IRON PHONE JUNCTION — Walk through the dispersed campground here and each time you pass someone, you’ll likely hear the same refrain.

“Welcome home,” they say.

Home — as in that place that is safe, where your family accepts you for who you are and loves you without condition. The place where you are free.

To the campers here, members of the loose-knit Rainbow Family of Living Light, that is the draw of this counterculture gathering.

“A lot of these people don’t have any place to go. They have been pushed around. Here, they know they are loved,” said David Longino, of Sulfur Springs, Texas. “The freedom and the peace you see happening, I think that is what heaven on Earth looks like.”

“Rainbow is about peace and love, freedom and respect. Those are some of the core values here,” said Tristan, a young man from San Francisco who, like many at the camp, declined to give his last name.

“Essentially, Rainbow is about the collective community coming together for peace and to raise the vibration within ourselves and others and the whole planet,” said Brandon Cascia from Carroll County, Md.

Some of the campers are travelers, people perpetually on the road who have cast aside the traditional American way of life. People like Michael from Texas, who has been living on the road and hitchhiking for the past 13 years. When he was 18, he had a good job that paid him a high hourly wage. But he found the 9-to-5 life stifling.

“I decided to quit my job and sort myself out and it’s brought me great health,” he said.

Michael has been to three or four Rainbow Gatherings. This one is tiny compared to most. It’s difficult to judge the attendance because the campers are spread out over a vast, treed area. The Forest Service estimated there are 500 people at the site in the upper reaches of Cow Creek between the Snake and Salmon rivers near Riggins. But the number could be much smaller.

Most Rainbow gatherings draw several thousand people and some exceed 10,000. But the Rainbow Community fractured over this year’s gathering. Many, most maybe, wanted to cancel the event because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But canceling a rainbow gathering isn’t really possible. The community prides itself on not having leaders and not being a formal group or organization.

“It’s anarchy in practice, but it’s governed by peace and love,” said Shannon the Poet, from New Jersey.

Decisions about gatherings are made at group meetings called councils. Those who don’t attend don’t get a say. This year, those who wanted to cancel stayed home. Those who wanted to push forward despite the pandemic did.

So while many of the people who normally attend Rainbow Gatherings and provide much of the infrastructure stayed away, a largely younger generation of family members stepped in.

Some, like Michael from Texas, said he worries some about COVID-19 but felt experiencing the freedom of the gathering was more important.

“Those who want to stay home should be able to stay home and those who want to go out should be able to go out,” he said.

Others are dismissive of the disease that has killed more than 120,000 Americans and infected more than 1 million. Tristan from San Francisco said he feels safer here in the mountains of Idaho than he does in big cities. He also thinks the government and news media have inflated the number of people with the illness and exaggerated the threat.

“I just don’t believe it’s that widespread,” he said. “Even if you believe the numbers, it’s still a low probability of getting it.”

This gathering also is causing discord because the Nez Perce Tribe has vigorously objected to it and earlier had asked the Rainbow Family of Living Light to cancel. On Friday, the U.S. Forest Service and tribal government issued a joint news release saying they are working together in an attempt to protect sensitive resources like native plants at the site. Some clusters of plants have been cordoned off, though it was not clear by whom.

The tribe’s 1855 and 1863 treaties with the federal government reserved the right of its members to hunt, fish and gather within its aboriginal homeland.

“The Forest Service has an obligation to the Nez Perce Tribe to uphold and manage these lands. We consult regularly with their representatives to ensure this obligation is being fulfilled. We have collaborated on several projects to help preserve the land and resources. We expect this situation to be no different,” said Tribal Chairman Shannon Wheeler.

Tristan from San Francisco said he is bothered that the tribe is unhappy with the presence of the campers, but said it objected too late in the process. Once word of the gathering was announced on social media, he said, there was no way to pull it back or change the location.

“It wasn’t realistic for the whole gathering to leave,” he said.

Shannon the Poet said the tribe was invited to attend the spring council, but did not.

“We would have never picked this place had they come to spring council,” she said.

There have also been reports of armed people patrolling the area near the gathering. However, their presence was light enough that none were observed Friday by the Tribune.

Today, when the sun rises, the gatherers will attempt to heal the discord around the gathering and discord present throughout the world. Longino said the Rainbow family will pray silently for world peace from dawn until noon. At noon, they will drum, sing and party.

“You sit here and you close your eyes and when you open them, it’s nothing but your brothers and sisters,” he said.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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