Photos by Aaron Strebs & Elise McDonough

It’s about an hour past dawn on the morning of July 4—Independence Day—and I’m standing completely naked before a mountain stream, trying to persuade myself to jump all the way into its cold, clear waters. I’ve dipped my toes in already, washing away a thick layer of dark brown dust accumulated after a few days of walking the 50 miles of winding trails that now crisscross the majestic alpine forest surrounding the stream on all sides. One trail leads to Yoga camp, another to the Hare Krishnas, the Christians, Jerusalem camp, the massage lodge, the trading circle, Information, Peace Village, Kiddie Village, Musical Veggie, Granola Funk, Lovin’ Ovens or any of a dozen other elaborate kitchens scattered in the woods, set up to feed me, you or anyone else gathered in Colorado’s Routt National Forest, all for free—in fact, everything essential’s always free here, including entry, parking, food, water, basic health care, brotherly love and even the entertainment, at a 20-foot-tall pirate ship set up to serve as a stage for Gypsy-style sing-alongs. Gifting, trading and donating are highly recommended; buying and selling are not permitted, nor are they necessary. Anyone with a belly button gets treated like family.

The stream’s fairly shallow, even at its deepest points, so I curl into a tight ball to ensure that I fully submerge. By the time my body bobs back to the surface, the shock to the system’s so acute that I must bite my lower lip to keep from calling out in agony/ecstasy. I’m not worried about any of my many brothers and sisters seeing me in my birthday suit. This place is like the Garden of Eden before the serpent and the tree of knowledge—when Adam and Eve were still naked and not ashamed—but per a longstanding Rainbow tradition, today has been set aside for a silent meditation that will last until the Family comes together at “hippie noon” to join hands in a prayer for world peace. And since screaming “Holy shit, that’s cold!” at the top of my lungs doesn’t seem to fit the mood, I hold my breath as I pull myself up onto the bank of the stream to dry in the sun.

Since 1972, the Rainbow Family of Living Light has been assembling on federal land, with no permits and no leaders. Despite official government repression, including the arrest of hundreds of Family members at this year’s 35th annual national gathering—many simply for attending an “illegal gathering”—the world’s largest “non-organization of non-members” still drew an estimated 20,000 seekers of peace, love and understanding to this middle of nowhere for a slice of life lived off the grid and far removed from the machinery of modern-day existence—a place where water comes not from a faucet or a bottle but from the stream, filtered for drinking after running through miles of pipe lovingly laid by the hands of the earliest-arriving Family members, an all-volunteer advance crew that selflessly puts in long, hard weeks preparing the site for the heavy influx of humanity in the days leading up to July 4. These scouts first began their vital mission during a consensus-based council held at last year’s gathering in West Virginia, working together to find and agree on a suitable location featuring a fresh-water source and a main meadow of at least 100 acres, with room enough left over to park the cars and pitch the tents of the entire Family once they arrive en masse.