I don’t often travel without a plan of some sort. In the past, I always felt constricted by my premeditated itinerary, but too wimpy to wrap it up in caution and throw it out the window. But, when I travelled last week to New Mexico, I tried to grow; I had a firm destination—Chaco Canyon National Park—but was unsure of exactly when I would arrive and where I would find myself along the way.
I was going to Chaco Canyon to teach astronomy, part of the park’s volunteer corps, assigned to the Astronomy in Parks program. Being a good nerd, I left my tent at home to free up enough suitcase weight to allow me to bring a telescope, mount, eyepieces, red flashlight and star atlas. I found a camping store in Albuequerque and bought a one-man tent, threw it into the back of the rental car—from the company with the name that would warm any nerd’s heart—and headed up route 550 towards the four corners.
I should back up a little bit. I took a taxi from the airport to the rental car agency downtown. My cabbie was clean cut, middle-aged, a self-professed amateur astrophysicist, and very chatty. He knew my whole plan, including the fuzzy parts, by the time we pulled in front of the agency. He suddenly took out a card—he’s a musician—and said: “You know, you’re going right by Cuba. There’s a gathering of people there starting this weekend, hippies.” He drew me a little map on the back of the card. I hadn’t accepted it quite yet, but I had my layover destination, just off the main road in the Sante Fe National Forest.
The Rainbow Family is an annual gathering of thousands of hippies. Each year they choose another natural spot, descend from all directions in all forms of vehicle from rubber soles and thumbs to VW campers to the oddly incongruous Beamers, hike into the forest, and live for a week in total freedom. I remembered hearing about the after Katrina sacked New Orleans, how the hippies emerged from the forest and set up kitchens to feed people. It was anarchism in praxis, people actively trying to create the kind of community they wished to see. So what if they smelled like patchouli? I had to check it out.
I went as an ambassador, my telescope on my back as I hiked in the last 2 miles. Hippies, I come from a different family—the nerds. I come in peace. Take me to your drum circle.
The first thing anybody said to me wasn’t “Welcome Home,” though I would hear that about hundred times that day. (It’s the Rainbow Family greeting.) No, a particularly scraggly looking guy with a scraggly looking dog snickered at me and my telescope: “Weirdo.”
I raged inside. Weirdo? Are you kidding me? Here I have to profess something that has bothered me about the “counterculture” since it turned me off from going to art school when I was in high school. My problem is that all the folks busy being different start to look the same once you’re among them; personal expression starts to becomes another mindless uniform. Not just appearance, but patterns of speech and patterns of thought. I ran through this old argument silently in my head, and then got over it. I wasn’t being fair. People should be affiliating with them that share their values. They’re called affinity groups. I belong to one called an Astronomy Club, and yes, they probably would call a Hippy with a giant rain stick a “Weirdo,” too. I had come to bring peace, at least, a little bit of it.
I walked on into the unknown. I got some chai and an introduction on how to poop in the forest from a Bahai follower named Wind, and walked to the Meadow. There were the drummers and dancers and little campfires and of course, plumes of pot smoke pretty much everywhere. I pitched a tent somewhere near Camp Love, founded by an ex-soldier named Kane, asked a guy for help bringing my telescope down to the Meadow, and set up not too far from the big wooden map where people attempted to get their bearings. “Dude, have you seen ‘Shut Up and Eat? They have the best soy milk and wheat grass curry…”
The night was mostly clear with a waxing moon, and my scope and I had a lot of attention. People were great. I’ve never done outreach to stoners before. They see more than most people do. “Dude, I see craters on Saturn’s moon!” (That’s not possible, though I didn’t contradict the person.) Everyone, however, who looked through the scope was genuinely moved, effusive in their praise (of my presence there and of the heavens), and almost everyone gave me a hug. I probably showed 50 people something (Saturn, Albireo, M13—the usuals) and about half of them have never looked through a telescope. I felt like I had already started to fulfill my mission of bringing a view of the universe to those that need seeing it.
The Rainbow Family were warm and cheerful, and very appreciative. The loose but highly functional organization of the place was impressive. They somehow managed to hike in enough soy milk and wheat grass, set up enough free kitchens, to feed everyone. They take care about hygiene, well, at least about where they poop. And they are subjected to suspicion and low-level intimidation from law enforcement from miles around, all secretly grateful that they have such a large and scrawny audience in front of which they can strut their manly lawfulness.
It was nice to see so many folks enjoying each other’s company in relative peace. When’s the last time you went camping with 8,000 other people simply because you simply liked their company? They are on to something, and if the country collapses when oil runs out or the oceans swamp all the coasts, and we all become refuges from modernity (like what happened after Katrina), well, there might just be a smiling Bahai in a tent waiting for you with a warm cup of Soy Chai.
The next morning I woke up to rain on my little tent, quickly packed up and continued on my way, out of the comparatively lush forest of Ponderosa Pine and Aspen, back into the semidesert, and down the long dirt road to Chaco Canyon, which is another story.