Red Feather Rainbow Family gathering might fizzle

To the disappointment of this reporter — but to the great relief of the Larimer County Sheriff — this year’s Rainbow Gathering north of Red Feather Lakes may not happen.

Maybe the intense thunderstorms earlier this month were an omen of subsequent events, but my first visit to the site near Creedmore Lakes on July 17 was anything but peace and love after a stabbing the night before as well as an alleged sexual assault. Also, one of the stabbing victims had to be air-lifted to the hospital at a cost to the county of over $10,000 dollars. No wonder the sheriff was nervous.
Although I was met with outstretched arms and cries of “Welcome Home!” spirits among the attendees were obviously drooping. I was offered an arm and an escort by a very old hippie with a long white beard and patched together jeans who introduced himself as “Fug.” A cautious series of inquiries revealed that the problems were occurring in the “Alcohol Camp,” an institution created years earlier in order to corral the drinkers and keep them away from the rest of the gathering.

There weren’t many people, only one kitchen that I could see and about 20 campsites, a core group attempting to organize and create some kind of structure in anticipation of as many as 3,000 people arriving by Aug. 3.

I had picked up a fresh-faced young couple who were hitchhiking to the gathering during the week of the storms. They had come from Las Vegas via the national gathering in Utah and were looking forward to the smaller regional gathering in the Red Feather area, an event which has taken place every year for almost 30 years. I’d been aware of it since the ’80s but had never thought of attending even though I’ve been living in Glacier View for the last 10 years.

My only Rainbow experience was in the summer of 1982, a national gathering held in Idaho in the Boise National Forest and attended by upwards of 14,000 people. I was in my mid-20s, as bright-eyed and bushy tailed as the young couple in my car. The Idaho gathering made a deep impression, introducing me to a lifestyle far removed from my traditional suburban upbringing. I met people who lived year-round in teepees. There were self-proclaimed “families” such as The Love Family out of Seattle, financed by an heir to the Du Pont family and outclassing the teepee dwellers with their yurts and magnificent team of Shire horses.

The first of such gatherings was held in 1972 near Granby. Although the origins of the actual Rainbow Family are vague, the movement grew out of the mega-events of the 60’s and early 70’s, such as the granddaddy of them all, Woodstock. After some hard lessons, many were learning how to manage such events and to feed and care for 10,000 people at a time, digging efficient open-air latrines, employing a holistic medical tent, supplying open kitchens and organizing themselves into tribes in order to facilitate these events.

According to Rainbow laws — although they don’t call them laws — all decisions are made in the main council, with every person holding equal power and no decision is passed without unanimous consent, often a cumbersome and difficult process.

At my first visit to the Red Feather gathering this year, I was invited to a council meeting, the main topic among the discouraged group leaders being, of course, the stabbings in the Alcohol Camp. I got an eyeful of things to come as one young man strolled into the circle, looking like a tall chocolate milkshake in nothing but black-rimmed glasses. We all held hands and hummed Ommm for a few minutes before the meeting began in earnest with the passing of a hawk feather, allowing each person to express his or her concerns.

Their frustration was evident as they attempted to re-build the peace and love atmosphere that had been intended and the meeting broke up after a contentious hour with a promise to try again later. No decisions had been made.

I was struck by the pitfalls of the idealisms held so dear by the Rainbows: equality, tolerance, spiritualism and love, leaving the majority of the attendees vulnerable to the drifters and the homeless, many of whom are mentally ill, and who have no reservations about taking advantage of free food and marijuana in the mountains. No one had the authority to eject the troublemakers from the camp nor did they have any idea how to do so.

Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith visited the camp on the same day I did. On his Facebook page, he reported the stabbings and a sexual assault, both incidents of understandable concern to law enforcement. Also, pot smoking is still illegal on federal land and the Rainbow Family has no specific leaders who are able to sign the permits required for gatherings larger than 300. Smith had appealed to federal officials to express his concerns and oppositions to what he considers potentially dangerous and destructive behavior but he is not expecting anything other than verbal support.

Locals tend to be exasperated but tolerant. Exasperated partly because Denver media, including the Associated Press, said that the gathering is taking place in Red Feather Lakes proper. The Rainbows are instead gathered about 6 miles north of Red Feather Lakes or 6 miles south of the Wyoming border.

Patti McMillan, one of the owners of the Red Feather Trading Post, lists panhandling, shoplifting, fire danger and environmental destruction as her major concerns. But in her own words, “It’s always those few” that ruin it for everyone.

Many locals have attended these events in the past and this particular gathering has been happening in this area for many years.
The nebulous organization does lead to pollution of streams, inadequate trash pickup and other environmental issues. But as I was in Livermore the other day watching another group of hippies securing their Land Rover to head on up to the gathering, next to them was a couple with a 4×4 truck hauling a number of noisy, gas-belching, dust spewing ATVs up the mountain to do some environmental damage of their own.

I re-visited the site near Creedmore Lakes on July 22 and found that many of the attendees had departed. Some were seeking an alternative site and are considering locations near Steamboat Springs and Colorado Springs. (Notoriously conservative Colorado Springs? Don’t they know?) No one I spoke to felt they’d been unnecessarily harassed by the local police and the main problem with the Creedmore Lakes site was the lack of water.

It still may happen. The actual event is scheduled to start on Aug. 3 and continue through Aug. 12 so there’s still time for a decision to be made to go with the original site.

I say, “Rainbows, please don’t go!”

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