Chasing the Rainbow Family: Are They Hippies or Hobos?

Categories: Culture
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Denise Puente
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."

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Denise Puente
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 more easily.

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 outside world.

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."

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Denise Puente
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 diving."

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 experience."

Puente agrees. "[The Gathering] is whatever you make it. It's something different to everyone, but it's all the same," she said.

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14 comments
stephen
stephen

I have done my share of hitchhiking all over the states for three years living under bridges and in the woods it was amazing I loved riding trains also I just came back to society and I hate it everyone calls me a bum and all kinds of negative nonsense and none of them have a clue of what freedom is there all like ants lol im in western new York if anyone is leaving new York and is a rubber tramp or on foot tex my phone im 27 years old im a guy just looking for a road partner its always cooler with someone to chill with I think anyway my road name is Always n.y. swilly kid you might of seen some places where I signed in never know I been everywhere and still want to be free lets hit up a gathering my number is 1607 349 2189 im ready whenever my house can be on my back in a flash peace peace.

Doc_Boots
Doc_Boots

Sounds like a whole lot of dysentery....  Lots of people in the woods sharing food with dirty hands and no sanitation.

Chillywily420
Chillywily420

Great article!!! Oregon Family Lovin' Y'all!!!

Jennifer Greenberg
Jennifer Greenberg

If only "Babylon" would take on these communal attributes, and not reserve them for charity events! What a wonderful world this would be.Lovin' you Family, and lovin' this article!

Bro
Bro

Montana Family saying hello!!!! 

Julio Robledo
Julio Robledo

What a great article! I remember the first time I met Denise, it was my first time at Rainbow 3 years ago. I was just a weekend warrior that time, and kind of just got the jest of things. Year after that I spent an entire 2 weeks in camp, became an impromptu nick at night, and gave rides to get food in Babylon here and there. I haven't returned due to personal issues (Babylon has a way of holding you back), but I hope to return soon. It's great to see someone showing the rest of the world what Rainbow is about, sharing it's message, and giving Rainbows a chance to be heard. Thank you!

who_leo

:)
:)

just came from a-cola. it was the best experience i've ever had in my life. i did not take any drugs, i did not drink any alcohol... i just enjoyed the presence of people who are all there for the same reason, to love and be loved. i will definitely be going to the national conference 

Sykohyp
Sykohyp

What a bunch of lazy, dirty hippies. 

Meline W.
Meline W.

Nice article but very surprised about what is said about marijuana, hallucinogens, and even cigarettes which formely didn't take part at all from Rainbow Gatherings. That is what decay brought, alas !Then Rainbow is an apolitical mouvement, not the Occupy one, and it doesn't want to change people : it's an example of life which anyone is free to follow or not, to participate or not. Nobody to convince, no agressive discourses against Babylon. That's a great difference.But a very unforgettable experience who can change you forever !

Love love love lovePeople we are made for love ...

Rianti1ya
Rianti1ya

have ya ever been there/ try it...ya might find its not like that at all...every age from newborn to the oldest elderly...life and death there....its real get down to life ...I am cordially inviting you, bring ya mans best friend, ya dog....you ll need nothing but a bed roll.........

stephen
stephen

@Rianti1ya can ya tex my phone family I need to get away from new York is there any rainbows in p.a. I can meet with

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