Introduction: The Rainbow Family Gatherings

When I graduated from college in 1978 and began hitchhiking around the country, I thought I was a remnant of something all but extinct. Almost all the longhaired guys who had arrived at Beloit College with me four years earlier to begin our freshman year had cut off their ponytails by graduation, no doubt thinking about job interviews and careers.

It didn’t take many miles of thumbing for me to give up expecting a ride every time I saw a Volkswagen van full of longhairs coming. In fact, most of the folks who stopped for me were shorthaired redneck working people. This I took as another sign that the hippie heyday of the Sixties was history, and I was a mere leftover. But it was on one of my journeys out west that I first heard the rumor of the Rainbow Gathering.

In 1981 my sister Emily, who had transferred to a school on the West Coast, mailed me a printed invitation. That summer, when I hitchhiked from Georgia out to Washington state, I discovered that Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love hadn’t vanished into the past; they had only retreated to the wilderness of the National Forests. At that 10th annual Rainbow Family Gathering of the Tribes, I found a city of longhairs high in the mountains, deep in the woods, living in tents and cooking communally under tarps, twelve thousand strong.

“Welcome Home!” went the standard greeting. I didn't need the hint. I immediately knew I was Home.

Drum circles, acoustic jam sessions, yoga and meditation practice, free workshops, a Kid Village, a myriad of kitchens serving different types of food, and other amazements boggled my mind as I wandered the trails and meadows. Again and again, casual hellos would lead to long, intense conversations with strangers who crossed my path. Most amazing of all, a gigantic silent circle for Peace on the Fourth of July, followed by wild celebration, was the central focus of the Gathering.

Everything was free, courtesy of donations to the “Magic Hat” and enthusiastic volunteer labor. Though I didn’t realize it till much later, a dedicated crew of volunteers was working day and night to maintain peace and security. Another hard-working crew stayed afterward to clean up and restore the gathering site.
On the last day, as I was hitching a ride out, I met a brother sorting out piles of trash for recycling who drew me a map to a regional gathering in the mountains of North Carolina the following month. There I met the Rainbow Family of my region, the Southern Appalachians – reclaimed under the Cherokee name of Katuah – and discovered Home all over again.

For the next 25 years I never missed either the annual Gathering of the Tribes or the Katuah regional gathering if I could possibly help it. I became a Family networker, or focalizer, participating in consensus-based councils and writing about the gatherings both for Rainbow-focused publications and for the alternative media. I took turns helping to publish All Ways Free, an annual newspaper, and Ho!, a southeastern newsletter. And from every Gathering of the Tribes I attended, I brought home at least one poem, which I would share at campfire readings at subsequent gatherings.

In 1990, I traded in my nomadic life and settled down in Atlanta with a lady I had met at a Katuah gathering and married at the same gathering the following year. Then in 1993, after the July 4th Gathering landed in Alabama, 90 miles from my house, I burned out and took a couple of years off from long-distance gathering. Since then, balancing my job and family responsibilities, I haven't been able to make every Gathering of the Tribes – though I have remained active with my regional family, the Katuah Tribe.

Over all these years the Gatherings have changed. They have grown more diverse, embracing new generations of alternative culture; long hair is no longer the norm. At the same time, their growing notoriety has led to new Forest Service regulations designed to bring the gatherings under government control, which a stubborn contingent of gatherers will resist at any cost. The conflict with the authorities tends to scare away gatherers whose primary focus is spirituality or children. Those who remain seem more focused on partying than anything else. Some gatherers don't grasp the contradiction between a prayer for peace in the meadow and alcohol-fueled violence in the parking lot. A few seem to show up mostly to scam the tourists. I no longer feel comfortable inviting "everyone with a bellybutton," as I once did. But many of the old-timers have invested their whole lives in the Gatherings, summer after summer, and have nowhere else to go. The Rainbow Family is the only family they know.

My own sense of family has gradually expanded to include the wider world and the community in my downtown Atlanta neighborhood. But the Rainbow Gatherings will always be part of me, and the Rainbow vision of an all-inclusive tribal family is still my spiritual center. Because of that powerful inspiration, I regard the poems I wrote about the gatherings as some of my best. And yet, to honor the noncommercial essence of the gatherings, these poems can never be published and sold. I hope that releasing my Rainbow Gathering poems as a collection on this website may help future gatherers remember the spiritual focus that created the gatherings, and inspire them to hold the balance for the generations to come.

Peace and blessings, Wing


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