Freedom Revisited


“Welcome home, Sister.” A young woman with long blonde hair streaming under her bandanna smiled beatifically at me as she climbed up the same steep dirt road that I was descending. So you could come up again from this seemingly bottomless gorge.

“I’m glad to be here,” I grinned back as my newfound “sister” hugged me. I was, in fact, giddily overjoyed to be here, being welcomed to a “home” I had never known among “family” I had never met. After this first of scores of greetings and hugs to come over the next week, I continued down the serpentine footpath, leaning forward under the weight of the 35-pound backpack that held my tent, sleeping bag, flashlight, biodegradable soap, down vest, Sierra cup, toilet paper and other items I’d be needing. I alternated between focusing on keeping my balance on the dusty, skiddy path I was treading and looking ahead at the stark beauty of this formidable, uninhabitable canyon where the Rainbow Family of Living Light was holding its eighteenth annual gathering.

The setting was spectacular. Even on this last morning in June when hot dust was already filling my nostrils at 8 o’clock in the morning and the temperature would hit 95 degrees by mid-afternoon, snow glistened on the peak before me. The canyon’s sides were green with trees—junipers with ripening berries, broad-leafed aspens, silvery Russian olives. Beneath them grew scrubby sagebrush, devil’s paintbrush sprouting vivid red flowers, peppermint, loco weed. But this valley, three and a half miles down from the canyon’s rim, could not sustain human life. Even the Shoshone tribes that once held this land never lived upon it. Accepting the Great Creator’s clear intention, they revered these rocky promontories and sagebrush-covered desert slopes as a sanctuary where they would meet only for special ceremonies.

I was following the same ancient practice, along with some 7,500 other celebrants filling the canyon during the first week of July. My Rainbow brothers and sisters included activists for peace, the environment, the rights of animals and the legalization of marijuana; mystics, poets, artists, storytellers, musicians and dancers; Native Americans and students of tribal culture; dreadlocked Rastafarians, bald Hare Krishnas and Mohawked-and-tattooed motorcyclists; 1960s political radicals; 1980s homeless families; “back-to-the-landers”; Deadheads carrying on the legacy of the Woodstock generation; ideological nudists; holistic and alternative healers—members of the counterculture of every stripe and pattern. They answer to names like Medicine Story, Rainbow Hawk, Swami Mommy, Mountain Walker, Vigilance, Mother Nature, Zeus. To most of the world they’re known as “hippies.”

What, then, was I, a 55-year-old Long Island wife, mother and grandmother, doing here all by myself? A homeowner, an alumna of PTAs and the League of Women Voters, a writer of mainstream books and articles, I had never been called a hippie in my life. Nor had I, as had a few celebrants, come for a week’s vacation complete with music, dancing, free food and drugs. Why had I flown to Salt Lake City and driven a rental car six hours into this remote corner of northern Nevada, bumping over rutted dirt roads before parking it at the rim of this three-and-a-half-mile-deep canyon in the Jarbidge Wilderness Area of northern Nevada’s Humboldt National Park?

Because I had been choking in my golden cage. Although I had first heard of the Rainbows from my daughter, it was my pilgrimage I was making, not hers. For years I had been living the good middle-class life, automatically following its rules. But lately I had been feeling tied up, tied down, hemmed in by other people’s demands and needs, by old shoulds and oughts. Where were my demands, my needs, my wants? Flattened down, neatly folded and put away years ago, to stay in their place and not bother my tidy existence.

The Rainbow gathering seemed like the perfect place to open doors, shake out my wrinkled dreams, wear them and live them. It was also a place where I could test myself. Could I make the arduous hikes up and down, make and break camp all on my own? More daunting, could I hack the emotional demands of being among thousands of people whose lives are so radically different from mine?

I had first met the Rainbows ten years earlier. On June 29, 1979, a 19-year-old Forest Service firefighter named Kirby Ray Colelay stayed up all night to fight a fire near Tucson, Arizona. The next day, as he was driving his girlfriend’s blue Chevrolet pickup truck back home to the Apache reservation at Whiteriver, he felt sleepy. He stopped to buy a six-pack of Budweiser and drank two cans, as he later explained, “to help me stay awake.” He also stopped several times to pick up a total of ten hitchhikers, aged 17 to 26, all headed for the Rainbow gathering in the nearby Apache National Forest.

At four o’clock on Saturday afternoon, June 30, Kirby Ray fell asleep at the wheel near Springerville, Arizona. The blue pickup gradually veered to the right, left the road, struck an embankment, vaulted over a large boulder and came down on its left front fender, turning over and sliding more than fifty feet on its top. Two young men were instantly crushed to death, and four critically injured passengers were flown to Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix. One of the four was my 17-year-old daughter. Dorri had suffered a concussion that threatened brain damage, along with a split lip, a broken nose, and multiple bruises that purpled and swelled her young body. During the following week, as I stayed at the hospital, worrying about Dorri and grieving over the young lives lost—including an 18-year-old who died in the hospital—I came to know some of the most caring people I have ever met.

Sleeping Bear, Moon Man, Heather and Lynn left the gathering and drove for seven hours along narrow, twisting mountain roads to bring our children’s belongings, which had been scattered at the crash site. They and other Rainbows stayed to comfort the ones who had survived and the families of the ones who hadn’t, performing thoughtful tasks, large and small. When I left Arizona with Dorri, by then out of danger, I gratefully embraced these “flower children.”

Over the years I often thought about these gentle, kind beings who gave so freely and asked for nothing, who were bound not by birth or obligation or exploitation, but by elastic bonds of loving freedom. Free from the acquisitiveness that is so much a part of the American way today, their lifestyles and ideals seemed to promise a better, freer world. Their weeklong gatherings, held every July since 1972, aim to present a model of a world based on cooperation rather than rivalry, on giving rather than getting, on healing rather than wounding.

Every now and then I would see a newspaper item describing legal clashes with officials who would try to deny access to the gathering site, in a different state each year. Year after year the Rainbow Family went to court, and year after year wrested its First Amendment right to assemble and speak freely on public land.

And I in my suburban cocoon kept hearing the call of the Family—its thundering cries for freedom, its insistence on its constitutional rights, its members’ ability to live outside the system I had always abided by. Finally, I could no longer ignore that call. There was no rational motive drawing me to this year’s gathering—but my need to do it transcended reason. I wanted to do it. And that was reason enough.

So here I was, in my Banana Republic khaki hiking shorts and my Gap blue denim shirt, suffering tie-dye blindness in a sea of rainbow-hued garb, including filmy Indian dresses, togas made of sheets, fur loincloths, nothing, diaphanous sari scarves over nothing, fringed leather vests over nothing, elaborate tattooed flowers sprayed over female backs and buttocks, snakemen and dragons tattooed on male shoulders and arms, rainbow-striped hard hats and hand-painted top hats, bathing suits, bicycle shorts, a monk’s cassock, a Scottish kilt.

During the week I lived as a Rainbow I lived a freedom I can’t imagine having anywhere else. As Cactus, a 64-year-old Romany gypsy, told me, “At Rainbow everything goes except stepping on toes.” I did only what I wanted to do, only when I wanted to do it.

Sometimes that freedom meant diving naked from a makeshift log bridge to swim in an icy river. Or jumping into a mud puddle and dancing around covered with muck. Or going to one of the many daily events—a group “rebirthing,” a women’s council on self-empowerment, a meeting to set up a “peace village” in Central America, a welcome talk by a Shoshone chief who exhorted us to love and protect this ancient canyon.

Sometimes it meant glorying, in the solitude of my tent, in the sight of the ridge before me turning golden in the first morning light, or of the millions of western stars sparkling in the night sky as I never see them at home.

Sometimes it meant doing communal work that I chose freely and performed happily with other Rainbows. I was of the Family as I scrubbed greasy pots for one of the communal kitchens that were feeding thousands of us for free, or stirred a cauldron of beans over a wood fire, or scooped up a lost toddler to find his mother.

And sometimes it meant sitting around a campfire, hearing of other ways of life—from Cactus, who told of a nationwide network of Romanys who help each other in times of trouble; from a white-robed, ethereal-looking No-Guns, of her life as a radical pacifist; from Andi, who won’t get a Social Security card or driver’s license, even if that means he’ll have trouble finding work; from Dan, who takes with him all he owns, ready to abandon all at any time; from Marianne and Nick, who come back every year in their sky-blue school bus to get back to a simpler life and celebrate the values that brought them together.

My head and body tingled joyously to newly awakened senses as I fell asleep and awoke to the rhythm of drums, drew sweet spring water to the piping of flutes and the twang of guitars, walked to meals to the blowing of a conch shell. The feel of hot sun, frigid river, fresh desert winds, warm hugs imparted a passionate sensuality to those days. Even more passionate was the presence of so many people living not by rote or rules, but by life routes they mapped out themselves. I thought about my own routes—and knew I would change some directions.

I learned, for example, about money. One lunchtime I couldn’t find my spoon. I looked through all my pockets, including the buttoned one where I kept my money. And then I stopped short. Money had no survival value here. Nothing is sold at Rainbow gatherings; the only time you see cash is when the “Magic Hat” is passed around for contributions. If I had taken as good care of my spoon as I had of my currency, I wouldn’t have had to eat my soup with a fork. When my spoon eventually did turn up, I reordered my priorities and put it instead of the cash in my most secure pocket.

Then there was my last morning when I walked up to the top with Mark, a soft-spoken environmental and animal rights activist in his mid-twenties who reprints literature from alternative publications and distributes it freely. Unallied with any organization, Mark finances his operation—barely—by selling bumper stickers and tee shirts with strong messages. Mark is not a son of privilege; his living comes from his meager wages as a migrant worker. But when I tried to give him ten dollars for a tee shirt and another ten for helping me fix a flat tire, he shook his head. “I have enough money,” he said, refusing anything until I urged him to give it to one of his organizations.

Mark’s words resonated in my mind as I drove away. Before I left home I had been offered an opportunity to earn a considerable sum doing work that I didn’t want to do, which would take me away from a writing project I longed to immerse myself in. If, on the wages of migrant work, Mark had enough money to do what was important to him, I surely could afford to put my dreams—my life—ahead of a fatter bank account. I was astonished that I had even considered sacrificing my heart’s desire.

Feeling at home among the Rainbows, I realized I’d been a closet hippie for years. I had already dipped at least one frivolous toe in the waters of hippiedom; the narrow gold band that I had worn on the second toe of my left foot for the past seven years didn’t startle here the way it did around my friends’ pools. Here mine was not the only toe ring to be seen. I may venture more significantly into those waters; I got hooked on the freedom of picking up at will, doing what seemed right to me, not having to answer to anyone but myself, not caring what “they” would think. I’m blessed, I know, that my life circumstances make this possible; the only thing preventing it is my own legacy of shoulds and oughts. Certainly not what other people say. It became very clear to me that other people’s opinions about my life are rarely relevant.

I also realize the irrelevancy of age. Most of my “buddies” at the gathering were at least 30 years younger than I was, but I felt like their contemporary—and learned from them. As a fiftyish Diamond Dave told me, “Everybody grows old, but you can stay immature forever.”

But is what I saw at Rainbow really immaturity? Was 25-year-old Jim’s offer to carry my gear down to the river, a precipitous mile-and-a-half walk, a sign of immaturity? Or his explanation when I thanked him: “It’s the Rainbow way”? I was to experience “the Rainbow way” dozens of times every day—when campers would share their food, their water, their tools, their medicine with complete strangers; when I would be struggling with a heavy load and suddenly feel someone taking it for me; when I heard a man say to a woman who had lost her sweater, “I have a very special sweater that means a lot to me—I want to give it to you”; when I would see cooks and supply carriers and latrine diggers spend most of their time working instead of partying. Is this immaturity—or an innocence that most of us have lost?

Not everyone, of course, was saintly. I heard harsh words and strong curses, I saw revelers who could have been in spring break at Fort Lauderdale, I smelled the pungency of marijuana and saw tabs of LSD, and I knew that some had come here for the drugs and the nudity. But there were fewer drugs than at most rock concerts and the unselfconscious nakedness of a few was natural and beautiful and the occasional outbursts of anger were expressed and forgotten. Somehow, without a formal governing structure, with decisions made every day by consensus, the gathering worked.

In the July Fourth Peace Circle, the week’s crowning ceremony, thousands of us prayed together in silence for world peace. Then after our changed “Om” swelled until it bounced off the canyon walls, escalated into a howl and then quieted, we locked arms and sang the old words, “All we are saying is ‘Give peace a chance.’”

I felt as I often had these past few days, as if I were in a time warp. I had been transported back almost twenty years when peace and love and personal freedom had seemed more obtainable than they did now. But instead of feeling sad for a time that was no more, hope flooded my heart, born in the knowledge that these thousands of people—some who had been carrying their dreams with them into middle or even old age, some who were just now giving their dreams shape—still believe in the dreams of a better world, and that we can work to make it a reality. If this is immaturity, I hope I never grow up!

The 1989 gathering is over now, the cleanup crew has left the site as good or better than they found it, and the people of the Rainbow are back in their day-to-day worlds. Some have returned to conventional jobs, some are on the road, some are moving on to another chapter in their lives. I don’t yet know what the pot at the end of the Rainbow will hold for me, but I’m sure that some of the Rainbow dust will stay in my life, to illuminate and enrich it in ways as yet unknown.

Sally Wendkos Olds writes frequently about family life and human development. The third edition of her first book, THE COMPLETE BOOK OF BREASTFEEDING, was published in 1999 (Workman, Bantam). This article was published in somewhat different form, under the title “Freedom Revisited,” in THE NEWSDAY MAGAZINE, March 25, 1990.

©Sally Wendkos Olds