Rainbow Gathering Draws Thousands, Raises Concerns Over Cost, Safety And Cleanup

Jun 28, 2016

About 2,300 members of the Rainbow Family of Living Light are in Mount Tabor this week for the group’s annual summer gathering. Thousands more are expected by July Fourth when the event culminates with an elaborate prayer for peace.

The first thing you notice coming up Forest Road 10 are all the cars and buses — 319 cars and 27 buses at last count. That’s how U.S. Forest Service personnel figure out how many people are at the gathering each day.

Once you pass all the vehicles you start seeing cardboard signs directing you to campsites and kitchens, water sources and latrines.

Monte and Tay stop to visit on their way to breakfast. Introductions are easy at Rainbow gatherings because most people only use one name, kind of like through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail.

I ask Monte where she’s from and like many at the event, she hedges on the details.

“I’m from all over,” she laughs. “The Earth is my home. My mom used to bring me when I was a little girl and it’s a totally different experience being a child here and then being an adult. It’s pretty cool to look back on. It’s very nostalgic,” she says smiling. “This is my home, these are my family and it’s good to come home.”

Rainbow members say typically, about half the people at every gathering are there for the first time.

“It’s pretty cool,” says Monte, “because the newcomers that do come in, they don’t know what to expect so when they get here, like his first gathering,” she says pointing to Tay, “he didn’t bring a tent or a tarp or anything. He literally had not idea what to expect, and everyone took care of him, everyone gave him a place to sleep.”

“You feel like you’re at home after a day or two,” she says before heading off for pancakes.

"My mom used to bring me when I was a little girl ... This is my home, these are my family and it's good to come home." — Monte, an attendee at this year's gathering

Rainbow gatherings date back to 1972 — a time when the country was trying to heal from the Vietnam War.

Each summer the loosely knit group chooses national forest land to hold their meeting. Last year, they were in South Dakota, the year before that Utah. The last time they were in Vermont was 1991 in Granville.

Amanda, a Rainbow member from Minneapolis says coming together each summer gives people a chance to let go of the real world.

While the location of the gathering changes from year to year, for Rainbow family members like Amanda, the annual meeting feels like home.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

“We live in a world unfortunately of jobs and cars and payments and mortgage and when you come here that means nothing,” she says pointing to the trees and dirt pathways around her.

“If I hug you, you’re going to hug me back,” she says. “You’ll hug the next person and if you ask me if you need something — even just a pat on the back it’s going to come back to you in every way possible — just about the love.”

A Rainbow gathering attendee named Tig, right, cooks venison chili on a stove at his campsite.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

But not everyone is feeling the Rainbow love. At the Family Dollar store in nearby Wallingford, manager Jillian Earle says she’s had people defecate in her parking lot and rummage in her dumpster.

Beverly Doaner is assistant manager at the Wallingford CITGO.

“They are hanging out at the stores down here in Wallingford with signs begging for gas,” she says shaking her head. And that’s affected her business. She continues: “When they were here sitting I didn’t have any regular customers come in at all and when they left then I had my customers — they were coming in."

"They are hanging out at the stores down here in Wallingford with signs begging for gas ... when they were here sitting I didn't have any regular customers come in at all." — Beverly Doaner, Wallingford Citgo assistant manager

“I don’t mind when people come in and are polite and make a purchase, but this wasn’t that.”

According to the U.S. Forest Service there have been 75 incident reports, 120 warning notices and 84 violations so far, most having to do with drugs or motor vehicles.

Thomas Rounds, director of Rutland Regional Medical Center's Emergency Department says, they’ve had 35 to 40 Rainbow members treated in their ER so far and expect more.

Handling all those problems is expensive.

A sign by the side of the road encourages passers by to take a bag of garbage from the gathering with them as they leave.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Stephanie Vinson, of Barrett hospital in Beaverhead, Montana, says when the Rainbow Family held their gathering there in 2013, the hospital was left with $200,000 in unpaid medical bills.

The National Forest allocates nearly $500,000 a year specifically for law enforcement at Rainbow gatherings.

Bill Mickle is the special agent in charge. “So we have 24/7 coverage of uniformed law enforcement and investigators assigned to deal with any violations of federal and state law,” he says.

Some have complained that law enforcement has been too aggressive. Adam Buxbaum traveled to the Rainbow gathering from California. He wrote in to VPR that he’s been dismayed by the hourly patrols by law enforcement and says cars are being pulled over for petty violations like broken taillights or wide turns. And then he says the drivers are pressured into agreeing to have their vehicle searched.

Bill Mickle says the goal of the Forest Service is to ensure that everyone at the Rainbow gathering and those in the surrounding communities are kept safe. "Our role is to just keep the peace — manage this event by treating everybody fairly and by enforcing the laws that Congress has tasked us to enforce.”

Attendance at the event should peak in the next few days to about 6,000 to 7,000 people, fewer than what had been expected. The Rainbows are expected to begin leaving Vermont after July Fourth.

[Editor's note 7/1/16:  This article originally stated that last year's Rainbow gathering was held in North Dakota, which was incorrect.  The 2015 Rainbow Gathering was held in The Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota.]