An awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and powerful for words.
My hosts of the open road weren’t just driving cross country, they were counter-culture idealists on their way to something that could change their lives.
They were on their way from Vermont to Montana in order to join a huge Rainbow Gathering. They weren’t just party bound, though a party it will be.
Apocalypse Julie, Rainbow Eric and the Electric Leprechaun found me hitchhiking at a Chicago oasis and though I joined them in the same faded red 1998 Subaru Outback, we were pointed in different directions.
I wanted a tour of their sub-culture.
These counter-culturists didn’t know what they wanted but they wanted more than rivers and mountains flashing past. More than anything ordinary, they wanted something too deep and powerful for words. They wanted more.
Leprechaun chasing a Rainbow
I’m using their funny nicknames because they believed in fun, as if it were oxygen. Though in their 30s, they loved fun mixed with child’s play.
“Insanity workout. Insanity workout. Insanity. If you’re not insane before the workout, you will be after,” Rainbow Eric yelled repeatedly.
Electric Leprechaun knew this to be his cue. On the short side, with red hair, red beard and red shirt, Electric Leprechaun sprung into action.
In a hardware store parking lot in Sparta, Wisconsin, passing drivers wondered what was going on as the four of us rushed to form an enthusiastic circle in the center of the lot.
He touched his nose. We touched our noses. He touched his toes. We touched our toes. He sat in the parking lot. We did too.
“Meditate,” he said.
We crossed our legs and sat in a lotus position for what seemed like hours.
Then he got up and walked away without an expression on his face.
The promise of insanity was unfilled in me, but it was a successful exercise in roadside spectacle.
That same evening we passed over the Mississippi River and stayed in Great Bluffs State Park, with its stunning river valley overviews.
We told stories around the campfire. Rainbow Eric told a story of his first Rainbow Festival and how he realized how many good things happen to him when he needs them the most. Apocalypse Julie told one about grandparents who teamed up to be private investigators, she might want to join them when she gets back home.
Electric Leprechaun told a story about his first dumpster dive. He was in his early teens and found high-tech stereo speakers. Ever since, he’s been looking for treasure (pot o’ gold?) in dumpsters.
I thought of that story often when we pulled over for rest stops or gas. He always darted off to a dumpster. At one gas station he came back sharing broccoli, cauliflower, donuts and cookies. At several others, he just ate his pizza or pork sandwich.
Electric Leprechaun is no new-age eater. He rolls his own cigarettes and eats junk food from dumpsters.
At one point, Apocalypse Julie told me the leprechaun is “famous” around Burlington because he’s lived with everybody and he lives “off the grid,” not needing money for most of what he loves to do.
The Burlington area near the University of Vermont has long been a haven for American counter-culture and the 38-year-old Electric Leprechaun has lived there front and center.
He says its best days have past though, “because of the cops.”
He does occasionally work. He talked about panning for gold in Alaska and taking either $6,000 or $12,000 out of the rivers there.
That image, I thought, the leprechaun panning for gold.
Mostly, he talked about his photography (which I viewed it on his iPhone), paintings, music (guitar and cello), sewing and numerous other pursuits. He says he’s written a book, “Zen and the Art of Trans-World Dumpster Diving.”
He talks about his love for his two daughters and seeing the world.
Sometimes he would end his stories with a twist and laugh like a central casting mad man. He thought the laugh was funny, and he was right.
He told me about other “intentional communities” outside the Rainbow Gathering, with names like Blueberry Hill and Dancing Rabbit. I told him I’d visited Findhorn in Scotland.
He had opinions too about America. He was concerned about homelessness and wanted America to be a more friendly, informed place.
He’d let in the world’s homeless and they’d have to close down the government. Our government, he says, doesn’t want people to travel because people who travel gain knowledge and knowledge is power.
He was fond of playing his iPhone under his conductor’s hat. Once, I asked who was playing the violin (badly) and he said, “It’s a friend of mine but I don’t think he liked that violin.”
I still can see the look on his face as something akin to Jack Benny on the violin came wafting from his hat.
He told stories about being raised in privilege. His father is a college economics professor but college was a waste of time for him.
Much of the time on the ride, he was quiet, living in his private world where I imagined he visited far out ideas and made himself laugh.
Eric upside down
Eric objected to being called a hippie until Apocalypse Julie chided him, “don’t betray your people … if you’re not a hippie then everything I know about you is wrong.”
Eric likes Julie, so he relented, whether he believes he is really a hippie or not.
Rainbow Eric has black curly hair, tinted glasses, blue eyes and a bit of a belly. When he talks, he comes off as smart and earnest.
“We’re all pretty out there,” he warned once.
He has hitchhiked a lot and once lived in Slab City, California. He wears a T-shirt made of hemp and he’s on his way to the Rainbow Gathering, not his first.
He once wrote an incredible reggae song that he’s never sung and he’s never heard sung.
“I can’t sing it. It’s too good. It’s in a pitch I can’t reach. I don’t know where it came from but it just came to me. It’s really good though.”
Then he smiles. Ya!
At several stops along the ride, he’d walk off, find a tree and do a handstand and come back. Helps the circulation to the brain.
Apocalypse Julie is right, he might be a hippie.
Like everyone in the car, his long-term plans are up in the air.
As a hint of Eric’s future, I looked at the books he was reading. “Sea-Steading” by Jerome Fitzgerald, about traveling the world while living on a sailboat. “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett is about an Amazon jungle adventure.
I suspect he’s looking for a place or way of life to feel most alive.
Rethinking Rainbows and Leprechauns
Rainbow Gathering people say there is a kind of magic going on there. Some of it, no doubt, is drug induced.
I asked my ride if they just walk around high for days on end. They were offended, no, they said.
I was under the impression you all smoked weed and did hallucinogens.
“But not hard drugs,” Eric said, “like heroin or crack.”
Leprechauns are the trickster fairies of Ireland, in some stories they have a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. They live in a dream-like dimension and only sometimes pop back into this world.
Their trick is that there is no end to a rainbow. No X marks the spot. There are, however, scientific explanations for rainbows. One of the definitions of rainbows in the dictionary is, “illusory hope.” They just don’t capture the magic.
I’ll be missing their drive back to Vermont after the Rainbow Gathering and won’t know if they achieved anything transcendental, or what the Japanese call yugen.
Goodbyes were said at a McDonald’s in Butte, Montana. We hugged and Eric said I was their friend now.
Then they beat it out of town in that old Subaru and melted into their dream-soaked mountains.