All indications are that the Rainbow Family of Living Light will choose one of Arizona's six national forests for its annual Gathering, a two-week freewheeling confab set to begin June 28.
The Rainbow Family is being typically close-mouthed about its plans; in fact, the group hasn't even decided for sure yet where it will hold this year's Gathering.
And that's of considerable concern to authorities, since the event is expected to draw an estimated 20,000 people, many of the so-called "hippie" persuasion.
Earlier this month, Governor Jane Hull called officials together to coordinate an effort by federal, state and local authorities. The governor's office wouldn't say who attended, citing law enforcement concerns. But guests included reps from the U.S. Attorney's office, the state Attorney General's office, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Senator Jon Kyl's office, the state Division of Emergency Management and local law enforcement.
"What I can tell you is the governor's office is aware that these folks are looking at coming here," Francine Noyes, Hull's spokesperson, said. "We're trying to monitor the situation, but beyond that now, there isn't much we can do yet.
"We have a number of concerns about sanitation, law enforcement, health and safety concerns, both for the folks that would come, if they were to come, and the people in whatever area they might come to."
Oh, they will come. Rainbow Gatherings have been held in national forests every summer since 1972. The Gathering was held in Arizona once before, in 1979 in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest.
For a month now, Rainbow Family scouts have been "on the ground," looking over topo maps, driving back roads, searching for a site that will meet the requirements of available water, adequate parking and attractive camping for 20,000 squatters.
Leading contenders appear to be Coconino and Apache Sitgreaves National Forests. The scouts will make a proposal at the Arizona Spring Council, to be held June 6 and 7 somewhere in the national forest, after which the council may choose a site.
Or not. This is the Rainbow Family, after all, and no one is really in charge. Decisions, if and when they are reached, are by consensus.
The Rainbow Family of Living Light describes itself as the "largest non-organization of non-members in the world." More mindset than organization, it has no set structure, no mission statement and no hierarchical leadership.
"No one speaks for the Rainbow," the unofficial Web site admonishes.
Coconino County Sheriff Joe Richards says that in the past six to eight weeks, his officers have seen "about 200 Rainbow types in and around the area."
A Forest Service source also notes that approximately 20 to 30 small Rainbow camps have sprung up in the woods around Flagstaff, waiting for word on where to go.
Rose Davis has been to four Gatherings so far. The former Flagstaff resident, however, is on the other side of the fence. She is the information officer for the U.S. Forest Service's National Incident Management Team. The team is assigned to provide year-to-year management of the Gatherings for the Forest Service.
She cites problems in terms of illegal drugs, public nudity, runaways and traffic control. "A lot of the potential conflict can arise from culture shock for the local community," Davis explains. "Once they announce the Gathering site, there is an element of folks that come in because it's a safe place to hide and there's the possibility of a free meal. These can include runaways, homeless people, individuals running from the law.
"Unfortunately, that element tends to hit town first. Then that community sees problems like Dumpster diving, shoplifting, public urination."
Environmental problems caused by the tramping of so many feet have been minimal. "So far, the sites have all healed nicely," Davis concedes. "The fact that they have to heal and that there are rehabilitation efforts involved is something we have to look at. Digging slit latrines in the national forest is something that we're not pleased about. But they do work with the district. After about a year or so when the land heals, it's turned out real well."
Garrick Beck is a long-standing member of the Rainbow Family. He has missed only two national Gatherings. He has deep counterculture roots as the son of Julian and Judith Beck, founders of the Living Theatre, a famous and controversial '60s guerrilla theater troupe. Having been there from the beginning, he traces the Rainbow Family's lineage from influences of civil-rights marches, the then-new ecology movement, a variety of spiritual movements, hippies and Happenings, rock concerts and the melding of antiwar protesters and Vietnam veterans.
"The Gatherings grew out of a need from the cultural changes in the '60s to create an event that was very inclusive," Beck explains. "The coming together of returning Vietnam veterans and peace-movement activists gave the early Gatherings a lot of their strength.
"Most organizations have a hierarchy of people in charge of different things in a pyramid-shaped form. We're organized much more like a living cell. The key is communication between the parts and each part doing its job well," Beck states. "More than anything else, the Gatherings teach people to live in harmony with the earth, not as a vague ideal, but as a practical activity. The number-one thing people should expect is to find a large, very open-hearted community in the woods."
Gatherings are made up of 60 to 200 "neighborhoods," including kitchens, outdoor latrines, water supplies and camping areas. As part of the utopian nature of the Gathering, drug use is openly tolerated and clothing is optional.
The annual yin/yang between the Rainbows and the Forest Service will continue this year. The Forest Service says it will enforce regulations requiring a use permit for any gathering of more than 75 people in the national forest. It doesn't say how it intends to do that.
"We will require a permit as soon as the number of people at the site exceeds 75," Davis asserts. "We hope it's not confrontational, but we're trying to enforce the federal regulations as we're required by law."
The Rainbows steadfastly refuse to obtain the required permits, citing the Gatherings as a constitutional right to assemble peaceably on public lands.
Law enforcement has generally stayed outside of the Gatherings. "Where they can, they enforce everything that they have responsibility for, but officer safety is very important and they are well outnumbered," Davis notes.
"We're more concerned about major felonies," Sheriff Richards says. "Child abuse, assault, theft."
In any case, for more than 25 years, the Rainbow Gatherings have represented the largest single recreational use of the national forests, a fact that the Forest Service is reluctant to accept officially.
"There are instances when we've had really beautiful, golden, cooperative relations with the Forest Service," Beck notes, "and there have been instances where we've had a really knucklehead group of Forest Service officials who have not been willing to give us the time of day."
So it comes down to your view. For the Rainbow Family, the Gathering is a utopian Club Med, a temporary autonomous zone where there are no leaders, only focalizers to lead discussions, and where order is kept by shanti sena, a community-based combination of intervention counselors, peacekeepers and communicators. It's a hippie Tomorrowland where marijuana is "green energy" and the Magic Hat garners donations of cash.
To government officials, it's a gathering of marginal lifestyles where illegal activities are rampant and hygiene is iffy.
"It's definitely a study in sociology, I'll give you that," Davis says with a laugh. "It basically becomes a small city on the national forest. It pops up quickly, and it is pretty amazing."
Information on the location of this year's Gathering will be posted as soon as it is available on the unofficial Web site, www.welcomehome.org/rainbow/main.html, and at the newsgroup, alt.gathering.rainbow.
It will also be a major buzz on the street, so check with your local crustypunk.