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Welcome to Umatilla Florida. Where is it and how did we get here? Its a great story so far, and hopefully you will enjoy a completely different pace this week.
Since early December, we have been steadily travelling south from Savannah GA. We made it about fifty miles into Florida where we have encountered the St. John's River, just outside Jacksonville.
As you will recall, I took a week's work across the state in Tallahassee to earn the money to replace my telephoto lens. On my way back to Jacksonville, I picked up a hitchhiker just outside of Tallahassee and gave him a ride about ninety miles across the state. His name is Jonathon, from Oregon.
He told me he had hitchhiked here over the last ten days from Oregon for a Rainbow Gathering. He told these gatherings have been going on in National Parks since the seventies, and he was getting to this one a week early to help set up. I was skeptical, and looked it up. The result is that we turned right at St. John's River and are upstream about two hundred miles in the Ocala National Forest.
I had sketchy directions, and by the time I finished writing about the zoo last Thursday evening and found the site inside the forest, it was well after dark. The gathering didn't officially start until Friday morning, but I thought I would get there and see what I could before I slept.
I found about fifty cars and RV's scattered along a dirt road, about twenty miles outside the last town. I followed the sound of drums in the night - and with the help of a few others followed a path through heavy underbrush deep into the woods. As the moon rose through a thin haze I heard flutes, a clarinet and some instruments I couldn't identify joining in with the drums.
I eventually arrived at a large clearing in the woods where about 200 people were sitting in circles around a large bonfire. Throughout the woods newly cut trails led off to places unknown.
I found a seat on a log bench and just took in the surroundings for a while. Dancers were gyrating around the fire while others were swinging chains with wire mesh baskets filled with coals in patterns through the air. It was a bit spooky - but everyone greeted me and seemed peaceful, so any fears quickly waned.
One fellow noticed me sitting in the background observing and came to introduce himself. Meet Opie from Alabama.
He and a couple of friends hitch-hiked here from Alabama and had set up their camp just a few yards from the circle where everyone was gathered. I joined them, and we sat by their campfire getting to know each other while he and several of his traveling mates alternated playing the guitar.
Making careful notes of the trails as I left, I knew the entrance for this section was behind a rainbow flag. So, I awoke and returned to their camp.
I arrived shortly after sunrise and built a fire to knock the chill off. The fire-making awakened them, and they were all up and going soon after.
One of the mates, Ryan, has a little harder time waking up than the others.
A quarter of a mile through the woods is a kitchen. This one is named Good Morning Vietnam. I am told there are dozens of kitchens being set up throughout the 5 square miles or so that have been permitted for this event.
We are handed a breakfast of pancakes and potatoes stir fried with some vegetables and beans. The folks running this kitchen arrived a week ago, and used sticks they cut from downed trees to build shelving and sitting areas around the kitchen. The person in charge of the kitchen is gone, won't be back until late in the afternoon after a food run to a bulk food facility a couple of hours away.
We meet a couple of our neighbors, traveling from Colorado and Utah.
Back to the clearing we go to ask what we can do to help. Opie heads off to help blaze trails and I set off to try to get a feel for the place.
But first we are asked if we will get some lumber for this particular kitchen. So, off into the woods to find a few suitable logs for their needs.
I have several things I need, so I am driving back into town. I encounter what is known as "front gate" on the way out and in. There are slang names that have developed over the years for the many kitchens and other places that people help facilitate the gathering.
"Front gate" sits about two miles from the closest paved road, and about three quarters of a mile from the beginning of the gathering property. They have a large kitchen set up here as well.
I have come to find out that front gate is referred to as "A Camp" by the long-time participants. "A" stand for alcohol. Most folks I have met at the gathering do not drink or care to be around drunks - so they try to keep them all up front. They check everyone coming in to the camp trying to make sure people know the rules of a rainbow gathering and will not become a nuisance.
"Front Gators" - as in alligator - are avoided by most of the participants I have been around except when they have to interact with them.
A half mile down the road we find the next camp - "Welcome Home Camp." This camp serves as a spot to give folks general directions and see if they have any pressing needs.
It also serves as one of the major supply hubs for the kitchens set up in the forest.
Through Opie, I meet the fellow who is bringing water in for the participants in a big old U-haul truck.
Meet a remarkable man, Pastor Chris Webb. Born in 1948, veteran of several re-con tours with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam. When he returned from Vietnam he got a master's degree in Economics, followed by two master degrees and two doctorate degrees - one doctorate in Education Technology and the other in Christian Education attained over the last forty years.
Chris has taught at the collegiate and the middle school level. He has four times won the Disney World Florida Terrific Teacher Award - no one else has even won twice.
On Saturday, he and I ran to a local church that has a well tapped into a layer of limestone that feeds Florida's many springs. We are filling up two large "water buffaloes," slang for 300 gallon water tanks. First we take two trips to the hardware to get parts to fix a valve that has broken, then it is on to the church were we spend a couple of hours fixing the tank valve and filling them with water.
Chris and I talked extensively - he has many intriguing stories. Twenty five years ago he got sober, and upon getting clean decided to pursue an education in theology. He ended up in Christianity, and has been working to emulate Jesus since.
There is a great story about FEMA back in the 2001 - 2005 era. A FEMA Commander named Jowers decided that these rainbow people, who have been having gatherings all over the country - at least two a month - since 1974 - are a form of domestic terrorists and need to be eradicated.
He came in with droves of heavy handed thugs and started abusing and harassing the attendees. Chris called him on it, and Jowers told Pastor Chris that if he didn't like it Jowers would "disappear him." When the pastor inquired exactly what that meant, Jowers told him that the Patriot Act gave him the power to lose Pastor Chris in the system so deep no one would ever find him.
After several events that the Pastor provided water and clothes for attendees, Jowers approached him and told him that the federal government now banned him from ALL Rainbow events - life would be real hard on him if he ever came back.
The next week Chris went to Minnesota to where Jowers and his crew were having a meeting with a local city council explaining why they suddenly needed the Feds to protect them from the Rainbow People who had been coming there for almost three decades.
Pastor Chris arrived five minutes late to the meeting with a press pass from the Spokane newspaper. Jowers saw him and just glowered. In the question and answer period he asked the hard questions - the says he thought Jowers was going to burst a blood vessel.
He left five minutes early, and went right across the street to a restaurant to watch the feds exit the meeting. They came out and scrambled in all directions in a vain attempt to hunt him down that night. He said as he sat and ate that God truly had prepared him a table in the presence of his enemies - a biblical promise.
So - the story gets better. Through connections Pastor Chris got a Senate investigation of Jowers. The committee ordered Jowers to appear at a Rainbow Event and apologize to Chris in front of the elders. Jowers did so, and right after that the Senate committee fired him.
When we pulled out on the street, Chris had to hurry up to avoid an oncoming car. One of the tanks tipped, broke the shelving and was leaning dangerously against the side-wall of the Uhaul.
We got back ok, and went through the camp filling up the tanks that are dispersed along the three miles of the road that borders the event.
Chris says he isn't interested in preaching to the "kids" (he calls them Kids or Hippies.) He has learned that many more of them become interested in spirituality if he "isn't a religious asshole" - his words.
There are numerous stories of people he has interacted with at Rainbow events that are now in all manner of occupations helping others. He really has an incredible network.
The water arrives just in time. Numerous people are there with tanks waiting for water to carry back through the trails to the various kitchens.
The trails themselves are a great story - I will try to touch on that next article.
Pastor Chris and his congregation have a large area with a tarp set up where they tend to minor first aid needs.
This also serves as a hub to distribute truckloads of donated clothes and camping necessities. He hands out basic necessities from hand sanitizer to cases of dry goods to bags of rice and beans - on and on the list could go.
His camp is called "Peace Camp." That is not trash - those are bags and bags of clothes and necessities ready to be unpacked and hung up on hangers.
By Saturday night, so many new camps have sprung up back in the forest that I have lost count - at least fifty so far. The names of a few that have kitchens: Corner Camp, Band Camp, Launch Pad Camp, Green and Purple, Good Morning Vietnam, Bangarang, Bare Necessities, CO-OP, HHK, Mamma Jamma, Brand X, Shut up and Eat it, Gator Camp, Froto Camp, Kiddo Camp and Dog Camp. Dog Camp doesn't really have a kitchen though - they just pass out dog and cat food to those that need it.
So Friday afternoon the first law enforcement showed up. They are Federal Park Rangers, and all were quite relaxed and sociable. I chatted with a number of them and was surprised at how well they interacted.
They put up boards with big maps of the territory and basic information on avoiding bears, basic sanitation and emergency procedures.
However, on Saturday a number of local county deputies started showing up. These guys seem to have a whole different attitude, and it seems to me they have intimidated the rangers. Over the last two days the Sheriffs have been coming in late and doing random searches of attendees under cover of darkness.
They don't seem to have arrested many people, but their posture is tough - guy. They don't venture into the woods on the trails where most participant are though. Since the trails are all newly cut, there are no maps and apparently they would rather stick close to their cars and the open road.
The posture of the rangers has deteriorated - they are not looking all condescending at the attendees, but they are not nearly as interactive as they were. The body postures look to me like the local sheriff's have intimidated the rangers - which is humorous if you think about it. The locals intimidate the feds - a complete reversal of the norm. More on this topic as it develops.
By Sunday night the crowd has swelled to at least two thousand. A couple more thousand attendees are expected to arrive over this week, hitting its peak next weekend. There have to be forty or fifty miles of trails that have been cut in the last three days. This is all virgin forest - there wasn't trail one here a couple of weeks ago.
The Rainbow people do a remarkable job of policing themselves which I will also get into more detail about later. One of the sets of eyes and ears are the couriers who ride mountain bikes from camp site to camp site, carrying messages, letters and small loads of supplies. They also help carry trash out to the roadway.
Sunday morning finds Opie and I heading early out to Pastor Chris's church. But word comes that Pastor Chris has had bad cramps all night and has been admitted to the hospital. His son Nick, usually the band director, takes over and acts as pastor as well.
The service is like no other I have seen. They started the sermon with a Faux News clip talking about radical Islam taking over the world. Nick then interviewed a fellow who had been trained by the US military to be an Arabic signals interceptor. There was much discussion about what Islam and Christianity had in common and where they differed.
The service ended with a prayer for all of our Muslim brothers to be able to find God and weather these times.
Nick then gave us a number of cases of wheat thins and sandwich spread to take back to the kitchens. I put as many in the van as I could.
Sharp eyed Opie spotted some wild tangerine trees on the way back. (Its about thirty miles to the church.)
We both picked for about an hour - the tangerines are at the peak of ripeness.
We picked several hundred, and when we returned to the camp we handed them out the van windows as we drove the three mile length of the camp. Only seven people refused fresh tangerines - all of the Sheriff's looked at me as though I were trying to poison them. Upon seeing this the rangers looked apologetic but refused also.
Back to camp, and a big change. Opie's camp mates have decided that we need to move. A guy dealing drugs has wormed his tent into our camp, and they don't want to be exposed to it. Selling drugs is a big taboo at these events - on many levels, and they don't want to be at all associate with it.
So we move the camp a mile up the road and a mile back in the woods through some other new trails.
Bad news tonight - I called Pastor Chris and he said he cannot return to the camp for at least four days. The camp is using 600 gallons of water a day, and will be out in the morning. He is sending his wife over with the keys to the U-Haul, an I am supposed to talk to a couple of the elders to see what we can do about getting the water delivered and some minor repairs done on the U-Haul.
A couple of the water bins are empty now - I am going to try to get up with these folks real early so maybe we can get water in before the kitchens start cooking. There is a stream nearby, but no one knows how contaminated with bacteria it is, and no one has set up purification equipment yet. In fact, since Chris has provided water so many years here, I am not sure that the Rainbows even brought water equipment to this gathering. So, we will see in the morning.
I am twenty five miles from camp at the closest little town, writing in a McDonald's. They don't have any outlets, and the computer is dying. And they are closing and asking me to leave. I am hoping some better arrangements can be found to write each day.
A footnote - I am choosing to write this story as it emerges rather than gather everything and write a formal article after the week. I hope this style suits you - it will leave a lot of gaps and holes in the story initially, but you will learn about Rainbow People as I do.
Today's parting shot - a sign hanging on a tree on one of the trails.
"I am responsible for the day I create for myself." There are may little spiritually based signs here and there. I will write as I can this week.
EMAIL me if you like, DONATE if you can, Read Today's Meditation if you have time, but whatever you do be sure to have an awesome Monday!!!