Over the holiday weekend—and in the days leading up to it—you may have heard us report on something called the Rainbow Gathering. The event, which took place over the weekend, is a meeting of the self-proclaimed Rainbow Family, a group formed in the early 1970s at the height of hippy culture. The group has met annually since 1972 at its national gathering, and this year, about 8,000 Rainbow Family members convened just a few miles east of Heber City, Utah.
Ever since the location of this year’s Rainbow Gathering was publicized, there were concerns about a clash of cultures arising between the free-spirited attendees and the small-town residents of Heber. But did that conflict really pan out?
It’s the Fourth of July, and I’m having lunch at a busy burger joint in Heber City, Utah, called Dairy Keen—not to be confused with a different burger joint with a very similar name. As you could probably guess, business is booming today, and an unofficial survey of customers reveals that most people are from out of town. But no one here looks like they’re heading to the Rainbow Gathering today. I asked Dairy Keen manager Kim Houtz if she had actually come into contact with the Rainbow Family.
"My husband gave some of them a ride, they've come in to eat, they've dug food out of our garbage so we fed them. They're all about hope and love and peace."
Houtz seems to share the same opinion of many small business owners in town. Lynne Gillett manages Ace Hardware just a block north on Main Street.
"They've been very pleasant, and we haven't had any problems with them in the store. Very, very nice people," Gillett said.
Jessica Sonderegger and her sister just celebrated the grand opening of their business, Main Street Kolachies, a bakery specializing in the central European pastry. She says that, outside of a couple attempts to sleep in their dumpster, most interactions have been positive. Despite that, Sonderegger says she was warned to be prepared for the worst.
"We were approached by law enforcement, just about how to protect ourselves as a small business, and just kind of the lasting effects some of these smaller communities have experienced due to gatherings. And know that this specific group of people may be attracted to promotional things- free food, free samples, these sorts of things, so to just watch our surroundings in case there was a flock of people, or if anything uncomfortable was taking place," Sonderegger said.
Having heard how some locals thought of the Rainbow Family, it was time to hear how the Rainbow Family thought of the locals. I drove about a half-hour east of Heber over winding, bumpy roads. I parked in a muddy field crammed with cars from all over the country. Right away, I met a group from Cleveland, Ohio. Sarah Baciak says she came here to restore her faith in humanity. She feels like she’s accomplished that goal, and the locals were no obstacle.
"You know actually, we had a pretty good experience in Utah, everyone was really nice. But then again, we came from Vegas where if you ask somebody for directions, they're like, 'That way gosh, leave me alone! We came to Utah- they were nice as can be, honestly, and I know this is a complete upside down world compared to what they're used to seeing, so honestly I think the people of Utah did a very good job welcoming everybody."
Farther down the trail, I encountered the same opinion from just about everyone I talked to. I met Michael “Waterman” Hubman at the main campsite. He founded a Los Angeles non-profit called Right to Share Food, and he’s been a part of the Rainbow Family since 2000. By his account, the group has been more than happy with Utah.
"We love it, absolutely. This is beautiful country. Yeah, I was telling the fellow from D-R-E? Department of .... DNR! I was telling him how beautiful it was," Hubman said.
To be sure, there have been some less-than-lovely moments during this year’s Rainbow Gathering. A few incidents of theft, violence, and even death have marred an otherwise peaceful gathering. And the cost to the Forest Service is estimated to be around half a million dollars. But on a day when we celebrate disparate colonies coming together to form one country, it seems the spirit of cooperation was alive and well this year in eastern Utah.