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Rebellion, Maybe

Andy searches for purpose -- and the elusive Barry -- at the "gathering."
Eric Alan Barton

The guy behind the wheel of the Corolla doesn't look amused. It's too early in the morning to put up with harassment from some dirty bum. The driver starts to roll up the window before the drunk, who looks as if he has rubbed cake mix on his face, shouts, "You wanna adopt a freakin' hippie?" The man, presumably taking his two kids in the back seat on a camping trip, speeds away on the rutted forest road. "Oh, man. Nobody likes me," the drunk slurs, barely keeping spilled beer from ruining his Sunday morning.

Not far away, another kind of hippie tries to ignore the scene. Andy doesn't want to pass judgment on a fellow free-living spirit, but most of the hippies here don't approve of alcohol. Instead he makes his way down a mile-long sandy path carrying a massive jug of water in each hand. Andy, who's adamant about using only his first name, is helping out his fellow campers by bringing in a new supply of drinking water. Sweat streams from under his wool cowboy hat and into his Brillo pad-like beard. But life couldn't be better. "I really don't have any worries," he grunts. "I guess I could take a break, man. That's about it." He makes a deal with me to take turns carrying the jugs. "This is all right," he says.

Every year, about 2,000 hippies, including the drunk harassing the Corolla and more peaceful ones like Andy, make camp in the Ocala National Forest north of Orlando for an event called the "Rainbow Family Gathering." They spend a month living off communal kitchens, loads of drugs, and enough bongo drums to fill a caravan of VW vans. It's one of dozens of "gatherings" -- as participants always refer to them for short, as if the word couldn't possibly apply to any other kind of conclave. Gatherings have been held all across the country, pretty much for as long as there has been a free-love movement.

But for all the talk of freedom and understanding here in hippie utopia, there's a small rebellion looming. It began a few years back when Barry Sacharow, a Broward County community activist, got a permit from the U.S. Forestry Service to hold the event. The benefit of the permit, many of the hippies say, is that Forestry Service rangers no longer ask what's in the peace pipes. Park rangers acknowledge they've gone easier on the hippies. "The permit doesn't give you shelter from breaking the rules. The law is the law," says Jer Marr, district ranger for the Forestry Service. "But having the permit means we don't have to go back there all the time either."

Sacharow's deal, though, has met criticism ever since from hippies who don't like to see "The Man" telling them where they can camp. This year, feelings are said to be so strong that those who object to the permit have threatened to split off from the others and camp illegally elsewhere in the forest. The prospect of a renegade campground could force the whole event to unravel, Sacharow worries. "They call themselves A-camp," Sacharow explains before the event from his home in Hollywood. "It stands for alcohol, because they won't follow our rule against drinking."

In past years, Sacharow says, the A-camp hippies set up near the gathering's main entrance, which this year is located three miles west of State Road 17 on Forest Road 90, in the northern section of the park. Usually, the worst the A-camp hippies do is stumble around in front of traffic without causing any real harm. But if they camp elsewhere, that could bring down the enforcement powers of the rangers, Sacharow says.

So as Andy and I make our way down the path to the main camp on the second day of the gathering -- in search of Sacharow, the only voice of authority for miles around -- I try to spot signs that the rebellion has begun. "Yeah, sure, everybody knows Barry," Andy says. "I'm sure he's here or there." Speaking in a slow, deep monotone, that's about as specific as Andy gets. "He's around, maybe in bus village or down by the main circle. You know, he's here or there."

Andy and I pass two teenaged girls stumbling down the path. I ask them if they've seen Sacharow.

"No," one says, her homemade-looking dress dragging in the dirt. "But have you seen Dr. Drop?" She explains that this mysterious camper likes to pass out things that make you happy. "He comes by your camp and shouts out if you want any, and if you do, you come out and he gives you some."

Passing in the opposite direction come two bearded hippies. One, with a clean-shaven upper lip but hair just about everywhere else, says he heard that the protest by the antipermit folks fizzled out. "I believe they drank too much last night," he says. Andy talks one of the newcomers into helping to carry the jugs, and we head off again.  

Off to the left now is the gathering's "library," a camp made near the path with a couple of rickety wooden bookshelves loaded with well-used books. There's a teenager out front who spent much of the previous night drinking at A-camp. "Random roadblock," he says, pointing to me. All morning, he's been demanding the contents of pockets of passersby this way, in a Rainbow Gathering tradition. I ask him if he's seen Sacharow. "I think he's at the entrance or something," he says, apparently not realizing we just came from there. I give him the contents of my left pocket, and he scampers off.

"All right!" he shouts to the library patrons. "I got a dirty tissue."

Andy's fellow water wrangler mysteriously disappears into the saw palmetto bushes. Andy and I take turns hauling the jugs before he decides we've both had enough. "We'll just put them right here," he says, positioning the jugs by the side of the path. "Somebody will get the hint."

For the past year, Andy hasn't been a part of the traveling band of several hundred hippies who make their way each month to gatherings across the country. "There was something holding me down for a while in Orlando," he says. "I'm free again, man, so I'll be traveling again." It's a tradition at gatherings, it seems, to be a little vague. Most campers, when asked where they're from, will answer only, "Not that far from here." It's one of the unwritten rules, in this nearly rule-less society, to be ambiguous. It's not where you're from, man; it's where you're at.

Andy says he had one of those visions the night before that make the otherwise hard hippie lifestyle worthwhile. He doesn't mention the torrential downpour that came as most people set up camp or the fact that just about everyone's clothes are still soaking wet; such things aren't a concern here. "I had a spiritual awakening last night," he says. "What was it? Oh, man, I couldn't even begin to explain it. I'm not sure I even know what it entirely means."

Andy's story is cut off as we approach a crowd in the middle of the path sitting around an expired fire. A dozen hippies bang their palms against mostly home-made drums. I ask one of the older ones if he's seen Sacharow or heard about the protests. "No, man. I think he's all the way at the prairie," he says, pointing toward the end of the path. He says his name is Freedom, which could be a reference to his emancipation from bathing. "I don't know about anything like any protest," he adds.

A pubescent girl nearby, unconcerned with talk of protests, asks if I've seen Dr. Drop. "I hear he's wearing rainbow suspenders," she says with anticipation.

Andy and I walk into an expansive opening that spreads nearly as wide as the sky, with a grassy lake across the center reflecting silver clouds. To the left is "kiddie camp," a makeshift daycare center for future campers (yes, the hippie generation has a better recruitment program than the Young Republicans). To the right is the main circle. This is where graying bongo drummers gather every night, where teenagers extinguish flaming torches in their mouths, and where dogs and children raised in houses run in barking packs.

"I don't see Barry, man," Andy says. "But don't worry. Life is good. Barry will turn up for you -- I can see it."

Without a sighting of Sacharow -- or Dr. Drop -- during a two-day visit, I catch him on his home phone back in civilization. He makes regular trips back to Broward County to sit on community boards, like Hollywood's Transportation Committee and the Human & Homeless Services advisory board. (Sacharow used to work as a paralegal but says he gets by now on very little. "I'm a road dog," he says. "I'd live in my van if my wife was OK with it.")

Sacharow says the rebellion did in fact happen, but there were far fewer insurgents than expected. About 75 of them loosely gathered farther south in the Ocala forest. "They're going around telling people that they're the real Rainbow Gathering," he says.

Sacharow says the Forestry Service won't bust the rebels unless their numbers are above 75, so that's the official count for now. The would-be coup d'état has trailed off into relative tranquility, he says. The worst of it came a few nights back when some A-camp rebels plopped a keg down in the middle of the main trail. "They left after I spent the night screaming and hollering," he says.  

For now, the two factions of this leftist utopia have reached an impasse, where the lawless and the nearly lawless can live in peace and love, in two separate camps.


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