THE MARK TWAIN National Forest is host this summer to a month-long feast, a Woodstock without the rock. Guests bang drums, dance, have sex, do drugs and prance around naked in rugged southern Missouri.
For nearly two weeks, members of the Rainbow Family, a network of nomads who profess peace and free thinking, have driven, hitchhiked, hiked and biked into 30 acres of woods in Oregon County. Rainbows of all ages and ethnic backgrounds will come to the area for the 25th Annual Gathering of the Tribes for World Peace & Healing.
So far, the U.S. Forest Service estimates 4,000 Rainbows have arrived at the site, about 200 miles southwest of St. Louis.
By the Fourth of July, forest rangers expect between 10,000 and 20,000. That's the day Rainbows vow silence until noon, when they will form a circle in a meadow, hold hands and pray to their higher power, which can be God, Mother Nature, Satan, a tree, aliens or whatever.
Rainbows have come for the persimmon and cedar trees, the rusty soil, the hills, the absence of people. They've come for what the woods is not - Babylon, or modern society.
"We gather here as a tribe because Babylon is not a civil place or a loving place," says Stone Turtle, a Rainbow. "We are civil and we have lots of love." Like many Rainbows, Stone Turtle refuses to reveal his birth name. He's a 37-year-old carpenter from Humboldt, Calif. He's lanky and loud. He's also naked.
"Here, I can act like myself and no one cares," he says, writhing to African drumbeats. "Here, everyone accepts. That is love. And love is peace, and peace cannot be found in Babylon."
If you've just come from Babylon, the sights make you stare: A woman boasts a silver chain pierced between her eyebrows. A hairy man wears a pastel granny dress. A 3-year-old boy has a red mohawk.
An upside-down American flag hangs near the first-aid tent. A gutted watermelon is used as an ashtray. A group of seven men and women, some nude, feed each other berries while laying in the mud with their arms and legs entangled. Buzzing all over are flies the size of thumbnails.
Look beyond the young man defecating on a dirt path, near an oblivious crowd. Ignore the stench of sweat. Never mind the babbling of a 21-year-old West Virginia woman, who calls herself Living Freely and says she's from Venus and her dog, Magic, is a unicorn.
"Forget all that stuff," urges Janna Rae Marsh, 26, of San Francisco "That is the dark side of The Gathering".
This is the light side: The black woman and white man, both in their 30s, hugging for two minutes, 33 seconds. The smell of soil and grass. And the custom that all Rainbows greet each other as brother or sister, and end each conversation with, "I love you."
"There are your good Rainbows and your bad Rainbows," says Marsh, leading a tour through the brush, tents and tepees. "Believe me, I've been to 17 of these things."
Her bare foot steps on glass from a broken soda bottle. She doesn't flinch or bleed.
Ron Gaston is a sanitation inspector for four counties in southern Missouri. He's been inside The Gathering twice, checking to see how the Rainbows are handling food, water and sewage.
"Let's put it this way," he says, "I wouldn't eat, drink or have sex there." Water samples show fecal bacteria contamination in some of the creeks. The Missouri Department of Health has issued warnings about the possibility of a disease outbreak. This could result in severe diarrhea, vomiting and - in the worst case - hepatitis A.
Hospitals have treated some Rainbows for abdominal illness. At Ozarks Medical Center, the largest hospital in the area, officials have dispatched three registered nurses to the camp to treat sick Rainbows and to teach them how to avoid illness; for example, boil all water before drinking it.
So far, medical bills at the center for treating Rainbows totals about $8,000, said Leslie Speake, vice president of the hospital's patient care services. That includes treatment for poison ivy, snake and insect bites and flareups of gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases. One man, high on LSD, had to be admitted to the psychiatric unit because he wanted to kill himself.
Similar problems have surfaced at other health centers. One doctor delivered a Rainbow baby; another treated a 14-year-old who had a miscarriage.
Health officials expect few Rainbows to pay their bills. At past gatherings in other states, hospitals were left with unpaid bills totaling up to $60,000. Gaston, the county sanitation worker, offers a positive note.
"Many Rainbows are homeless," he says. "They eat from Dumpsters. Their immune systems are tough. It takes a lot for them to get sick."
"Brother, can you spare a condom?"
Rainbows have bombarded Gaston with that question. He wishes he could reply yes, but his agency does not have the funds to supply free condoms.
"I'm deeply worried about what kind of sexually transmitted diseases they're spreading," he says. "And it's not just the Rainbows. They're going to have sex with people in Missouri, or from other states, and transmit diseases."
On Friday, the Missouri Department of Health shipped in about 3,000 condoms to distribute free to the Rainbows.
Few Rainbows will pay for condoms, says Michelle Holman, director of the Oregon County Health Department. Each day, Rainbows come in asking for free condoms. Most leave after workers tell Rainbows condoms cost $1 per dozen - a bargain.
At the trading circles, a braid from a beard gets you a Snickers, the Rainbow chocolate bar of choice. Skins for the top of drums gets you a little green energy, Rainbow slang for marijuana.
Vanessa, 21, has the green energy. Dancing Cloud, 28, has the drum skin. "The Spirit brought me before you, my brother, so that I may play the drums again," says Vanessa, of Tucson, Ariz. "The drums send me the love vibrations of life."
A flier tacked to a tree warns of ttick-transmitted Lyme disease. Another advertises a morning herbal walk. And another promotes a "Spiritual Human Yoga Class", open to anyone who yearns for a calm chakras, the energy center of the body.
Not welcome to the yoga class is anyone who cannot follow rule No. 3: "You can't be intoxicated at least four hours before the start of class each day."
"Guns in the church", yells Papa Gary, 47, of Marysville, Calif. "Guns in the church."
Right away, clothed Rainbows get naked, scamper to the creek and begin forming a blockade.
"Guns" refers to the dozens of armed officers from the U.S. Forest Service sent in from across the country to supervise Rainbows and protect the forest. "Church" refers to the forest, the place where Rainbows worship.
The Rainbows resent the officers. Rainbows say they're peaceful. They say it's their constitutional right to gather in national forests.
This year, they're especially annoyed with the U.S. Forest Service. Last September, the federal government started requiring a permit from any noncommercial gathering of 75 or more people. A Rainbow from Wisconsin got the permit. The government did this "to get at us" , Papa Gary says.
The U.S. Forest Service denies this. "We have nothing against the Rainbows," says Carolyn Callahan, an agency spokeswoman. "We just want everyone to be safe and comfortable."
The "guns in the church" warning was a false alarm. No forest rangers ever showed up at the nude barricade in the creek.
Businesses like the Rainbows.
'We can't keep anything in stock," says Virginia Marlow, co-owner of the Thomasville Fuel Stop Service Station, which includes a grocery store. "We're doing five times the business we normally do."
On the side of the road, the gas station has a poster with a rainbow welcoming the Rainbows. Inside, a homemade advertisement for condoms has a peace sign inside the last "o".
Chester Watkins, 72, works at the Wal-Mart Supercenter in West Plains, a town of about 9,200 that's 20 miles to the southwest. Since the Rainbows came to town, he's been working double shifts. "We're trying to keep up with all their business", he says. "I like the extra work."
A complaint comes from the Ramada Inn in West Plains. A hotel worker says Rainbows - noncustomers - try to bathe in the lobby restroom. "It's in very poor taste", she says.
The Oregon County Sheriff's Department has arrested Rainbows for theft, assault and drunken driving. On July 4 weekend, officers expect terrible traffic problems along the rural roller-coaster roads.
The department has four of its five officers assigned to the area around the camp.
Rainbows say officers are not needed. They have their own police, called the Shanti-Sena.
"We'll immediately deal with anyone who disrupts the peace", says Drake Beacon, 21, who says he has traveled with his Rainbow parents since age 3. Rarely is there trouble, Beacon says. When there is, it's usually caused by Rainbows from the A Camp. A stands for alcoholics.
"Rainbows aren't proud of them", Beacon says. "Someone from the A Camp is like a drunk uncle you're ashamed of but have to put up with because he's family." At the Popcorn Palace, one of the six or so kitchens set up in the woods, Rainbows pop seven pounds of popcorn and deliver it in gunnysacks to other camps. "It's a gesture of peace", says Flat Nose Kelly Running Colors, 37, from Kansas City.
At Cowboy Hummin Bird, a vegetarian kitchen, Jerry Talaska, a 28-year-old carpenter from Madison, Wis., built an oven so he could bake pastries and focaccia bread. Stones, ashes and mud make the mortar, molded around a 55-gallon barrel.
"Food is a symbol of peace", Talaska says. Rainbow philosophy is whatever. You want to search the weeds for a spider named Jack? Whatever. You want to wear shoes on your hands while singing opera? Whatever. You want to count your friends' teeth in English, Spanish and German? Whatever.
"Everything is whatever because people have the total freedom to act however their spirit allows", says Jamie Kim, 33, of Philadelphia. "We don't believe in conformity."
But for some Rainbows, nonconformity only exists if you conform to it. Carry a pocketbook, and you'll be chastised. Refuse marijuana, and you'll get badgered. Exercise the freedom to keep your clothes on while others lose theirs, and you'll get dirty looks.
Candy Weir, 24, of Atlanta, frowns at a clothed, drug-free reporter with a pocketbook. She hesitates.
"I love you, sister", the topless Weir says, pausing, "even if you work for a newspaper."