Aging Hippies Find Family at the End of the Rainbow : Reunion: Flower children who meet in America’s national forests invite kindred spirits to join them.


On the eve of the summer solstice this year, a child was born in the Green Mountain National Forest in a candle-lit tent miles from the nearest hospital.

His mother, Sunshine, named him Forest Moon, the newest member of a loosely knit group called the Rainbow Family that has gathered annually in national forests for 20 years.

Hanging on to a flower-child lifestyle that blossomed in the 1960s but wilted in the 1980s, the Rainbows still attract as many as 15,000 people to their reunions.


Who the Rainbows are is hard to define. They are Buddhists, pagans, Christians and Jews.

For the most part, they appear to be wanderers, leftover hippies who hug one another and profess love for anything natural and pure. They build tepees, wear rings in their noses, stand around unashamedly naked, burn incense and beat wooden drums.

They are straight and gay, artists and artisans, Vietnam veterans, drunks, druggies and derelicts. They are lawyers, professors and carpenters. They wear tie-dyed clothes and express contempt for a tied-down lifestyle. Some quote Shakespeare and Thoreau. Others can barely read.

When they meet in national forests every year--from Oregon to Florida to Texas and, this year, Vermont--they say to one another, “Welcome home,” and they mean it.

“For me, it’s kind of like a retreat, a time to get away from the hustle and bustle,” said David Anderson, a middle-aged man from Washington who once worked as an engineer and now drifts around the country working odd jobs.

Others said they look forward to the gatherings for the camaraderie--being with people who share their desire to bring peace and harmony to the planet.

Some Rainbows arrived in Vermont in colorful, broken-down buses. Others hitchhiked several thousand miles. It took Chuck Steffes, attending his fourth gathering, 50 to 60 rides to get to Vermont from Topeka, Kan. At least one Rainbow was dropped off by his parents in a new Volvo sedan bearing a Massachusetts license plate.

Although no one is quite sure where or how the group began, its numbers have swelled since the beginning. A few thousand gathered the first year, and it peaked at 25,000 in California in 1983. Since then, U.S. Forest Service rangers said, the numbers have held at 10,000 to 15,000.

“A lot of people ask me how you get to be a Rainbow. ‘Do you need a card or something?’ ” said a Vietnam veteran who calls himself Wobbling Jim. “I just ask them, ‘Do you have one of these?’ and pull up my shirt and show ‘em my bellybutton.”

Warren Dubois, a ranger from the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri who was brought in to command the ranger district for the Vermont gathering, said the Rainbows cause few problems, considering their huge numbers.

“We’ve had a few serious felonies, but no more than you would have in any big city,” Dubois said.

Dubois said the gatherings, from planning to cleanup, are costly for the Forest Service. Last year’s gathering in Minnesota cost the taxpayers an estimated $180,000, he said.

But, he added, the Rainbows do a good job of cleaning up after themselves. A crew of Rainbows stays for weeks after the reunions to pick up trash and re-seed areas that were trampled.

Rainbows said they get along well with forest rangers, some of whom they have gotten to know over the years. But the relationship has not always been so amicable.

In 1988, when the group wanted to gather in a national forest in Texas, federal authorities tried to stop them, saying they threatened public safety.

Texas officials acted because they feared a repeat of the previous year’s problem when the Rainbows met in North Carolina. There, almost half the group, 6,000 to 7,000 of them, came down with dysentery because of unsanitary living conditions. (The Rainbows said the disease would not have broken out if rangers had allowed them to bring in fresh water.)

The Rainbow Family went to U.S. District Court in Tyler, Tex., and won the right to hold their gathering in Angelina National Forest. Judge William Wayne Justice made his decision after watching a Rainbow videotape of past gatherings, one of which depicted them holding hands and singing John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.”

Duane Berg, a day laborer who camps out most of the year, moving from place to place as the seasons change, said that only about 20% of those who attend the Rainbow gatherings are “really plugged into the family.” The rest, he said, just come for a good time and the free food.

“Everything is free here. You can’t buy anything with money,” he said.

The gatherings are paid for by the “magic hat,” which is continually passed around for donations. Food, clothing and other essential items are always in abundance.

Berg is what the family calls a “seed person,” one of hundreds of Rainbows whose main job is to keep the peace.

“I’m speaking metaphorically, but when we come onto the land we plant a seed of love and tolerance. How this camp will blossom is up to us,” he said.

Wobbling Jim, attending his 15th gathering, said there is no real leadership in the family. Everything, including the sites of future gatherings, is decided at annual council meetings. And everyone is invited to sit at the council, which sometimes numbers several hundred.

“The council also takes care of other things, like when someone steals from another family member,” he said.

“We had this one guy who took a drum that didn’t belong to him. We told him his punishment was to be tied to a tree for three days. Of course, we would have fed him and given him water. And it was his choice. Either that or be banished from the family forever. He chose banishment.”

The Rainbows keep in touch with one another by word of mouth, or at such events as Grateful Dead concerts, or through magazines such as High Times, a national publication that promotes legalization of marijuana.

When family members arrive, they look for familiar camps and meeting places with such names as “Tea Time,” “Gypsy Kitchen,” “Lovin’ Oven” and “Loonie Saloonie,” and search for friends made over the years.

“Hey, man, you got kids now,” said one gray-bearded man to another outside Kiddie Village, a tent camp for pregnant women and families with children.

Some find out about the annual Rainbow gatherings by accident.

David Johnson of Portland, Ore., learned of the gatherings when he stopped to pick up a hitchhiker.

“I’m a glazier and I just left one job and was heading to another in Montana when I picked this guy up,” Johnson said.

‘After listening to him talk about these gatherings, and after he assured me I would be welcome, I just said the hell with the job and headed here.”