Over the rainbow

Naturalist group gathers for peace

A temporary city -- comprised of tens of thousands of residents who go by one-word names such as Stone and Star -- will be erected next month in Routt National Forest.

The Rainbow Family of Living Light has decided to hold its Rainbow Gathering from July 1 to 7 on forestland in Northwest Colorado, most likely in Routt County. An advance group of 150 to 200 people are at the Hinman campground in North Routt County this weekend to determine the best site for what can best be described as the largest gathering of hippies in North America.

The Rainbow Family has been holding these gatherings on National Forest Service land since 1972 to promote world peace and keep the Bill of Rights alive. The only requirement to be a part of the family -- which claims to be the world's largest non-organization of non-members ı is to have a belly button. Among the clans that attend the annual gathering are the Magic Bowl Kitchen, Graceland Tea Mansion, Zipolites and Hare Krishnas.

"You will see a very functional city of 60,000 people existing in harmony and peace and showing an alternative to society," said Bodhi, one of the advance team members camping at Hinman this weekend.

Bodhi said the group is considering four or five sites within a 50-mile radius of the campground.

"We need a fresh water source, one main meadow that is 100 acres or larger and about five to 10 square miles

of hippie land," Bodhi said. "And we will need another large meadow to accommodate thousands of vehicles."

Gathering's impact

The public gathering during a major tourist week for both Routt National Forest and Steamboat Springs has grabbed the attention of area law enforcement and public health officials.

Mike Zopf, the director of the Routt County Department of Environmental Health, said the gathering is unlike anything the county has ever seen. Zopf attended a presentation about a previous Rainbow Gathering held in 1992 near Paonia in Delta County. Zopf anticipates 20,000 people -- not the 60,000 predicted by Bodhi -- will attend this year's gathering. "That's about the permanent population of Routt County," Zopf said. "It's not like anything we have ever hosted."

Sheriff John Warner has met with group members at the Hinman campground.

"There have been basically no problems up to now because we've established a good communication system," Warner said.

Law enforcement

Warner's biggest concern with the event is public safety. According to a report issued after the 1992 gathering in Colorado, there were two deaths (a married couple died of an overdose of muscle relaxers), three births, five reports of sexual assault, 310 citations issued and 43 arrests on charges ranging from child abuse to wildlife violations.

The Rainbow Family uses a method of self-policing at the gatherings. One such method is for a member to yell the word "shantacani" when someone is in need of help or conflict arises. At that time, those in the vicinity of the incident will link hands around the conflict until it is defused.

Area law enforcement will do its own policing at the event. Warner said the Sheriff's Office will put together an incident management team that will include members of the Steamboat Springs Police Department, Colorado State Patrol, Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue, Routt National Forest Service and other agencies.

"We certainly want to work with them on a medical evaluation plan," Warner said. "No matter what kind of gathering you have, a possibility of illness or injury exists, and we need a plan to get paramedics and ambulances to them if needed."

Warner said traffic issues and conflicts between the Rainbow Family and other users of the public land also are of significant concern. "They will be here during the busiest weekend in Steamboat and Routt County," he said.

Public health

Zopf has had discussions with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Like Warner, he will put together a team of three people who will visit the gathering daily. Zopf said the team's focus will be on environmental health issues such as sewage disposal, solid waste disposal, water supply and food service sanitation.

"The (Rainbow Family) has done this over many, many years, and they are fairly well-organized," Zopf said. "They have addressed many of the concerns -- the basic premise of the group is to be gentle to the land, and the ideals of the group are to minimize the impact on the environment. But obviously, that's somewhat counter to holding a gathering of this size in the National Forest."

Anytime there is a gathering of more than 75 people using National Forest land, Kent Foster, the acting district ranger for the Hahn's Peak/Bears Ears district of the Routt National Forest, wants to make sure they are provided for in a safe and healthy environment.

"Their activities should not put them at risk for retribution of anyone else. Public safety and protection of the environment is the main goal," Foster said. "Anytime you have that many people in one area, there is the potential for resource damage."

Every account Foster has read indicates the family works hard to restore the land to after the gathering ends. The report on the 1992 gathering said the family did a good job with clean-up and that lasting environmental impacts were minimal.

"They may be practicing some civil disobedience, but hopefully we'll respect one another, and that will be it," Foster said.

Economic impacts

Any large gathering of people needs food and other goods. Foster thinks this need will help local businesses.

Bodhi suggests that stores stock up on sleeping bags, tarps, tobacco and candy bars. Once at the gathering, participants rely on the barter system.

"The only things you need to bring are shiny rocks for trading and a cup, bowl and spoon," he said.

The report on the 1992 gathering said the economic impact of the event was mixed.

"The large influx of people resulted in unusual lines at gas stations, convenience stores and grocery stores," the report states. "Crowds congregated in downtown Paonia during the period before the main gathering. There were complaints of public urination, public nudity, panhandling and loitering. Similar complaints were reported in Delta and Hotchkiss."

Several local stores saw a brief boost in business, particularly a natural foods store and a local hardware store. One restaurant was able to exchange free meals for building improvements done by gathering participants.

However, the economic costs of the 1992 event also were high. The cumulative cost to agencies that assisted with handling the gathering -- the Colorado State Patrol, Division of Wildlife, Delta County, National Forest Service and hospital and ambulance services -- totaled $573,000. That's about $750,000 in 2006 dollars.

The celebration

Bodhi said he attends the Rainbow Gathering every year for the spirituality.

"I can go to all of these different camps and experience great spiritual benefits," Bodhi said. "There's a reason why everyone is here -- to find their source of spiritual growth."

Most of the ceremonies and rituals practiced by the family are based on Native American culture. For example, during the spring council, members sit in a circle and pass a feather, which signifies the holder's permission to voice his or her opinion about the site selection.

The main ceremony of the gathering, the prayer for peace, takes place on July 4. After a morning of silence, participants will go to the meadow at noon to hold hands in a large circle, Bodhi said.

"You can hardly see the person in front of you," he said. "Then we start to 'ohm.' It's a very powerful experience."

After about 40 minutes, a children's parade comes through to break the circle and everyone celebrates.

"I enjoy the prayer for peace because of the amazing amount of tranquility you get inside," said Ceraphin, another member of the Rainbow Family. "We all come here for peace and to save ourselves and the earth."

Despite the numerous concerns regarding any large gathering, Foster said he isn't worried.

"It's going to be an interesting event that we will talk about for a long time."

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