The Rainbow Family National Gathering coming to the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest will allow folks here to demonstrate what is best about the Bay Area.
Or what is worst about the Bay Area.
It’s up to us to decide.
The Rainbows, as they are known, pride themselves on being the “largest non-organization of non-members in the world.”
They are, in short, the answer to the question, “What ever happened to all those hippies and peaceniks of the 1970s?”
They preach peace and tolerance and reverence for the earth — all things we could use more of these days. They’re also not opposed to nudism, free love and some other, fringier things that mainstream society frowns upon.
So far, local reaction to their visit is going pretty much as it goes everywhere that they decide to hold their annual gatherings — some hysteria, some reasonable concern and some acceptance.
Ashland’s police chief has send notices to businesses and other city departments warning them of rampant drug use, crime and other concerns he has about Rainbows, and Iron River is is holding a community-wide information meeting about the gathering Thursday.
The decision Bay Area folks have to make is, are we going to buy stereotypical categorization of these visitors and be fearful or even hostile to them, or shall we welcome them in their spirit of peace?
I confess to having a soft spot in my heart for hippies because I married into a family of them. As children, my wife’s family explored the country by camping in a VW microbus, and my brother in law and best friend is a hippie to this day.
I’ve watched over the almost 30 years that I have known him as people have instantly judged him by his beard, ponytail and lingering essence of patchouli. Store clerks eyeball him, certain he’s about to shoplift something. Restaurants aren’t always eager to seat him.
He’s a Deadhead who spent much of the ‘80s and ‘90s following that band around, and rare is the moment that I’ve been around him when their music wasn’t playing in the background and he wasn’t wearing a tie-dyed Grateful Dead shirt.
Those who judge him by the ponytail and patchouli, though, don’t get to know the real Bob. He’s one of the kindest and gentlest men I’ve ever met. He’s thoughtful and introspective. He’s dedicated his life to serving others; when I met him he was an orderly at a mental hospital in Indiana, and today he manages a chain of group homes that allows disabled folks to live semi-independently.
And over the past 30 years, he has helped guide hundreds of people on their journey to sobriety from drug and alcohol addiction.
In short, he saved my life and likely the lives of many others.
I would imagine there are probably hundreds of Bobs among the Rainbows — almost certainly more Bobs than drug-crazed criminals — if we can manage to see past the ponytails and patchouli.
That’s not to say there won’t be some problems with the Rainbows — some drug arrests, some fights, some other crimes — just as there would be with any group of thousands of people coming to the area.
But I’ve spoken now to two journalists who covered Rainbow gatherings in their areas, and both said the events didn’t come close to matching the pre-festival hype by authorities.
If we don’t lapse into hysteria for Applefest or the Whistlestop or Book Across the Bay or just plain old tourist season, all of which bring hundreds or thousands of strangers to the Northwoods, we shouldn’t for the Rainbows, either.
Let’s give them a chance and show them how welcoming and accepting the Bay Area is when it’s at its best.
Peter J. Wasson is managing editor of the Ashland Daily Press.