MOUNT TABOR — Sixty Rainbow Family members appeared in court on Monday to clear drug and traffic violation notices.
"There's been an equal number of incident reports. Nothing out of the ordinary," said John A. Sinclair, forest supervisor for the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests. "The majority is what we expected."
The decades-old get-together of "Rainbows," as they call themselves, is held each year on national forestland. About 2,000 Rainbows had arrived by early this week for the gathering near Mount Tabor in the Green Mountain National Forest. Their numbers are expected to peak July 4, when the group plans to hold a prayer ceremony for peace.
Hosting up to 10,000 people in primitive campsites on a Vermont mountainside is straining the resources of the U.S. Forest Service and some locals see the event as an intrusive gathering of aging hippies. One hundred and twenty warning notices and 84 violation notices have been issued to date. A few arrests have occurred as well. Most notices are drug and traffic related. Law enforcement officers reported 75 incidents, according to the U.S. Forest Service's daily gathering update. They patrol the grounds hourly to ensure safety amongst the presence of drugs and alcohol.
The Rainbow tradition goes back to the very anti-traditional 1960s. The first national Rainbow gathering was held in 1972, partly an outgrowth of community many young people felt at the 1969 Woodstock music festival. The last gathering in Vermont was in 1991.
"Well, basically, it hasn't changed all that much," said Feather Sherman, of western Montana. The 68-year-old Sherman is among those who fueled its start. She has attended every gathering since its beginning.
Over the years, the Rainbows and the U.S. Forest Service have come to an uneasy truce. Federal agents have patrolled the periphery of the gathering, usually giving out scores of warnings or tickets for traffic and other minor violations. On Tuesday night, an assault sent one Rainbow to a regional hospital with minor injuries.
The Forest Service this year has brought in a special incident command team, modeled after those used to manage wildfires, and federal officers are regularly patrolling the road leading to the Rainbow campsite.
Tom McCleod, according to family member Adam Buxbaum, is the only one of the 60 who pleaded not guilty on Monday. McCleod was "unconstitutionally detained for one hour while law enforcement left to get a K-9 unit to search without probable cause." He wrote a letter to the judge explaining the constitutional issues; there was a technical issue with the ticket and it was dismissed. Buxbaum said those ticketed usually pay the fine because they're from out of state and cannot return for another hearing to fight the ticket.
In 2014, at a Utah gathering, Buxbaum was arrested for filming someone else's search, but hasn't had other encounters with the law enforcement.
Among the locals, some have bemoaned the invasion of painted buses and visitors in torn clothes, body paint and dreadlocks. And there've been complaints of Rainbows going through garbage bins and keeping residents out of the stores.
But overall, relations — and business — has been good.
"We are just trying to be prepared," said Cindy Kapusta, who owns the Mount Tabor Country Store near the road to the Rainbow campsite.
She said her employees have caught a number of Rainbows shoplifting, and there were complaints of people relieving themselves behind the store. But that's no longer an issue, she said, since the Rainbows set up portable toilets at the end of the road.
Into the forest
When Otter's house burned down and his wife left him, he knew that he wanted nothing more than to be with his Rainbow Family. Rainbow Family members are often referred to by an alternative name given to them.
"When I went to college I'm like, 'I want me a job where I can be out of the hot sun, an easy job sitting at a desk with air conditioning,' and I got my wish. Be careful what you wish for," he said. "You get tired of the rat race and get tired of going to work every day. After a few years of doing that, I'm sitting there thinking, 'Man, I want to be out there in the sun.'"
Otter worked on computer programming and built houses before he took to traveling all over the South. He's a disabled Army veteran, originally from Kentucky, and arrived on Monday. He's been to about six gatherings.
"It's so much more relaxed out here. People are more accepting," he said. "Doesn't matter what you look like. They got what you call kick downs. Kick downs is giving somebody something. I'll go into Wal-Mart and buy a big bag of flashlights or cigarette lighters, because no one ever has flashlights in the woods."
Otter received his name after swimming at a gathering faster than folks could paddle in a boat.
"It's a lot of fun, if you don't mind camping and getting dirty in the woods," he said. "Out here it's day ball and night ball. It doesn't matter what time it is really. I hate to see it out there in society, people get stressed out. That's where all the violence and shootings and killings are."
A little over 2,000 people occupy a section of Mount Tabor off Forest Road 10 and started arriving at the beginning of June. A formal celebration will commence on July 4 and then they'll begin to depart. Counts are based on four people to a car and 12 to a bus. There's an estimated 27 buses and 35 established camps — some with kitchens — at the gathering.
The Rainbow Family attends monthly regional gatherings — peaceable assemblies — but visit a National Forest every year for a national gathering on the fourth of July. The location is decided during a spring council. It is an unofficial group of people across the United States who live an alternative lifestyle and make a living year round by hitchhiking, performing music, producing jewelry to sell or managing a farm, to name a few. They're committed to principles of non-violence and equality.
Vehicles line the left side of Forest Road 10 after the Appalachian Trail crossing. Self-designated traffic commanders of the Rainbow Family check in with each passerby and notify others whether it's a forest service officer or law officer; 'seven up' for forest personnel and 'six up' for police. Forest service officers without weapons are known as 'tree frogs.'
Decorated banners that read 'Welcome Home' and 'Rainbow Family of Living Light,' signs designating maps and trails, line the entrances to kitchens and campsites. At the Crystal Kitchen before Main Meadow camp, over 100 pounds of produce is used for meals.
Dream, from Texas, prefers to get up early in the morning and help in the kitchen chopping vegetables and tidying up. She sat under a tarp on Tuesday eating peanut butter on the way to Main Meadow after arriving in a rain storm. Her tiny service dog slept next to her on a leash. This is the farthest Dream has been in the Northeast for a national gathering, but she's attended many regional gatherings in the South.
"I just go with the flow and encourage people to abide," she said. "There's no rules, just encouragements. I'm here because it's peaceful. I don't rock at night, I'm old."
The encouragements Dream mentioned pertain to the rule of always having dogs on a leash and properly parking vehicles in designated areas.
For more information on the Rainbow Family, visit starsrainbowrideboard.org.
Note: The Associated Press contributed to this report.