Chasing the Rainbow Family: Are They Hippies or Hobos?
Two gatherers Rainbow it up in Ocala.
For most of the year, 22-year-old Denise Puente lives in a house with her parents and does medical billing for a doctor in Coral Gables. She likes taking pictures and hula hooping on the beach.
But every February, she runs off to the Rainbow Gathering in Ocala National Forest to live in a tent for weeks, without bathrooms, money, or cell phone service -- even renaming herself "Picture" while she's there.
People at the Gathering sleep in tents, on mats, or the forest floor. There is a barter economy to ensure currency has no value, but staples like food and water are given to whomever may need them, as are pot and cigarettes. The goal is to create a peaceful community where everyone contributes to communal well-being.
To some, the Rainbow Family is just a bunch of freeloading hobos. To others, they're inspirational. "It's beautiful," said Puente. "It's a way to water the seed the hippies planted in the '60s."
A Rainbow spins fire during a drum circle in Ocala.
The first Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes in the U.S. actually happened
in 1972 in Colorado. A group of self-proclaimed hippies, the Rainbow
Family of Living Light, sent an open invitation to anyone who wanted to
join them in the woods for four days of chanting and meditation. The
Colorado Gathering of '72 was a national event. According to the Rainbow
Family guide site WelcomeHome.org, regional Gatherings started
springing up in the mid-1980s as a way to come together more often and
Now they occur in every state throughout the year -- as long as there is
a forest, the hippies can populate it. Though there is no official
head count, since information is mostly spread through word of mouth, the group's Wikipedia page claims there can be 5,000 people at regional
gatherings and 30,000 at national ones.
Puente was introduced to the Family by a friend about five years ago.
Since her Ocala Gathering experience, Puente has become a sort of
"commuter hippie," going off the grid for a while but always returning
to a home, a job, and a life in "Babylon," the hippies' name for the
She has also attended regional Gatherings in Tallahassee and Lake Mary,
Florida; one in Asheville, North Carolina; and a national gathering somewhere in the
woods of Pennsylvania.
Puente says hippies who don't have a home outside the forest live on the
road, going from Gathering to Gathering or finding their way into
festivals like Burning Man. Some, like her friend "Sugarbear," live in
small rural neighborhoods in the woods, where they don't need to adjust
to the pace of life in "Babylon." Others commute, like Puente. But when you're coming from an underground
society where nothing belongs to anyone and everything belongs to
everyone, the move to a city that doesn't accept that philosophy is
challenging. For some, it's similar to homelessness. Puente recalls a
group of commuter hippies who brought their friend "Flash" into Miami.
"He told them, 'Oh, I just need a ride. I'll find my way, I'll find a
group of Rainbows,'" she said. "He ended up calling my friend every day,
asking for rides or weed. [They] can't survive away from the woods.
Dude, it's not the woods! It's society. It's two different worlds."
The world of the Rainbow Family
But another Rainbow, Shades, says living like a Rainbow is nothing like
being homeless. The 19-year-old hippie was homeless as a kid, but now he
owns a small piece of land in Richmond, Va. He spent almost a month at
the Ocala Gathering, and then came to Miami. "At Rainbow, everyone gives you food, cigarettes, and they'll take the
clothes right off their backs for you," he said. "When you're homeless
you have nothing."
But Shades admits he does consider himself homeless when he's out of the woods, regardless of his property in Virginia. "The forest is my home," he says. "Out here, I don't have the Family. I don't have anything."
Though some Rainbows turn to panhandling, or "spanging," when they need
food or supplies in the city, Shades says he's never resorted to that.
When he's hungry in Babylon, he goes dumpster diving instead.
"There's never really been a fully
self-sustainable commune," said Quest, 18, a friend of Shades'. "It's funded by food stamps and dumpster
Though the group survives on scraps and handouts, Quest thinks people should
experience the Gathering before accusing them of being bums, drug
addicts, or homeless. "It's an attempt to get away from the government, to be free," he said.
"Everyone's got their individual beliefs. It's all a spiritual
Puente agrees. "[The Gathering] is whatever you make it. It's something different to everyone, but it's all the same," she said.
Signs direct Rainbows to available services.
Rainbow Rituals and Risks
Puente calls the Gathering "sacred"; she says it teaches people to share
and care for each other. In the forest, a sort of hippie-speak develops
to warn, call, or remind others about the rules the Family tries to
"Six up!" is perhaps the most important of these codes. It means there are cops in the woods. Although the Rainbow Family is a peaceful movement, members refuse to sign
the permits required by the U.S. Forest Services to occupy public lands.
They believe that by signing a permit, they "sign away [their] right to
Hippies have been arrested in the woods before, and according to court
documents on WelcomeHome.org, authorities have burned campsites right
before the start of a Gathering in Florida, and pepper-sprayed
Deputy G. Miller of the Marion County Sheriff's Office, which oversees
part of Ocala National Forest, said, "[The Family] is pretty much
unorganized until the official gathering. They kinda fluctuate in about a
month before [the annual February Gathering] and leave kind of at their own pace." Deputy Miller refused to comment on interactions between the Rainbows
and local law enforcement. Public information officers for the Sheriff's
Office could not be reached for comment.
Other hippie codes come from kitchen camps, which call out "Free food
in the woods" to let people know they can eat there. "Bury your shit,
bury your grandma's shit, bury your dog's shit" will remind them to
cover their waste as a courtesy to others. After all, there is no
plumbing in the forest.
The Tribe also assigns specific character titles and responsibilities to
maintain the Rainbow life. There are pot fairies that distribute
marijuana based on need, water buffaloes that carry drinking water
through the woods, and nic-at-nights that distribute cigarettes. Signs signal camp names, the way to the main
drum circle, and offer friendly reminders to "Keep your [cigarette] butts in
"At main circle, it's a huge fire that goes up every night, and they
give everyone vegan food," said Shades. "Before dinner everyone held
hands around the circle and 'ohm'd.'"
Quest added that, at main circle, drinking alcohol is frowned upon -- he
said alcohol is the only thing considered a "drug" in the woods.
Consumption of weed and hallucinogens, though, is common practice.
Puente said main circles are wild drum sessions that go on into the
night, and everyone watching breaks out into howls, screams and dances.
"It's like Disneyland," says Puente. "It's a different world."
Rainbow and Occupy activist Shades.
But Miami Gatherers can't stay in that world forever, unless they
renounce life in Babylon. And with limited hospitable, natural environments at which to set up camp, that's hard to do. Miami hippies fall into two categories: commuters, like Puente, or
wanderers like Quest and Shades, who don't have a place to sleep secured
for every night.
Puente explains that at the Gatherings, there are different types of
hippies, such as Hare Krishnas, Rainbows, Deadheads, and trainhoppers.
But a new breed of hippie has recently joined the mix. With the advent of
the Occupy movement, the line dividing hippies and activists has
blurred. Quest says there were at least 100 Occupiers at the most recent Ocala
"Rainbow and Occupy are similar because they both promote a culture of
family. The end goal is the same: to change people, show them a
completely new way of living," says Quest.
Both he and Shades found out about Rainbow through the Occupy movement.
Quest says he first heard of nic-at-nights when he spent time at the
Occupy Wallstreet camp.
"There is a rumor that Rainbow started Anonymous, and Anonymous started Occupy," said Quest.
Since the Rainbow ideals are similar to the philosophies of the Occupy
movement, Occupy camps have provided hippies in Miami (who would
otherwise be homeless) with a place to stay. Quest and Shades are living
in the Occupy building, dubbed "Peace City," on NW Seventh Street.
"This is a safe haven for Family," says Quest. "I plan on riding the Rainbow train for the next good part of my life."
However, Puente doesn't think the Occupy Rainbows should be "squatting" in the Overtown building.
"That's not being part of the Family," she said. "They need to contribute."
Alas, even in a Utopian society of hippies, there is a proverbial "working
class," and they don't like the entitlement generation, either.
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