In 1972 I missed my chance to join a busload of nomads headed to the first Gathering of the Tribes, also known as the Rainbow Festival. They told me it was going to be the center of the universe, which may have been true, but I took a pass.
When the next offer to attend Rainbow came along I didn’t hesitate. I was working as an aide in a local junior high school. When school let out for the year, my work shifted to watering lawns and caring for the school grounds. I like physical work, but for this job my biggest challenge was staying awake, so I leapt at the opportunity to travel with my longtime pal Bob Almblade.
His offer was straightforward, “Dick, why not quit your job and hitchhike to New Mexico with me for Rainbow?” So I submitted my notice and off we went. Other than it was in New Mexico, we had no idea where to find The Gathering, but we knew that the celebration takes place on July 4th every year and we had about a week to get ourselves there.
We travelled east from Portland past Hood River and near The Dalles where we caught a long-distance ride. Our driver, a long-haired cowboy was traveling towards the Dakotas . Anytime you pick up a ride for six hundred or so miles it’s a good one. The sun was setting when we met and he said, “I’ve got this tape. You’ve got to hear it. It’s amazing.” That’s when we first heard, “It was a time of the preacher when the story began,” the opening line to Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. Through the night and on into Wyoming, that was our soundtrack. Willie’s story of love, betrayal, and killing burned itself into my consciousness as we passed through some of North America’s great landscapes. We gassed up in Little America and said goodbye to our ride in Cheyenne, where he continued on east with Willie as company and we caught rides south to Denver and aimed for the New Mexico border.
Once again we were working for each hundred miles and finding Rainbow began to feel like more of a road trip. We found notes on the backs of freeway signs from others traveling to the gathering and rough maps to help us on our way. We had my Takamine six-string guitar and spent our downtime with Bob teaching me how to pick Lowell George’s “Willin’,” an up-the-neck challenge. Much of the tune I learned near Truth or Consequences, where we logged time in the sun eating macaroni and cheese out of the box and making rude gestures to the Winnebago tourists passing us by.After all these years, I still play the tune flawlessly.
Rainbow gatherings are held each year in remote and beautiful parts of the national forest system. We learned that our destination was on the East Fork of the Gila River in the Gila National Forest and Silver City was our goal before catching a final ride to the gathering site. After fifteen hundred miles we made only one wrong turn that cost us an hour or two, but before long we were met with “Welcome Home,” the greeting offered to all in the Rainbow Family, which includes anyone with a belly-button. I discovered at Rainbow that I’m fond of groups with no leaders, no structure, and no membership lists.
Rainbow New Mexico was set in a tight canyon, but with plenty of room for its teepees and space to spread out. Lots of beautiful nude women, communal eating, and colorful folks from all around the country. I saw a baby being born in one of the teepees, saw a double rainbow frame the canyon, and loved being in the southwest. Free-form dancing or excessive chanting aren’t part of my lifestyle, but I enjoy being around these folks. There are always goods stories from travelers and adventurers and those who today are described as living off the grid. I didn’t get to another gathering until the tribes met in 2011 at Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington. There were still nude women but they had gotten much older.
Back on the mainline we caught ourselves another memorable ride. Carl, a short-statured man from Texas on his way to Las Vegas, “Lost Wages” he loved to call it, was determined to have himself a good time and as far as he was concerned, we were his perfect company. His tale of woe was a long one and his stories all ended badly. He lost his girlfriend, his trailer blew off its blocks in a windstorm, and then a cancer diagnosis prompted his trip to the big city.
Carl had a couple of thousand dollars in a cash roll and he wanted us to help him spend it. Along the way we visited an airplane graveyard, baked in the heat on Hoover dam where Bob casually sat on its edge with his butt hanging over the abyss, and we gambled Carl’s money in the old Golden Nugget, where he fed and entertained us. It was hot in Vegas, 111 degrees at 11:11 am, and the hookers were already out touting their wares. Bob was thirsty and I heard a loud banging, so turned to see him punching out a Coke machine that had eaten his change. Seriously, he was standing there swinging punches and I’m thinking it was time to get out of town.
Our new friend Carl wanted to drive us home to Tacoma. As we sped across the California border towards the Mojave Desert, I was driving with Bob in the passenger seat and Carl passed out in the back. “Dick,” Bob sleepily asked, “why are you passing that state trooper so quickly?” And so I was. He was cruising about 70 mph and I was pushing 100, so I just pulled over and waited for him to catch up and give me my speeding ticket. Some days it just happens that way.
We cut Carl loose in Bakersfield, and explained to him that he needed to be careful with his cash because not everyone he’d meet along the way would be as honest as us. On towards I-5 we went, through Sacramento and ending up at the Toutle River rest stop back in Washington where a phone call to Liz beckoned her to once again rescue me at the end of a long road trip. We were sleeping in the bushes when she arrived late at night, four o’clock in the morning I have been told, but she eventually found us and back to Tacoma we did go.