When we tell folks that we became the unwitting hosts for the Rainbow Family’s annual gathering, the first response is "the who?" The Family’s Web site, welcomehome.org, styles the Rainbows "the largest non-organization of non-members in the world." At the beginning of July, more than 17,000 of them gathered in Big Red Park, north of Steamboat Springs, Colo., in the Routt National Forest. My husband and I, local ranchers, played hosts because this year’s get-together took over our sheep-grazing permit. Rainbow spokesman Bodhi, from New York City, said Rainbow elders chose the area because "We need a fresh water source, one main meadow that is 100 acres or larger and about 5 to 10 square miles of hippie land." Bodhi added, "We need another large meadow to accommodate thousands of vehicles."

Now, for years, we have been told that our sheep and cows are not to "lounge" in the riparian areas when they water. How could it be, we asked the Forest Service, that many thousands of people could come in, camp on a riparian area for weeks and weeks, and not worry about resource damage?

That was but one of the rubs.

Since 1972, Rainbow Family members have gathered during the first week of July. They contend, with court backing, that they are exercising their First Amendment rights to free assembly. The U.S. government maintains, also with court backing, that the authorities must issue a permit and oversee the activities as they would any other group of 75 or more.

We, the bemused locals, had several viewpoints. We live under the long shadow of the Forest Service, and, I have to admit, some secretly cheered the Rainbows’ defiance of the federal agency’s many rules and regulations. If we could only gather 17,000 of our closest friends!

We also felt invaded. Contrary to Rainbow public relations, most of the folks we saw were white, unwashed and as likely to wear Goth black as rainbow brights. They professed peace and love, but the most visible public presence was of panhandlers, hitchhikers and numerous dogs — heavy on the pit bulls.

It was a truly American experience. The Rainbow Family, with its claim of no organization, has a better-run society than many Third World countries. The advance "seed team" organized kitchens, water treatment, slit latrines, a first-aid tent, a children’s area, and an "A camp" for troublesome heavy drinkers.

A visit to the encampment, which involved running the gantlet past a heavy federal law enforcement presence and the creepy A camp, revealed a mixed group of mostly friendly people. Many were trying to live their ideals. Each July 4, Rainbows gather to pray for peace, a worthy cause indeed.

The Forest Service brought in their special-incident team, lots of law enforcement, and an enthusiasm for citing people for a variety of violations. Early on, a special court was set up in tiny Clark, Colo., to handle hundreds of citations after some Rainbow folks pelted Forest Service agents with sticks and rocks.

In our very rural community, a school-bus-type vehicle headed for the gathering swerved in front of a truck hauling gravel to the local trophy ranch, causing the driver, a local, to plunge off an embankment. After that, sympathies did not run high for the Rainbows.

Fire danger at the gathering created a real concern. The site has one narrow access road. It is very near the 1997 Routt blowdown, which left thousands of acres of downed timber, and the 2002 Hinman fire. The encampment was surrounded by red trees — some 70 percent dead from beetle kill. Yet the Rainbows had dozens of open fires even though Routt County had enacted a fire ban.

Meanwhile, the Rainbow Family and the Forest Service reached their annual impasse over a permit. The truth is, short of bringing in the National Guard and risking a Waco-type conflagration, the government will not choose to stop a Rainbow Gathering.

Where does this leave us, ranchers who have a permit with rights and responsibilities? The Rainbow group lived up to its reputation for thoroughly cleaning up after itself, filling in its latrines and fire pits, and hauling off trash. Unfortunately, no one can quickly restore the trampled meadows and streams, and those grazing animals, domestic and wild, that depend on this area for fall feed will not find the grass they need.

The First Amendment protects the right of all of us to gather, from the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade to the recent parades of immigrants in cities across the country. But what color is this Rainbow? Many hues, none of them green.

Sharon Salisbury O’Toole is a rancher, writer and poet in the Little Snake River Valley near Savery, Wyoming.