After ten days at the National Rainbow Gathering deep in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, my hands bloodied, my feet black with dirt, and my brow weathered, I entered the small Swiss Alps Motel anxious for a shower and a soft bed.
In the lobby I find two fellow “Rainbows” looking sullenly down at the floor while an elderly woman, presumably the owner, scowls at them from the across the counter. Both Rainbows have tattered earth-colored clothes which conceal a heavy accretion of dirt; overstuffed packs burden their backs and hunch their shoulders, and tangled dreadlocks frame their tired faces. The air in the room is thick with the smell of grunge and the streets—a stark contrast to the quaint, polished, small town motel lobby that might normally smell of moth balls.
“They have no money,” the clerk is saying into a telephone.
“Tell him we’ll pull the weeds,” one of them says with a hint of desperation.
“He says you still owe for the last night,” the clerk replies with disdain. She hangs up, “Sorry.” The couple retreat to the curb outside.
As I secure my own room I can see the headline of the local paper on the counter: “New Mexico woman charged with attempted murder in connection with Rainbow Gathering stabbing.”
“Just too many people,” mutters the clerk quietly to herself.
I wander towards the rear of the motel in search of a jacuzzi and a soak. There I find soggy cigarettes and a ripped up wine box on the floor and a dusty pile of clothes scattered under a chair—signatures of drifters passing through in the night. Within an hour the cops are in the parking lot accosting another Rainbow whose car has broken down blocking the entrance.
In the last ten days I had attended a funeral, been jailed by the police, and lost about two inches off my waistline. I showered for an hour and still couldn’t clean all the dirt from under my fingernails. Looking in the mirror, my face ghostly and tired, I spent the rest of that evening wondering:
“Just what the hell had I been a part of?”
* * * * * *After a seven-hour drive and a two-hour car nap our group finally passed the multi-colored, tie-dyed Welcome Home flags that marked the entrance to the Gathering. From the parking lot it is a two-mile hike at eight thousand feet in elevation to Main Meadow. The trail is rocky, covered with low-lying foliage, and steep. It takes four hours to find a suitable camp site and another three to transport all our gear. By sunset we were all frustrated, tired, and dehydrated.
None of the main kitchens were set up yet—the whole Gathering is running behind—and we soon learn our own kitchen is not going to show up at all. It will be 48 hours before any water filtration system is set up so we’re left with warm charcoal-boiled water and some soupy rice for dinner. And for these we were grateful.
The theme of my first Burning Man experience was “Rights of Passage” and I was starting to feel like the Gathering was demanding its own rights of passage from us, only this work was much more onerous and urgent. People needed food and they needed water immediately. With no kitchen of our own to work in we spent the next few days helping other groups set up, carrying in wheel barrows full of food, slinging fifty-pound bags of flour over our shoulders, digging latrines, and clearing out dead trees (called “widow makers”) left from the beetle kill that has devastated much of the western forests.
When you’re working this hard outside your comfort zone it’s up to you to seek out rewards. One discovers that comfort and security are purely relative to one’s environment. The Rainbow gatherers call the outside world “Babylon,” and when you’re in the Gathering you truly lose sight of things that seemed so important on the outside. Cleanliness becomes separate from sanitation—dirty hands soaked in bleach are good enough. Dietary restraint becomes self-defeating, you eat what’s in front of you always. Alcohol is also strongly discouraged and this unique aspect of the Gathering draws a clear separation from the typical social interaction one is used to.
It all becomes one great divorce from the norm; a step back, almost, to another time. Travelers come from all over the world to join hands in this divorce every year, reconnecting with values that are much deeper and much older than those we’re brought up with in mainstream life. Values such as freely giving to others, teamwork, love, and contributing to community take precedence and one immediately becomes reacquainted with getting in touch with the land. Squatting between two logs to go to the bathroom into a two-foot pit simply strikes a chord in a human being: you feel like you’re remembering sensations long forgotten.
And here’s the biggest lesson of all: with hardship comes gratitude. Yes we were blistered, bleeding, and cranky but we were also grateful for everything that was given to us: all food was good, all fire was warm, all people were loved and appreciated.
A conch-shell horn echoes across the fields signaling the start of “Main Circle,” where everyone is invited to hear announcements and receive food. We hold hands and “Om” for several minutes, meditating briefly, and chant “we love you” in unison before eating.
Yet the Gathering is not a tribal utopia, it has a very dark side.
In a strange way the word “love” starts to become threadbare. A walk through the first mile of the Gathering will present you with a great many people saying positive affirmations, but they come out in words only; the expressions on their faces are those of hardship, fatigue, and frustration.
One would be hard pressed to call this a “party”; it is not some wild and crazy Sodom and Gomorrah, there aren’t lascivious orgies by the fires at night, and drug use is common but not rampant. What I really saw at the Gathering was people simply trying to make it—to survive. Many come in from the streets, some are mentally unstable, and some are violent. The very first night there was a stabbing and several participants had to be flown out to a hospital because of a drug overdose. On my way out of the Gathering we saw a man nearly crack another man’s skull open with a tree limb because he thought he might try to steal his dog.
There is a clear division between these “drainbows” and the rest of the gathering, yet as we all share in the benefits of the community we also share in the consequences of the few and the reckless.
Police and Forest Service raids were constant and oppressive. Forth Amendment violations became the norm as cars were pulled over and searched without probable cause, tents were torn asunder without warrants, and participants charged with assault for spilling water on a Forest Service animal. My own tent was raided by Forest Service Officers while I wasn’t present and a “shotgun court” was setup in a trailer just outside the Gathering. Litigation is still pending.
And then there was the funeral. An elderly gentleman who had been coming for many years passed away in his tent one night and a memorial was held in his honor the next day. There was music and stories, all heartfelt, all around a deeply burning fire, and finally I’d come to find that the celebration of life I was hoping for wasn’t being paraded out in the open; it was settled in the hearts of everyone who came.
The Gathering itself is the last great demonstration of civil disobedience, though the Rainbow Family of Living Light would argue that as we’re all camped on public land no laws are even being broken. The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right of all Americans to freely assemble.
* * * * * *
So why go through all of this aggravation? What would possess a person to do a thing like this?
It’s a good question. I can simply reply that only through hardship can you appreciate the world around you. America has become fat, lazy, and superficial. In those ten days I became truly grateful for the comfort and structure society affords us and aware of how fragile that structure truly is. Moreover, I step back into Babylon knowing that people can survive, that we can work together towards great things with minimal resources. I walk with more open eyes now, more aware of the light and the dark sides of humanity.
This was beyond new age. Today our counterculture movement is one of revision-by-reversion—of looking to the past and resurrecting values all of humanity once held sacred. Where religion has fallen short community can carry us forward. Never before have I seen such a collaboration of people working together, legitimately living off the land. Such ideas happen on a small scale every day, but on a scale of ten-to-twenty thousand people success is rare, if not impossible, to imagine. And yet for most of human history, this was a way of life.
So for now, the Gathering is a yearly return to the sacred act of living together without doors, walls, governments, and social hierarchies. And it serves as a promise to the rest of the world that when the walls of Babylon fall, the bond of humanity may be flawed but it will not be broken.
Zimmerman is a writer living atop the Rocky Mountains in colorful Colorado, entertaining the harmless untruths that make us brave and kind and healthy and happy. More from Zimmerman can be found at www.in-my-own-way.com.