-story theatre in the woods. The green velvet curtain arrived yesterday. Dinner circle has grown big enough to move (for now)to the middle of Main Meadow/Main Marsh. At last glance, 62 camps and/or kitchens are listed on the big map by the info booth at Main Meadow.
At times all the noise and pandemonium becomes monotonous and I drift up the ridge to Chico's Southern Yin-Yang kitchen. Then, I continue all the way out FS 161 searching for ol' Charlie Freedom and the Welcome Home center.
The densely-wooded area along FS 161 is oddly quiet in spite of the Kurt Cobain music blaring in the darkness. I stop at Road Dog kitchen and eat half a bowl of warm spaghetti. An old-timer with a bushy gray beard is embarrassed by all the violence and chaos that goes on a half-mile up the road at A-Camp.
"I want to have a place where you can drink without all the rowdiness," he says.
I start to say something when a topless young woman in olive green fatigues interrupts. She has small, firm breasts and is taking the night off from her work at Ananda Kitchen.
"I hear a lot of people talk shit about A-Camp," she says. "But they don't know what they are talking about. I go there to relax. It's stressful working in a kitchen all the time."
When I walk by A-Camp, there are only a couple of brothers standing in front of a raging, roadside bonfire. There's no sign of trouble, at the moment. No shouting, or fighting or attempts to misdirect new arrivals into parking in an area where they can be more easily panhandled. I consider myself lucky and continue along.
A bouncy esprit de corps prevails at the Welcome Home center out on FS 136. Charlie Freedom was the first to arrive at this spot three weeks ago. He parked his big purple rig off to the side of the road and has been there ever since. It's a '77 Dodge with a camper shell. And it is sturdy.
Charlie is a recovered alcoholic who has been on the road for 40 years. He sits in his lawn chair, with his dog Bud nearby, and watches all the comings and goings without saying much. He is slowly dying of cancer and has the unhurried calm of an Oriental sage. Locals who read about him in the paper are always excited when they finally meet him.
Welcome Home now has a small, dedicated band of volunteers. It consists of a campfire, a small blue tarp for shelter and a couple of counters full of donated food. It is a lonely outpost located about six miles from Main Circle. However, the infectious enthusiasm of new arrivals and the tense, unspoken standoff with the cops makes for a unique, highly-charged ambiance that proves irresistible for some.
There's nothing like walking up to the front passenger window of a car and looking into the exhausted and grateful smiles of people who in that moment realize they have finally made it to the Gathering after long, uncertain journeys from places like Tennessee, Colorado, Michigan, California, Oregon, etc.
"I'm all jacked up by what's happening already," said one sister after staying up until dawn to greet new arrivals. "God I wonder what next weekend will be like!"
Everyone (except those who are driving their live-in vehicles to Bus Village)is presently being directed to park at a large, open field near Owls Nest on FS 136, four miles past the Welcome Home center. There is a heavy police presence (both Forest Service and Pennsylvania State Police) on all roads leading into the Gathering.
Pennsylvania state troopers receive a beginning wage of about $36,000 per year, or $17.50 per hour. They slowly cruise up and down the quiet, dusty roads with their patrol lights jutting up into the air like dorsal fins. A federal court in Missouri ruled earlier this month that setting up police roadblocks around a Gathering is unconstitutional. So, the police are now looking to pull people over for every conceivable infraction. It is a roving gauntlet.
Don't be a bliss ninny until you are in the Gathering. Here are some things to keep in mind:
*Have your driver's license, registration, title of ownership, and proof of insurance ready in case you are pulled over.
*Wear your seat belt.
*Do not drive more than 20 mph on Forest Service roads. Also, the speed limit on Laurel Hill Road coming out of Ridgway drops from 35 mph to 30 mph at the township line. The road was only paved last year and the speeding signs have yet to be updated.
*Remove any dangling objects - beads, feathers, crystals, dream catchers, fuzzy dice, sunglasses, etc. - from your rear view mirror. Such objects are considered an "obstruction of view". Several people have already been stopped and issued $100 tickets for this violation.
*If you feel you have been unfairly treated by law enforcement, tell the people at the Welcome Home center or at the Main Meadow info booth that you want to fill out a Law Enforcement Contact Report. When enough people start making these reports, we can start to prove systematic patterns of police harassment in court and successfully defend our First and Fourth Amendment rights.
*If pulled over, take a deep breath and remember that the police are humans too, even if they don't always act like it.
*Once you get into the Gathering, EVERYTHING will be different.
See Ya Soon,
P.S. I'm going to be signing off for a little while. Doing this Seed Camp Journal has been a unique and fascinating experience. Thanks for sharing in it.
Epilogue: Sun Bear's Last Day
NOTE: This story is based on a composite of my own first person experiences and observations as well as what I learned from talking to as many people as possible who were involved in any way with the events around Sun Bear's tragic death. Sun Bear was a wonderful human being and my hope is that we can draw whatever lessons we need to from this incident.
Sun Bear's Last Day
Sun Bear's last day was a mundane one, at least at first. He woke up on July 12th at NERF, where he always camped, and had a late-morning breakfast. He was in a cheerful mood in spite of a cold that was slowing him down. NERF was doing cleanup work by day and hosting mellow music jams by night. Many of Sun Bear's friends at the kitchen were the same people who had thrown a surprise 70th birthday party for him in December. This was his 14th Gathering, and he was having a good time.
During the Gathering, Sun Bear had rarely left his perch on the ridge overlooking Bear Creek except to help count the money that was collected each night in the Magic Hat. He was looking forward to staying until July 17th, before returning to New Hampshire for a medical appointment. He had had minor heart surgery in May and the doctor wanted to see how he was doing.
Sun Bear Goes into Town
Sun Bear decided to leave the muggy, stifling heat of the Gathering for an afternoon to venture into town with a couple of friends. He was looking both to relax and to research how best to set up the Rainbow '99 Cleanup Fund. He had heard that there were many people on the outside who wanted to send donations to the Magic Hat.
He went to Ridgway and had a couple of cheeseburgers at Aellos on Main St. He thought all the protein would do him some good. I first ran into him in front of the Elk County Courthouse. I had just tried placing a phone call and he was putting more change in the parking meter where a friend's white Cutlass station wagon was parked. We stopped and made small talk for a couple of minutes. Tall and broad-shouldered, he looked around at all the young hippies sprawled out on the courthouse lawn and joked about how there were now more gatherers in Ridgway than back at camp. He then hurried along to get to the YMCA in time for a $1 hot shower.
Later, I saw him walking in front of the Dollar General store. He was running his fingers through his long, damp silver hair. We had worked together in the same kitchen for the past six years and I was going to call out to him in a Southern drawl: "Hey long hair! Whatchya doin' in this here town?" But he was a little too far in front of me, and I said nothing.
Minutes later, I was walking on a sidewalk headed out of town when the now familiar station wagon drove by me. If I had been facing traffic, Sun Bear and the others would have pulled over and offered to squeeze me in. It was roughly 5 o'clock and I regretted missing the ride. However, I looked forward to seeing him later in the evening.
Sun Bear in Distress
The next time I saw Sun Bear he was crumpled over on his side, lying in the ferns and dead leaves just above Rainbow Crystal Kitchen. Returning from town, I had stopped to watch Vision Council for a few minutes in the same way a curious pedestrian will take a long glance at a carwreck. Suddenly, a messenger from Rainbow Crystal bolted into the middle of the circle and announced there was a major emergency going on by his kitchen. The council adjourned immediately and several of us hustled down the trail to see what was going on.
Sun Bear was moaning with great pain ("Ohhhh...Ohhhh...Ohhhh...") and his hands were cupped on his belly. He had parked at Telegraph Hill and (in spite of being encouraged to lie down and rest) made it this far down the Main Trail. His skin had broken into hives and he was desperately trying to both vomit and to defecate. His warm, gentle blue eyes registered pain and confusion. His lunch had become a time bomb. The hamburger meat that Sun Bear had eaten a few hours earlier was now putrefying inside of his stomach. And his system (which was heavily medicated) was freaking out.
The sense of urgency accelerated when we realized who was in trouble. One old road dog swiftly built a stretcher out of poles, blue tarp and brown duct tape while another old hand went around recruiting stretcher carriers.
"Hey you people," he said to the hippies who were lounging in front of the kitchen and along the trail, "if any of you ever wanted to do something useful at this Gathering, now's your chance. One of the most loved and respected brothers in this whole family is in bad shape and he needs your help."
Soon, we were ready to move out. I was on the front right-hand side of the stretcher as we splashed right through the creek and started up the muddy trail where Jerusalem Camp, Aloha, Monterey Mud and Bliss had been located. It was dusk and we were a couple of miles from the road. We were in constant radio contact with Shanti Sena on Telegraph Hill. There was roughly a dozen brothers and one small but gritty sister on the stretcher crew. Everyone was completely focused on the mission at hand: getting Sun Bear up and out of the Gathering as swiftly as possible. We weren't thinking beyond that.
I had been plagued by a cold for several days. But when I squished my bare toes around inside of my soaked shoes, I felt another surge of energy. Four people at a time carried the stretcher. With so many extras, we were constantly passing it off among ourselves like a baton, never missing a stride. We talked constantly among ourselves:
"A little higher front left. Hold it a little higher!"..."OK, we need someone on front right. Let him come up behind you and take it."..."Keep on going straight ahead! Right through the mud!"...Sun Bear was fully conscious and he must have felt the love around him.
"How Could I Go on Chasing Butterflies?"
Dusk turned to darkness and the canopy of black cherry trees spun overhead. We continued switching off the stretcher and people ran ahead to light the trail. I thought back to how I first met Sun Bear at the '93 Alabama Gathering; a smiling, robust man who was always ready to sling on his empty backpack and go on another long supply run. He had served in the Army during Korea and later hiked the Appalachian Trail. By the mid 1960s he was working on his Ph.D. in entomology at Yale. His specialty was butterflies. But just when he should have been settling into a comfortable middle age, he renounced his life in academia and threw all his energies into the anti-war movement.
"How could I go on chasing butterflies," he once said to me, "when there was this war that had to be stopped?"
Sun Bear moved to New Hampshire in the mid 1970s to live on a land trust. He continued to be involved with activist groups like the Clamshell Alliance and made his living painting homes. He had found his freedom by reducing his wants. He came to his first Rainbow Gathering in 1984 and took to it like a duck to water.
The trail widened in the final half-mile of our trek. An EMT, who was at his first Gathering, was now walking alongside the stretcher listening to Sun Bear describe how he felt. He was thirsty and still in a lot of pain. But, his condition had remained stable throughout the evacuation. We reached the trailhead and carefully slid the stretcher under the locked gate. A small, tan-colored car (about the size and look of an early '90s Toyota Camry) with blinking red lights was waiting for us in the middle of the dirt road.
We laid the stretcher down for a moment by the car's back right door. Sun Bear checked his wallet and then put it back in the front left pocket of his blue jeans. Someone circled around to the other side of the car to help load him into the backseat. I knelt in front of the stretcher and looked into his eyes.
"I love you Sun Bear."
"Oh...Oh thank you John." His voice was feeble from exhaustion but he was still fully alert.
Then, the call went up to load Sun Bear into the car, which would transport him the remaining half-mile to Telegraph Hill. The person who had crawled into the backseat of the car lifted him from under the shoulders. I took him from beneath his lower back and someone else took him by the legs. We slid him in gently. But, the back seat of the car was small and it was an awkward fit.
Sun Bear's head was propped low where the passenger door met the back rest and his feet had to be tucked under the front passenger seat so that we could close the door. There wasn't any room for someone to be at Sun Bear's side in the backseat. The car started slowly up the hill, then red brake lights came on. The car stopped for at least 30-60 seconds and then continued out of sight.
I was walking up the hill with a couple of brothers from Telegraph Hill. We were relieved and excited. The evacuation, which took roughly a half-hour, had been swift and flawless. We thought the worst was over. We were wrong.
The Death of Sun Bear
When Sun Bear arrived at Telegraph Hill, he was neither conscious nor breathing. While riding in the car, he had resumed vomiting. His head tilted back and he began choking on the orangish-brown vomit. The people in the car stopped and tried to clear his breathing passage in order to perform CPR. But, they quickly decided to bring him the rest of the way to Telegraph Hill where there were more people with medical training.
Sun Bear was laid out on the ground next to a super long RV. His heartbeat was rapid but disorganized. The stress of the choking incident had sent his heartbeat suddenly soaring. There was no pulse in either his wrist or his neck. He was experiencing a kind of arrhythmia known as ventricular fibrillation in which the heart's signals fire randomly.
His pupils had dilated and receded to the back of his eyes. There was yelling and shouting and a swarm of people hovered around Sun Bear trying to revive his heartbeat and his breathing with CPR. And a couple of teenagers with a cel phone, who didn't know where they were, were trying to give directions to the 911 operator.
I had been walking and hitchhiking on these roads for 6 weeks and I took the phone. Sun Bear had already been unconscious for at least 10 minutes. I tried to explain where we were to the St. Mary's-based dispatcher:
"...Go through Ridgway to Grant Road. Take a right on Grant Road and go about 4 miles until you come to Bingham Road which will be the second paved road on your left"..."No, not right! On your left!"...No, not Dingham Road! Bingham Road. With a B!"..."OK, look, once you're on Bingham Road, it will be paved for a couple of miles until it turns into a dirt road. That's FS 135. Follow that straight for 7-8 miles going toward Owls Nest and you'll find us. We're right on the road"..."Please come as fast as you can. This is serious!..."
I returned the cel phone and went to look in on Sun Bear. He was stripped down to his waist and people were still taking turns giving him CPR. I averted my gaze. Sun Bear was dying and I didn't want to face that. I borrowed the cel phone again and placed another 911 call from the top of Telegraph Hill. The operator reassured me that the ambulance had already been dispatched.
Just then, Sun Bear was loaded onto a lone futon in the back of an empty, burgundy-colored Toyota van. Several people hopped in back to accompany Sun Bear. The "hippie ambulance" was headed in the direction of Ridgway.
Some people on the scene say that Sun Bear was dead before he left Telegraph Hill. Those who were with him in the van believe he was alive - just barely - for most of the six miles they covered before meeting up with the hospital ambulance on FS Road 135, one mile before it turns into Bingham Road.
A brother and a sister were taking turns giving Sun Bear CPR. Then, Sun Bear purged himself for the last time. The brother who was giving him CPR believes that was the moment Sun Bear gave up the ghost and departed for the Spirit World.
The hippies followed the ambulance to the St. Mary's Regional Hospital. Sun Bear was pronounced dead soon thereafter at about 11 p.m. His friends made a circle around his body and sang and prayed and embed. And then they made the slow, sad journey back to camp.
Learning from a Tragedy
On the day after, many of us were wondering what could have been done differently. One sister pointed out that in Sun Bear's case the emergency evacuation may have been unnecessary; that what Sun Bear need when we found him at Rainbow Crystal was a good enema plus induced vomiting. Coming from a different perspective, someone else reflexively blamed the Forest Service for this tragedy. If the silver gate had been open, as the Rainbows had requested all along, then an ambulance (which we never called in the first place) would have been able to go part way down the trail to pick up Sun Bear.
Everyone did the best they could under hectic and stressful circumstances. Still, I don't know why it didn't occur to me (or anyone else) to call for an ambulance right from the beginning. Perhaps we were too absorbed in the moment at hand to see the larger picture. Likewise, I am baffled by why such a small vehicle was sent down from Telegraph Hill to originally pick up Sun Bear. On the other hand, I was there when it happened and said nothing.
I hope we learn whatever we need to learn from this experience; that we don't just take the easy way out and say "it was meant to be".
Sun Bear was both very young and very old. With his gentle ways and his timeless wisdom, he was there for everybody to embrace, like a sturdy old oak tree. He was unique and irreplaceable. I loved him a lot and now he is gone.
Final Notes: The Cleanup Report....Rainbows in Court....2000 Gathering
US Forest Service district ranger Leon Blashock expects to issue his final report on site restoration at this year's Rainbow gathering in the first week of December. I talked with Blashock via telephone at his Ridgway office on the morning of November 10th. He said that the cleanup crew had done "excellent work", that there appeared to be no lasting damage to the site and that he expected to write a very positive site restoration report as soon as hunting season ended and he could sit down with his team of biologists.
Meanwhile, three longtime Rainbow Family members are on trial in US District Court in Erie, Pennsylvania. Garrick Beck, Joanne Freedom and Stephen Principle are accused of being the leaders of this year's gathering and thus violating Forest Service regulation 36CFR 251 which requires groups of 75 or more people to obtain a special use permit from the Forest Service.
The defendants claim that they were not the leaders of the Pennsylvania Gathering, that the Rainbow Family is a free association of individuals and thus has no leaders. Furthermore, they state that the 1st Amendment provides an absolute guarantee of the peoples' right to peaceably assemble. Similar Forest Service regulations were struck down by federal courts in Arizona (1986) and Texas (1988).
If convicted, the defendants would face a maximum penalty of six months in federal prison plus a $500 fine, though the prosecutor in this case has told the court he will only ask for a $100 fine.
Finally, the 2000 Gathering will be held somewhere in Idaho/Montana.
The Arizona Rainbow Gathering: A Photo Essay
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