I Know You, Rider: Just Mark and the Rainbow Family

By: Will Kersten

When the blue bus with the boat on top rumbled down the levee and parked by the gate of the boatyard, I was flabbergasted. I’d been reading Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about the psychedelic adventures of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and this thing looked like it had jumped right out of my book. I approached the vehicle from behind and read the sign on the back: “Disguise the Limit.” The side door opened with a hiss, and a raspy voice invited me in.

Photo courtesy of "Just Mark"

Photo courtesy of “Just Mark”

He stood next to the driver’s seat—tall and lanky, shirtless, with long, straight hair and a hand-rolled, lit cigarette between his fingers. “Welcome aboard,” he said. “I’m Just Mark. This is the Sailbus.” Trinkets and artwork were everywhere. Grateful Dead music played through the speakers, and a woman wearing glasses and a long dress stood at a counter, stirring a pot of something.

“Hi Mark,” I said, and introduced myself.

A young man with a dreadlocked mohawk said, “No, it’s Just Mark. Just. Mark.”

“That’s Never,” said Just Mark. They all laughed, then joked about kidnapping me and taking me to San Francisco. But I wanted to go, and so I took them up on it. That was the start of my three months on the road—on the bus—a brief introduction to the traveler’s life, and ultimately, to the Rainbow Family of Living Light.

We journeyed from San Francisco to Slab City, California, then to High Creek, Arizona, where hundreds of people were gathered in the national forest to experience nature—and each other—away from the norms of mainstream society. Eventually, I left Just Mark and the Sailbus to go my own way, but I never forgot him or the experiences we shared. I always wondered who he really was. And what in life led him to become “Just Mark.” Twenty years later, I caught up with him again and learned that the adventure started back in his childhood, during a social—and personal—revolution.

Mark Gentry was a thirteen-year-old runaway from Kansas when, in 1967, he found himself at the epicenter of the peace and love movement in San Francisco. “You couldn’t get a car down the Haight,” he says. “It was all hippies. Everybody was there. The first time I saw the [Grateful] Dead was by accident—I was in Golden Gate Park at a funeral party for this Hell’s Angel, Chocolate George. Fuck, it was crazy. The Dead was there, playing with Janis Joplin and Big Brother.”

This started a lifelong love of the Grateful Dead, and eventually Mark would follow the band around the country full-time. But he was just a kid, so his parents found him and brought him back to Kansas. And he ran away again. And again. “I probably hold the world’s record for running away to San Francisco,” says Mark. “But that’s what you did in the sixties.”

He spent most of his teen years running away to be a street kid in Haight Ashbury, making friends with the Grateful Dead, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Joan Baez and other poets and artists in the flower power scene.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Mark worked construction, traveling the country from job to job—a hippy biker living in a thirty-foot school bus with a Harley Davidson mounted to the back. “I had to make a living, had to figure something out. I was welding. Back in the ‘80s, that was good money—really good money. The freedom to have my own place with the bus was the way to go.” He caught Dead shows whenever possible, and soon met and became close friends with Ken Kesey and the Pranksters, who had been some of his biggest inspirations.

Eventually, Mark was able to retire early, and in 1989 went on tour full-time, following the Grateful Dead everywhere, immersing himself in the nomadic life of the Deadheads. He would fill the Sailbus with rag-tag riders, and they would travel the country, sometimes in caravans, sometimes solo, and always with plenty of mind-altering substances.

Mark’s peaceful spirit, anarchistic tendencies and love of the road coalesced during Christmas of 1991, when he joined a group of hippies across the street from the White House to send a message to the President. “They called it ‘Beat Around the Bush,’” Mark remembers. “It was a drum circle in Lafayette Park to see if we could get George Bush to bring us turkey sandwiches. I met a bunch of the old Rainbow—Phillipe, and Mojo, and some of the old activists there, and they invited me to their place in Gainesville, Florida, where I spent a lot of time and got more and more involved.”

The Rainbow Family calls itself “the largest non-organization of non-members in the world.” They gather by the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, in national forests to form temporary communal villages and appreciate the Earth. Every year there’s a big national gathering that culminates with a prayer for peace on the Fourth of July. “We put it all together and feed the masses, do it all for free or magic, then pray for peace on the Fourth. Then, we clean up our mess. It’s worked out for 42, 43 years,” he says, adding, “the people I hang out with, the people that have been my long-time friends and consider Family—I met them all in the woods.”

In 1995, a friend gave Mark a twenty-three-foot Clipper Sailboat, and convinced him to cut the bottom out and attach it to the top of the bus. They did, creating an icon of the underground “road-dog” subculture, known as the Sailbus. But, later that year, with Jerry Garcia’s passing and the Grateful Dead calling it quits, Mark had fewer reasons to be out on the road. So, he slowed things down, and took the Sailbus to Eugene, Oregon, where he settled for a while and grew medical marijuana with some of the old Pranksters. “I’m proud of the medical pot I grew in Oregon,” says Mark. “I grew excellent top-drawer medicine for fifteen years there, until my home got invaded four times. Nothing was worth my life or my friends’ lives, so back onto the bus I’ve had for 34 years, and drove it away to find a new life and adventure.”

rainbow family sailbus

Photo courtesy of “Just Mark”

With help from the Family, Mark and some partners purchased a thirteen-acre ranch west of Tucson, near the Saguaro National Forest, to be a Rainbow-friendly rest stop for old road-dogs, as well as the new generation of travelers. “We’re on the road-dog map.” says Mark. “Anybody that’s going through Tuscon, they now know they can swing in here and get a shower and a meal, get repairs on their vehicle if they need it. We’ve got a gal here, and we’re putting a new radiator in her van today. She’s a full-time road-dog who’s been staying here with us, helping out quite a bit. We’re getting her van ready so it’ll make it to Oregon safely.”

This year’s gathering is in Oregon, and Just Mark will be there, as will—hopefully—record numbers of Rainbow Family and friends praying for peace. They live outside the bounds of mainstream culture, away from the cacophony of endless headlines and arguments, to do the important work: communing with nature, and riding the wave of spontaneous magic that is this precious life. People like Just Mark, Ken Kesey and the Pranksters, and so many modern-day poets and road-dogs make humanity exciting, mysterious and beautiful. Just Mark, thank you for the long, strange trip!

Photo courtesy of "Just Mark"

Photo courtesy of “Just Mark”

For an extended interview with Just Mark, visit www.dopemagazine.com/rainbow-family

This article was originally published in DOPE Magazine.

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