Joe was quick to provide the varied “experiences” that would ostensibly make me a better writer. Within the first six months of dating him, I’d attended my first Passover seder, played the part of a hypochondriac in an amateur film, and started my own organic garden. Outside of Greentown, I’d backpacked in the wilderness, camped in the Dry Tortugas, and rowed through the Everglades. Having survived, I could now put up a tent, filter water, make dinner on a camp stove, and squat in such a way that I didn’t piss on my own feet.
Only after all that could I have thought that attending a national gathering of hippies would be a good idea. I don’t know how Joe talked me into going—how he talked me into anything, really—but there we were at the annual gathering of the Rainbow Family of Living Light, in Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia.
The best word I can use to describe the way I felt the first day at Rainbow is “vulnerable.” I wasn’t quite prepared for such a gritty oneness with nature. People cooked in makeshift kitchens constructed from fallen trees, pissed anywhere, and shit in trenches. The unmistakable smell of b.o. permeated the forest. And yes, hippies do have dirty feet.
The odoriferous hippies with mud-caked feet were genuinely nice, though—disarmingly so. I felt self-conscious because I wasn’t wearing the hippie “costume,” but everyone I met made me feel accepted and welcome. That day, I was wearing plaid pajama pants, a pink fleece, and hiking boots. Joe had on a dark blue mechanic’s suit—from a thrift store, of course—with the name “Polcari” sewn on the pocket. As the trail we were on wound through Fairy Camp—the gay camp—an obvious admirer of Joe complimented both of our outfits, saying Joe’s suit was “hot.” I had already told myself not to be surprised by anything, a policy I instituted while being served Tofu Scramble by a woman with bare breasts, and which served me well a few minutes later when I was offered a dose of LSD by a man in a cape who appeared to have a medieval tonsure.
That first night we went to Main Meadow with Joe’s extremely creepy friend Neal, a longtime Rainbower. Joe said that Neal was a comedian, but as far as I could tell, the great motivations of his life were drugs, sex, and nakedness. I had been around Neal a few times before, and he’d always unsettled me. So when he suggested that we start up Angel Walk, I was alarmed.
“Oh, dude,” he said. “You have to do Angel Walk.”
“What is it?” I asked warily.
“It’s…well, I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.”
Just then Neal spotted a barely legal girl in tie-dyed garb with a mouth full of braces and a pair of fairy wings on her back. “Oh, this one’s so cute. She’s got a boyfriend though. Hey, hey, sister! What’s your name again?”
Her smile was huge and she was way too colorful. “Lovelight,” she replied sweetly.
Lovelight, I thought, was the nominal equivalent of eating fifty Air Heads. I suddenly felt sick. Neal’s presence lent an air of toxicity to the whole experience.
“And how’s your boyfriend…what’s his name again?”
“Oh,” she giggled—and just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse—“Kaleidoscope.”
This girl’s mouth was like a kaleidoscope. I didn’t need any LSD to reap the hallucinogenic benefits of her smile. The Grateful Dead bears appeared to dance on her teeth. I tried to make a face at Joe, but was unable to do so without appearing rude.
Before I had a chance to ask Neal further information about Angel Walk, we ran into a friend of his. He introduced us by the Rainbow names we chose: “Hey man, these are my friends, Photosynthesis and Biodegradable.”
“Photosynthesis, welcome,” the friend said, hugging me.
“We’re about to do Angel Walk,” Neal told him.
“What is Angel Walk?” I ask again, hoping for a specific answer.
“Whoa, Angel Walk. Well, if you don’t do anything else at Rainbow, you have to do that, man. It’s the most life-changing, life-affirming thing here.”
“But what…what is it?” I persisted.
“It’s all about receiving love and giving love,” Neal replied in a dreamy voice.
I balked at that. This Angel Walk sounded like some kinky thing Neal might be in to, but not me. “What the hell do you actually do?” I hissed to Joe.
“Just do it,” Neal said. “Just get in line. It’ll be fun, I promise.”
Being told by a creepy, unstable drug addict that something will be “fun” is not, in my humble opinion, the least bit reassuring. But a line was already forming and I didn’t want to lose Joe in the crowd, so I followed. People appeared to be forming a massage chain, at which I visibly bristled. Up ahead, two lines formed a sort of gauntlet for each person in line to walk through.
“What do I have to do?” I asked Neal anxiously.
“Nothing,” he said. “Just close your eyes and they’ll guide you through. They’ll give you affirmations and tell you how great you are.”
“Are they going to touch me?”
“Just relax! Hey, this is a great time to be in line. There’s tons of chicks here.”
I gritted my teeth. Ahead of me, Joe was being received by the first guy in line, who gave him a long hug and said, “Welcome, brother. Close your eyes. Good. Now turn around and let me sage you.”
Saging, apparently, involved waving an incense burner around Joe’s body. Before I had time to theorize on the purpose of saging, it was my turn. I had no idea what to do but smile hugely and let the angels guide me with their hugs and caresses. “Such a beautiful smile,” cooed a particularly vapid hippie. “Her smile lights up the meadow.”
“What a beautiful sister,” said another in assent. “We’re so glad you’re here. Welcome home. You’re safe. You’re with your family now.”
We returned to Main Meadow the next day to celebrate July fourth. On the way there we got accosted by Neal, who dragged us past the large outer circle and into a smaller inner circle where everyone was holding hands. It wasn’t bad, as I was able to sit slightly outside the circle and write—that is, until Joe took away my precious notebook and made me “participate.” This incense stinks and is making me sneeze. I think the scent is Hippie Armpit. Also, there are way too many naked butts and pierced scrotums (scroti?). Beside me, a dark woman in a red frock lay supine in the meadow, lazily fingering a tear in the covering of her parasol. Many were meditating in yogic poses. Most sat in reverent silence, as sunup to noon had been designated for silent prayer. A few A-campers walked by and jeered, “Fuck the hippies!”
A-camp is the name for the only camp where alcohol is permitted, and as our friend at the medical station put it, “A-camp is a lot of fucked-up shit.”
A rising ohm marked noontime. Neal was the first to break the ohm with a “Youp!” of joy, and some other people followed suit. The children’s parade approached, the first few tots carrying a rainbow banner, and music broke out as the parade made its way toward the inner circle. Main Meadow became a huge party, with almost the whole Gathering celebrating, greeting and hugging each other, dancing to drumbeats, feasting on watermelon and apples.
As Joe and I were packing up later that afternoon, we realized that we had been together seven months to the day. “Hey man, congratulations,” said a camper standing nearby. He disappeared into his tent and then returned to present us with a very large can of yellow cling peaches in heavy syrup. “Happy Anniversary.”
We shared those peaches with our brothers and sisters, and I was feeling unusually optimistic. People had been so kind to me, and as uncomfortable as it was to adjust to, I did feel a kind of freedom that weekend. For the last few years, my life had been dominated by the most intense desire to get married and start a family, and for the first time, I was opening myself to experience and enjoying the moment.
Which was good. Because what lay ahead, to quote Andy at the medical tent, was a lot of fucked-up shit.
 I got blisters.
 The Dry Tortugas is the mostly westerly key of Key West. You have to take an hour-long ferry ride to get there. I threw up three times.
 I got chiggers.
Photo credits: rainbowgatherings.org, people.tribe.net