I’m starting to wonder if I’ve been given bad directions. It has been half an hour since I pulled off the paved highway onto a bumpy limestone road, and the only sign of life I’ve seen was a road-killed snake. Perhaps the hippie girl in the health food store decided I was unworthy and has misguided me on purpose. Maybe there’s a secret code between those who’ve already experienced “the gathering” that says not to bring more outsiders. I glance over at Kamau, my best friend since middle school, riding silently in the passenger seat of his own SUV, then down at the crumpled paper bag with the hand-scrawled directions on it. “West off the highway, right at Forest Route 30, then drive until you see ‘family’.” I’d found it odd when the girl in the store used the word “family.” It made it sound like I was heading to some big reunion picnic, where my uncles would be catching up over potato salad and a game of horseshoes. In reality, I had no idea who I’d meet where I was going.
Then, suddenly, we see activity. The desolate road becomes a mass of bustling people. Hundreds of vehicles are parked along both sides for as far as I can see. People are sitting under makeshift tents, unloading coolers from their trunks and walking dogs that have been dressed up in colorful bandannas. It looks something like a football stadium parking lot during tailgating season. The biggest difference is that this scene is taking place on an unpaved path cutting through the heart of the world’s largest contiguous sand pine scrub forest, and at least 60 miles from the nearest hot dog vendor.
Every February for about twenty years (the exact date of the first gathering varies depending who you ask), thousands of travelers from around the country have flocked to a remote area of the 383,000-acre Ocala National Forest to experience the annual Rainbow Gathering – a communal celebration of peace, love and anti-consumerism. Think Burning Man, only less commercial, more trees. Rainbow Gatherings are held in different federally preserved parks and forests throughout the year, with the Ocala event being one of the largest. Many of those who show up identify themselves as members of the Rainbow Family of Living Light, a group that calls itself “the largest non-organization of non-members in the world.” There are no formal leaders, or strict guidelines to follow. They say that their only requirement for membership in the family is “having a belly button.” That folky tidbit speaks volumes as to the quirky, all-inclusive world I was about to enter, but growing up down the road, I’d been taught a different story.
Though they share a name, to many of nearby Ocala’s nearly 60,000 residents, the Ocala National Forest might as well be another planet. Growing up in the small city, about 25 miles from where the gathering takes place, I’d seen the forest as little more than the tree-lined stretch of two-lane highway that separated me from Daytona Beach. It was a sort of scary place, where the infamous serial-killer Aileen Wuornos had hitchhiked, and there were always rumors floating around about the “rainbow people” who lived there. Ask any high-school kid in Ocala about the rainbows, and you’re almost sure to hear a tale about a friend-of-a-friend who encountered them at some unknown spot deep in the woods. “Bring them some canned food and they’ll trade you a whole pound of weed; they grow fifty acres of it out there,” one friend might say, before another could chime in that so-and-so had “went out there to see them, and they never wear clothes and just lay around naked in the dirt, and they might strip you if you show up wearing clothes.” I can distinctly remember a classmate telling me that they would steal food from the forest’s lone grocery store while brandishing machetes. It brought to mind an image of tie-dyed pirates.
While there wasn’t anything in the local newspaper to support those sensational urban legends, the Rainbow Family did show up in its pages from time to time. Those stories mostly focused on the minor clashes that the gathering’s attendees had with law enforcement. Someone forgot to secure a permit to use the land. Tickets were issued to attendees for parking in an unauthorized area. A man blocked the path of a forest ranger’s SUV. There were descriptions of “hippie-like” people and mentions of “suspicions” of drug use, but there was never anything about the real story; the story about why these people kept showing up year after year, and what exactly they were doing out there. What confused me more, was that the rumors I’d heard didn’t match up with the limited information I’d been able to find on the Rainbow Families. Their tenets of love, sharing and inclusion didn’t seem to encourage the violence, theft and forced nudity I’d been told of.
As I drive through the rows of cars lining the road, I’m struck by the diversity. Between the school buses painted with flowers, vans covered top-to-bottom in philosophical bumper stickers and rusted-covered Volkswagen Beetles sit inconspicuous family sedans that could be driven by any soccer mom and brand-new Mercedes that were never intended to leave the comfort of asphalt. License plates seem to cover every region of the country and then some. I see California, Texas, New Jersey, and Canada. I slow down when I see something blocking my path. A man and a woman are lying down in the middle of the road. The woman jumps up as I come to a stop and bounces over to my window. Her dreadlocks are down to her waist.
“Hi. Can we have some gas so we can go to town for supplies,” she asks, tipping her head with a smile.
I’m badly in need of someone who can give me the lay of the land, so I offer her a few dollars for gas money. She crinkles her nose at me and doesn’t take it. When a tall guy with slightly longer dreadlocks walks over with a length of garden hose, I begin to understand. While Stephen works on siphoning a couple gallons of gas out of my tank, Coral tells me that she arrived three days ago from Alaska. Stephen had been trying to get a job on a fishing boat there. It’s only her second time at Ocala, but Coral is a veteran of gatherings in Washington and Colorado. She’s been “on the road” since the age of 17, and she’ll celebrate her 25th birthday here in the forest. She has the kind of charisma that makes me think she’d have been a social superstar in college, even though she didn’t finish high school.
I have a feeling she already knows the answer, but is being polite when she asks if it’s mine and Kamau’s first time. She explains that we’ve only made it to the front gate of the gathering.
“You have to take the yellow brick road,” she says, pointing to a trail leading into the trees, where cars can’t go.
There are no steadfast rules at a gathering, but there is a sort of etiquette. Coral recommends that we leave behind our phones, cameras and any other kind of electronic connections to “Babylon”, as the real world is called by rainbows. She tells us that exchanging cash, or bringing alcohol into the main area of the gathering are generally “bummers,” and should be avoided as well, and that we should try to contribute by volunteering to help with something.
“Aw, it’s so awesome that you guys are here, it’s going to blow your minds,” she says before offering up a hug. From her odor, I assume that deodorant must be Babylonian as well, but somehow, out here, it’s almost more endearing than offensive.
The path is full of people walking both ways. Some are carrying jugs of water or pushing wheelbarrows full of wood. Everyone seems to have bare feet that are black with dirt. I’m starting to feel self-conscious wearing shoes, but friendly smiles and greetings of “loving you” from passersby put me at ease. We veer off the path into a small campsite after spotting a cardboard sign reading “come on in for some kool aid.” There we find a group of guys fermenting their own liquor in a hollowed out watermelon, with a Carlo Rossi stuck to the outside of it. I decline the “kool aid.” They sing us an original song, as a twenty-something guy with shot-gun shells pushed through his gauged ear lobes strums an acoustic guitar with one broken string. When I ask about the alcohol being frowned upon, I’m told that we’re in “a-camp”. It’s an area outside the main gathering for people who want to drink. If we want to find the “real hippies” we’d have to keep walking.
Here’s the song they sang for us:
Back on the path, I meet a group of three college students from the University of Florida. Eddie and Kessiah’s beachwear makes them look more like they’re on spring break, ready to shotgun beers, than embrace anti-consumerism. Rachel is beautiful, with wavy, dark brown hair and skin like milk. She’s wearing a bikini top, with a bandanna tied around her forehead and a necklace with a feather on it. She’s the only one of the three going barefoot. It’s the group’s first gathering, and she’s got the enthusiasm of a college kid who’s discovered what she thinks is a new passion, but hasn’t thought it out all that well yet. It sounds like she’s read the hippie manual, but has yet to actually put her lessons into action.
“When I heard about this, and I knew I had to get out here,” she said. “There’s just a different freedom out here, getting away from all that bullshit in society. I mean, it’s just like, amazing.”
We leave the group behind when they sit down to roll a gigantic joint, but promise to stop by their campsite later. After walking for about three miles, we arrive at the main gathering. Blue squares of cloth flap in the wind, decorating the trees that mark the entrance. It looks mystical. As we walk through, strangers greet us by saying “welcome home”. A girl with angel wings approaches, and informs us that she is the “fairy of the gathering.” Hanging from a shoelace around her neck is a glass mason jar. It’s filled a quarter of the way with marijuana buds. She asks us if we will add to it, but we don’t have anything. She pulls a large bud from her jar, hands it to Kamau, and wanders away. Shrugging at me, he shoves it loose into his shirt pocket.
Inside the main area, the sound of guitars and flutes can be heard and the smell of smoldering camp fires is in the air. There are, of course, an abundance of the people who would be called hippies, sporting dreadlocks and tattered tie-dye. But the crowd is far from one-dimensional. Others are wearing neat haircuts, and are dressed in everything from polo shirts to sports jerseys. Some women are topless, but nobody seems to care, and they certainly don’t appear to be angry about my clothes.
I meet a young mother with her two sons, 11 and 12, who are there for the first time, and an elderly couple in their late sixties who’ve been coming since the beginning. I’m trying to get into the spirit of things. I hug strangers, ignoring the awkward invasion of my personal space. As people address me as “brother” or leave me with the standard farewell of “loving you”, I respond in kind. In the middle of a clearing is market where people have spread out the items they’re offering onto blankets. The wares range from shiny stones, to the more practical rolls of toilet paper, to intangibles like “happy thoughts”. When I come across a man offering to trade “unconditional love” for funny dances, cartwheels or silly walks, I point my toes straight out and waddle by like a penguin. I’m getting into it.
I marvel at the temporary town in the woods as I wander around. In the medical center, local doctors and nurses are volunteering their time alongside holistic healers. In the children’s village, kids are feeding carrots to a goat. Gatherers with disputes are visiting the “shanti sena,” for mediation. Kitchens with names like Deep Faith, Granola Funk, and Shut Up and Eat It, are cranking out thin-crust pizzas, sushi, and sticky buns from ovens made of mud, clay and dried horse manure.
The amount of effort put into making the gathering come together is impressive, but even more so considering that all this effort was put forth only to make others happy. To me, this embodied the rainbow spirit.
“This wasn’t anyone’s responsibility,” said Dave, a 57-year-old culinary school instructor who’s attended the gathering for the last 12 years. “That’s what you have to realize, is that nobody here was obligated to make this gathering happen because of a position they held, or a paycheck they were going to collect. Nobody got paid for the labor that went into digging the latrines, hauling barrels of fresh water up the trail, or getting rid of the trash that a thousand people in the woods create. People come out here year after year, because it feels good to live like this, feeding and sharing with each other instead of that rat race out there in Babylon. We all help each other because we want to, and because it’s good for the soul.”
I get my opportunity to help out when someone walks by shouting that a kitchen called Toxic Waste, is in need of workers. As I walk up to the kitchen site, I see a familiar face. It’s Rachel, the beautiful University of Florida Student. We exchange rainbow greetings of “welcome home brother,” and “lovin’ you sis,” with a laugh. It’s only been a day, but we’ve already both made a huge leap from the newbies we were when we met. Ginnie, one of the chefs, puts us to work chopping vegetables for a stew.
As I stand there barefoot on the pine needles, chopping carrots in the twilight, I think back to my original directions. It might not be potato salad, or my uncle Tony, but the gathering certainly feels like a family reunion.