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One night this past spring, a dozen or so people across the country “passed the feather” on a Zoom video conference, taking turns talking about whatever was on their minds. One man said he was grateful for the moon and for the trees. A woman said she was thankful for the lilacs she’d planted a few hours earlier. Everyone was appreciative of the cat that kept walking in front of someone’s computer camera.
It was a meeting of the Rainbow Family of Living Light—the alleged band of villains that authorities warn could wreak destruction on U.S. Forest Service land in Colorado this month.
Every year, thousands of free spirits meet on public land across the country for the group’s Rainbow Gathering, a weekslong campout and communal prayer for world peace that started in 1972 and has described itself as “the largest, best-coordinated, nonpolitical, nondenominational, non-organization of like-minded individuals on the planet.” There had been speculation that the group would congregate in Grand County, near the location of the first meetup on private land in Granby, for the 50th anniversary event. Instead, it will be held in Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests in the Adams Park area from July 1 to 15. An estimated 15,000 people showed up at the inaugural event in Granby, which Rolling Stone jokingly referred to as “the greatest natural disaster since the locusts ate Utah.”
Not much has changed. Reports of murders, drug overdoses, stabbings, and destruction of public land have plagued the gatherings. The last Colorado event, in 2006, brought between 10,000 and 15,000 attendees to the Big Red Park area, north of Steamboat Springs. U.S. Forest Service officials claim that foot traffic carved between 40 and 50 miles of informal trails on the site and that gatherers stripped trees of lower branches and left behind fire pits and uncovered human and animal waste. One Rainbow member told 7News that 80,000 people may be at this year’s event.
This spring, Forest Service officials launched a public-relations blitz, creating a Rainbow Incident Web Page and activating a team to work with law enforcement and residents affected by the gathering. Grand County commissioners also expressed concerns about costs for extra services to police the event. “The Rainbows are bad at paying bills,” commissioner Merrit Linke told Sky-Hi News in April. The Rainbow Family isn’t a formal organization, which means there’s no leadership and therefore no one to hold accountable if things go sideways.
“It’s felt like a barrage of hate,” says Tenali Hrenak, 45, an audio engineer from New York who has attended dozens of gatherings and is publishing a book on the event with his partner, Kristen Blinne. Rainbows generally are “peaceful, responsible people,” Hrenak says. “They don’t want trouble, and they especially don’t want to set a forest on fire.”
On another Zoom call less than two months before the gathering was scheduled to take place, Rainbows fretted about the authorities trying to harsh their mellow. Gatherers in the past have studied different ways to safely extract and filter water; they circulated a handwritten pamphlet titled “Where Do I Poop?” that included suggestions on post-gathering cleanup. “When we leave a camp, no one should be able to tell humans have ever been there,” the directive reads.
But there didn’t seem to be much hope the Rainbows and the government could work together. A man wearing a ball cap embroidered with a marijuana leaf on that Zoom call doubted that government agencies had ever read the group’s operating plan for the event, which has been distributed to local and federal authorities before each of the past four gatherings. That wouldn’t stop him from showing up in Grand County: “I say, damn the torpedoes.”