The First Rainbow Tribe Fest
by Arlo Hennings
|Artwork by Maryl Skinner/Photo by Denny FitzPatrick|
In June of 1972, I was not in line with my high school class for my diploma and a Vietnam War draft number. Rather, with my school of life education, there were more unknowns and adventure, I longed for.
The next calling came in July, I arrived by bus at Strawberry Lake, near Granby, Colorado, for the first Rainbow Tribe gathering. I was the youngest in a group of 11. At the time, I was still on my own and living with two roommates. When they told me about the festival and there was room for one more rider, I jumped at the opportunity. I had never seen the mountains, and I was up for another bus trip.
Myriads of people came — many on a spiritual quest, many who sought a deeper connection with the Earth, and many more just drawn to be a part of it all. Many Native Americans attended, believing the event to be a fulfillment of a prophecy called the “Ghost Dance” and a sign that the Spirit was returning to the land. I’d understood little of the significance of the event at the time. The designation of the name “Rainbow Tribe” referred to people of all races coming together in peace and harmony. It was the beginning of a new era. They said the same thing at Woodstock too, but this tribe wasn't only about the music.
We arrived to find that access to the area had been blocked off, at least temporarily, so some people were hiking in, while others set up a base camp at the foot of the mountains. Even though it was July, the temperature in the mountains dropped sharply at night. I constructed a simple lean-to out of tree branches and slept on a bed of leaves and blankets at night. Reminiscent of Woodstock, the area was very primitive and the event was free for all. People brought in their food and freely shared it.
Open latrines contaminated the well water and many fell ill from drinking it. Despite the hot air temperature, the lake was much too cold for bathing. As days passed, some replaced soiled clothing with garments fashioned from leaves, while many just went naked. The rough living conditions didn’t dampen the spirits of the people though. The days filled with sound and celebration.
Unlike Woodstock, just three years earlier, the Rainbow Gathering was about the spirit of the Earth called “Gaia”. There were no bands and no electricity. Still, every day many people came together and made music. Some brought instruments, others improvised by blowing on bottles, banging on pans, or knocking sticks together. Sometimes a group of as many as a thousand people would join together in song or spiritual chanting. At other times smaller groups would gather around one of the many campfires that dotted the mountainside at night. I joined them, taking it all in and pondering what it all meant. There was talk of healing of both the Earth and her people, and much of the sacred chanting was aimed to this end.
I waded through a sea of sound, smoke, and tie-dye, in search of somewhere to sit before a makeshift stage. Seating consisted of piles of leaves scattered around the ground, which turned out to be quite uncomfortable. The crowd sat facing what was presumably the performance area and waited for what seemed an inordinately long time for the session to begin.
Finally, a group assembled in the staging area amidst a collection of instruments. A man, who turned out to be the leader of the group, launched into a lengthy introduction of the collective and the assortment of instruments. I judged the man to be in his late 50s, although his time-worn face could easily belong to someone much older. He had long, straggly hair that did not appear to have been combed in quite some time. He was draped in tie-dye, and a gaudy array of bangles and baubles adorned his neck, arms, ears, and fingers — causing him to jangle like a junk wagon when he walked.
The self-proclaimed musician droned on for nearly an hour, describing the instruments that surrounded him. They included a didgeridoo, tabla, a dotar, Tibetan singing bowls, and a Native American flute, along with several sticks, bells, and cymbals. The man, who referred to himself as our “brother,” had an oratory style more like that of a preacher than of a sound healer as he told how he and a group of his devotees had fasted for three days and through prayer and sound had healed a woman with a broken hip. He concluded by inviting everyone to sit up or lie down, whatever was most comfortable, and to participate by praying, singing, or however, we felt inclined. Then with one mighty and extended blast on the didgeridoo, the event was underway.
I had already been squirming in discomfort for a while, so I opted to lie down, relieved to be able to relax the muscles in my back that ached from the tension created by the awkward position in which I’d been sitting. The deep, resonating hum of the didgeridoo gave way to voices chanting in what sounded like a Hare Krishna sing along. As the instruments joined in, one by one, it quickly became apparent that none of the “professional” musicians could play any of the instruments well. Instead, they produced a distracting clangor of discordant sounds, out of sync and off tempo.
I observed as one of the musicians frantically fanned an odd-looking stringed instrument as if it had become possessed and was trying to escape. A braless woman danced around, breasts flopping and arms waving ecstatically. Others joined in and no one seemed to notice or care that the movements of their dance had little connection with the music. A drum pulsated like a heartbeat, joined by the chiming of bells and the bonging of bowls. The notes of the flute floated on a dense cloud of smoke from several pots of burning incense. Periodically, voices joined in with mantras and devotional chanting, intertwined with stories extolling the magical healing virtues of Gaia. I laid back and closed my eyes, trying to ignore the chaotic symphony of instruments and voices and single out one sound I could focus on.
“Arlo… Arlo, wake up,” whispered a young woman excitedly, rousing me from sleep. “Come on. Hurry,” she encouraged, motioning me to follow her.
I grabbed a blanket, wrapped it around me against the chill of the pre-dawn mountain air, and followed in silence as she led me up the side of a mountain. She ran ahead of me, ascending the rocky trail with the agility of a mountain goat. Unaccustomed to the altitude and the thin air, I struggled to keep up. She paused occasionally to let me catch my breath, and then pressed on. Just when I thought I couldn’t take another step, she smiled. “Come on. We’re almost there,” she said softly, taking my hand.
We reached the peak and collapsed breathless against a large rock. Just then the first rays of the sun began to dance across the distant horizon in a kaleidoscope of color that gradually filled the sky above and chased the shadows from the mountaintops that surrounded us. As I beheld the breathtaking panorama, I didn’t think I’d ever seen anything so beautiful. We sat in silence for a long while, and then she spoke, “What do you see?”
“I see a nice bed and a good meal.”
Then she asked, “What matters most to you, Arlo?”
I thought about it for a moment, and replied, “Owning a nice guitar.” I turned to look at my companion who I imagined to be an older incarnation of my lost girlfriend, as though seeking approval for my answer. The hooded woman sat gazing out across the mountains. A brisk morning breeze lifted her long, black hair in waves of light and color that fell all around her, nearly brushing the ground on which we sat. Her eyes sparkled with the light of the sun. I searched them for answers, but she only smiled.
I leaned back against the rock and closed my eyes, basking in the warmth of the sun that now bathed the top of the mountain. As I began to drift off I heard her say, “I have to go now, but we will meet again.”
“Wait,” I said, as I opened my eyes, but she was already gone, as though she had disappeared into the thin mountain air. I realized that I didn’t even know her name, yet it hadn’t seemed odd to me that she had known mine. In the days that followed, I wandered the trails and climbed to the top of several mountain peaks, as well as searching the crowd in the valley, but she was nowhere to be found.
After four days in the mountains, we were all starving, dirty, exhausted, and some were ill, but we also had the satisfaction of knowing that we had been part of something important. We piled into the bus for the trip home back on Earth.
I was not the last to leave the Rainbow Festival. My roommate was carried doubled over in fever from Hepatitis onto the bus where he slept the whole way back to Minneapolis.
I hope the attendees left the land in better shape than Max Yasgur’s farm.
Except for the bus owner, who I ran into at a McDonald’s years later, divorced and jobless, I never saw my rainbow tribe again.
“Being there” at the moment, one never knows the historical reference of these “happenings.” Cooked up in the mad mind of a self-proclaimed prophet, the Rainbow Tribe outlasted anyone’s prophecy that the idea of Rainbow Fest would survive four decades and grow to a worldwide favorite among its many followers.
When I read I missed the 40th anniversary of the event, I had my nostalgic “OMG” YouTube moment, shaking my head in utter disbelief; I had attended the original gathering? And now, I had the dubious honor being tagged as a second one of “them,” Woodstock being the first.
The Rainbow Tribe and Native Americans went their separate ways.
I found a small stone in my drawer of forgotten reasons. When I rubbed the rock in my hand it spoke to me that it was from the rainbow gathering. I was to carry it “for the pyramid.”
It’s never too late for the Ghost Dance.
Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.
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© Arlo Hennings 2020