County braces for impact

As many as 20,000 Rainbow Family members begin exodus to forest

— Jacob, Dusty, Josh and Dana have spent the past two days hitchhiking from Portland, Ore. They hopped into the back of pickup along U.S. Highway 40 Friday evening for the last stretch of their journey.

Their destination is a campground just north of Hahn's Peak in North Routt County, where 15,000 to 20,000 people are expected to gather in the coming weeks for this year's Rainbow Family of Living Light gathering.

"I'll tell you what, this town is going to see more business than ever before," said Dusty, who, like most of the Rainbow Family members, goes by one name.

The Rainbow Gathering is an annual event held around the July 4 holiday. It began in 1972. Last year's event in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia drew an estimated 10,000 people, the Forest Service reported. The 2004 event peaked at 19,000 people in the Modoc National Forest in California.

The crowd is expected to bring with them between 4,000 and 5,000 vehicles for the gathering, which officially runs from July 1 to 7.

The influx of visitors to the area has some community members concerned.

Susan Saari manages the Clark Store about 20 miles north of Steamboat.

The small general store is equipped to handle the handful of residents in the area, and also caters to the normal tourists that vacation in the area.

Her store is listed on the official Rainbow Gathering map as the last place to stop for supplies before Big Red Park, where the gathering will take place.

Saari was one of about 15 Hahn's Peak and Clark business owners and managers who attended a meeting in Clark on Friday, along with local officials who are preparing for the influx of people.

Saari already has started preparing.

"Because we're on the map, I thought I had to do something quick," Saari said. "I just had to make decisions."

She plans to set up a tent outside the store to sell supplies that were suggested by event organizers. She is having portable toilets brought in, hiring a security team of five people and increasing staffing.

Saari has spoken with Rod Weed, owner of the Likely General Store in Likely, Calif. Weed's store was the nearest supply outlet to the 2004 gathering.

"He told me, 'If I wasn't so busy, I'd come help you, because you're going to need it,'" Saari said.

The problem is that she does not know what to expect, and it makes deciding on the amount of products to buy difficult, she said. Saari is stocking up on bottled water, batteries, flashlights, candy and tobacco, products Weed advised her to have plenty of.

Others attending the meeting expressed concern about the availability of water, bathroom facilities outside of the park and security dedicated to monitor and take care of problems at the event.

Routt County Emergency Man--ager Chuck Vale said local officials are busy preparing for the event. "You just pick a subject, and someone is out there working on it," he said.

U.S. Forest Service information specialist Denise Ottaviano is based out of Washington, D.C., and is one of about 40 Forest Service employees who will be on site for several weeks as part of the Forest Service's incident management team. Local law enforcement and parks workers also have put together a 10-person team.

Ottaviano, who worked at last year's event, said the community should prepare for shoplifting, loitering, hitchhiking and panhandling.

"For the most part, they are friendly and non-violent, but with any large group it brings a strain on the community and that's why the team was brought in," she said. "For the most part, they are going to get up there and keep to themselves."

Hahn's Peak Cafe owner Katie Bessey said she already has had some negative experiences with the gathering's early arrivals.

"I've already had someone sneaking into my bathroom and taking a bath in my little sink," she said.

About 400 people already have arrived for the gathering, according to Forest Service estimates.

About 80 cars line the narrow gravel roads in the park Friday evening. People are greeted repeatedly by people who have already arrived with the words "welcome home," the same words painted on a tarp at the entrance.

"You're only seeing the beginning," said Dusty, who has attended the event for the past nine years.

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