UINTA NATIONAL FOREST, Utah (AP) — A graying man clad in a towering rainbow top hat and neon sunglasses raised a sunflower high above his head in a circle of three dozen listeners.
“The thing about rainbows, the thing about this place, the thing about these people,” he said Tuesday before handing the flower to the next speaker, “is love.”
The man known here as Glowing Feather is one of more than 4,000 who have trekked to the annual Rainbow Family gathering about 60 miles east of Salt Lake City.
The group includes train hoppers, students, lawyers, architects and others, members say. It has convened every year since 1972, sometimes in two states at once. Its members join in prayers for peace, sing-a-longs, drum circles that pulse till dawn and unkempt free-spiritedness that has irked some residents in neighboring Heber City.
“People call us misfits, drug addicts, homeless, useless. That’s not true,” said Red Carlin, a retired carpenter and unofficial ambassador for the group. “Because of our existence, we’re outsiders. We’re the people your mom and dad pointed out beforehand and said, ‘Don’t be like that.’”
Some members greet visitors with smiles and “Welcome home,” or “Loving you.” Others ask whether newcomers are wearing a bra, invite them to play nude Frisbee or simply offer up a blunt. A council of group elders asks visitors to avoid bringing alcohol, but they stress that’s a request, not a rule.
The Rainbow Family has no official creed or leaders. Unofficial organizers toting walkie-talkies are “focalizers.”
This week, the gathering is expected to double in size as more members pour into the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest for a four-day celebration that ends Friday. On Tuesday, some came in pairs, groups or by themselves in a variety of looks: dreadlocks, sundresses, with dogs and dirt-caked faces.
Members began arriving about two weeks ago in Heber City, where residents say they’re wary of disorderly conduct and question how much the gathering will cost their town.
Last year, 10,000 set up camp for the Montana festival. They racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in law enforcement costs, officials said, prompting U.S. Forest Service officials there to draw up a list of lessons learned for other states.
In Heber City, authorities have doubled their force with help from state agencies.
On Tuesday, about two dozen officers and a drug dog climbed the two-mile path up to various camp sites.
“Leash your dogs!” Members called ahead of the officials. Forgetting to do so breaks the law in national forests.
Authorities say a New Hampshire woman and a man from Texas at the celebration apparently died in their sleep, but they haven’t released details. Police also say a New Mexico woman at the campsite last week stabbed a participant, seriously injuring him.
But most people at the campsite have been peaceful and have complied with rules restricting where they may set up camp and draw water, say officials from the U.S. Forest Service and the Wasatch County Sheriff’s Office.
The last time the Rainbow Family set up in Utah was 2003, when members camped in Summit County.
On July 4, members typically join to chant one “om” on the final day of the festival, praying for peace worldwide.
“We’re sending it out through our voice and our body into the earth,” said Karena Gore, who travelled from Montana.
Mike Dominguez, a father of four from Hawaii, was preparing to cook 500 pounds of pasta for the final day of the celebration. “World peace is getting along,” he said near a skillet full of gravy and piles of biscuits. “It’s not some utopia fairyland that’s unreachable.”
A 63-year-old participant who has spent the last several years in a raft on various rivers identified himself as Giver, from Missouri.
“Rainbow Family religion is whatever anybody wants to believe in,” he said. “They get a little loud and obnoxious sometimes, but that’s their belief.’