Photographer Tony Maine first heard about the Rainbow gathering in 1975 when he was living in Berkeley, California. Some acquaintances had heard about an intriguing event taking place in New Mexico on the Fourth of July and wondered if Maine would drive. When they got to the Gila National Forest, they found thousands of people camping out in the wilderness in a sort of communal village.

The first Rainbow occurred in Colorado in 1971, during an era when many saw the popular expression of so-called countercultural values as a great menace to society. Army helicopters circled overhead, with soldiers brandishing automatic weapons.

Since then Rainbow councils, informal collections of planners, have forged an uneasy peace with authorities, and gatherings have converged every year, each in a different national forest and always on the Fourth of July. Despite an absence of commercial fanfare, attendance has grown to between 10 and 15 thousand annually.

Maine, who now lives in Chicago, has taken his photographic equipment to every Rainbow but one in the last 17 years, participating but also documenting. He took me to the 1988 gathering, in Texas, where I discovered why his descriptions of these events had always been so vague. His photographs begin to tell the story.

Anyone is welcome, everything is free, and the one rule isn’t a rule so much as a collective disdain for imposing your own “reality” on others. Donations of time and money are encouraged, not required, though freeloaders, known as “drainbows,” are as despised as corporate sponsorship would be: the pursuit freedom includes a willingness to take responsibility. The prevailing ethic may best be described as respect for the earth. Music, dance, and song fill the forest at all hours, proving perhaps that the wilderness is the best place on earth to explore the boundaries of self-expression.

The Texas gathering reached its climax on the afternoon of July 4, as thousands gathered in a meadow where a drum-led orchestra inspired a mass meditation, which blossomed into a celebration of world peace. So much harmony filled the air that I didn’t even hear a dog bark until July 7, when the exodus triggered all too familiar territorial instincts. Back home, I too had a hard time describing the surreal spectacle.

Governmental bodies, of course, don’t quite know what to do in the face of a mass exercise in anarchism. In the spring of 1988 the United States Forest Service went to the federal court in Tyler, Texas, hoping to shut down the gathering on the grounds that it posed a public health threat. The U.S. district judge ruled in favor of the Rainbow, saying that its participants had a constitutional right to assemble on public lands.

But the seeds of trouble had been planted. Hostilities peaked on July 4, when a local man became so angered by the presence of the Rainbow people on land where his family’s cattle grazed that he deliberately ran over a woman with his jeep.

After witnessing this horrible sight, Maine decided to skip the 1989 gathering in Nevada. He returned for the ones in 1990, in Minnesota, and ’91, in Vermont, however, having decided he could live without conventional Independence Day celebrations, with their beer and barbecues, not to mention fireworks and flag-waving.

Maine contends that each year’s gathering is different, as are the participants. While some live in communal families embracing the Rainbow life-style year-round, most work regular jobs and make the gathering a vacation. Most participants seem pretty young, people in their 20s; yet at this year’s Rainbow, Maine said, he had a discussion about alternative energy resources with a Georgia college professor in her 40s and a Michigan architect in his 50s.

Even the mainstream media have warmed up to the idea. In 1988 Newsweek reported on local opposition to the upcoming gathering in a way that cast doubt on the sanity of those who might attend, subjecting themselves to the snakes, insects, and shotgun-wielding natives of east Texas. But last month a Time reporter spent the night of July 3 at the Vermont Rainbow, then wrote a story suggesting that this flower-child life-style may be making a comeback.

The Chicago Rainbow Circle meets the first Sunday of every month year-round–in the winter in people’s homes, and from May to October in Lincoln Park, near the totem pole between Addison and Irving Park Road. Fall regional gatherings in Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan will be discussed at the group’s September 1 potluck supper in the park. They, also communicate through a mailing list (Box 152, 1555 Sherman, Evanston 60201), and national Rainbow news is put out on the PeaceNet electronic bulletin board.

Maine has liked going to the Rainbow because it represents a road less traveled. Despite its growth it remains remarkably true to its original spirit. But, Maine says, if the gatherings get too big or become too beholden to authority, he may seek out something new: “There may already be an alternative to the Rainbow.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Tony Maine.