The 2013 annual national Rainbow Gathering in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest in Montana was spread out over a site that measured over two and a half miles from its northernmost to its southernmost populated areas. My daily commute from the place where my van was parked to Info was a mile and a half each way, and a round trip from Info to Dinner Circle was over a mile. Adding to that visits to Kid Village a quarter mile away and any other exploring of the site that I wanted to do, I probably walked at least six or seven miles in any single day, and many days more than that. And the walks often seemed longer because I could frequently see my destination in the distance across the sagebrush and grass that covered much of the site, and I’d think I was close until I found myself walking a lot more than I was thinking I’d have to.
Much of this was the result of a personal choice that I made: to commute to my van parked in Handi-Camp every night after spending most of the day around the Info booth, rather than sleeping in the tent that I set up there. It was possible to stay on the hills where most of the population was and visit lots of kitchens and events with relatively little walking (tho the walking you’d do would be mostly up and down mountain slopes of sometimes 20 degrees or more) – and many did this. But I felt that the daily walk back to my van enabled me to watch the gathering grow and then diminish, and to know what was going on at the front gate and the other side of the valley. I also found the morning walk to be conducive to meditation and reflection, and during that time I composed in my head some of the paragraphs that follow in this essay.
This gathering was on the same site that was used in 2000. To me, the western border of Montana looks like a human face in profile, with a long nose extending down over some puffy cheeks with a pair of puckered lips in the middle. The gathering was near the space between the nose and the lips, where a mustache would be. While standing in the main meadow you could see the valley sides to the left and right slope down low and frame some snow covered mountains in the distance. This was the Bitterroot range, and the crest of it is the border with Idaho. The nearest town was Jackson, about 12 miles away down a dirt road that ran thru cow pastures after the leaving the forest, and the nearest place to do any normal shopping was Dillon, some 60 miles away.
Some things were the same. Kid Village was set up in the same place it had occupied that first time, and Lovin’ Ovens was not too far away from its old location. At Kid Village depressions were found in the ground where the old compost pits had been dug. (The people who had filled them in during the first cleanup had raked the ground level over them instead of leaving a mound of dirt over them to compensate to the soil settling as the garbage beneath decomposed.) I was told they were dug out again to make the new pits.
But more things were different. I called the 2000 gathering the Montana Gathering because the Montana camp seemed so prominent. This was not the case this time. The meadow where Tipi Circle stood with Montana Camp immediately to the south remained uninhabited this year until a large boogie pit was dug near its northern end, and Montana camp was hidden in the woods near the Ovens. No single tipi circle appeared; instead they were scattered around the meadows. Info set up not far from where Rainbow Crystal kitchen was before, and encountered the same troubles with a nearby stream that Gary Stubbs did. The main meadow where Dinner Circle and the 4th of July happened was several hundred yards to the west of where it had been in 2000.
And this gathering had a lot more of the young Rainbows who prefer to dress in black and khaki rather than tie-dyes. Like last year in Tennessee, Fat Kids Kitchen, people who had been associated with Montana Mud, and other crusty kids played a large role in the Seed Camp, Main Supply, and cleanup movies. Nick at Night acted as roving observers for Shanti Sena, and we even had some people from the Projects haul in some of the supplies for Info.
I arrove at about 3 in the afternoon on the 20th of June after a drive from my current hometown of Muskogee, Oklahoma that took two days of dawn to dusk driving and from dawn to this time on the third. The first sign of any Rainbow activity was a group of scruffy looking people on a small patch of grass by a fork in the Forest Service road. One brother walked by my window as I slowed down, and I asked him how to get to Bus Village. He told me to go to the left, and I did, descending around a broad S-curve to the grass covered meadow where the lower Bus Village had been in 2000. I found that the center of it, where most of the vehicles were parked in 2000, was now occupied by several large wooden cattle pens with ramps for offloading from semitrailer trucks. There were still some spaces around their edges, and I parked my van close to a fence and one of the ramps. Further away was the Fat Kids’ schoolbus along with another bus and some other personal sized vehicles.
I walked back up to where I had seen all the people before and asked another brother some questions. When I asked him if the place we were in had a name, he said, “A-Camp”. Apparently they hadn’t been able to find much booze recently, because nobody was acting especially rowdy and most of them talked politely to me. When I asked how to get to the main trail, he pointed to the road to the right of the fork and said, “That way.” That road went for several hundred yards until I saw another group of people by the side of the road milling about or sitting by piles of camping gear. There were two tall trees close together with two long poles extending between them, with short sticks laid crosswise over them to make a counter on which there were already some piles of papers. A little cardboard sign hung from it that said “INFO”. Next to the tree on the right someone had drawn a simple map with a white felt tip marker on a blue tarp and hung it from a rod tied to a tree branch.
As I was standing there looking at the counter, a young woman with curly ringlets of red hair came up to me and said, “Hi, my name is Change, but most people call me Miss Information.” We got into a conversation, and during the course of it found out that she had been staying by herself with a three year old daughter in the dome tent nearby, her van was parked by itself on the other side of the road, and after coming in yesterday and being confused and finding nobody to answer her questions, she took on herself the task of informing the newcomers. “I didn’t know a thing about what was going on when I first started, but people have been coming in and telling me all kinds of stuff.”
She had been there by herself constantly for all that time, and she asked me and everybody else passing thru if they had any kind of food. I introduced myself and told her that there would probably be another Information built further inside the gathering, and I hoped that there could be some cooperation. I was also attracted by her outgoing and extroverted personality, and I told her that I saw a talented Infomaniac in her.
But I found her directions to the main trail failed me shortly after leaving and actually looking for it, and I found myself back on the road heading for A-Camp. There was a group of sober looking brothers standing and talking by the road to the side, and after expressing confusion at one man’s directions, another said, “I was already going to go there, do you want me to escort you?”
He took me back up the road and past the place that I heard others refer to later as “Little Info” and on to the main trail. Shortly thereafter I saw Marken and J’ai standing next to Marken’s new used pickup truck, and I thanked the brother and told him that I wouldn’t be needing his services any more. Marken told me that he had just found out that they didn’t want him to park there, and that he had already scouted out another place that was next to the FS road.
“It’s just a short walk over this hill. Do you want to go with us.” I said yes, and we went to the place where we could have parked several feet from the edge of the road under the shade of trees, but Marken noticed that there were no other vehicles parked there, and he was wondering if there was a reason why.
It turned out there was. The Forest Service had totally banned all parking by the sides of roads, restricting it to parking lot areas only. This was relaxed in stages later in the gathering, but now it was strictly in force. Change said she had got what seemed to be an agreement so far with them to leave her van parked nearby on the other side of the road. Marken brought his truck down and parked it next to my van in the lower Bus Village.
Later on that evening Robbie Gordon showed up there with his truck and tipi poles bringing Tony, two other Taos brothers, and a sister. He said he didn’t have any encounters with the Forest Service police on his way in, but some Dillon city cops stopped him for his cracked windshield, and noticed that none of the passengers in his back seat had their seatbelts fastened. They gave him a ticket that he was able to pay on the spot with his debit card and let him go, but he was still in a colossally bad mood when he first came in. Shortly thereafter Henry the Fiddler appeared in his van.
It was 34 degrees as the sun appeared over the mountain to the east of the lower Bus Village at 6:10 on June 21st. I heard several idling engines as people tried to warm up the insides of their vehicles, and I woke up one guy who was sleeping in the driver’s seat of an old Buick station wagon, fearing that he was passing out from carbon monoxide.
I finally got my bearings and realized there were two roads leading out of there, the unpaved but graded FS road that I had first descended, and another less developed road that in some places was just two tire tracks in the grass. They separated at a fork shortly after you started the initial climb. I finally recognized this as the trail I had always taken to the main valley from Bus Village in 2000. It didn’t seem quite the same as my memories, and I finally decided it was because a lot of the trees had grown taller. It went on to intersect the wider FS road, which continued uphill past Little Info and the front gate to the east and ultimately curved around to border the southern side of the site. There was another Bus Village about hallway up, overlooking the main valley, and another one higher up at the south end.
After a short initial climb and before another short final one, the road between the lower Bus Village and the front gate was mostly level. There was a string tied between two trees that framed the entrance to it coming from the FS road across from Little Info, with a sign hanging from it that said “Handi-Camp”. (This is a place for physically handicapped people that appears at every national gathering.) This was where they first started allowing parking by the side of a road (as long as you were at least 5 feet from the edge).
I passed Little Info where only Sheila, the sister who came with Robbie, was awake, sitting by a campfire on the other side of the entrance to the main trail. I continued on the trail and went into the main valley. It started out about a hundred feet wide with trees on both sides of a grass covered band that ran on both sides of a creek for about a quarter of a mile, then it opened out into a broad bowl. Out in the wide part the treeline was several hundred feet up the slopes from the valley floor on most sides. The valley was in the general shape of a T on its side, with the trunk of the T extending to the west and the view of the snowy mountains in the distance, and the top of the T extending from the entrance by Little Info to the southern end, where the land rose into forest cover and where most of the population would be. The altitude at the main circle area was approximately 7300 feet.
Where the narrow valley entrance started to open out into the wide meadow there were people building kitchen that was finally called Mudder Earth. It was originally conceived as a Welcome Home kitchen, but it turned out to be too far into the gathering to be effective as such. I was told a few days later that there had been a split among the people who worked at Montana Mud kitchen. Most of them followed Useless , who had been the main focalizer, to here, and it grew into a sizeable establishment, with a firepit in the shape of an M and a sign saying, “A SOBER food place”.
Later on in the gathering, some of the other people couldn’t bear to see the history-laden name of Montana Mud disappear from the gathering set up a kitchen halfway up the trail leading to Montana Camp and put up a sign saying it was Montana Mud. (The All Ways Free had the text of a speech Useless had made at Thanksgiving Council passing the name back to Jimbo, its original founder.) It was considerably smaller than the Montana Muds of the past.
Out in the meadows the land was covered with grass and sagebrush. Here and there were circular holes as much as six inches in diameter dug as entrances to underground tunnels by some burrowing animal. There were small yellow flowers resembling buttercups and others that looked like purple bluebonnets. Sound carried far here, and sometimes I could hear voices and make out what they were saying from a hundreds of yards away.
The sun started to appear over the hills to light up the valley at about 7 in the morning, and completely flooded it with light by 7:20. In the evening the sun set behind the hills at about 9:10 and it took the same amount of time for the valley to be completely in shadow. Twilight lasted until after 11 o’clock, and some events that were usually scheduled for “dark-thirty” started while there was still light.
The trees in the forested parts of the site were almost all lodgepole pines, so named because of their long straight trunks. Pine bark beetles were starting to do the same thing they had done to the 2008 Wyoming site, making the needles on lots of trees turn reddish brown, and others fall down dead and dry. (I could have called this the Second Fallen Tree Gathering.) It was not yet as severe; it seemed to be affecting less than a quarter of the trees. There was lots of long and straight timber for building bridges and structures lying on the ground. The pine trees were dispersing pollen which coated tents, tarps, and cars with yellow dust, and aggravated many people’s allergies.(to be continued)