Rainbow Gathering 2011

A nice fellow with a handicapped plate and 2 dogs in the back of his truck picked me up and drove me to the crossroad.  His name was Bob and he had a nose that had no curve to it, as if it were flattened and glued to his face.  He had no desire to go into the gathering, he was just driving around the parking lots, I guess he felt intimidated by the amount of people that had shown up.

My guess is that there were at least 10,000 people there, although I have heard people throw out numbers as high as 40,000.

As I got out of Bobs car I heard cops in the adjacent parking lot on megaphones yelling at us to keep moving.  There were two young emo-looking kids, one with a black guitar taunting the cops in the middle of the road.

I met a girl named Cat with her 7-year old child and asked about the shuttle.  She offered me a ride as her friend Ron was driving to meet her.

Cat had long red-hair.  Her son, Caden, had red-hair and freckles.  He had poor communication skills for a 7-year-old and Cat told me he was high-functioning autistic.  Despite his communication, he was very curious and seemed keen on everything that was going on.  He carried around binoculars around his neck.  He wouldn’t complain if he fell off a mountain (which he almost did several times) but the second those binoculars came off his neck he would scream like his face was on fire.

The dirt road was narrow and we squeezed through anxious lines of cars coming out.  Cat didn’t bring a flashlight so I stayed 2 steps behind Caden the entire time with a careful eye.

We came to a crossing where an U.S. flag was hung upside down with writing on it, something about being vegan.  Ron wanted to wait for his friends there.  His friends never came so we walked towards the sound of djimbes, hand drums and didgeridoos.

There was a huge fire where people of all ages dancing and drumming frantically.  Caden was not impressed and wanted to go to kiddie village.  Cat thought she saw a UFO and was trying to point it out to me as Ron discovered his friends.

By this time I was exhausted from the 20 pounds of camera equipment and I was ready to pass out.  It was dark and I was unsure of my surroundings and the people within the gathering.  I knew that each gathering was unique to the location and time that it was held.  Caden had fallen in some mud and passed out after Cat dried him off, so we both passed out early while the rest of the crew went out to party.

Before I passed out, Cat showed me the UFO she was talking about.  It was a tiny red dot far off in the distance.  It was spasmodically jutting back and forth, left and right, up and down.  I told her it might be a radio tower with a series of lights blinking on and off in the distance, but we both knew that was not true.  I had to admit it was a UFO.

– July 4th

Cat woke up before me despite partying until 3 or 4 in the morning.  After a good stretch, we set out for coffee.  The coffee everywhere in the gathering is boiled with the grinds settled at the bottom, very strong stuff and black as the soul of Satan.

We took Caden to Kiddie Village where he became obsessed with painting the universe.  Across from the paint station there was a naked woman bathing in a mud pit which looked very cool and refreshing.  We were at the front of a huge, vast field of green.  People started forming a line in front of us and holding hands and chanting.  I had heard there was going to be a huge prayer circle for peace so I set off to prepare to film it.

I walked around the field until I found a path into the center.  As I walked to the center, the ohm was getting stronger and the line of people holding hands was getting longer and forming on all sides around me.  I set up as quickly and quietly as I could and stayed crouched to the ground.  The circle was almost complete around this field that must have been about 3/4 of a mile in circumference.  It occurred to me that what I was doing was going to piss off a bunch of people, so I shot what I could and got the hell out of there.  Later, people would meet me and say, “I heard there was a photographer from MTV out in the middle of the prayer circle,” to which I would thankfully say, “I don’t know, I’m not from MTV.”   I am told that MTV named the Gathering as the place to be for the summer of 2011.

I briefly joined the prayer circle and made a sincere prayer for peace and gave them my best ohm.

Afterwards, I ran into Cat as she was frantically searching for Caden.  She dropped him off at kiddie corner where he met another 7-year-old kid with dreads and they disappeared together.  I made several circles around kiddie corner and ran into another guy with a walkie-talkie and eyeshadow.  I asked to to use his walkie-talkie and he explained to me that we were on the same mission, so I showed him a picture of Caden.

We split up and I hiked for three hours around the mountain calling out Caden’s name.  When I came down the mountain I learned that Caden had been found over an hour ago.  Caden was supposed to attend his father’s wedding that day, something Cat probably had some strong feelings about but we never talked on.

Throughout the day I began to get a better idea of what the gathering was about.  Every section of camp had its own particular culture, some were more family orientated, some more nudist orientated, one camp was set up for the gay/trangendered community of radical faeries, there is a camp called A-camp where alcohol is acceptable (alcohol is frowned upon for the most part in the gathering), one camp was called the projects where the mangy/punk/trainhopper crowd hangs, and there is a camp for the elders.  Every camp has a kitchen.

Food is something you do not have to worry about at the gatherings.  It is expected that people will put in their fair share of work throughout the gathering, although their is no monitoring this and everyone gets fed either way.  Each kitchen is unique in terms of its food, sanitation and custom.

Most kitchens are paid out of pocket and dig themselves into debt to serve people food.  This makes the gathering completely unsustainable.  Most of the food is brought in from other farms and some of the food is brought in from food-stamps collected.  I was fond of one particular kitchen, the staff was clean and very sanitary and they didn’t seem to be on the influence of any drug.  The woman running the kitchen was named Darla.  Darla had a very discerning look and I wouldn’t question anything she said.  I would have liked to interview her, but I was told the last person that took her photo had their camera smashed.

Towards the end of the day I was very tired, underfed and I had a huge migraine.  At the main fire I set up a time-lapse to capture the movement and stars.  I set up the camera and sat down next to it with my head in my hands trying to ease my headache.  A man came up to me and asked me what I was doing.  I told him not to worry, each shutter was 2.5 seconds long meaning that no face could be recognizable and either way it was just shadows and stars.  In retrospect I should have been clearer on what I was shooting.

A minute later a huge gruff-voiced shirtless man stammered up and snatched my tripod with the camera still attached.  I immediately went into confrontation and grabbed my tripod.  As we both held tight grips on my equipment he yelled in my face about being disrespectful and what he was going to do to me.  Within half a minute he had three equally aggressive looking tweekers around me and I was clearly out of my comfort zone with the situation.  Before another minute I had about ten people surrounding me yelling at me.

They were demanding my memory card.  That was the only option they were giving me and it seemed I was about to get my ass kicked because I wasn’t about to give up my memory card.  I handed my camera over to the most reasonable voice in the crowd (who was also yelling at me) and asked her to look through every photo and find anything disrespectful.  She went through every photo and told everybody that every shot was legit and respectful, no voyeurism.  The gruff tweekers weren’t believing it.

Suddenly, a slightly obese older man dressed up like a wizard appeared and told everyone he would take me to the elders for judgement.  Everyone seemed to listen to him and respect him and I was more then happy to get out of the situation so I followed him to the elders.

I think he said his name was Brother John, but he kept calling me Neal so I forgot his name.  Brother John had an apprentice that also had a cape and ridiculous hat. We hiked across a field and into a tipi.  When I stepped inside I saw an older man on a dirty mattress, to the left of him was another old man who didn’t speak much, next to me was a tweeker who kept talking to himself and asking himself rhetorical questions as he dealt with whatever hallucinogens he ate, next to him was the apprentice and Brother John.

Brother John explained my situation completely wrong to the elder and wouldnt let me correct his story.  He was a bit pompous and acted like doing the right thing was a chore that he was burdened with, but I was in debt to him at this point so I kept my mouth shut.  The elder explained somethings to me about my situation that he asked me to keep off the record.  Essentially, the whole situation worked out great, I almost got my ass-kicked and my camera smashed, but through the process I got access into the counsel and overseers of the gathering that I might not have found any other way.

July 5th

I awoke very sore with the sounds of people yelling “Random pocket trade!”  Random pocket trade is exactly how it sounds.

I headed over to the elder’s tipi to interview him, the elders name is Rob.  He was outside soaking up the sun when I found him and he told me he had a meting to be at by noon so we would have to hurry it up.  I didn’t realize he was practically crippled the night before as he crawled back into the tipi.

The interview started out fine, but as he toked his opium he fell off topic and there was a young kid in the tipi that kept talking confidently and broadly about everything, without really saying much about fact or reality, just idealism.  Still, the elder was very honest and open about everything he knew and the interview went well.

I asked him what the breaking point was.  The gathering is based on an ideal of love, and the idea is to treat every social misfit and every crime with love, but when that doesn’t work and something has to be done how do you successfully deal with someone that is breaking an ethical law?  The example we were on was about a camp that wanted to burn a cross last year.  “I’m ashamed,” Rob told me, “I don’t know, I have no answer.”

I was asking hard questions that ripped at the idealism of the gathering.  I appreciate what the gathering stands for and what it wants to do and its ideals  but there are so many holes and unanswered questions with heavy issues that I think would eventually destroy the gathering if not dealt with properly.  To put the structure into place to deal with those issues would also destroy the gathering.  It was a Catch 22.

After the interview I had to go back to my car to unload my memory cards.  I was exhausted and wanted to go back into society, or Babylon as many at the Rainbow called it, but I knew there was a big piece of the story missing and it would do the gathering a great injustice to stay for such a short period and try to report on it.  It was about 8 miles of hiking back to my car.  Luckily a car stopped and let me ride on their bumper up the dirt road as dust kicked in my face.

On my way back down, through the traffic towards the entrance I overheard that someone in the car was going into labor and trying to get into the gathering to deliver the baby.  The traffic was so intense, it was impossible to get the car through.  I asked them if I could help and they told me to run to information and get a midwife up to the road to help.  I jetted 2 miles down a mountain and through a field to info as though a life was on the line.  When I made it to info they seemed so relaxed when I told them what was going on.  Either way, the message was in and I wondered how awesome it would be to have footage of a child birth in the Gathering, so I hiked back up to find the expecting mother.  The next 2 hours was spent tracking down this woman and through a series of misinformation it became about 3 hours.  In the process, I discovered that Darla (my favorite kitchen owner who would smash my camera if ever I attempted to take her photo) was the head midwife and that 4 babies had been born at the Gathering so far this year.

When I eventually found the expectant mother she told me that she didn’t want her soul to be stolen through her eyes. I wished her luck and congratulated her.

July 6th

Throughout the days and nights I had been listening to the conversations around me as I pass.  I had not heard any enlightenment, or any great thoughts.  It was all about drugs.  Drugs, drugs, drugs, cigarette, drugs.  And sex.  Many hippies looking for a one-night stand.

But to say this is all it was is unfair.  There were plenty of people on a spiritual quest, but they were not nearly as audible as the drugged kids.  The enlightened ones were off in the woods being quiet and blissful, they had no need to yell loudly about the drugs or sex they desired, they were content.  At least that is what I am assuming, I didn’t hear much from them.

It wasn’t until the third day at the gathering that I started to appreciate it.  It is truly amazing that a over 10,000 people can come together and take advantage of their constitutional right to assimilate and not leave the area behind completely trashed.  It is amazing that people in better situations would come out and pay out of the pocket to keep these people fed only for the reason that they love it and that they believe they are investing in the future of America in some way.  That they are planting a seed in each one of these people and that these people will go out into society and proliferate with a unique message that has been forgotten since the 60s.

The gathering gives people a deep understanding of sharing and communication and cooperation that can only be had by the experience of being there and helping to make it happen.

Still, there were many stupid people with bad ideas.  “Some of these kids are so materialistic, man, it just makes me want to fucking kill some people,” I overheard in one conversation.

On the morning of the 6th I was constantly awoken by some junkyard kids who kept making rounds throughout my camp area saying “Wake the fuck up!  Pick up your fucking trash! ”

I headed out in search of one of the original founders of the Gathering.  When I knocked on his tipi an Native American girl stepped out and talked with me and asked me about what I was doing and what my thoughts were.  We got into ideas like objectivity and subjectivity.  I gave her my semi-optimistic subjective opinion and when she asked for my objective opinion I said “seriously, most of what I have seen has all been centered around drugs.”  I like to think she seriously had something to go do, but at that point she walked away.

I walked through a valley past the Fat Kid’s camp into Aloha camp which pretty much looked like Utopia.  there were people meditating in a circle.  Naked men and women dancing and swimming in the creek, good food being served to appreciative  and happy looking people and beautiful sincere music coming from people in a circle of euphoria.  I was taken in by the whole scene and I would have loved to photograph it, but it could no be done respectfully and without ruining something.

July 7th

Food is served to everyone in small proportions and randomly throughout every kitchen.  When you get to the kitchen they ask you for your “bliss” which is whatever food container you have.  I came unprepared so my “bliss” was a cut-off soy milk container that was getting pretty nasty after each use despite my best attempts to wash it with a limited water supply.

I walked up to a kitchen and asked to see the person running it, they told me he was not there but that some people near the instant soup kitchen needed three strong men to carry out a kid that had been going into convulsions for several hours, so I nominated myself.

When I got to the kid going into convulsions I was told that he didn’t want any treatment and refused to be moved.  While the counsel was figuring out what to do I noticed an old train-hopper friend that I met several times over the years; Holly, a.k.a. Bitchface.

Holly is 20 years old and I met her when she was seventeen at Shakori Hills fest near Carrboro, NC.  Her and her boyfriend, Dillon, were sitting on the ground with a sign that said “Smoke or a Joke” so i took a joke.  Dillon was also 17 at the time.  They both were dressed in patched leather and looked like a new-age hobo with more intricate patches.  I asked to take their photo and I said, “this one is for your mothers” so they both flicked off the camera.

Dillon had been in jail from the age of 13 to 17 for kicking out a cop’s teeth.  The story disturbed me but I took him as he was, he seemed like a nice, thoughtful, talented young man and he didn’t drink.  Everything about the way he looked suggested otherwise.

About 2 years later I caught them again on Telegraph in downtown Berkeley outside of Peoples Park.  They had been in jail the night before for causing such ruckus.  I got the chance to record some of their songs at that time.  I was amazed by the raw emotion and harmonies coming from these kids.

It was great to see him and Holly again and I decided to interview them.  Before the interview I realized that this was the Projects crew that the elder’s had been complaining about. Rob had called them “Drainbows” because they didn’t work much and caused trouble.  He told me that their crew had tried to fly a a flag with a swastika on it earlier.  The Project kids said they thought it was funny how all these hippies are all about freedom and they get pissed off when you start practicing your freedom, they made it seem like they were doing it just to push buttons.  “What if you are Jewish?” I asked.  “All the better,” one red-head said.

One could tattoo a swastika on their forehead and say they are just trying to push boundaries, but the fact is that they have a swastika on their forehead.

I want to stress that Holly and Dylan are great people, and I don’t know how much of the racist bullshit was coming from them, I only know that they were part of the crew creating it.

The project kids left right before me and on my way back to my car I realized they had tagged every dusty car along the road with a swastika.  I went by and dusted every tag off with my handkerchief.  I got to my car tired as ever, beat my handkerchief and watched the dust disperse into the wind, offered some girl a ride up the road and we drove off.

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  1. Susan Marks said:

    Sending you much love and hope for your work.I wish I had you in my kitchen-you need southern food and a kiss from Kylie.Love and God Bless,Susan Marks

  2. “Most kitchens are paid out of pocket and dig themselves into debt to serve people food.” This is an inaccurate and unattributed statement

    “This makes the gathering completely unsustainable.” The gathering is temporary. There is nothing “sustainable” intended.

    “Most of the food is brought in from other farms and some of the food is brought in from food-stamps collected.”
    All of the food is brought in from other farms and resources unless it is gathered on site like herbs and mushrooms and such. Most of the food is brought in from farms and purchased by money donated by participants of the gathering.

  3. “I was asking hard questions that ripped at the idealism of the gathering.” it’s not an “ideal” or a utopia. It’s an exercise in peace that includes everyone in the world. Those who are screaming and yelling are probably the ones the most in need of that which we seek together. The people who the rest of society cast out are welcomed at the gathering equally, because peace will not happen unless it happens for everyone.

    That’s why it’s a Rainbow, because it has all the colors!

    Lots of Love!

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