Rainbow Family gathers in Skamania County

Temporary celebration of alternative lifestyles poses logistical challenges

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

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We’re in the Big River Grill in Stevenson, in the Columbia River Gorge, and friends Taylor Hand, 21, Megan McCormick, 22, and Ty Ty Zelikow, 24, are giving an interview about what’s going on with the National Rainbow Family Gathering they’re attending in the mountains of Skamania County.

It’s Tuesday afternoon. The high-spirited women have just caught a ride into town and say they are planning to go back that night to Skookum Meadows, elevation 3,200 feet, where a number of camps, maybe 100, already have started operation.

In the next few days, as many as 20,000 people are expected to arrive for the several-day celebration.

“I got involved in a spirit circle last night,” says Zelikow, who has cat whiskers painted on her face. She says she took the Ty Ty nickname from the William Blake poem “The Tyger.”

In the spirit circle, she and others performed some breathing exercises and arm gestures, then gave affirmations.

“It’s like a prayer for peace,” said Hand.

The young women, two of which are college students and one a recent grad, are visiting from Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. They’re wearing boots and colorful clothes, and speaking in word bursts.

Taoism and Zen Buddhism make their way into the conversation as they explain that the Rainbow Family has no members and no leaders, nor much actual organization. Once a year, the “family” chooses a beautiful park for the event, which occurs through July 7.

When you arrive, Hand said, “They always say, ‘Welcome home’ and ‘We love you.’”

“It’s beautiful and also surreal,” Hand said. “It’s like a serene, quiet place. It totally is a city in the forest.”

The three brought a “palatial tent,” they said, but some folks just sleep under the stars.

“The stars are phenomenal,” one said. “They totally moved my soul. It was so beautiful.”

You’ll hear music — guitars, banjos, folk, rock, punk and Eastern — being played everywhere, they said.

“I went on a date,” McCormick said slyly.

She said she and a young man she met rested in a huge, 12-person hammock.

“We talked about our parents. We talked about outer space. We talked about the loving relationships we’ve been in,” she added.

The gathering is sort of an “anarchist utopia,” one said, where visitors can wander camp to camp and eat for free at the many kitchens staffed by volunteers.

“It’s a culture shock,” said McCormick, who said visitors improvise tools using wood and other objects on hand.

“It’s amazing how beautiful everyone is,” Hand said. “Even dirty people (are) glowing with health.”

Children and dogs are there, and elderly folks as well, all possibly seeking positivity and helping to make it all happen.

“There (also) are people who are just moochers,” McCormick said. “(They’re) just draining from others. Some people come to get free food and cigarettes and drugs.”

In a press conference Tuesday afternoon outside the Skamania County Courthouse in Stevenson, Sheriff Dave Brown made it clear that he was uncomfortable about the masses who will gather in the area. Brown said his officers and U.S. Forest Service employees will do what they can to control traffic and behavior, but, he said, his small jail is already two-thirds full, and he’s concerned about whether local taxpayers will end up paying for part of the gathering and its ramifications.

If trouble breaks out, he said, he can call for police officers and other resources from Clark and Cowlitz counties.

“As soon as I received confirmation that the Rainbow Gathering would occur on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, I recognized the importance of coordinating with our community, county and state partners,” said Janine Clayton, forest supervisor for sprawling 1.4 million-acre national forest.

The Forest Service does not decide where the gatherings will be located, she added, but officials welcome anyone who wants to enjoy the nation’s forests.

The No. 1 priority, Clayton said, “is the health and safety of all visitors to the national forest.”

“Secondly,” she said, “I hold a long-standing responsibility for the impacts to the natural resources, which includes streams and rivers, plants and trees, and fish and wildlife.”

With so many people coming to the gathering northwest of Indian Heaven Wilderness, officials said, parking is scarce.

Roads are still snow-covered, and there’s snow in the timber, but the meadow itself has thawed into a bog, Brown said.

Officials also noted that the main north-south passage, Forest Road 25, isn’t completely clear.

With such a crowd around the meadows, other folks might want to head to the area around Mount St. Helens instead, an official suggested.