The colorful sign marks the entrance into the 2017 Rainbow Gathering at Flagtail Meadow, on the Malheur National Forest south of John Day. I make my way along the dry, dusty trail past groups of people lounging in the shade to beat the high afternoon heat. Clothes, at this point, are optional, and a few folks have chosen to go au naturale.
More than 11,000 members of the Rainbow Family of Living Light have arrived to participate in the annual gathering. With a notebook tucked in my back pocket, I decided to pay a visit July 2 alongside Tim Trainor, East Oregonian deputy managing editor, in an effort to better understand the essence of Rainbow living.
Neither of us knew quite what to expect, and we pledged to go in with open minds. Regardless of the environmental impacts on the land — and the Forest Service has made it abundantly clear there will be impacts to the ecosystem — we simply had to witness this gathering for ourselves.
Immediately, we were struck by how expansive the gathering truly is, hiking from one camp to the next with names like “Jesus Kitchen” and “Granola Funk Theater.” Maps were posted around the entrance, along with general guidelines for things like trash cleanup, sanitation and avoiding sensitive habitat.
Perhaps the biggest challenge we faced was finding a place to park. There is no parking allowed on Forest Road 24, which leads into Flagtail Meadow, and making good on numerous warnings, we saw tow trucks hauling several vehicles away.
Finally, we pulled into a designated lot in a grassy field off the road where a group of women waved us into a spot that was just wide enough to fit my Toyota Camry. “Welcome home,” they greeted us, and extended an offer of handpicked raspberries. We chatted briefly before starting back down the gravel road toward the main gathering.
The Rainbow Gathering is not authorized by the Forest Service, though the sheer number of participants makes it all but impossible for the agency to stop. Gatherings have been happening since 1972, and they usually culminate on the Fourth of July with a prayer for world peace.
Our first stop was at A-Camp, which was chock-full of vehicles with license plates from California to Vermont. The original Woodstock Festival crossed my mind just as someone began to play Jimi Hendrix on their speakers.
We followed the trail that led deeper into the gathering where I was introduced to Adam, a man in his 50s who needed help carrying his backpack. Adam said he has lung problems, and was struggling with the altitude. He placed the pack in a baby stroller, which I pulled up the hill while he carried a guitar slung around his shoulder.
Along the way, I asked Adam where he is from. “The same place as you,” he answered. “From my mother’s womb.” He claimed he has been on the road since he was a teenager, when he first hitchhiked cross-country from Buffalo, New York, to San Francisco.
We stopped at a place in the shade where Adam decided to rest. He thanked me for the help and gave me a hug. I wished him luck on his travels, to which he replied, “It ain’t about luck. It’s about love.” That line stuck with me for the rest of the day.
It quickly became apparent to both Tim and me that a single afternoon would not be long enough to absorb everything that goes on at the Rainbow Gathering. We caught snippets of different conversations, including a man who said someone had stolen his puppy and another who was looking for someone to give him $7 so he could go back into town a buy a hamburger. Somewhere in the distance we heard drums and violins, and caught the occasional whiff of marijuana.
Nothing is for sale at the gathering, though there is a row where members can trade and barter with each other. Items that were out on display included everything from orange juice to jewelry to a bottle of unlabeled pills. We never saw a uniformed law enforcement officer inside the gathering, except for along the main Forest Service road.
On our way back down, a steady stream of people continued to file into the gathering, some with wagons full of supplies. The gathering officially wrapped up Friday, and attendance dwindled to 785 by Monday.
Now, we will look ahead to reporting on the damage caused by having 10,000-plus campers in one place at the same time. As for the gathering itself, it is clear there is much for a white-bread journalist like myself to learn about this massive counter-culture experience.
One afternoon was not enough for me to gain that depth of knowledge. But it at least opens the door to a better understanding.
George Plaven is a reporter for the East Oregonian in Pendleton.