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Love, prayer and tickets: What we saw at the Rainbow Family gathering in northwest Colorado

Annual gathering drew 10,000 people and lots of online ire
Rainbow Family members dance and celebrate around a peace pole after ending their morning of silence July 4 in the Adams Park area of Colorado's Routt National Forest. The festivities were the culminating event for the 50th anniversary of the gathering, which runs from July 1-7 and drew about 10,000 visitors. (Matt Stensland/Special to The Colorado Sun)

ROUTT NATIONAL FOREST – The dirty dishes are stacked neatly next to three bins labeled wash, rinse and sanitize.

Rob Savoye rolls up his sleeves and dives in, stacking washed sheet pans and mixing bowls from the Lovin’ Ovens kitchen on a rack built from downed trees. A guitarist sings under a tarp as bakers bustle around wood-burning ovens built from stone and mud only days earlier.

“Pretty wild to think none of this was here a few days ago. And none of it will be here in a few days,” says Savoye, a 35-year Nederland resident who is a volunteer firefighter and backcountry rescuer, and a pioneer in the world of open-source software.

Savoye also runs welcomehome.org, a repository for 50 years of Rainbow Family of Living Light gatherings. The 50th annual event is underway now in the Routt National Forest about 30 miles north of Hayden. On Monday, July 4, the weeklong event peaked with more than 10,000 attendees joining hands in a grassy meadow for the group’s traditional prayer for peace.

The Rainbow Family first gathered in Colorado in 1972 — up near Granby — and have held gatherings every July since, drawing thousands onto federal land for weeklong camp-outs. The Rainbows greet each other at the events with a hearty “welcome home.”

Rob Savoye visits the Lovin’ Ovens kitchen at the 50th annual Rainbow Family gathering in the Routt National Forest. Volunteers with the Lovin’ Ovens kitchen bake thousands of rolls and pizzas in ovens built from local rocks and mud. The ovens will be destroyed when the group leaves the forest. (Jason Blevins/The Colorado Sun)

Without any leadership — they call themselves “the largest non-organization of nonmembers in the world” — the Rainbow gathering is run by volunteers who don’t really organize as much as act. Like that dishwashing by Savoye, who also builds emergency response maps for communities around the world and arrived in the Routt National Forest just a few days after returning to the U.S. from a multiple-month trip to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Nepal.

“What works best is not when somebody tells someone that something needs to be done. What works is when someone sees a need and steps in,” he says. “That’s how gatherings work. It’s how the world should work.”

‘A break from Babylon’

Several miles of PVC pipe stretches across the entire camp deep in the woods, directing spring water downhill into complicated filtration setups. Giant barrels of filtered water are stationed around a meadow of tents, with the Rainbow kitchens providing clean water to all comers. Fallen trees have been delimbed, cut and neatly stacked to fuel cooking and communal fires. Creeks have log crossings. Areas with standing dead trees that could topple in a gust are flagged with warnings to not enter.

More than a dozen, stubbornly old-school kitchens serve thousands of meals a day for anyone with their own plate. At the Lovin’ Ovens kitchen, temporary ovens churn out freshly baked rolls, sticky buns and danishes. The baking crew has even built proofing racks from fallen timber. The pizza night is a rowdy affair, with musicians entertaining as bakers sling pizzas until dawn. The Dirty Kids kitchen brews organic coffee for early risers. The Ozark kitchen fills countless bowls with steaming chili. The Jesus kitchen offers sandal repair, spoon carving, mental health counseling and evening worship services.

Families roast marshmallows while children play on swings July 3 at the Rainbow Family’s Kid Village family camping area in the Adams Park area of Colorado’s Routt National Forest. (Matt Stensland/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Everyone has their own bowl and cup, and kitchens provide washing stations.

A medical tent offers fentanyl test kits, Narcan, condoms and daily medical updates amid a steady pleading to “wash your damn hands.” (On Monday, the medical update board reported 25 positive COVID tests in the camp.)

Barefoot tykes dash between tents and laundry lines in the densely packed Kiddie Village. There are a surprising number of attendees without shoes. Packs of dogs cruise the camps. The dog waste was troubling.

Visitors can sit in on all sorts of workshops from constellation identification, grass basket weaving, fermentation and how to build and use a bow drill to start fires. A central information tent staffed by volunteers is crowded as trains of wagon-toting new arrivals introduce themselves to the scene.

Deep in the woods in the corners of the woodsy city are latrines, with caustic lye for sprinkling on waste and hand-washing stations. There is an endless plea for help digging makeshift toilets.

Rainbow Family members place items at the base of the peace pole during the group’s celebrations July 4 in the Adams Park area of Colorado’s Routt National Forest. (Matt Stensland/Special to The Colorado Sun)

In the main meadow, a parade of musicians amble through concentric circles of thousands of people gathered for supper, which is served following a thunderous humming “ohm.” The minstrels sing about the “magic hat,” which is a sort of Rainbow tithing. A man in a red admiral jacket collects donations for the feed, telling everyone they can be part of the counting process at the information tent.

“We may not be friends, but we are family,” says a dreadlocked man in plastic gloves ladling vegetable pasta into bowls. There are four teams pullings wagons laden with giant pots. They circle the meadow, followed by servers sprinkling nutritional yeast or spritzing amino acids.

Another woman, with salt, pepper, hot sauce and yeast containers strapped to her jaunty “dinner circle hat,” rolls through the circles with a clicker in her hand, trying to tally the throng.

“I’m not taking your picture. I’m not dosing you,” she says. “Only counting.”

After dinner, members of the smoking camp pass out free cigarettes.

“Thank you for smoking,” they say.

Lenny Socolov wanders the trails handing out poems and notes he’s collected. One describes a man who pleaded for a chance to visit with God, but ignored a bird’s song and the brush of a butterfly. Socolov’s note urges readers to “not miss out on a blessing because it isn’t packaged the way you expect.”

“Maybe it will mean something to someone,” he says.

Socolov has been to about 25 gatherings, maybe 30. He offers massages and acupuncture to Rainbows gathered at the event. He helps dig latrines. Like most of the loyal attendees, he pitches in when he sees a task.

“This is a break from Babylon,” the single father from Lafayette says. “We help each other. We share with each other in ways I think the world needs. I wish the world could learn from this.”

As an early evening rain eases, a double rainbow appears over the meadow. The campers like that. Howls erupt from all corners. As dusk settles, thousands simultaneously yell “We love you!”

A Rainbow Family member who goes by the name James uses poi balls to compete in a talent show July 3 on the Granola Funk stage in the Adams Park area of Colorado’s Routt National Forest. The stage was home to nightly entertainment during the 50th anniversary Rainbow Family gathering July 1-7. (Matt Stensland/Special to The Colorado Sun)

At nightfall, a makeshift stage at the Granola Funk camp hosts a talent show with a rotation of unamplified musicians entertaining a crowd. A man with a bucket in a wagon rolls through spooning roasted nuts into open hands. Down the hill, a raucous circle of drummers pounds relentless beats around a massive fire. Occasionally nude dancers writhe and wiggle around the flames, which are fed by young men carrying entire tree trunks on their shoulders. Those drummers will keep going until dawn every night.

Rainbow Family members dance around a bonfire to drum music July 3 in the Adams Park area of Colorado’s Routt National Forest. (Matt Stensland/Special to The Colorado Sun)
The art of modern-day nomads

There are issues. The veterans talk about attendees who come and party without contributing, calling them “Drainbows.” “Participation is key,” they all say. Across the camp, there is no alcohol. Drinkers are relegated to a corner of the parking lot far from the gathering. The lack of boozing is unique for such a big gathering but the drug use is widespread, with many attendees inviting each other to join in a nibble of mushrooms or toke of grass.

The Rainbows have knitted a unique social construct, with elements borrowed from all varieties of religions and creeds. They use Gandhi’s dream of a volunteer force of nonviolent peacekeepers as an overarching principle for group safety. If anyone in the gathering needs help, they yell “shanti sena!” and others will circle the scene to ensure no one is injured.

Rainbow Family members Dino, left, and Brajamohini, cook at their Sumdor Krishna Kitchen on July 4 in the Adams Park area of Colorado’s Routt National Forest. The previous day they served free meals to 1,000 people. (Matt Stensland/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Shanti, “it means peace,” says Shanti, a 72-year-old retiree from Grand Junction who attended his first gathering in 1981 in Wisconsin and spent time in ashrams in India as a young man. He’s nibbling strawberries from a tin cup around the fire at the Montana Mud camp. A man with a long white beard is strumming the guitar and singing Neil Young tunes. A girl is sleeping in the dirt at the end of a smoking fire pit.

“This is not about one thing. It’s about everything,” says Shanti, who came by himself and camps alone, a little away from the bustle. “But for my wife, this is not her thing.”

Shanti doesn’t miss a gathering.

“We really are about love and peace up here. Write that down. It’s not just a cliché,” he says. “The prayer for peace is a powerful event. We pray for peace for ourselves, for our families and for our world. And it works. I think the vibe we create has stopped a lot of bad things in this world. If you let that moment touch you, then you will be speaking from that spirit of peace.”

A Rainbow Family member who goes by the name Indigo dances to drum circle music July 3 in the Adams Park area of Colorado’s Routt National Forest. Indigo traveled from California to attend her first gathering with her grandmother. (Matt Stensland/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Rainbows are keen to explore long conversations. (Except on the July 4 peak of each annual gathering, when the entire camp goes silent before the prayer for peace.) Across the encampment, groups large and small are huddled in discourse, often puffing marijuana the cops missed. They like to ramble and roam. Asking a Rainbow where they are from is not a simple question.

Many call their vehicles home. Few can name a single place as home. Many answer with “right here” when asked where they live.

“These folks are professional travelers. Modern-day nomads,” says Daniel, who was born in Tennessee but spends his winters in Mexico. He drove up from Texas and is heading to Alaska for the rest of the summer. (And he only shared his first name, which is common at the gathering.)

“The nomadic lifestyle is an art form, really,” he says, sipping coffee around the Montana Mud campfire.

Rainbow Family member Kevin Lovinghawk of Idaho works on an African djembe drum July 3 in the Adams Park area of Colorado’s Routt National Forest. Lovinghawk attended his first Rainbow Family annual gathering in 1992. (Matt Stensland, Special/The Colorado Sun)

Part of what Rainbows have done is “help legitimize the nomadic lifestyle,” says Tameron, a Massachusetts native who lives in southern Oregon and first attended gatherings with his parents decades ago. He’d like to see laws that allow the rights a person has at their home to apply to their vehicles, “especially now that we have built a society that supports connected lives from anywhere you open a computer.”

Savoye, who attended his first gathering in 1980 in West Virginia and has not missed one since, calls the structured chaos “an offshoot of outrageous diversity.”

“I can be talking to an MD and then turn around and talk with an attorney and a stock broker and then visit with a kid who’s been living on the road for five years and they all have really great insights and observations, you know,” Savoye says. “This is a gathering of the tribes. We are not a religion but we share a lot of common philosophies. When we come together, we reinforce those philosophies that cross cultural and economic boundaries.”

Rainbow Family members form circles in a meadow July 4 before breaking their morning of silence and celebrating in the Adams Park area of Colorado’s Routt National Forest. (Matt Stensland/Special to The Colorado Sun)
451 tickets, arrests

The hippy confab flummoxes law enforcement and local communities where the Rainbows gather. On Tuesday, hundreds of attendees began streaming out of the woods. About 200 Rainbows will remain on site through August, helping to restore campsites and footpaths impacted by the gathering.

On the winding dirt road leading to the event, armed Forest Service law enforcement officers and local sheriff’s deputies in tactical armor were pulling over hundreds of cars all week. They asked about drugs and circled vehicles with drug-sniffing dogs.

By the end of Sunday, the officers with the incident team that specifically follows Rainbow gatherings had written 451 incident reports, including tickets and arrests. (Last year the agency issued 600 citations.) The team had a federal magistrate set up in a temporary tent next to County Road 80, where hundreds of cited attendees were processed during two days of makeshift court.

“Not such a good welcome home, I guess,” said Jen, a teacher from New Mexico, who was pulled over for having a dreamcatcher, woven by one of her students, dangling from the rearview mirror of her car. “I got a $150 ticket for weed. I thought weed was legal. Oh well, it was the admission fee to the Rainbow I guess. My festival ticket price.”

U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers use a K-9 to smell for potential drugs inside a vehicle July 3 on Routt County Road 80 headed toward the location of the 50th annual Rainbow Family gathering. Law enforcement officers were stopping vehicles for traffic infractions and other violations, which then allowed them to use a K-9. Officers then searched the vehicles if the K-9 indicated there could be drugs inside. (Matt Stensland/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Forest Service spokeswoman Hilary Markin said attendees are cited for vehicle issues like broken taillights, damage to natural resources and narcotics, which includes marijuana possession, which is illegal on federal land.

“We are finding very large amounts of illegal drugs coming into the gathering,” Markin says, “including a large amount of fentanyl, LSD, heroin, methamphetamine, mushrooms, cocaine and marijuana.”

The Forest Service is following a resource protection plan for the event, which does not have the required permit required for gatherings of more than 75 people.

“Our law enforcement officers have that presence for the public health and safety of the attendees and the local communities,” Markin says. “And making sure to limit damage to natural resources.”

The Rainbow Family gathering July 1-7 in Colorado’s Routt National Forest included a large area for any medical needs. Narcan was on hand to reverse any opioid overdoses, and COVID-19 tests were available for anyone who had symptoms. As of July 4, the Rainbow Family reported 25 cases of COVID-19 in the camp. (Matt Stensland/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Savoye says the officers with long guns and body armor are not about safety or protecting public lands.

“They are specifically here to fine us and generate revenue,” says Savoye, who cannot remember a gathering he’s attended where he was not pulled over and searched near the entrance gate.

This year, Forest Service law enforcement agents were concerned by the oxygen tanks he was providing for the medical tent and his collection of radios for volunteers. They emptied his truck on the side of the road in the several-hour search. Savoye says the Forest Service’s officers treat him differently than the local cops and Forest Service rangers he works with daily as a volunteer fireman and rescuer around Nederland.

He calls it “propaganda-generated insanity.”

“If we could work together, imagine what we could accomplish here,” he says, strolling a trail where volunteers have collected down trees for burning in giant fire pits. “I mean look at the fire mitigation alone. The Forest Service pays contractors millions of dollars to do this.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.