The snickering, Walter said, was bad enough. All those locals coming by the swimming area (also known as the mermaid lagoon) and the sweat huts and the rebirthing tepee and watching and snickering. It was when the police searched his tent and put him in a lineup that he really started getting bummed out, especially when they impounded his car and especially when he realized that the charge for which they were lining him up was . . . murder.

Walter sighed from beneath the floppy straw hat he was wearing. The floppy straw hat was,in fact, all that Walter was wearing, and he pulled it down even farther over his brown hair and brown eyes and leaned back against his tent. No, he said, this is not what he had expected when his old lady left him and he ditched his job at the chemical plant outside Chicago and came to the Rainbow people's gathering in the Monogahela National Forest. Lots and lots of mellow is what Walter expected and what he had been looking for all his 26 years. "All I want to do is keep my head right here, right now," said Walter. "Because what I plan for never happens."

No one identified Walter in the lineup, and by the time he took of his steel-toed tennis shoes and got back to the business of basking, the Rainbow Family was picking up energy and people for the gathering that was to last the first seven days of July. By then, the ugliness that had culminated in the murder of two unidentified women belonging to the Rainbow Family had subsided, and there was laughter in the night, not gunfire. The killers, however, still went free. The pale, dead faces of their victims stared out of newspaper photographs taken after they had last seen faces only they could identify.

Their bodies were found on June 30 on Droop Mountain, a place where the forest rangers say disputes are often settled with a shotgun, and where, as one gray-haired miner put it, a bad moon rising on bad blood brings out the killing in a man. By the time the gaily bedecked and unbedecked thousands were celebrating the Fourth of July on the meadows surrounding the Three Forks of the Williams River, the murders stood in strange contrast to the genera revelry of the celebration and the cross-fertilization that was taking place between the counterculture (still!) and the coal miners.

The killings were a bad beginning: The possibility of such a tragedy had worried the forest rangers ever since they received word from the Rainbow Family that its members planned to hold its annual Healing Gathering in the Monongahela National Forest. a free-form organization fashioned 10 years ago from a vision experienced in the heart of New York City by one Barry Adams, Jesus-Taoist, the Rainbow Family has gathered for the last nine summers during the first week in July in one of the nation's national forests.

This was the first Rainbow gathering held east of Mississippi. The cavernous spaces of Montana and Arizona and Oregon seemed to provide plenty of room for the nakedness and the chanting and the prayer circles and the mud-swathed devotees of the Indian sweat huts. But there was some doubt as to whether the coal miners, enjoying the holiday they traditionally celebrate the same week in July, would take to the motley parade, several thousand strong, so very visible from their own campsites on the Williams River.

It was as if the Rainbow people had slipped through a time warp, a slice of the '60s suddenly wedged into the '80s, echoes of Eden in the hollows, and the dead women's faces seemed to hang like the moon over the meadows, totems to evil amid the try for innocence, and to an anarchy in the soul that seemed, sadly, to be more lasting than the amiable chaos that permeated the ninth gathering of the Rainbow Family.

The Rainbow Family is less easily described as an organization than as a state of mind. As Barry Adams put it, "Wherever the grass blows, wherever the wind blows, it does so on the natural children of God, whom we recognize, whether they do or not." While it is possible to get on a mailing list that will get you a map and an invitation to the next annual gathering, it is just as possible to merely show up and be welcomed as a brother or sister, no questions asked, although the state of West Virginia was asking a lot of questions about numbers and permits and parking lots.

No matter. Last week the Rainbow Family came to the Monogahela Forest, and among the present and accounted for were the veterans and vestiges of the '60s, glowing embers from apocalypse past; refugees from motel stay in a life style that had been briefly theirs; and uncreased faces who were in grade school when Woodstock gave its name to a particular tremor on the cultural seismograph. Washboard Sid's Lament

There are seekers and searchers in the Rainbow Family, there are egos and outlaws, free spirits and lost souls, healers and hunters and clowns and computer programmers. Generally, however, there are, in addition to the well-intentioned majority who are out to seek a little earnest spiritual fulfillment, learn a thing or two and have a good time in the process, at least three other categories at Rainbow gatherings. They are, according to Washboard Sid, who tends to know about these things, (1) the Boogie Faction, (2) the Scammers and (o) the Bliss Ninnies.

The Boogie Faction (particularly high this year, some Rainbows say because of the proximity to New York City) is no problem Sid says. The whole point is that if your trip involves doing the work that lets other people have a good time, that's cool, and if it doesn't that's cool. The Scammers don't bother Sid either. We are talking, after all, about a man who made $800 as a U.s. cEnsus counter in order to finance his trip across country to get to the gathering. A lot of the brothers and sisters are street survivors, Sid says, they've had to learn to scam to stay alive. All you do is load up the supply depot with enough members of the peace-keeping force to make sure no one's made off with the difference between far-out oatmeal, with the honey and the bananas and the nuts, and boring oatmeal, which is, of course, nowhere.

What drives Sid nuts -- and Sid is one tolerant washboard player -- are the Bliss Ninnies. "They're ones who walk around and think love always comes from peace and gentleness. They think it's love to give an addict heroin because he wants it. Bliss Ninnies don't keep their eyes open," Sid says, and that's why they're bad news on the hug-and-kiss patrols. Rainbow gatherings always have two-member patrols out, a brother and sister usually, who walk the grounds and look for The Sad Ones.

They see someone standing lonely in the woods, or freaking out on bad drugs, or overwhelmed by heat or history or the way the light is falling on a leaf, and they surround him with hugs and kind words until it's all right again. A dawn patrol John Wayne never dreamed of.

Sid's small wiry body is walnut brown from a life on the road, and his eyes are fierce and tough even when, he's talking about the importance of love. Sid was there when a baby was born at one gathering and Sid was there when seven of them carried out a young woman who died in a waterfall at another and Sid is hard on the Bliss Ninnies because Bliss Ninnies, Sid says, "just walk on by." The View From the Road

Sitting on a gentle rise overlooking the Williams River is middle-aged Homer Roscoe (not his real name), who has his fiddle by his side and a fine view of the river and the abundance of bathers and the scarcity of bathing suits before him. Homer Roscoe is a local resident and is thus included in what the forest rangers were worried about when they cited "the high potential for user conflict" as a reason why the Rainbow Family should find a site other than the Three Forks of the Williams River.

"User conflict" refers to the holy hell the rangers feared would break loose when the counterculture came up against the coal miners and the local residents who could easily have had a fine view of what are commonly referred to as "nekkid hippies" from Farm Road 86. What with the chants and the tepees and the bells and the beads and the drugs and the dancing and the drums, it looked as if the weirdness content loosed on the good-neighbors of Webster and Pocahantas counties was going to be higher than a psilocybin mushroom cloud.

But then, the hills of West Virginias are ancient hills indeed, and they have seen more of life than has yet to greet a young forest ranger's eye and more than enough of life's weirdness, as Homer Roscoe can tell you. It was bad enough when his wife left him for that truck driver barely out of high school. It was when she took up with that aging sugar daddy from the hellfire-and -brimstone mission that Roscoe started talking darkly of apostolic cover-ups.So he took his fiddle to the meadows to soothe his grieving soul and sang the bluegrass love songs he knows so well at the square dance the Rainbow people held. Homer Roscoe is stilling trying to piece together what happened after that.

"Somebody give this big hand-rolled cigar, only it wasn't a cigar," he remembers cheerfully. "I ended up playing my fiddle with this feller in a red bandanna, he must have been six or seven feet tall. I had me a girlfriend too, I couldn't tell you if she was 16 or 60; it was so dark I couldn't even tell if she was naked or not. I'm still trying to find her again." Homer Roscoe closes his eyes in happy tribute to the recent past. "This is the biggest thing to happen to Webster County in 100 years," he says. "Guess it's all the nudity."

"Put something in, take something out," says the tall, bearded man shaking his cup. Like a third top, at times, half of the people gathered in the meadows, he isn't wearing anything. This is at least mildly disconcerting for the first few minutes a visitor, unsuspecting or otherwise, spends in the encampment. It is extremely interesting for perhaps the next hour, and it is hardly noticeable after that. A four-piece string quartet playing jazz near the sufi dancers is noticeable. A circle of people 300 strong chanting "om," is noticeable. The infinite variety of the human body shimmering in the humid West Virginia heat begins to pale by comparsion. "Put something in, take something out." A young blond boy puts in a twig, takes out a stone, asks a question. "Hey man," he says. "Is it daylight?"

At twilight, Opal Hamon and Belle Vass and Opal's son Joe, who works one of the surface mines, come to visit. Opal and Belle are miners' wives, but more importantly they are sisters, and they share a mischievous camaraderie and a knowledge of one another that is their own and no one else's. They are walking back down the path that leads to the parking lot, and their eyes are as wide as the river. "I'm 65 years old," says Opal, "and I've never seen a naked man before."

"Never?" asks Belle in mock surprise. "And you with six children."

"Well, you know what I mean, I mean besides my husband."

"I don't know where to look," says Belle. "I've been married 45 years and I can't look nakedness in the face."

"That's not where you're supposed to look," says Opal.

They continue down the road. Opal is holding a copy of Back to Godhead magazine that some Hare Krishna sect members were passing out at the gathering. The sisters notice a sign in front of the Krishna encampment announcing dinner. Both women want to stay, but Opal's son Joe says no. "Now Mama, you know I got to work tomorrow," he says.

"If I were younger, I'd come back and stay," says Opal daringly. The sound of her own words light up her eyes. "This really thrills me."

The two women stop to look at a handmade quilt lying on top of a backpack. "Why look, Opal, it's a churn-dash pattern, sure enough," Belle says.

"Not as nice as we do it."

"Well no, but look, it's embroidered. I've never seen it embroidered before."

"Well, so it is."

The sisters are quiet for a minute and then more seriously, Belle says, "You know really, they're not much different from the way we was raised. We were gatherers, too, and what we couldn't dig out, we went without. We gathered poke greens and dandelion greens and the ramps -- whenever the miners went on strike you ate a lot of ramps. We ate groundhog and mudturtle, though I never did eat no snake. In the good old days we didn't have running water and milk that we bought, and I guess that's the way they're trying to live now, too. They won't make it, though. At least we had the land. They just have food stamps."

She pauses for a moment, and the two old women and the young man carefully pick their way across a running creek. "You know what I think it is," says Belle Vass, as night begins to fall quickly in the woods. "I think it's a bunch of people searching. I hope they find what they're looking for." The View From the Tepee

Rainbow Hawk and Wavy Gravy sit in a tepee as Wavy Gravey applies the greasepaint that is part of the clown coustume in which he likes to pass the hat during dinner time. They have survived, from the Summer of Love to Election Year '80, and time has been kind to them. Their eyes and their optimism are still kindled by possibility; their faces graced by experience; rather than ruined by it. Both have been around since the Haight and the Acid Generation and all the other media confections and they continue still, the elders of the tribe.

Rainbow Hawk's hands glitter with rings, and a crystal prism in the shape of a heart hangs on a chain from his leather hat. The woven poncho he wears has seen the world with him. Wavy gravy is wearing iridesent blue shorts, and soon there will be golden wings sprouting from his curly hair and a bright red spot of paint on his nose and blue around his eyes. For a moment, one tries to imagine them in three-piece suits sitting in a sky-high office, jaws clenched, reaching for the Maalox.

They talk with measured hope. The feelings that fueled the '60's, says Rainbow Hawk, "have grown up. We all knew the problems so well, now we're going about solving them -- the nuclear thing, for instance. There's a lot of energy rising." And Wavy Gravy, whose Hog Farm collective fed the multitudes at Woodstock, and whose Seva Foundation is now working on the prevention of blindness around the world, says, "It's just old feathers on a new bird. We're taking the stuff we've learned and applying it now in a greater socio-spriritual mode. We'd better be, anyway. I hate to be a wet blanket, but the clock is running out. That's way I'm dealing with kids now -- they can talk to the grown-ups."

He mentions a U.N. conference in Sweden he attended recently and Camp Win-A-Rainbow in California where he's headed after the gathering, to teach juggling and clown tricks and "other survival skills to children so they'll know how to duck and have fun doing it." He takes a final look at his reflection and takes his leave, saying, "And as I said to the mirror, it's all done with people."

Jenny Starlight, as she now calls herself, sits in her tepee, in the K.N.E.E. family encampment (the letters stand for Kindness and Nurturing for Everyone Everywhere). She's dressed in white harem pants and her breasts are blushing with a slight case of sunburn. She has long brown hair and brown eyes and an upturned nose and looks as fresh as a wildflower. Jenny Starlight is 19 years old and she lives in Hyattsville now, but it wasn't so long ago that her travels were tuned to her father's assignments with the government. His peregrinations landed her in Washington and one of the city's more exclusive prep schools, where she did not wear harem pants, but where, judging from alert intelligence, that informs her every sentence, she must have been one smart cookie.

She hasn't gone to college. She didn't go after graduation, she says, because she didn't know what she wanted to learn there, and she isn't going now because she is learning plenty with the work she does at the Hyattsville House, "a major new-age networking center." It is indeed a new age, says Jenny Starlight, "a new age of spirit which is actually very old age, but you have to be aware of all the new alternatives." Still, every time late summer rolls around, and the scent of September is in the air, and clean untouched notebooks fill the drugstore shelves, Jenny's mother looks at her with a question in her eyes and Jenny has to say, "Not this year, Mom."

Standing in the meadow, just off the path to the swimming area, Donny and Gary Hamrich and Randy Blake stand and watch the curious procession pass them by. Donny and Gary were coal miners until accidents disabled them. Donny was in a car wreck. His brother had his legs crushed in a mining accident. Blake still works in the mine, though his father begged him not to -- he'd been hurt and knew what the work could do to his son. "Afraid?" says Blake. "Everybody's afraid. If you're not afraid, you're dumb not to be."

They are young men, and they watch with amusement. They like it here, they say. "Nobody's violent," says Gary Hamrich. "I guess that's because they don't allow any liquor here.I admire their ideals."

They became coal miners, they say, because in Nicholas County, it's mining or starving. Even so, it seems, they have made their peace with the idea that a man breaks his back to get along in this life, and while there is no resentment of th pageantry around them, theirs is a different choice. "You work hard," says Donny Hamrich."But if I have to strain to get a few of the material comforts this life has to offer, well than, I'll do it. Somewhere along the road, you just have to make your decision."

Sometimes, the distinctions got a little confused. The young man with the short hair who wore his neatness as if it were a new cologne and talked intensely about his experience in the stockbroking business, said he was a member of the Rainbow family. The two young men down-meadow from him, wearing the marijuana T-shirt and eating the peyote buttons out of the plastic baggie, said they were members of the UMW local. A Measure of Peace

Rainbow Jerry's story: He says he tried the Green Berets and medical school and marriage, and when the marriage failed, he took to the road. Rainbow Jerry is 41 now and he runs the rumor-control tent. Exactly what he is doing there becomes less clear when a couple of forest rangers approach and tell him a rumor they've heard. Rainbow Jerry promises them he'll be sure to embroider the story, maybe spruce it up a bit here and there and send it on its way. The rangers walk off thoughtfully and Rainbow Jerry returns to his story.

Rainbow Jerry likes to travel. After the Oregon gathering in 1978, he set out with Rainbow Frank and Smiling Ben and Don in a VW van and they visit farms and communes and work in the circus when they run out of money. Eventually they found themselves on the Oregon coast and eventually they found a 72-passenger bus for sale, parked in a service station. "I asked them how much they wanted for that bus," Rainbow Jerry says, "and they said $4,600, and I said, 'I'm Rainbow Jerry and we don't have any money. We'll trade you a couple pretty rocks and this beat-up old bus,' and they said yes." Rainbow Jerry is asked why anyone would accept such a trade, and Rainbow Jerry, who likes to repeat his name as if it were his orison, as if it corroborated his existeence says that the people accepted his offer because "I'm Rainbow Jerry and things just happen to me."

The next thing that happened to Rainbow Jerry is that the transmission on the bus went out and it cost $280 to fix it and the only job they were offered in order to earn the money was pickin blueberries. "Do you know how many f---ing blueberries you have to pick to earn $280?" Rainbow Jerry asks.

The bus broke down for the last time in Yuma, where an Indian family moved in and Rainbow Jerry moved back to cincinnati for a time, where his brother-in-law offered him co-ownership in a roofing company. After about three months, Rainbow Jerry was back on the road.

"A lot of people who gather around me for some reason have problems," says Rainbow Jerry. "I guess I mellow people out." Sometimes, he says, it's good, like when he helped Forest Woman and her baby hitchhike across the country and back to Virginia. Sometimes, it's real bad, like the little girl named Kitten who was 11 and who met Rainbow Jerry after she had hitchhiked from New Jersey to San Diego. Rainbow Jerry pleaded with her not to get into the car with the two men who offered her a ride, but she did, of course, and the last he saw o Kitten was her picture in the L.A. Times after her body was found.

Every city in America, says Rainbow Jerry, has a free place to shower and a free place to eat, and he thinks now he 's found a measure of peace. But what he likes most, he says, are the Rainbow gatherings, and what he wants now, what he'd "love to have is some land somewhere where this could go on for 24 months a year."

Her braids reach down to the bottom of her Indian cotton blouse. His braids touch the collar of his Guatemalan shirt. They are talking about some land a brother's turned him on to in Kentucky.

"We can raise herbs down there and sell them to health-food stores," she says. "It would be a really beautiful trip."

"Do you know how much money there is in that?" he asks. "I hear it's like $10,000 an acre. I'm going down there an share in that energy man."

There's a council in the operations tepee. The council is open to anyone who wants to participate and who can fit in the tepee and who can hold his own in the combination of consensus and charisma that is the dynamic of these meetings. The council is discussing the two dead sisters and the council is discussing the brother in trouble in Marliton and the council is discussing Dave and Scout.

Cowboy says that Dave swears he's been off the sause for a month, and Barry's old lady, Sunny, disputes that, but nobody disputes the fact that Dave was treating his old lady pretty badly and that Dave sent Scout to the hospital with an I.V. in his arm after hitting him in the back with a tree branch. Six healers were already on their way to the hospital. Cowboy thought he might pull a coil out of dave's van just to make sure he wasn't going anywhere, but the best idea, he thought, would be for Courage and Integrity to sit down with Dave in a vibe council and help him get his act together.

Sunny went off to make sure Dave's old lady was all right and the council talked about Brother Walker, who was taking his responsibilities in the parking lot a mite too seriously and about Richard, who definitely was going to have to go before a council concerning his stealing trip. It is only long after leaving the tepee that the fact that all of this was worked out to everyone's satisfaction seems even the slightest bit extraordinary. Makeshift Medicine

Inside the MASH yurt there are herbs and cots and chiropractors, sophisticated pharmaceuticals and savvy paramedics and doctors from Harvard and St. Elizabeth's and Costa Rica, doctors wearing clowns' noses and pink shorts and green T-shirts and long curly hair and long blond braids. They treat cut feet and bruises and bad trips and all the other ailments thousands of people can find hanging out together in the woods. Thorazine is out if sitting around the fire will do it, an if the patient wants peppermint tea for his paint, that's what the patient will get until it is proven ineffective. "You give people more choices," says Dr. Esteban Ryciak. "You learn a whole new level of medicine here."

"The rainbow is a circle," says a Rainbow handout. "There are no leaders, no elders, no chiefs, no hierarchy." There is, however, Barry Adams.

Adams is tall and thin, and his vest is embroidered with Indian signs and symbols and his jeans are hung with a hatchet and a water cup and a long pipe and his cowboy hat is festooned with feathers and his hair is neatly braided. His voice is urgent and hypnotic and the cadences of his sentences rise and fall in a rhythm that resembles chanting and when he is on, he is the center of what seems to be a 500-mile radius.

The Rainbow Family began as a vision Adams had on 44th Street in New York City in 1969. Adams saw God standing in the universe surrounded by souls. You blew it, God said. We know we blew it, said the souls. Apparently a second chance was agreed upon, because Adams was soon talking up his vision up and down the West Coast and the idea of a giant open community of brotherhood and understanding found its first manifestation in "Vortex I, a biodegradable festival of life," as the handout describes it, in Oregon.

Except for a lapse in 1971, there has been a gathering every year since then. Even the Forest Service agreed in their Environmental Assessment Report that the Family, which has numbered more than 10,000 at some of its gatherings, has always left the site they select in better shape than before they arrived.

"To us, it's the battle of the light and the dark," says Adams. "We're like the midwives to the change of the world." Right now, Adams' principal concern is the building of peace villages, "positive energy alternative community environments," as he describes them. "The call will come and the people will flee into the mountains," Adams warns. "Our problem is, where are they going to go?" Hence, the peace villages. "It's sort of like the Marshall Plan in Europe," he explains. The Seekers

Not all of the Rainbow people are drifters and dreamers, not all of them are young. In 1954, Grey Eagle says he was a VFW post commander in Texas. He has worked on the railroad for 30 years and is a commercial photographer to boot. But every year, he leaves what passes for the good life in Fort Worth, Tex., and takes off for the Rainbow gathering, a destination he reached, in very roundabout fashion, from his days, long ago, as a self-confessed drunk.

"I used to get arrested a lot," says Grey Eagle, a cowboy hat on his long, iron-colored hair. "I started noticing that the blacks were getting beat up on even worse than I was." Being a Unitarian, he says, it wasn't a long step from that realization to an active participation in civil rights, the antiwar movement, the back-to-the-earth movement and finally, through a two-line squib in Mother Earth News in 1975, to the Rainbow Family.

Grey Eagle is here this year with a widowed schoolteacher who worked with the ACLU and the League of Women Voters and whom Grey Eagle met through the Unitarians. She's studying criminal justice at college now, and both of them come to the gatherings, they say, for "The desire for a better life, the openness and the acceptance. I guess you'd just have to say we're seekers," Grey Eagle says.

However else the Rainbow people leave the scarred old mountains in which they have spent the last week, they will leave at least one fantasy, a daydream that follows in the long-lived tradition of the circus or the gypsy caravan or any of the other multicolored visions of freedom from adult tyranny that a child keeps locked away.

Down in Marlinton, at the Kentucky Fried Chicken stand, a small girl stands arguing with her mother over the obvious injustice of having to hand over a drumstick to a younger brother with a decibel level loud enough to place the entire community in imminent danger of avalanche.

"If you don't let me keep it, she screams, "I'll, well, I'll, I know what I'll do, I'll go off and join the Rainbow people.