HEBER CITY — Nick Ward was released from the Army in Seattle and on his way home to San Antonio when he picked up two hitchhikers.
They said they were on their way to the Rainbow Family of Living Light gathering, this year held 15 miles east of Heber City, near the east fork of the Duchesne River and the Currant Creek Reservoir. Having previously gone to a similar gathering in Bosnia, Ward decided to take the detour in Utah and join them.
His story is not dissimilar to the thousands of other stories from those who have begun to gather here. Up to 20,000 are expected at the encampment, seeking a community of Hippy-like enthusiasts to commune with. A woman who goes by the name Mint came up with members of the Rainbow Family she met in Moab. A man who goes by the name Anonymous came to the group as a hitchhiker in the early 80s and has returned each year, to whichever state is hosting the gathering. They're already here.
"Thousands and thousands of hippies will be up here in the mountains living together . . . It's all about world peace and praying for world peace and learning to live with nature," Anonymous said, laughing.
Perhaps that describes most of the gatherers. But Forest Service officials and law enforcement officers are bracing for the part of the crowd that may be less interested in obeying area laws and regulations.
"With a group of seven (thousand) to 20,000 people, you're going to have a lot of very good people but a few folks that are probably less than perfect," said David Whittekiend, supervisor of the Uinta- Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
"When the Rainbow Family descended upon Summit County in 2003 they were definitely a lawless group, particularly as it relates to the prelude leading up to the event."
Other members of law enforcement have less-diplomatic opinions of the group, born from past experience.
"When the Rainbow Family descended upon Summit County in 2003 they were definitely a lawless group, particularly as it relates to the prelude leading up to the event," Summit County Sheriff Dave Edmunds said.
Crimes ranged from petty theft, lewdness and drug crimes to assaults and sexual assaults, Edmunds said.
Rain and snow descended on the camp Tuesday, prompting Edmunds to question whether early arrivals would be prepared for the winter- like conditions. Those who come early are part of the seed camp, here to put in place latrines and faux kitchens in preparation of the main event that begins July 1 and lasts about a week.
Almost 100 people were already staying in tents, lean-tos, campers and busses Tuesday. They try to establish a few ground rules with local law enforcement officials. A makeshift cardboard sign at a fork in the road between two meadows warned of a fine for those who camped beyond that point; a group of the Rainbow Family pitched their tents a few hundred yards past the sign.
"Hippie politics," Ward said of the sign, explaining that while this year's gathering was nice, the gathering in Bosnia that he attended had fewer rules and allowed people to do what they wanted.
Mid-June is about the time that "the Rainbows will start trickling in," according to Beaverhead County Sheriff Jay Hansen, in Montana.
The Rainbow Family came to his county in 2013, swelling the town's population to twice its size. The group visited the county once before in 2000, Hansen said.
His crew of five deputies and five detention officers dealt with more than 26,000 people in 2000 and 9,200 people in 2013. They saw assaults, possession, overdoses and the need for medical attention from those gathered, he said.
Law enforcement from around the region has come to assist in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, beefing up the crew from seven officers to 30 "to manage the impacts" the group has on the environment, Whittekiend said.
The group will make an impact, but will likely stay out of restricted areas, clean up after themselves and repair damage by reseeding at the end of their visit, he said.
The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest expects to spend about $500,000 this year to pay for staffing and other costs associated with the Rainbow Family Gathering.
"We treat this like a fire, and so it's something that increases our costs; we're going to have some overtime associated with it as we work in these areas," he said.
Contributing: Geoff Leisik