I Gathered With The Rainbows and They Gave Me Pancakes


By Alec Jacobson | 8/23/16

If you want to be precise, the kitchen at the Rainbow Gathering was actually serving “shanty cakes,” which are defined by a combination of unpretentiousness and critical rules.  Fried on a plancha over an open fire, the cakes must have at least three ingredients beyond batter – mine were served with pizza sauce and had cheese fried in – and they must not be eaten with maple syrup.

The distribution of shanty cakes is equally regimented, with those who run the kitchen getting their “firsts” first, followed by women, children and those who are close by.  Then the cooks begin to “advertise,” calling out into the rain, “Handcakes!” for all to come eat their “firsts.”  One must not “bumrush” the shanty cakes.  After all firsts have been claimed, the same order is applied to those who might want “nothers.”  Round by round, “dirty kids” consume the cakes.  In the rare event that the batter lasts until the fourth helping, the meal is declared a “glutton fest.”

These are the rules and diction that bind the Rainbow Family of Living Light together.  There is no one reason that each member comes to a gathering and no central dogma.  Anti-establishment and pro-freedom themes run though the logic of many Rainbows, though each has their own raison d’être and Rainbow name: Autumn, Caterpillar, Orlando, Bama.  I was dubbed Papa Razzi, or Razzi for short, following in the long line of Papa Smurf and Mother Earth.

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Rainbows come from around the world, but they are most often “travelers,” hitching rides and hopping the rails in an east/west wave back and forth to gatherings, trim season and random whims.  Some caravan, carrying kitchen supplies in busses that stock up at food pantries and cook for the hungry.  Some are weekend Rainbow Warriors, but most are homeless by any other word, coming “hOMe” at gatherings every month.

“Nationals” happen annually – this year in Vermont – and “Worlds” more episodically. The site of this most recent regional gathering, near the base of Lone Cone, is being considered for the 2022 Worlds Gathering.  Lone Cone was chosen for this family affair when “scouts” reported back to a “potluck” somewhere in the Front Range and a “council” voted for the place.

There is no central organization and no leader, but somehow there is always food, loose tobacco and plentiful marijuana (though I witnessed episodic rolling paper shortages).  A daily collection is made in the “magic hat” from which “central supply” goes to town to buy food, distributing it to kitchen teams who ensure that all are fed.

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The “Water Tribe” was setting up a water system while I was at the Gathering. Having run more than 1.5 miles of hose from a source, they were working to build a filter system and attach it to 500 gallon buffaloes.

Others had dug latrines spaced at 6 feet deep by 18 inches square, though some hippies were known to poop in the woods.

Firewood teams kept circles of wet Rainbows warm throughout the day and night. A talent show was scheduled for sometime after dark and I met the organizer who was collecting rocks and other trinkets to give out as prizes.

The San Miguel County Sheriff and US Forest Service issued warnings last week about the potential impact of the Gathering and some Rainbows have already been arrested for stealing a car.  But those that I met were eager to cast aside their bad media reputation, handing me the “All Ways Free” periodical that some members put out at Nationals and asking that I tell a more copacetic story.

One rule that applied directly to me was that I must ask every person who might potentially be in a picture if they would consent to the photo.  Generally, this was no problem, though for different reasons, different Rainbows did not consent (with varying degrees of intensity), due to “bad vibes,” the potential that I might capture a piece of their soul and, it was suggested, outstanding warrants.

However, I never encountered criminal activity myself.  Mostly, the Rainbows rolled and smoked.  Once they got in an orderly line to take dabs.  I found some sneaking beers in the woods, breaking the Rainbow Family rule against alcohol, the “white man’s poison.”

I was often invited to come back and, as I drove out with two hitchhikers in tow, shouts of “I love you, family,” rang out through the fields.

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About the Author

Alec Jacobson

Alec Jacobson has worked as a photographer around the world and was recently selected as a National Geographic Young Explorer. Before moving to Telluride, he was the Editor in Chief of ArtsRiot.com, building the site from a blog into an online culture magazine. He graduated from Amherst College in 2012, where he studied Anthropology, French and Arabic.