Mama Mack held her 3-year-old daughter, Lily, in her arms by the glow of the fire. The strumming of a guitar could be heard over the crackling of the wood. Even though there were only a few other people by the fire on that cold January night, she knew in a few weeks the forest would be filled with hundreds more. May Bear would be there. And Zesty. And South Paw. Their tent was a few feet away — their home for the next few weeks.
A handful of Rainbows arrived in late January to scout the Ocala National Forest for an ideal site. The consensus among the council, a group of individuals that choose and setup the site, called for a peaceful, nonviolent gathering to officially begin Feb. 6 and end Feb. 20.
“I was one of the kids that didn’t know what it was all about, and I came in with a rack of beer, my backpack and my boyfriend,” Mama Mack (she would not give her legal name, nor her age), of Castle Rock, Washington, recalled about her first Rainbow Gathering in Ocala nine years ago.
“It changed me,” she said.
Forty to 50 gatherings later, she is officially part of the unofficial non-organization known as the Rainbow Family of Living Light (commonly abbreviated to Rainbow Family). The first Rainbow Gathering took place in Colorado in 1972 to pray for peace, according to the original invitation found on the unofficial website. The Rainbow Family has since grown into an alternative lifestyle community consisting of thousands of people across the U.S. and other countries around the world.
They adopt Rainbow names in the woods. They trek from national forest to national forest, setting up camp for up to four weeks at time before they move on. Like the snowbirds who arrive in the South every year, the Rainbow Family arrives in their winter location, Ocala.
“I keep going because I keep thinking it’s going to be better each time, and what makes it better is my intention and my focus,” Mama Mack said. “When I say mine, I just mean that oneness that we get to experience out here when we drop the egos enough to just remember that we are all part of the same thing.”
She has no cell phone in the woods. She bases out of Washington, where she lives on a permaculture commune.
“I really love how at the gathering, the socioeconomic barrier is smashed because there’s no money here. That kind of brings us all on the same level, like, ‘yeah we’re in this thing together,’” she said.
The family relies on food donations from “the outside” and bartering in the inside. Alcohol is strictly prohibited in the inner circle, allowed only at the front gate or parking area.
Kid Village is set near the front of the gathering as a safe space for babies, children and parents. Mama Mack said kids can create, learn and be nourished through workshops, art and other activities. She said she hopes her daughter will be true to herself to help make the future Rainbow Family generation brighter.
Matt Powers, 43, of Topton, North Carolina, was among the few who sat with Mama Mack and Lily around the fire. He said he gave away his car and most of his belongings about five years ago after hitting a rough patch in his life. He’s been on the road since, hitching rides or riding Greyhound buses and bicycles to get to Rainbow gatherings. He said he has been to 40 or 50 gatherings so far.
“It used to be when I started coming in the ‘90s, you know, it was a bunch of Grateful Dead family, a bunch of Rainbow Family, which is pretty much the same thing,” Powers said. “It was a bunch of hippie kids in the woods with patchwork overalls and tie-dye shirts and dreadlocks.”
Although the scene has changed with many new faces over the years, he said all family members have their own idea of what they’re going to get out of the gathering. He said it’s always changing and evolving because there’s no leadership or figurehead.
Powers said he feels a sense of responsibility at the Rainbow gatherings to show people the positive way of living with the family. He builds kitchens and digs latrines, among other contributions.
“I could go live in a house. I could have a job. I could have all of those things, if I wanted them. I just don’t want them right now,” he said. “I did that. I did that for a while. Busted my back, and I’ll do it again, just not today. Today I’ll work for my family in the woods.”
Brandon “Buddha” Mayberry, 29, said this will be his sixth Ocala gathering. He’s been to 20 Rainbow gatherings total, hopping trains (his “favorite mode of transportation”) or hitching rides to get there.
“Ocala has had some bad light over the past few years,” he said.
This bad light is usually associated with people who drink alcohol. Fights were breaking out, in direct conflict with their ethos.
Buddha said many of the elders — people who have been going to Rainbow gatherings for many years — decided not to go to the Ocala event last year because they didn’t view it as a true Rainbow gathering anymore. He said the newer generations have taken it upon themselves to continue the tradition. They’ve had a better handle with the drinking scene.
“This year, the elders will be back and that’s a beautiful thing,” he said, “because it brings the happy back into it.”
“The center of the gathering is about healing, spiritual growth, love and detaching yourself from ‘bondage,'” Buddha said.
“We paint a facade for ourselves as to how we should live our lives in order to be successful or happy,” he said. “I feel like when you finally go to Rainbow and you … talk to the elders and you’re part of the circle. You see the community and how things work and how life is, to actually live.”
The Rainbow Family is adamant about avoiding publicity and especially anything that feels like corporate sponsorship. News crews have never been inside the gathering, he said.
“It’s not a festival. It’s not a big party. It’s not something to be viewed as a vacation,” he said. “It’s a lot of work. It’s dedication and commitment and compassion.”
“But if you’re looking for positivity, and love and everything you think might be missing in the world, then it’s a good place to seek that,” Buddha said. “Because you’ll find it.”