PHOTO/CLAIRE O’BRIEN 2013
I met Robert Fisher and Karen Lewis last summer at a gas station in central New Mexico. A sheriff’s deputy had forbidden the travelers to hitch hike, while simultaneously ordering them to move on immediately. Fisher and Lewis had just carried hefty knapsacks and sleeping bags across ten miles of searing secondary asphalt. Worse, they had done it without so much as even the paltry fifty percent shade quotient ordinarily provided at regular intervals by half-scale monuments to various Conquistadors. That’s a very long ten miles in our July desert.
Robert and Karen looked dehydrated, as well as more than a little alert to questions of quality control re. local law enforcement.
If not for the disgraceful gaps – referred to less kindly as chasms by more pedestrian perspectives – in my knowledge of various significant American cultural trends , I would most likely have recognized Mr. Fisher. To many thousands of people across the nation and beyond, Robert is the Rainbow Gathering Elder known more famously and simply as ” Early Bird Café.”
Although he grew up in Brooklyn, in Bed-Stuy, Fisher has never been much of a city man. His community and his life are spread across America’s vast public wildernesss lands, where he spends most of his time feeding thouands of people and playing the drums. In fact, he’s been making pancakes for Rainbow Gatherings across the nation for fifeen years. The first thing he and Karen see when they arrive to set up the Café, whether it’s autumn in the Great Smokey Mountains or summer on an Arizona desert plateau, is a simple sign with a small rainbow and two words:
π Φ π Φ π Φ π Φ π Φ π Φ π π Φ π Φ
Now, the partners drooped under the weight of the New Mexico sun. Things had not been easy since the loss of their van and home, about two months previously, gone almost before they knew it because they couldn’t pay towing charges. But their feet were planted much too strongly on the earth for any sheriff’s deputy to budge. And their gaze had moved on to a landscape far beyond the scope of police vision before he had even finished speaking.
Clearly, there was a sense in which Fisher and Lewis were already home.
Still, the Early Bird Cafe needed to get to an Arizona state forest for a regional gathering in time to get the restaurant organized. Lewis had other responsibilities awaiting her there, and Robert starts serving his pancakes at 4 am. He feeds people until noon, and he’s never let anyone go hungry
He didn’t have any flour or eggs, and yet seemed almost the slightest bit amused to clarify that no, he didn’t know exactly how there was going to be enough to feed a thousand people a day. Just hearing about it reminded me to take my blood pressure medicine. Fisher, on the other hand, could most accurately have been described as serene, while Lewis remarked that I would probably love deep breathing.
“It’s not really my job to think about myself and what I can’t do, ” Fisher explained. “We believe people are a lot better at thinking of one another.”
As far as pancakes go (at least!), he’s been absolutely right for fourteen years.
Everybody just needs to show up.
We piled their stuff into the back of my Crown Vic (it’s still got the spotlight and it accelerates like a rocket) and zoomed along a country highway to a very small town near a public campground, where Fisher and Lewis thought some Rainbow people would probably be spending the night.
Robert recalled a town that was so astonished and enthusiastic about the four thousand well-behaved, weird looking people who had spent a week in the nearby state park that “when we decided to return five years later, they stocked the stores with stuff they’d heard we ate, like tofu, dried beans, and soy milk. The first time they’d heard we were coming, they freaked out. But this time they strung a banner along Main Street: ‘Welcome, Rainbow Gathering!’ ”
Lewis added, ” Most law enforcement leaves it to us to monitor ourselves because they know we’re experienced at handling really every kind of situation that might come up. They also know we always leave the land better than we find it”
Robert looked out the window and chuckled to himself. Maybe he was thinking of his kunga drum, packed carefully in it’s protective case, and of a circle of drummers surrounding a huge bonfire, playing on and on under the Arizona stars. He’d leave the circle earlier than most, though, and get some good sleep.
He had a lot of pancakes to make. ♥