IN THE CHEQUAMEGON-NICOLET NATIONAL FOREST — For a long time, Bikash Chhetri searched for a place where he felt “more connected to the world.”
And he found it this week — at the Rainbow Gathering.
Even though this is his first gathering, he said Tuesday he feels like he belongs to the community that’s non judgemental. “It’s like a family,” he said. “Even though I don’t know a soul here.”
Chhetri joins thousands of others congregating in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin for the annual Rainbow Gathering. As one approaches the gathering, a colorful “welcome home” sign is stretched above the main trail, and the phrase is repeated from gatherer to gatherer as they walk through the trails. The phrase reflects how many attendees say they feel: that they’re coming home — even though the gathering’s location moves every year and thousands attend.
The Rainbow Gathering is an annual, weeklong meeting of the Rainbow Family, who join together and camp each year at a new national forest location and pray for world peace. The gathering began in the 1970s.
This year, the Rainbow Family is building their community in the northern Wisconsin national forest. The community — although lacking leaders and committees — contains numerous kitchens, a children's area, stages, information booths, first-aid services, a trading avenue and a swimming area, among many others.
A expansive “main meadow” serves as the gathering’s focal point. Here, gatherers eat dinner in a circle, have set up camp in the shady areas along the edge and hold a prayer for world peace on the Fourth of July, among numerous other activities.
Participants say the prayer for peace is a pinnacle moment of the gathering. They will hold hands in a large circle and chant “om” three times as children from area dubbed “Kid Village” parade in.
Light — who identified herself only by her self-appointed rainbow name and described herself as from "everywhere" — said she attends gatherings because society lacks compassion.
“This is the one place I can be myself, without people saying, ‘hey, you can’t be yourself,’” she said.
Like many other gatherers, Light's rainbow name has a personal meaning. She said it reflects how she brings light to others.
“I’m here to remind people of magic. To remind people that life isn’t so bad,” she said.
As many people camp at the gathering for days or weeks, food and water is provided through collaborating efforts across the gathering.
Kitchens are a common source of food and serve as community centers. One kitchen, called “Instant Soup,” provides vegan meals, which is mostly soup, at all hours for upward of 300 people a day. On Tuesday, the kitchen was lively and loud as people greeted old friends, chefs prepared food and others lounged along all sides of it. An energetic group played music next to the kitchen, providing entertainment and background noise.
Andy Barkan, who also known by his rainbow name Avocado and is from Wyoming, is a regular of the kitchen, as he spends around three weeks every year at the gathering.
Barkan has returned to Instant Soup every year since 2003 because “of the constant ability of to be able to serve,” he said. “The more that you give of yourself, the more blessings that you get. The more blessings you get, the more that you can give back.”
To keep food and supplies sanitary, this kitchen and the rest of the gathering follow a “don’t touch your thing to the thing” rule. This is where, for example, gathers don’t touch their bowls to a ladle while they're being served.
Much like other societies, smaller communities exist inside of the larger rainbow community. Barkan said each kitchen has its own community and moral values, especially as families tend to gather around food.
Instant Soup’s community revolves around family, outreach, feeding others with nutritious meals and a safe space for everyone.
This kitchen gets its food from donations from other gatherers and the Organic Valley farmer's co-op, as well as from the “main supply,” said Elizabeth Foley, also known as Eep, who is at her 17th gathering and is an artist. During large evening dinners that occur in the main meadow, a “magic hat” is passed for people donate money. This money is used to buy supplies in bulk.
Foley brought her 8-year-old son, who was playing Magic the Gathering with others at the kitchen on Tuesday, to the gathering. Like many others, she also called members of the kitchen her “family.” She’s been attending gatherings for around 20 years and has known some at Instant Soup since the beginning.
The gathering is also an opportunity for her to go camping on her own, as she feels safer and has better access to supplies. “I don’t imagine that I’ll stop,” Foley said.
For another Rainbow Family member, Tavia Paretes, the gathering is also a family affair. She’s been going to gatherings since she was 7 years old, when her grandmother brought her. Now, on her 17th gathering, she brought her own 7-year-old son. She still attends with her grandmother.
“I think it brings you something in each part of your life. When you’re young, it gives you a lot of freedom,” she said. “And when I was a teenager, it brought a lot of different perspectives and lifestyles. And then as an adult, I more just enjoy the hiking aspect and being in nature.”
She brought her son to experience the variety of people and cultures at the gathering. “You just want them to eat up the world,” she said.
Instead of food, some camps specialize in providing water.
Long hoses wind through the woods going from the water source to the camp of Jesta, who only identified himself by his rainbow name. At his camp along the main meadow, he’s rigged up a large water tank with filters that’s powered by solar panels. This water has a spout in the main meadow, which anyone is allowed to use.
While many camps focus on food and water, some also specialize in other things, like messages and spinning fire, Jesta said.
Another population activity for gatherers is trading. Those looking to trade slowly crept along a long line of blankets, eyeing up items they may want to trade or barter for. These items range from clothing, to food, to tobacco, to jewelry, to crystals, to trinkets — and anything in between.
Peppermint Patty, who only identified herself by her rainbow name, had set up a blanket full on Tuesday of clothing and jewelry her friends made. Although she trade items every year, she said her favorite part of gatherings are drumming circles and the prayer for peace.
Although many have been gathering for years, this was some individual's first gathering. Creeper, who gave his rainbow name, is attending his first gathering. His camp, which is located in front of the “welcome home” banner, had set up a handicap-friendly latrine. This latrine was a raised toilet made of plywood, instead of the trenches that many other use.
Initially, he wasn’t sure what to expect. But, he now said “it’s just kind of a magical place” because of the positive “vibes” of the gatherers.
Chhetri, who is from Georgia and works as a real estate investor, said the gathering has changed him as it served a place where he can "re-energize" from work that was detrimental to his "spirit." Now, he said he will focus more on his happiness, sharing with others and being more open.
“I think this will fundamentally change my life," he said.