Rainbows magi

Glowing Feather Magi, a Vietnam veteran who attended the first Rainbow Family Gathering in 1972, walks to the meeting with U.S. Forest Service representatives from critical care camp Thursday at Canthook Lake in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest south of Iron River.

Well, Northland, we made it.

The Rainbows are mostly gone. Their trash is mostly cleaned up, and the lingering members of the Rainbow Family Gathering are at work restoring the woods near Delta to their original woodsiness.

Those hysterical predictions by authorities and some residents — predictions of Rainbows stealing property from stores, hassling shoppers by panhandling, driving off without paying for gas or going on drug-fueled sprees — were mostly that: hysteria.



Police reported a handful of minor arrests and a bunch of citations, but not nearly the tie-dyed Armageddon that some predicted. In fact, in the average group of 6,000 Ashland-area residents, more were arrested and for far more serious charges over the past three weeks than were members of the 6,000-strong Rainbow group.

Let that sink in for a minute.

What we can tell you from first-hand experience is that the Rainbows lived their credo. Every time an Ashland Daily Press journalist visited their encampment, he or she was welcomed with kindness.

It also appears that some businesses did well thanks to Rainbows who spent time here. All those communal meals had to start somewhere, and that somewhere was local grocery stores.

And all you had to do was drive through downtown Ashland to find other businesses that did well thanks to the gathering.

Every night, a couple of dozen U.S. Forest Service trucks were parked at the Cobblestone Inn, where rooms go for about $175. All those rangers were out eating every day, filling their trucks with gas and maybe bringing home some Northwoods art to the family.

That no doubt was a boost to Ashland’s economy — as was the up to $30,000 in overtime for Bayfield County Sheriff’s deputies — all paid for by the federal government.

If this year was like others, the feds will have spent $700,000 monitoring the gathering. That's nearly three-quarters of a million dollars pumped into the local economy.

And I can’t help but draw some parallels between this group of Rainbows and some other folks the federal government is dealing with right now.

The Rainbows were outsiders. They didn’t look the same as us, talk the same as us, eat the same food we eat and they sure didn’t look like us.

Naturally, our impulse was to regard them with suspicion or worse, in the case of some locals and officials, with outright hostility.

It reminds me a lot of the discussions we’re having across the nation about refugees seeking asylum at our southern border.

In fact, one can’t help but wonder if all those federal dollars spent housing Forest Service employees here could have been better spent elsewhere.

It’s possible that the Rainbows caused little trouble during their stay because the Forest Service, Department of Natural Resources and deputies had them under near-constant watch.

But it seems just as likely that if police hadn’t been monitoring them, they would have happily spent some time in the woods, maybe smoked a little pot — the same stuff that’s now legal just across Wisconsin’s borders — cleaned up and gone on their way without incident.

At the same time, there were kids being held in cages near the Mexican border without health care, sanitation or adequate supervision, and representatives of our government were telling judges that kids don’t need soap and toothpaste and water to stay safe and healthy.

Earthquakes were rattling California and sparking widespread damage. American soldiers were being sent to the Mideast, and farmers in the heartland were struggling to make ends meet as tariffs decimated their economy.

The federal tax dollars spent here tending the Rainbows surely wouldn’t solve any of those problems. But they surely wouldn’t have hurt, either.

It’s not likely the Rainbows will be back here any time soon — they tend to pick new places for their annual gatherings.

But if they do return, or some other group of outsiders should visit our neighborhood, I hope we’ve learned a little from this experience.

And if the federal government feels the need to spend $30,000 — or $700,000, for that matter — in the Northwoods, I’m sure we can all think of better ways to use it than hounding a bunch of hippies.

Peter J. Wasson is managing editor of the Ashland Daily Press.

(Copyright © 2019 APG Media)

Load comments