GIFFORD PINCHOT NATIONAL FOREST — With a rolled-up lavender yoga mat in one hand and a can of cold chili in the other, Kalea “Cake” Holden departed the forest she called home the past week.
If not for the need to make money and a desire to attend the upcoming Oregon Country Fair, the 18-year-old Seattle resident said Thursday morning she could have stayed at the Rainbow Family Gathering in Skookum Meadows “forever.”
“Just because we’re leaving the forest doesn’t mean we’re leaving the circle,” she assured after eating a scoop of cold chili. “We’ll bring the magic with us.”
Bearing their scant camping supplies and abundant warm memories, Holden and thousands of other Rainbow Family participants left Gifford Pinchot National Forest on Thursday, the Rainbow Family Gathering’s final day.
Forest officials estimated 20,000 attended the seven-day event. The vast majority left before Thursday, officials said.
The Rainbow Family Gathering started in 1972. The nonprofit organization does not have official leaders or members. People from across America and Canada journeyed to Washington last Friday to celebrate nature, pray for peace and enjoy the harmonious vibes found at the event.
Several hundred campers will remain behind to clean the Skookum Meadows area where the Rainbow Family gathered. They will fill in trenches used for latrines, plant flowers and reseed the grass and remove trash.
Dozens of black trash bags rested atop one another near the camp’s entrance. The bags would be hauled to a local dump, campers said.
The entire cleanup process will take about a month, campers estimated.
Forest officials are taking a “wait and see” approach to the cleanup, said Ken Sandusky, an assistant spokesman with Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
On Thursday morning, a thick campfire smell filled the unseasonably cool air throughout Skookum Meadows. Campers’ breath was visible when they spoke. Snow remained in some areas off the trail. Unlike in earlier days, no campers walked around naked.
Cars along the route to the camp were caked in dust from other cars driving past. Skamania County sheriff’s officials said the limited parking space near the campgrounds led to quite a few collisions during the weeklong event.
Campers without rides held up cardboard signs Thursday with destinations like Portland, Seattle and beyond written in permanent marker.
Near the camp’s information booth, Micah Williams relaxed in a chair, content in the knowledge he was not leaving anytime soon. The 24-year-old Eugene, Ore., resident wore a green plush top hat over his short blonde hair, a brown zip-up hoodie and dirt-stained khakis. He amused himself by greeting women in a pirate voice reminiscent of Capt. Jack Sparrow.
Williams got serious when asking passer-by for donations for garbage collection. He is one of the people participating in the cleanup.
“If once per year I have to clean up trash in the woods to have an awakening moment, I’ll totally do it,” Williams said. Being away from city life reminded him how important simplicity was, he added.
Williams briefly smoked marijuana from a small pipe. After he puffed, he offered it to others who walked nearby.
Marijuana use was standard at the festival, most campers agreed, but Williams and others denied reports of rampant drug use on the campgrounds. If campers had a “bad trip,” Williams noted, other campers kept them company at the medical area.
Skamania County Sheriff Dave Brown said his deputies had found heroin, acid and LSD in people’s vehicles following traffic stops. Brown said he also talked with campers who had been offered acid.
Three or four assaults were reported, Brown added. Campers said violent outbursts were followed by meetings where the fight’s participants talked out their differences in a constructive manner.
Jade Wan, 20, of Kenhorst, Penn., sat on the ground next to Williams. She took a break from her job working with special needs adults to attend the Rainbow Family Gathering. She planned to stay longer to aid in forest beautification efforts.
Wan said her favorite moments during the gathering were playing with children and participating in musical numbers. The classically trained violinist criticized outsiders’ opinions that all campers were “pot-smoking hippies.”
“Society has developed a block against what is real and what is not real,” Wan said. “This is real. This is the ground and the Earth.”
Jeremy Miller, 32, of Shasta Lake, Calif., said his faith in humanity had been restored during the four days he spent on the campgrounds. Miller, the singer in a reggae band called New Social Remedy, said he hoped to spread the love he received at the camp when he returned to “Babylon.”
“It’s a place where you collect your energy, charge it up and bring it back to wherever you’re from,” Miller said of the Rainbow Family Gathering. “I’m sad to leave.”