Roger and Willow came like campfire moths to the two blazes placed a few feet apart from each other, a lint-flick from the main road. Roger did the introductions. Willow threw herself to the ground and rolled from side to side. Above us, an island of night clouds melted the moon into a mist of light, not unlike the way a mist of Windex catches dusty afternoon light.
We were carrying conversation about puppets carried in the Astral Gypsies’ camp. The Astral Gypsies are who you talk to when you need puppeteers specializing oversized marionettes, like their two-story Hunter S. Thompson puppet. When the Astral Gypsies heard the Yonder Mountain Harvest Festival, they loaded up their mammoth sized puppets and vowed to lurk amongst the 5,000 strong festival crowd.
With Willow on the ground I interrupted the puppetry talk to ask, “Is she okay?”
Roger nodded like I’d offered a pleasantry, “She’s fine; she’s cool. She’s. . .” he regarded her then sniffed the burnt air, “She’s just Willow.” Conversation returned to puppets until the rising sun chased us to our tents.
A neighbor to our tent was Aaron, a self-proclaimed Pastafarian from Missouri studying at Missouri State. He had careful eyes and drank homemade wine. He came with Corban, who sold homemade wine my brother still insists was real wine and not just vodka and fruit juice.
Our neighbors to the other side were 18-year-olds who had driven down with a college junior who wished his parents did not make him stay in school. He told his professors he was going to a family reunion because he said it was better than telling them he was going to go do a bunch of drugs.
The college kids each seemed happy with their places in their group and exchanged frequent high fives. The first band that brought everyone from the campground to the main stage where Mountain Sprouts was demanding beer from the bar in between singing, “It don’t matter, if you don’t mind.”
During the song Jesus, gyrating and wearing a crown of phosphorescent thorns, stumbled to the front of the crowd.
“I think Jesus is tripping,” someone behind me said.
“Peyote I bet,” someone in front of me suggested.
Mountain Sprout’s fiddler held his instrument like a hostage, and the band crooned about drinking in dry countries, girls and avoiding the police as the crowd swelled and crooned along.
Before I knew it, I was having a whiskey and recording an interview with Aaron and Sander from The Vibe Tribe.
“Don’t you have to do what you love to do anything great?” Sander asked me, and I sipped my whiskey and realized that I would have to drink whiskey if I were to do anything great.
“It’s a lot of money going to festivals,” Aaron said, because whiskey is expensive, “but as long as you help a lot of people… Like, look… see how big this circle is, we’re all like family. We’ve probably been to like ten festivals, and that’s saying a lot—”
Sander jumped in, “—it really brings people together. So many people traveled to come here after being in their own lives so far away. They followed the music to discover new things about themselves and art and find friends.”
Aaron said he worked in Veal and was going to start a business specializes in making LED hula-hoops. Sander told me he followed extreme sports, worked odd jobs and did whatever it took to follow music around the country.
Then Sara Misconception rolled up and started talking about her tribe of performance artists, spoken word artist, hip-hoppers, DJs, and fire spinners. At Yonder Mountain Harvest Fest, they ran the kid camp and organized fire spinning circles in the evening.
“As a white girl,” she said, “I shouldn’t be rapping, but it’s exactly what I want to be doing,” she said. According to an anonymous person who might be my mom, I shouldn’t be drinking whiskey. I agreed with Sara and passed my bottle around.
Sara paused and took a drink. “We’re all blindly crawling into the fabric of society trying to figure out why we’re here and what we’re all doing. We’re here to be creative and fall in love, and we live forever through that.” .
The festival went from tent to tent, stage to stage, band to band. Some people were looking for things. Others were looking for people looking for things. Lots of people were listening to music. Giant puppets crept about. People complained about the bathrooms. I tried to use my press pass to get into the good bathrooms, and it worked 50% of the time and after the awkwardness of the second time, I vowed to never attempt such a swoop again. Mountain sprouts almost got banned from the festival for stealing a keg. Corban made money selling his wine. I missed the press conference with the artists because I was glued to jam sessions around campfires.
But on the final night when Yonder Mountain String Band took the stage to play their 1,500th show, my brother and I were at the Mountain Sprouts camp and gathered behind a truck bed sharing a cigarette with Mama, a gray-haired woman in charge of selling Mountain Sprout’s merchandise.
“Shit,” she said, “we almost didn’t make it here. Last week we had to bail Danny out of jail.” He was arrested in Arkansas for “showing people how to drink Irish car bombs. That’s why I’m writing a book soon. The shit that goes on is crazy!”
She was right; the shit that was going on was about to get crazy. A sudden silence from the main stage after Yonder’s second song alerted us to the fact that the weather was about to do fifty Irish car bombs and dance a filthy Irish river dance on top of the world. A woman with an official-looking floodlight walked through the camp, “The storm will be here in five minutes. This is serious. Everyone returns to your campsites and take shelter!”
“You’re a fun lot of people,” Mama said, “I’d die with you.”
The washboard player, Daniel, walked over drumming a rhythm on his chest, “Anyone seen my washboard?”
Mama handed it to him.
The woman with the floodlight returned, “This is serious, the storm is coming! Everyone takes shelter immediately!”
My brother and ran through mud because it was fun, and a flash and boom started the storm.
When the rains let loose everyone still not yet sheltered broke into a sprint. We ran until we saw the glow sticks of our friends under a shelter Aaron constructed using three pickup beds with a tarp stretched over at a triangular point of intersection.
The raging storm and probably a number of other things ignited something wild inside everyone. We raged. Beneath the tarp, we sang. Hidden from the rain, we shouted anthems and thrashed about on guitars and mandolins.
“Do you think Yonder is still going to play?”
Everyone’s phone had committed battery suicide. There was no search engine to tell us anything and the world shrunk to the size of its immediacy.
It thundered like the dickens for a long time and when it stopped people broke the stillness with triumphant shouts and impromptu hymns. Not long after, music sounding a lot like Mountain Sprouts sounded from the backwoods’ stage.
“Let’s go,” A girl named Kathy, offered me a cigarette.
I cannot tell you how many fists pumped, feet danced, bodies swooned or voices cheers at the backwoods’ stage. But I can tell you the surprising image that came to mind when a watched a sea of people dancing like they did that night. The ones I had met had been college students, cat ladies, fire breathers, aspiring and established musicians, poets, a medical student, two lawyers and one guy who sold wine, and Roger and Willow. When Isaw Willow dancing with Roger I thought about that repeated image in Christmas movies which feature a man in the cold, walking the empty streets aimless, looking inside warm windows enclosing happy families. In most of those movies a real or proverbial door opens and lets the man in. To me everyone’s expression looked like a movie star’s face when a door to unchecked acceptance reopens for him.
Festivals create a context for people to inhabit legends. The guy, who dresses up as Jesus and dancing next to a three-story praying mantis and two-story Hunter S. Thompson is a legend. In his daily life, he might design micro-robots or work at Dennys—we don’t’ know. Willow was just Willow. Everyone at the festival was just everyone, dancing in the mud, jumping and cheering because the storm had receded, and the festival raged on through its final night.