WELCOME HOME! 


;How many hippies does it take to put out a forest fire? All of them, which in this case means the 300 to 400 who are nearby when a blaze ignites – probably from an errant campfire – and threatens to scorch a remote, tinder-dry campsite that is their temporary home. It takes hippies in a quarter-mile long bucket brigade dipping water in pots, pans, coolers, empty milk jugs, five-gallon buckets, plastic carboys and anything else that will move water from lake to tree line, where the flames are halfway up 50-foot slash pines and spreading fast in a gusty wind.

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;And what a psychedelic firefighting crew it is: one woman dipping vessels in the lake is naked, others are wearing flowing dresses. A lot of people battling the blaze are barefoot, many of them are high. But only a few hesitate when the call comes to "save our house."

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;The fire is the most adrenaline-pumping scene of a strange and twisted weekend at the Rainbow Family of Living Light's annual Florida Gathering in the Ocala National Forest. All Rainbow gatherings are a chance for "Babylonians" – Rainbow slang for those of us who don't live in the forest full-time – to get a glimpse of a nomadic, non-hierarchical lifestyle predicated on love, acceptance, freedom and the barter system. This weekend, however, offers the added excitement of a peak at how even neo-utopian societies splinter into "us" and "them," and how hippies pull together to save their collective ass.

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;Take a walk

;;There are two ways to get to Rainbowland, which is called Farles Prairie the other 50 weeks of the year. The South Gate, also called the back gate, is where Forest Road 595 intersects with the Florida Trail. Walk past the hand-pumped well the Rainbows use as a water supply and turn right at the sign that reads "welcome home."

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;Here the Florida Trail is a narrow, curving hiking path carved out of a stand of pine and saw palmettos on the eastern shore of Farles Lake. It's just wide enough for a couple hippies on foot to pass. Think of it as Rainbowland's driveway.

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;Rainbowland is pretty spread out; it's about a mile and one-half from Forest Road 595 to the Main Circle. On the way you pass camp Burnt the Fuck Out, That Camp, Camp Fuck Off, Shut Up and Eat It and other sites. Be on the lookout for hippie roadblocks.

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;"Joke, toke or smoke," slurs a dirty faced young man with bare feet a couple hundred feet along the trail. "Or you can't pass."

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;He's easily distracted though, and if you don't have a toke or a smoke, and can't think of a joke, just walk by.

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;"Everybody's bypassing," he shouts. "Lame!"

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;Rainbows are a friendly family, though. "Welcome home!" is a common greeting; "lovin' you!" is another.

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;Turn right off the Florida Trail at camp Woodstock Nation and you're in the Trading Circle, the economic beating heart of Rainbowland, if there could be said to be such a thing. Cash is no good in the forest; the Rainbows discourage it and selling things can get them in trouble with the park rangers. But if you have camping gear, rope, knives, cigarettes, books or musical instruments to trade, you can make a deal for a pipe, artwork and pamphlets on everything from DIY repairs to DIY gynecology.

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; RAINBOWISMS ;
; A guide to communicating with The Family ;

A-Camp: Alcohol camp, where drinkers congregate, usually separate from the main camp.

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Babylon: The “real” world, i.e. everywhere outside of a gathering.

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Bus Village: A group of large, live-in vehicles, generally distant from the main camp which is typically not accessible by road.

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Focalizer: A volunteer who helps coordinate and organize regional family events, and also helps publicize them.

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Guns in the woods: Cops on patrol. See also six up.

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Kids’ Village: Where parents with young kids and expectant parents camp at a gathering.

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Lovin’ you! Rainbow greeting, used like “hello.”

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Magic Hat: The collection plate used to buy food and supplies.

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Movie: What’s going on around you at any given time; a scene.

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Om: The mystical syllable in Dharmic religions, used by Rainbows to help calm and focus. Also spelled “aum.”

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Six up: Cops on patrol in the woods; refers to the number of lights on top of a police cruiser. See guns in the woods.

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Welcome home! Rainbow greeting used when you are on your way into the woods from Babylon.

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– Bob Whitby

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Five more minutes and you've arrived at Main Circle, a large fire pit framed by logs. Main Circle is where the action is; at night the fire never goes out, the drums never stop playing and there's usually somebody doing the mechanistic dance of the hippies until dawn.

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;Main Circle is usually where you'll find Grandpa Woodstock, the oldest and perhaps least inhibited Rainbow in Ocala. During the day when it's warm he strolls around in his red felt hat and nothing else. At night he sports a flowing red robe that gives him the air of a bedraggled wizard out of Lord of the Rings. His hair and beard are plaited, his fingernails are painted red. He's the unofficial historian of the Rainbow Family, shooting everything on his video camera and playing it back on a marine-battery powered TV monitor lashed to his bicycle. He says he's got footage from gatherings dating back to 1999.

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;"There's a lot of love here," he says. "I travel around the country spreading peace and love. Google me. You'll find me all over the place."

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;Main Circle is also where you'll find Darrin Selby, 46, and his Cosmic Grasshopper, a human-powered carriage that uses the weight of the passenger to lever the driver into the air in 10-foot hops. Selby's Grasshopper is constructed of aluminum tubing covered with intricate weavings. It looks like you'd break it by stepping on it, but it's rock solid. The cavernous interior features slings in which you can recline or sleep.

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;It's the latest model of Selby's line of "Skedaddlehoppers," which are part art and part social statement. "My message is simple," he says. "Slow down. Slow way down. Have it all with you so you don't have to go so fast back and forth to get it all."

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;Back in 2002, Selby and his contraption were a little too slow for the authorities in his hometown of Woodstock, New York, however. They cited him for impeding traffic, a minor flap that made the The New York Times thanks to Selby's counter-cultural lifestyle and his knack for whimsical engineering.

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;North past Main Circle the trail passes camps Sit Down & Kick It (along with Sit Down & Side Kick It), Bear Necessities and On Your Way Café before ending at Forest Road 599A and A-Camp. Bring comfortable shoes; a walk from one end of Rainbowland to the other is about five miles.

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;There's a reason the two entrances are far apart; each draws a different kind of Rainbow, and the two don't always mix. Coming from the South Gate it's all peace and love; at the north entrance the party never ends. The drug of choice at the Main Circle is pot. A-Camp awash in booze; the "A" stands for alcohol.

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;Arjay Sutton, one of the Ocala gathering's "focalizers," talks often about the differences between the Rainbows drawn to each camp. Gatherings aren't parties, he says; they are family reunions, the point of which is to learn to live in peace and love one another. He fears the sides are drifting apart, and resentment is building. There's evidence of that on the Internet. The web site for the Florida Gathering described A-Camp this way: "Bus village, Raven's Nest Bar, agro drunk block likely. … Individuals at this camp believe they need to stop and inspect every vehicle entering. … Watch the sugar sand and beware of aggressive intoxicated people stopping cars. Best not to use this entrance at night."

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;Rainbows and The Man

;;The first Rainbow Gathering was held in Colorado in 1972. It was supposed to be a one-time, four-day event. Instead it happened again the next year, and in subsequent years, on federal land in a different state.

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;Last year's national gathering, in the Routt National Forest north of Steamboat Springs, Colo., drew 20,000 people. It made headlines when two Rainbow Family members were sentenced to six months in jail for stealing spoiled produce from behind a grocery store. Their sentences were later reduced to a week and both were released with time served.

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;Ocala is a regional gathering, and a lot smaller. The National Forest Service, which issues permits for the Rainbows, estimates that between 500 and 700 people will attend the Ocala gathering during its two-week run Feb. 14 to 28. "Ten years ago we'd see gatherings of 1,200 or so," says Denise Rains, a Forest Service spokesperson in Tallahassee. "It's dwindled."

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;Back in the day, the Rainbows refused to cooperate with the Forest Service by getting permits. That led to clashes between the feds and the hippies. Roadblocks set up by the cops on main arteries leading into the were common, says Sutton, as were feds patrolling the camps.

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; But for the last five years the Rainbows have pulled permits for their stay in Ocala, which seems to have increased the peace. "Nobody expected the permit process to work," he says. "But it does. What it does is set up rules of engagement between the Forest Service and the hippies."

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;Sutton reports that some hippies have been stopped by cops this year. But law enforcement presence is negligible on the last weekend of the gathering; there isn't a cop in sight on the roads leading into Rainbowland or in the camp itself. Only one call of "guns in the woods" – Rainbow slang for rangers on patrol – goes through the camp all weekend.

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;Rains characterizes the relationship between the feds and the Rainbows as non-adversarial. "That group has been coming to the forest for 10 years. We have a longstanding relationship with them. We sort of plan for them to be there and we don't really have a lot of problems."

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;And Sutton has changed his mind about working with the government in the last few years. He is part of a new branch of the Rainbows dubbed the American Rainbow Rapid Response, a sub-group of hippies who put their skill of feeding a lot of people with few resources, learned in the woods over decades, to work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

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;The idea of hippies doing anything "rapidly" sounds like punch line fodder, but the Rainbows were feeding 3,000 to 4,000 meals a day in Waveland, Miss. They worked alongside evangelical Christians in a cooperative effort the Los Angeles Times dubbed "A gospel and granola bond."

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;"Waveland has really influenced the way we see the government," says Sutton. "We used to see them as the enemy. Now we see them as a partner."

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;Trouble in paradise

;;Every night at sunset when the call "circle!" goes up, hippies wander alone and in groups to the Main Circle. After forming a circle, or something resembling one, the Rainbows hold hands and "om" three times; three deep breaths in, three long "oms" out. Then a cheer goes up and everyone sits down on the ground with their plate and utensils in front of them. Two women carry the "Magic Hat" around the circle, singing a tune about how it turns money into food. It's the only time Rainbows will hit you up for cash at a gathering. If you don't have anything to contribute, that's fine too. It's entirely possible to live in the woods for weeks with the Rainbows and not have a cent to your name.

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;A handful of the camps are also kitchens, and each kitchen brings a dish to Main Circle, enough to feed a couple hundred people. They walk the circle, scooping food from huge pots or coolers on to people's plates. Rainbow food is hearty and bland. If you want spices, bring your own. Friday night's menu is pasta salad, rice and beans, chopped lettuce salad with a squirt of oil and vinegar, and a five-bean salad.

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;Rainbow food is also vegetarian; at least the fare served at Main Circle. On Friday one kitchen brings a chicken and rice dish – reportedly containing a pinch of ganja – and all hell breaks loose. Someone starts yelling about the sanctity of the circle and how it's never cool to bring meat, someone else joins in and the offending kitchen is shouted out of the circle.

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;That's the Rainbow way; there are no leaders, only people with ideas. You put your idea out there and if it attracts a following, it's probably good. A group will coalesce around a good idea, and something gets done. If your idea is met with silence or shrugs, it's not so good. After a few of those nobody listens to you.

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;Of course non-hierarchical decision making has its drawbacks, as is demonstrated after dinner Friday. What do you do if, say, a group of drunk, agro A-Campers is on their way to the Main Circle to air their grievances, in a car?

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;"Ninja mission to block the trail!" suggests a Rainbow named Doc. "We put a log down in the trail 10 feet in front of their car! Then another one 10 feet after that!"

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;"There's no way they can make it," suggests another family member. "Let 'em stay out in the woods. You can't bring a car to Main Circle."

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;"We can't leave a car in the woods!" shouts a third. "It's not like it's going to decompose. We need 15 hippies to pick it up and carry it out."

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;Finally a consensus is reached: A small, calm party will confront the A-Campers, hear what they have to say, then help push the car out of the woods. But as a few hippies leave to hike down the dark trail to where the car is stuck, more join in. Soon there are 30 to 40 of them clustered at the spot where the car is wedged between two saplings, its headlights still burning. They made it within an eighth of a mile to Main Circle on the twisting, narrow trail, but they aren't going any further. If the Main Circle hippies didn't stop them, the lake right next to the muddy footpath would.

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;The scene quickly takes on the feeling of an angry mob storming the castle, except this bunch is armed with bongos and chants instead of pitchforks and torches. One of the A-Campers jumps on the hood of the car, beer in hand. "We're fucking loving you, you fucking assholes!" he shouts.

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;"Get out the duct tape," someone else yells. (Duct-taping an agro hippie to a tree is one way of getting them to settle down.)

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;"Everybody help me pick it up and turn it around!" yells someone else in the crowd.

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;"The problem is there is nowhere that the car will fit, it's just not possible," another person counters. "And you can't back it up all the way to Front Gate."

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;"Way to steal our peace!"

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;It's complete hippie pandemonium in the woods, with barking dogs, calls for cigarettes, laughing, drumming and one woman shrieking, "I love you! I care about you! You are part of my family! Please make me safe. Is there anyway you can make me safe?"

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;The A-Camper on the hood jumps off and into the crowd. In any other situation that would have touched off a fight. But this mob begins chanting, "We love you, we love you" in unison. There is no fight. In the end a few people help free the car by pushing it backwards toward A-Camp. People filter back to the Main Circle where the drumming and dancing resumes.

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;There's tension at all gatherings between the A-Campers and the rest of the family; the former want to get out in the woods and get fucked up, the latter reject society and are earnestly trying to live with as few of its rules and limitations as possible. Many of them travel full-time with the family, moving from forest to forest in a series of never-ending gatherings.

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;Sutton says later that the car incident Ocala A-Campers felt slighted by the description of them and their site on the Internet. He and others hope the situation doesn't deteriorate into a war.

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;"They'll come after us with sticks and we'll be sitting there going ‘we love you.'"

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;Fire!

;;Hippies, you might be surprised to learn, can be industrious. Take Rainbowland's water supply, for example. Five-hundred people and several kitchens consume a lot of water daily, and every gallon of it has to be hauled from the hand pump near Forest Road 595 to two plastic 275-gallon containers located near Main Circle and A-Camp. The best way to get it to Main Circle is across Farles Lake by motorboat, and there's a boat making the run back and forth all day long. Getting water up to A-Camp means driving it there in a truck.

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;A few family members moved to the site early to start preparations. They built a dock out of dead trees on the Main Circle side of Farles Lake, and they constructed an eight-foot tall stage out of the same material by lashing it together with cord. ("It's ROSHA approved," jokes Sutton.) Festival entertainment includes a dog show, a hippie parade and a talent show.

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;After the gathering family members will stay on site as long as 10 days to make sure everything is cleaned up. The goal is to leave the place better than they found it by clearing out deadfall that could stoke a fire.

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;Speaking of fire, one of the few rules in Rainbowland is that all campfires have to be in a proper pit. But there are no safety inspectors, as that would imply some kind of hierarchy. Shit happens, as it did on Saturday afternoon.

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;When the call of "fire!" first goes around the hippie grapevine, no one seems overly concerned; it's impossible to understand the gravity of the situation until you're confronted with it. But the situtation is serious; the fire is in a line of trees that is burning fast and hot. All that stands between the tree line and Rainbowland is a field of grass as dry as straw. Depending on which way the wind shifts, the flames and smoke could quickly cut off access to the trails, leaving no option but the lake if things get out of hand.

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;Once the situation is clear, non-hierarchical decision making is scrapped. Time to follow orders.

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;"Get buckets!" shouts a bare-chested man in dreadlocks. "Form a line family! If you want to live, form a line!"

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;Anything and everything that will hold water is produced almost immediately and people charge into the lake and start filling them. It only takes a few minutes for the first buckets of water to reach the fire. It's dangerous work at the front of the line; if the wind shifts people up there could be trapped.

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; Someone on a cell phone has already called the Forest Service and a helicopter with a water bucket is on the way. The news brings confusion. Will the hippie bucket brigade get in the way? Should they just let the man put out the fire?

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;"The chopper is coming, everybody back!" shouts one man, and the line starts to shrink.

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;"No, we need to get water on the fire!" shouts another.

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;Somebody else says the helicopter is going to drop chemicals on the fire and will be here any minute, speculation that sends people running back to camp to get out of the way.

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;When the chopper shows up and starts making runs between the lake and the fire, a cheer goes up and the line reforms. What was a formless gathering of dropouts is transformed into a ruthless water-moving machine that is bringing thousands of gallons from the lake the fire a quarter mile away. One woman walks up and down the line with drinking water for the hippies while a young man mops brows and offers hugs. Axes, picks and shovels materialize and there is no shortage of people willing to use them to make sure that hot spots don't reignite.

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;Meanwhile, the chopper continues to make runs between the lake and the trees. It's a solid hour before the first Forest Service ground crews get to site, and when they arrive there is little left for them to do.

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; "You guys outperformed some of our crews," says of the Forest Service firefighters. "The guys in the chopper said, ‘Damn, I think they're going to get it out.'"

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;Two hours after the fire started the call "all hippies out of the woods!" finally comes. The Rainbow Family gathers once more around Main Circle for a round of oms and a few cheers of "hippie power, fuck yeah!"

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;"Give us the end of the world and we perform great," says family member Aaron Funk, a coordinator for American Rainbow Rapid Response. "Otherwise, we are kind of a headache."

; bwhitby@orlandoweekly.com

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