Tom Clyde: Just say ‘om’
The Rainbow Family gathering is about over now. They had their big moment on the 4th of July when they all join hands and say "om." It’s pretty much downhill from there. Frankly, saying "om" together doesn’t sound like a very exciting climax, even if there are 8,000 people joining hands to say it. Maybe if you were really, really stoned. Maybe. People traveled from all over the country to gather in the National Forest above Heber. Saying more than one syllable might have made the trip seem worth it. Some have been there for several weeks setting up the massive camp. There is still a clean-up crew there. But for most, "om" was said, and it’s time to start making plans for Burning Man.
I thought about driving up to take a look at the whole affair. It’s not far from my house, approaching the summit from the Woodland side instead of Heber. But the more I thought about it, the less it seemed like a good idea. It’s just not my kind of event. Every year, I see news stories about Burning Man in Nevada, and think to myself that I would rather attend Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle opera festival than an hour of Burning Man. And opera is about as bad as it gets. So the Rainbow people said "om" without me.
The official lead-up to the event was fairly negative. Local businesses were warned to move to DEFCON 2 because a hoard of filthy, stinking hippies would surely rob them blind. There was some of that. A few merchants in Heber said there were some problems, but nothing that seemed terribly out of the ordinary. A couple of my neighbors were ready to muster the militia, and put the whole area on lockdown. In the end, I think maybe a dozen VW buses that reeked of patchouli oil drove by. There were also some very big motor homes, driven by old men in tie-dye shirts. I don’t know if they were part of the gathering or not, but they didn’t look like the usual RV crowd that drives through on the weekends. Hippies with American Express cards.
There was a sharp increase in law enforcement presence, meaning that in my area we went from none at all to several Wasatch County Sheriff or Highway Patrol vehicles a day. They still didn’t do anything about the swarms of speeding motorcycles that terrorize the neighborhood. I’d take the Amex card hippies over the gangs of retired dentists on Harleys any day.
Overall, it sounds like the event went about as smoothly as it could. 8,000 people is a lot of people in a mountain meadow with no services. I assume they spent a fair amount of money in Heber grocery stores, probably bought some camping supplies at the hardware store, and picked the county clean of Zig-Zag paper. There were two deaths, one attempted murder, and dozens of dog-off-leash violations. There were also a number of pot possession arrests. I’m not sure what lottery you lose to be the one out of 8,000 "possessors" to get arrested.
The emergency room at the Heber hospital had a spike in overdose cases, in addition to just the normal medical emergencies you would expect out of a population of that size. The costs of treating those, if they were uninsured, will get passed through to the hospital’s paying customers. Wasatch County will pick up the law enforcement costs, which may be partly offset by additional sales tax. So it will end up costing everybody a little.
None of this was done according to Forest Service regulations. The Rainbows insist that they all show up at the same spot spontaneously, so there is no organized event. If you wanted to put on a week-long campout with 8,000 of your closest friends, the permitting process would take months. The Rainbows do it without permits, insurance, clean-up bonds. The Forest Service doesn’t have the manpower to prevent it, and would look kind of silly staging an armed battle, rounding up and arresting 8,000 hippies for the crime of camping in too-large-a-group-in-dreadlocks without a permit. So it just happens. Sort of like Cliven Bundy and his free-loading, trespassing cows.
My only concern was that they would start a forest fire. That didn’t happen, which is more than you can say about 8,000 Boy Scouts. They have figured out how to handle both water supply and sanitation on that scale. 8,000 people leave a big pile of poop after a couple of weeks. There was no cholera outbreak.
So it’s over. The sheep grazing in that meadow next summer will be unusually contented, grazing on some unusual new vegetation. Next year, the Rainbows will be somewhere else.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.