Every July, some 20,000 hippies, crust punks, nudists, anti-capitalists and "home-free" nomads descend on US park lands for a leaderless non-organized love-in known as the Rainbow Family Gathering. But when the tents come down and the patchouli oil runs out, a good chunk of attendees continue living the same radical freedom-seeking lifestyle with as few possessions and plans as possible. Author Chris Urquhart spent three years embedded with these young people who have rejected mainstream society (what they call "Babylon"). The following is an excerpt from Urquhart's forthcoming book Dirty Kids, published by Greystone Books, out this September.
"Don't you dare call me a faggot!" Sal screams at nobody in particular. He's drunk and naked, clutching a bottle of root beer in one hand and a jug of Jack Daniel's in the other. "I'm queer," he says indignantly, sitting down on Josh's bare lap. "It's different."
I will learn that an overwhelming majority of the homeless teens or performers on the road identify as queer, gay, trans, or LGBTQ2. Many have taken to the road because they have been kicked out of their homes or alienated because of their identity. I find Rainbow's open atmosphere comforting, being queer identified myself and having felt alienated within both my own family and community as a result. Straightness is not assumed in Rainbowland, nor is it deemed supreme.
The spring, at first shockingly warm, soothes my sunburns and bug bites. Kitra and I are naked and submerged. Mud and sludge melt off of us like hot butter. We watch the shenanigans from the sidelines. Sal's yelps unnerve the more demure Babylonian bathers sharing the hot spring, who eye us suspiciously. In Babylon, the kids can drink excessively and out in the open without breaking the Rainbow rule against booze, and they are taking full advantage of this luxury.
"I heard that salt water heals scabies!" Moe jokes, hoping to clear the crowded spring and make more room for her friends.
"What about herpes?" Josh kids.
"Or hep C?"
It works. Strangers' bodies exit the spring quickly: they don't want to chance infection. Soon, we're alone. In the water, kids compare bites and cuts, nipples and scars, their mouths slurping whiskey and swapping spit with their friends and lovers. I forget who's dating whom, but it doesn't matter anymore. The boundaries of young bodies blur under hot water. I'm introduced to a whole cast of tattoos: barbed wire, peace signs, and stick-and-poke tattoos done with just a needle and ink aplenty. I am surrounded by exposed skin. But nobody stares or points. Nobody criticizes. The kids are confident with their bodies, a somewhat strange phenomenon, I note, for North American teenagers. They willingly let Kitra snap nude photos. I try my best to keep out of the frame.
"Come on, Dan, jump in!" Sal shouts, and his puppy bounds fearlessly into the spring. A membrane of fur unfolds atop the water. "Good boy!"
When the night begins to cool, Moe and Sicka are still necking. They're clean now, dirt stripped off. Their soft bodies come together like folded hands. Moe breaks off suddenly, jumping atop a rock, proudly displaying her lean, perfect frame: I admire her thinness, her round breasts and moonlit skin. I admire her ability to expose herself so openly, without reservation. Sicka's stomach looms underwater. I can see the outline of the stab wound from across the spring. A black tattoo under her neck reads, Tilt. She exhales smoke through her teeth as her girlfriend shouts and drinks. Sicka licks her chapped lips in the murky water as the daylight vanishes into darkness.
Panic hits me. I realize the hike out, without a flashlight, will be nearly impossible. It took us an hour to climb up here in broad daylight, and I have no sweater, no towel, and no sober ride back to Rainbow. As usual, Kitra is unfazed, soaking up her surroundings, constantly clicking. I tell her I'm tired. She nods. She is ready to spend the night with these kids, ready to wake up in the morning and do it all over again, every day, from here on out. She seems annoyed when she realizes I want to leave. I convince a stranger with a flashlight and a car to take me back to the Gathering, and Kitra comes with me, grudgingly.