For most of the year, 22-year-old Denise Puente lives in a house with her parents and does medical billing for a doctor in Coral Gables. She likes taking pictures and hula hooping on the beach.
But every February, she runs off to the Rainbow Gathering in Ocala National Forest to live in a tent for weeks, without bathrooms, money, or cell phone service -- even renaming herself "Picture" while she's there.
People at the Gathering sleep in tents, on mats, or the forest floor. There is a barter economy to ensure currency has no value, but staples like food and water are given to whomever may need them, as are pot and cigarettes. The goal is to create a peaceful community where everyone contributes to communal well-being.
To some, the Rainbow Family is just a bunch of freeloading hobos. To others, they're inspirational. "It's beautiful," said Puente. "It's a way to water the seed the hippies planted in the '60s."
The first Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes in the U.S. actually happened in 1972 in Colorado. A group of self-proclaimed hippies, the Rainbow Family of Living Light, sent an open invitation to anyone who wanted to join them in the woods for four days of chanting and meditation. The Colorado Gathering of '72 was a national event. According to the Rainbow Family guide site WelcomeHome.org, regional Gatherings started springing up in the mid-1980s as a way to come together more often and more easily.
Now they occur in every state throughout the year -- as long as there is a forest, the hippies can populate it. Though there is no official head count, since information is mostly spread through word of mouth, the group's Wikipedia page claims there can be 5,000 people at regional gatherings and 30,000 at national ones.
Puente was introduced to the Family by a friend about five years ago. Since her Ocala Gathering experience, Puente has become a sort of "commuter hippie," going off the grid for a while but always returning to a home, a job, and a life in "Babylon," the hippies' name for the outside world.
She has also attended regional Gatherings in Tallahassee and Lake Mary, Florida; one in Asheville, North Carolina; and a national gathering somewhere in the woods of Pennsylvania.
Puente says hippies who don't have a home outside the forest live on the road, going from Gathering to Gathering or finding their way into festivals like Burning Man. Some, like her friend "Sugarbear," live in small rural neighborhoods in the woods, where they don't need to adjust to the pace of life in "Babylon." Others commute, like Puente. But when you're coming from an underground society where nothing belongs to anyone and everything belongs to everyone, the move to a city that doesn't accept that philosophy is challenging. For some, it's similar to homelessness. Puente recalls a group of commuter hippies who brought their friend "Flash" into Miami. "He told them, 'Oh, I just need a ride. I'll find my way, I'll find a group of Rainbows,'" she said. "He ended up calling my friend every day, asking for rides or weed. [They] can't survive away from the woods. Dude, it's not the woods! It's society. It's two different worlds."
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