Steamboat Springs The "Spongebob" oven at the "Lovin' Oven" Kitchen, hidden deep in the woods of the Rainbow Family area in the Routt National Forest, billows smoke around the clock.
Bakers greet one another with elbow bumps to keep hands clean for their endless task of preparing fresh bread for the estimated turnout of 20,000 people when the gathering officially begins on Saturday. As the gathering's main bakery, the volunteer bakers estimate they make 1,000 rolls a day and 300 pizzas a night.
On Thursday afternoon, bakers such as Nathan Ramser were applying a layer of mud to another oven, increasing the bakery's capacity to provide bread for the July 4 prayer circle, the gathering's main event. Ramser and other bakers aren't too worried, because the tight-knit baking network brought supplies and know-how from their Hurricane Katrina relief kitchen efforts.
Other camps and kitchens were not quite as operational. The new arrivals were spending the afternoon getting ready as last weekend's empty meadows were steadily becoming filled with newly strung tarps and tepees in various stages of construction.
Forest Service spokesperson Denise Ottaviano estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 gatherers occupy the patch of national forest land 35 miles north of Steamboat Springs. The Forest Service said the gatherers are there illegally because they do not have the required special-use permit. She said Forest Service law enforcement officers were staffing safety and information checkpoints intermittently.
Relayed radio messages helped gatherers find gaps in checkpoint's staffing on Forest Service Road 505 for newcomers to lug or push in everything from a 275-gallon water tank for the "Simply Wonderful" kitchen to the supplies for constructing a copper "peace pyramid."
The gatherer influx and consequent construction of numerous new campsites and kitchens coincides with fire restrictions for the Routt National Forest that went into effect Wednesday, "prohibiting the building, maintaining, attending or using a fire that is not in an agency provided or approved facility."
Kitchens such as the Shekinah Cafe, a chai and cookie bar under construction, took the necessary steps of getting a national forest outdoor fire pit permit signed and posted. These permits, available at the information tent adjacent to the main meadow, are limited to camps with kitchens that meet the permit's regulations.
"It's ironic that (the Forest Service) denies the main permit, but will permit us on an individual basis and recognize us as an individual camp," Chinua Ford said while building the cafes oven.
The all-vegan, all-kosher "Jerusalem" kitchen will kick off its main celebration today at 6 p.m. with a 24-hour celebration of prayer, singing and dancing to welcome Shabbat, the Jewish holy day of rest.
"Our celebration works with the Rainbow idea of disconnecting and unplugging," said Rav Shmuel, a Jewish Orthodox rabbi who is vacationing from New York City.
Although the weekend gathering events will include religious services for all creeds and denominations, many gatherers are looking forward to the more raucous events, such as the upcoming nightly performances at the Granola Funk Theatre -- an impressive full-size "Pirate Ship," that group performer and ship creator Aaron "Ahab" Funk said he has organized as an "open forum for expression."
After 11 days of "Egyptian-style work," clearing an acre and a half of fallen trees and hoisting masts on an elaborate pulley system, Funk said the theater will have a performance every night starting at "dark thirty."
Although many gatherers will be sure to not miss the heckling at Monday's "Gong (no talent) Show," at Funk's self-proclaimed "circus without a tent," many will enjoy the spontaneous parades, scheduled activity seminars and live music performances as people continue arriving and preparing for Tuesday's prayer circle.
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