Rebellion, Maybe

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.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton