When 54-year-old Marie Hanson vanished at the Rainbow Gathering last summer, police initially suspected that she hit the fabled "Rainbow Trail," meaning she cut ties with her family and began drifting from one hippie festival to another. Although it turned out not to be the case with Hanson, the Rainbow Trail is a real phenomenon has accounted for multiple missing persons cases over the years.
When these people lose touch with their families, it often results in concerned phone calls from their parents to the police. In Hanson's case, according to her relative Nancy Enterline, the frequency with which the authorities receive such reports made the Skamania County Sheriff reluctant to dedicate resources to scouring the woods for Hanson. Enterline also came to the conclusion that the Rainbow Trail results in indifference toward some legitimate missing persons cases.
From our "End of the Rainbow" story this week:
Naturally, not every tale from the Rainbow Trail has a happy ending. Enterline says that when the family created a "Marie Hanson Missing" Facebook account and website, she was bombarded by heart-wrenching messages from parents whose estranged kids are rumored to be drifting with the Rainbows.The week before Hanson vanished in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, a young man from Portland named Steven Moline also went missing during a camping trip to nearby Bagby Hot Springs. Moline's mother, Carol DeGagne, says her son was gay, and a recovering drug addict. She believes these details caused police to brush off his disappearance.
Adams and other Rainbow elders acknowledge that runaways and other marginalized young people are drawn to their Gatherings. But they also point out that their group makes a convenient scapegoat. "It's kind of reminiscent of when the Gypsies would roll through," Adams says. "It's the circus come to town. 'The kids will run off, you have to watch 'em!' "
Neither the FBI's National Crime Information Center nor the Center for Missing and Exploited Children report investigating any missing-person cases involving the Rainbow Family. Todd Matthews, a spokesman for NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, says it's not uncommon for individuals affiliated with groups such as the Rainbows to cut ties with their kin and never look back. "Some people are alive and well," he says. "They're out there. If you've been alienated from your family and [are] living an alternative lifestyle, if you Google yourself, you might find they're looking for you."
But Enterline was deeply disconcerted by how quick the authorities were to assume that Hanson would abandon her family and chase the Rainbow. "The police just kept telling us 'People make stupid decisions. Adults make decisions to leave their normal lives all the time,' " she says. "When I talk to people who have missing family members now, I'm hearing law enforcement all over the U.S. are telling people this."
"It seemed like nobody cared," DeGagne says, noting that it took the authorities five days to send out a search party. "I talked to private detective and he said Steven is 'a bottom fish.' They don't consider that a priority, whereas if it was the mayor's son, or their own kid things might be different."
Moline is still missing, and he's not alone. According to the NamUs Database, there are currently more than 10,000 active missing persons cases in the United States. A spokesperson for the organization says families with missing loved ones should use social media resources like Facebook to get the word out, and make dental, fingerprint, and DNA records available to the authorities in the event that an unidentified body turns up.
Because of the cult-like reputation and nomadic nature of the Rainbow Family, some parents cling to the notion that their "missing" 20-something son or daughter has taken up the Rainbow Trail and is being held against their will.
In Omaha, Nebraska, Susan Cannon says her son Ben left home in March of 1995 when he was 20 and hasn't contacted the family since. She heard a rumor that he was traveling with the Rainbow Family, and several missing persons pages for Cannon include this detail.
"We were told by a friend of Ben's that he had gone to the Rainbow Family or the Rainbow Children," Cannon says. "Other than that, we know nothing about it. He's been gone for about 16 years. We don't know for sure that he's alive, or that he's with them."
Several Rainbow Family "focalizers," as the organizers call themselves, interviewed for our story this week say that they often urge runaways to phone home and let their families know they are alive and well. But those same Rainbows also note that people typically have personal reasons for severing ties with their kin, and as adults they are free to do as they please.
In Cannon's case, his mother says she and her son had a falling out after he was caught smoking pot in the basement of their home. "If you do somehow make contact with him," Cannon says. "Please tell him that his mother says she's sorry, and that I love him."