Some years ago I landed an assignment from the Las Vegas Review-Journal to cover a gathering of the Rainbow Family in a remote corner of northern Nevada. I began by looking up the name and learned that the Rainbows are devoted followers of the Grateful Dead. Each July they descend on public land for several days of spiritual communion with mother nature. The event could be termed a love-in; however, law enforcement typically treats it the same as they would the Watts riot.
One reason I was chosen to cover the event: I drive a vintage Volkswagen bus. Another reason: the newspaper didn’t wish to endanger the life of a regular staffer. “Take an expendable camera,” I was advised.
Turns out my camera was never at risk; that is, so long as I didn’t take any pictures with it. Well, I was permitted to take pictures provided I asked permission first, but how does one go about asking permission of a stark naked stranger? Desperate, I took up a position near a boulder marking the beginning of the foot trail that leads into Robinson Hole. I prefocused my Leica on the rock and sat down, pretending to fiddle with my shoelaces.
By and by a small band of Rainbows came along and stopped in front of the boulder.
“Look at that!” said one. “What kind of an asshole would deface a nice rock like that?”
On the boulder were written the words: “Protect Yet Local Biosphere.”
The Rainbows took out their water bottles and attempted to wash the words off the rock. I silently cursed them. The graffiti was an important element in my composition!
By and by they gave up and moved on down the trail. Along came a solitary Rainbow pilgrim, naked from the waist down. Without lifting the camera to my eye I pressed the shutter and voila! I had my picture.
Now all I needed were some interviews—but, alas, the Rainbows are disinclined to talk to reporters. So I hatched a scheme whereby I would give three pilgrims a ride into Twin Falls on the condition they would take turns speaking into my tape recorder. Also, I would be allowed to photograph each and take down their imaginary names. Voila! I now had enough material to write my story.
Having lived in the wilderness for several days without decent beds and running water, what my passengers most desired was a motel room. Unfortunately, inn keepers in Twin were disinclined to rent rooms to hippies. So I agreed to negotiate for a room, whilst my newfound friends hunkered low in my VW bus. The difficulty lay in smuggling them into the room, which wasn’t easy since the office commanded a good view of the parking lot. Happily, my VW bus has a sliding side door.
Once my friends were tucked in, I went in search of a room for myself. I was lucky to find one, considering the proprietor had been keeping a wary eye out for Volkswagen buses.
“I’m sure glad you ain’t one of them rainbow people,” he said as I signed the register. “They been tryin’ t’ sneak inta rooms all over town!”
“That’s awful,” I said. “I imagine you haven’t had much interaction with the counterculture in Twin Falls, Idaho.”
“Not since word got out they’re not welcome here,” said the manager. He then went on to reminisce about a group of hippies who had once attempted to set up housekeeping in Twin Falls. No sooner had they hung their paisley curtains than someone torched the place.
“You shoulda seen then longhairs runnin.’ It was like ants on fire!”
Come morning I had finished writing my story and phoned it in. (This was in the days before the personal computer.) Now all I had to do was get my film onto a bus bound for Las Vegas. When I got to the Greyhound station, there was no one there except a lone longhaired Rainbow guy.
“Dunno what’s going on,” he said. “Door’s unlocked, but nobody’s inside.”
We two hung around for half an hour, but nobody showed. The bus could be coming along at any minute, but where, oh where, was the station agent? At last I decided to climb over the counter and rifle through the files in search of a phone number. I called it, and presently the agent pulled up.
“I’m so happy it was you and who discovered the door was unlocked,” she whispered in my ear. “And not HIM!”
“Yeah, it’s an absolute miracle,” I said. “Who knows what might have happened.”
Assignment completed, I climbed into my Volkswagen bus and headed south on highway 93. Somewhere in the vicinity of Jackpot, a part of the country inhabited exclusively by old white men (and women), I pulled over because I thought I had heard an odd noise from the engine compartment. Immediately, I was joined by a Nevada highway patrolman. Soon as I alighted from my van, he relaxed his grip on his service pistol. Not to worry, it’s just another old white man.
We had an amiable chat, and all the while I kept wondering what would have happened had my hair been longer, my dress less conventional and more fragrant. Would I have ended up, like so many enroute to Rainbow gatherings, standing helplessly by while law enforcement officials ransacked my car? Might I have objected, and been thrown in jail? It happens all the time to some people, but it didn’t happen to me. Because, you see, I’m old, white, and know better than to make a fuss.