HAYDEN, Colo. – Erik Childress squatted down alongside the hiking trail snaking deep into the forest and tucked a cigarette between his lips.
A steady stream of bare feet trod the path past the tie-dye-clad Childress, 30, and his red wheelbarrow full of onions, water and gasoline. His chest still heaving from the exertion of pushing the supplies up the bumpy trail, Childless looked up at a passing woman, a blanket and tent slung over her shoulders.
“Welcome home,” he said with a smile, flashing a peace sign.
Under the watchful eyes of local residents and officials, as many as 10,000 self-described hippies and counter-culture people like Childress are flocking to this remote area of northern Colorado for the 50th-anniversary gathering of the Rainbow Family of Living Light held the Fourth of July weekend.
Founded in part by veterans struggling with alcoholism, drug dependence and what's now recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder, the group held its first organized campout in Colorado in 1972. Participants party, pray for world peace and celebrate their collective humanity in an event that shares similarities with Grateful Dead concerts, Woodstock and Burning Man.
The leaderless group meets annually to camp out on public land across the country and for generations, it has clashed with law enforcement over drug use, sanitation and damage to the forests. Previous national campouts, which have been held in Arkansas, Texas, Vermont and Michigan, have drawn up to 20,000 attendees. About 3,400 attendees, including dozens of children, had arrived as of Friday morning, according to federal officials.
Dozens of police officers are monitoring the gathering in the Routt National Forest and have already kicked participants out of a lake where they were bathing, cautioned about open campfires and off-leash dogs, and inspected the vans, buses and dilapidated cars making their way down the long dirt road to the gathering.
Forest rangers typically issue hundreds of tickets at each gathering, which last year was held outside Taos, New Mexico, about 70 miles north of Santa Fe. Normally, the Forest Service requires large groups to get a permit but the Rainbows decline to participate in that process, citing their First Amendment right to gather without government approval.
While the group claims no leaders, participants volunteer to perform necessary work to pull off the gatherings, from tapping mountain springs for drinking water to digging latrines and hauling in communal kitchens. Their camp for the week is more than a mile up the trail from the parking lot, so attendees must carry in everything they need for their stay.
Barry “Plunker” Adams is among the group’s founders and turned 77 days before the event began. Taking a breather in the shade after hiking up to camp, Adams sang a nearly five-minute song about the origins of the group and explained how he needed a new way of coping with modern society after leaving the Navy following the Vietnam War.
“It saved us. Instead of killing people, we were looking after people,” he said. “We tried to heal each other that way.”
Adams has attended most of the national gatherings since the first one, although he said some years he’s had to hide on the fringes to avoid law enforcement officers who wrongly believed he’s in charge.
“We do it in peace and try not to harm the Earth, and everyone gets to feel their individual sovereignty,” he said, leaning against his walking stick in the shade as mosquitoes buzzed around. “We’re not perfect. We’re just people.”
Adams dubbed the levels of law enforcement this year "not too bad" in comparison to past experiences.
Forest Service officials say they're working with some members of the Rainbow Family to minimize the group's impacts, but they still consider it an illegal gathering. So far, the Forest Service has issued about 100 tickets for violations ranging from drugs to damaging the land, according to officials. Last year, rangers issued about 600 tickets and made a small number of arrests.
"It's about protecting health and safety, and protecting the forest resources," said Hilary Markin, a U.S Forest Service spokesperson assigned to the 60-person federal team overseeing the gathering.
Markin, who has helped manage several past gatherings, said rangers are concerned about making sure human waste is properly buried, communal kitchens don't pollute streams, and that any temporary structures built for the campout are removed when the Rainbows leave.
"We are asking that forest visitors obey all local, state and federal laws in our enforcement actions," Markin said.
One challenge for this year's gathering: Although marijuana is legal in Colorado, it remains illegal on Forest Service lands, and rangers are handing out tickets if they catch people with it. One enterprising group of campers erected a mailbox and loaded it with marijuana for strangers to use, claiming that only postal inspectors can open mailboxes without a warrant.
Forest Service rangers stress that the vast majority of Rainbow Family members they interact with are respectful and law-abiding. But many Rainbow members chafe at what they see as harassment by law enforcement over minor issues.
Local officials say they're particularly concerned about public safety and health issues, given the rural nature of their county, Routt, which normally only has about 25,000 residents.
County Commissioner Beth Melton said the closest ambulance to the Rainbow gathering would have to make a three-hour round-trip drive to evacuate someone – and it's the only ambulance typically available. Recent rains have muddied some of the dirt roads leading to the camping area, making travel even more challenging than usual.
“We have a duty to public health and safety, and this gathering impacts that, so we need to be prepared," Melton said. “This is a significant number of people in a very remote area of our county. God forbid there’s an E. coli outbreak.”
Back in the shade of the fast-growing Kid Village area, longtime attendee Filipe Chavez, 83, said he hoped clashes with law enforcement would be minimal this year. Chavez, a retired trucker, drove to Colorado with his dog Benny from near Gainesville, Florida.
He credits his participation in Rainbow with helping him overcome alcoholism that developed during his Vietnam military service. He said attendees just want to be left alone.
Being surrounded by the forest, among people sharing a unique experience, helps him maintain perspective on the world, he said.
“It’s a statement about how to come together and live together with tolerance and respect," said Chavez, swatting at the bugs. "Even the mosquitoes are here for a reason."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rainbow Family gathering 2022 may bring 10K to remote Colorado forest