Tuesday, December 10, 2013

People of the National Forests

     The Forest Service estimates that nearly 50 million people visit our National Forests each year. Every visitor has the right to camp in the forest for up to 14 days. Some heavily used areas have a reduced limit. I used to paint a "36" in front of the "5 day stay limit" sign at Childs. Every week the rangers would come down and correct my addition. I would have it repainted before they reached the top of the ridge. It is illegal to reside within the National Forest.
     Occasional visitors include hunters, fishermen, families, and church groups. Oddly, I observed more church groups leaving behind trash and camp debris than any other. Of the families I spoke with, the majority of the elders camped with their parents when they were young.
The small numbers of people who call the forest their home include veterans, hippies, displaced families, homeless individuals, and outlaws. Long-term backpackers are extremely rare.
A substantial number of those who illegally reside in the forest are mentally ill veterans. Many are young. CNN reported that over 30 percent of troops “returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who received care from veterans affairs between 2001 and 2005 were diagnosed with psychosocial ills”. These veterans often camp in their vehicles and return to society only to gather supplies when their disability checks arrive. A large number of this group is paranoid.
     I made the acquaintance of one particular paranoid schizophrenic veteran who was the recipient of the Silver Cross for “engaging the enemy and returning fire, with valor”. Paranoia, poor social skills, and drug addiction, in addition to a meager disability income forced this man from forest camp to another. After observing his behavior for several years, he was awarded a substantial retroactive payment for his disability which left him quite well off. He purchased a home and settled down.
Within months he was complaining to me that he wasn’t “adjusting well to society”. Within two years he sold his home and squandered his money. I bumped into him again last summer and he owned only the gear he carried, was sober and living on fish, bullion, and Cream of Wheat. He was happier than I had seen him in a long time.
     The forest people have a name for the vagabond hippies who subsist by begging and theft. They call them Drainbows, a play on words, comparing them to the Rainbow Family of the seventies whom they poorly emulate. The original Rainbow Family only gathered in unpopulated forests. These dirty children only live where there are other people to support them, moving on when resources are scarce. Wherever Drainbows are found, law enforcement isn’t far behind. If a Drainbow finds a campground to have generous patrons, word goes out via the internet, and the invasion begins. Drainbow invasions are called “gatherings” and leave the forest littered with tons of debris each year.
     Occasionally I would come across homeless families living in tents. These folk were always in high spirits despite their forced exodus from society at large. Frequently, one or both parents were employed and commuted to jobs in nearby towns. People in the forest are friendly in general, but the homeless families I met were the most congenial.
     Most forest dwellers move from forest to forest in order to circumvent the non-residence laws. Those who don’t are soon recognized, fined, and ejected by the Federal Law Enforcement Officers (LEO’s) who patrol. I traveled without the aid of a vehicle so I was less easily identifiable. I traveled with three different tents and would move my camp and alter its appearance reg
ularly to avoid the LEO’s.
     The people of the national forest are a society unto themselves and contain the same elements of society that are found everywhere. Some are kind and some are dangerous. Some are downright strange. Many are misfits who find a commonality in nature. Ever since there have been municipalities there have been those who escape them for the forests. I suppose there always will be.

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