by Marissa Lorenz
On March 3, a post made to a number of Grand County Facebook groups announced (warned?) about “20,000 plus coming to a forest near you. Rumor has it, it’s happening in Grand Lake.” The post was referencing the 2022 Rainbow Family Gathering, the 50th anniversary of an annual event first held at Strawberry Lake, near Granby.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Rainbow Family of Living Light, it grew out of various cultural and youth movements of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Their annual “world” gatherings have become month-long events that center around a prayer and meditation circle for world peace, usually held on July 4.
Some have described the group as “the largest non-organization of non-members in the world, with no leaders and no organization.” Others commonly refer to them as “dirty hippies.”
And while Rainbow-created websites maintain that “it is longstanding Rainbow Family consensus that nobody has ever, or ever will represent the Rainbow Family,” they often talk about such things as communal peace, love, and harmony on and with the planet Earth.
That 1972 Gathering was the Rainbow’s first intentional, large-group gathering, drawing an estimated 20,000 to Grand County. A New York Times article from the period says that “[t]hey came to meditate in the forest, to chant prayers together, talk over things and play flutes and guitars and drums under the spruce and aspen trees.”
It also details how local government opposed the event. Then-Governor John Love swore to prevent the gathering. The State closed roads to the campground. It tried to ban food from the area. But eventually, “it was the young people who decided the issue,” by hiking through the forest to get to the location, after being stuck in the town of Granby, many without accommodation, for seven days of standoff.
The article goes on to say that concerns of health epidemics were unfounded, that waste was buried in military-style trenches, and that there was little evidence of drug use, outside of “an occasional marijuana cigarette.”
One-time journalist and owner/editor of the Middle Park Times, Ed Quillen, later wrote about being at that first event as a young reporter.
“Two years after that, I was editing the Kremmling newspaper in Grand County, and I heard the local side of the story,” Quillen wrote. “[T]he Strawberry Lake crowd hadn’t caused that much real trouble, but any substantial population spike in a remote and unpopulated zone (the county had only 5,000 people in those days) was burdensome and disruptive.”
But those contemporary accounts conflict with local memory as recalled today. That March 3 post has garnered over 100 comments on one Facebook page, with most expressing negative attitudes toward the Rainbow Gathering and a hope that it will not come back to the area.
“They pay for nothing and leave feces everywhere,” states one Facebook commenter.
“For all the ‘world peace’ and ‘sacred healing’ they spew, it is wildly overshadowed by a lot of destructive and dangerous behavior,” says another.
And yet another local laments, “We have laws in the county code because of this nightmare! It’s why we can’t live in a camper on our own property.”
Few voices speak in defense of the event, though two individuals claim to know that the Gathering will not return to the Granby area. And a long-time Rainbow who calls himself Muddy George recently echoed that unlikelihood.
By phone, George, a Colorado native and self-described “protector of our National Forest,” recounted his first Gathering, the second in Colorado, held in 1992 in Paonia. “I was concerned. I went with the intention of participating, but I also wanted to make sure a large gathering would be safe and environmentally friendly to Colorado.”
George says he has attended most annual Gatherings since, serving in various capacities, including as part of the “Vision Council” that makes consensus-based decisions about upcoming events.
He confirms–and stresses–that no decisions have yet been made about the 2022 location, other than that it will be in Colorado.
George explains that “scouting” of potential sites takes place on a continual basis.
“We know that we’re a large group. So areas that work for our needs–such as parking, water, camping–are generally areas that are already permitted, already have an impact use, and have historically been used by other large groups, such as large hunting camps or grazing or logging activities.
“Sites that are vulnerable or problematic don’t meet our needs. Burn scars and rehabbing burn scars don’t meet our needs,” George assures. “The Strawberry site, being a sensitive area, would negate its consideration.”
And Muddy George understands well the community’s concerns about fire. He lost his own home to a Colorado wildfire in 2002. Yet, he continues to return to the Gathering, seeing first-hand the work done to mitigate not just fire, but violence, long-term environmental damage, and waste accumulation.
As for Grand County safety officials, they are already in discussion about resource needs, should the Rainbow group decide to return to the area.
“We are aware of the likelihood of the 2022 World Rainbow Family Gathering happening in Colorado, and the possibility it could take place in Grand County,” says Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin. “While it is too early to know with any certainty, it is our understanding that historically the location of the gathering is not determined until after their Spring Council in June.
“We are engaged in preliminary discussions with the United States Forest Service [USFS] as the event would most likely be on public lands. Our local, state and federal partners will be prepared should the event materialize, and we will strive to minimize the local impacts it could bring to our community.”
And Reghan Cloudman, Public Information Officer for the Arapaho National Forest, affirms that same message. “We know that the community is still recovering from the 2020 fires and the pandemic on top of that.
“Here, we have the advantage of knowing this event may occur, giving us time to prepare for it and allowing us to plan for a significant number of additional resources to support safety and environmental efforts.”
More details of how a coordinated response to a planned Grand County Rainbow Family Gathering would work and who would be involved in what capacities is expected in coming weeks. The US Forest Service will be communicating that information as it is determined.