A few weeks ago, an estimated 30,000 people — filthy, dust-covered, dreadlocked people — gathered at Big Summit Prairie, deep in Oregon’s Ochoco National Forest for Oregon Eclipse 2017†, a Burning Man-style festival of art and music centered around the total solar eclipse, at a site directly in the path of totality. Despite a firm vow never to attend Burning Man or anything like it, I was there.
Glad I came and even gladder to leave, this is my story.
When Steve Bramucci invited me to Oregon to watch the solar eclipse, he was vague on the details. A once-in-a-generation total solar eclipse, surely that’s worth driving to Oregon for, right? He made it sound like a little party in a park — bands, sunshine, maybe some food trucks. Or maybe I only heard what I wanted to. It wasn’t until a few days before we were set to leave that I realized I was basically going to Burning Man. That’s kind of Steve’s MO, giving me just enough details that I’m intrigued, but not so many that I’ll get cold feet and back out. He knows that by the time I understand the full picture I’ll already be committed. I won’t lie, it works.
I’m decidedly a non-festival person. Possibly my favorite week of the year is the week of Burning Man, when San Francisco, where I live, is refreshingly free of Burners. I try to avoid white people with dreadlocks as a general rule, and music festivals are their Hajj. In fact if I could isolate a single reason I agreed to come, it was the allure of an obviously bad idea. In my mind, once an idea reaches a kind of critical mass of terrible, it comes back around to being good again. Call it ironic, I think it’s more morbid curiosity. If I do something I’d normally not be caught dead doing, could I witness the afterlife?
The website promised “a new collaborative environment transcending nation, language, and creed. In a fragmented world, creating opportunities for the gathering of community is the most noble task we can think of and we do so with the intention to create new relationships and partnerships, visions and ideas that we could not have come up with our own.”
Like virtually everything aimed at millennials, it was preposterously high-minded and entirely vague. It could just as well have been copy for shared workspaces, or vegan mayo.
Oregon Eclipse 2017 is a destination event. The site is far from populated areas and cut off from phone reception which takes all who come further away from the default world of meetings, commutes, and daily grind.
Most people in attendance will travel a great distance and make a great commitment to share in this experience. These are the people who we wish to commune with. Dedicated, authentic seekers of awe and truth and beauty.
A more succinct version would read “DO DRUGS. GET NAKED. SLEEP IN THE DIRT.” It’d probably be more effective, too. But the target demo seemed to understand it just fine, like some kind of rave hippie dog whistle.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, we had to get there. That meant road trip. Prineville, Oregon, the nearest town to Big Summit Prairie (and still a good 90 minutes away), is about nine hours from San Francisco. Which seemed downright tolerable compared to my traveling companions’ drives. Steve and Amanda Miller from Uproxx Video had been driving in a borrowed Chevy Silverado since Orange County by the time they picked me up — a six or seven-hour drive assuming ideal conditions and speeding.
I took over driving duties once they arrived and got us over the Oregon border before letting Steve take over in the wee hours of the morning. Oregon really doesn’t get enough credit for being mostly barren wilderness. Not to mention the fact that they have one of those laws where you can’t pump your own gas, so even when you can find a station after midnight, most aren’t open. I finally found one after two or three failed freeway exits, and Steve took over. A few hours later I awoke violently to the feeling of rumble strips (which that part of Oregon helpfully provides on both shoulder and centerline) to see Steve leaned all the way forward in his seat, blinking blearily and trying to shake away the drowsiness.
“I think I might need to pull over for a nap,” he mumbled vaguely.
I told Steve I could take over if he needed and almost instantly fell back asleep, the threat of a violent wreck notwithstanding. I awoke again a bit later with no real conception of how much time had elapsed, to the sound of thumping in the bed of our Chevy Silverado. We were stopped at another gas station. It was starting to get light out, and Steve, it seems, had picked up hitchhikers. They’d hooked up with a ride share on Craigslist but it had only taken them as far as Prineville. How this information had passed between them and our driver, I don’t know. Now the truck’s doors were open, exposing us to the crisp dawn air of the high desert, and I was freezing. I considered grabbing my jacket, but it was now buried under two giggling strangers and 100 pounds worth of their gear. Hitchhikers? What the fuck? It occurred to me then, not for the first time, that Steve might not be the best traveling companion, seeing as how I’m the type of person who chooses movie seats based on how far away they are from other people, and Steve is the type of person who invites complete strangers to sit on our food.
After another 90 minutes through beautiful, completely unpopulated wilderness, we followed the signs onto a long, dirt driveway and came to a stop in a long line of festival-goers. It was 7am and a tweaky security guy told us it’d be another hour before the gates opened. The other drivers pulled out stadium chairs, cigarettes, and boxed wine to settle in for the long haul. Our hitchhikers introduced themselves as Andy and E-Ride. Andy was wearing a red onesie with the Sriracha logo on it, a child’s pajamas in adult size. Everyone around us started chatting and sharing party supplies like old friends. I was still freezing and couldn’t get at my jacket, food, or beer. I was hungry and desperate for coffee, hangry really, after one or two hours of fitful sleep. With everyone around me being social and having a great time I felt like a grumpy grandpa. Someone pulled out a giant bag of cocaine and didn’t even offer me any.
We started moving after about 90 minutes, which we later learned was a stroke of luck, since people who had arrived on Thursday when the festival started described waiting up to 18 hours to get inside. It was the first of many revelations that would forever alter my view of chilled out rave hippies. I knew they loved good vibes (…and decent drugs / stinky people give you hugs), but it never occurred to me the lengths and trials they were willing to endure in order to experience them. These people would climb Everest if you put a hot DJ at the top.
Big Summit Prairie is 55,000 acres, and the parking/camping area, a treeless expanse of rocks scrub, and fine, powdery brown dirt, seemed to stretch for miles. We bumped along through row after row of cars and campers and camps, getting increasingly discouraged about never finding a space (or maybe encouraged? maybe we’d have to turn around?), almost forgetting about the two hitchhikers clanking around in back. Finally, we found a slot that seemed just right, and there we made camp — pop-up shade with sleeping tent and sitting area underneath, another tent in the Silverado bed. Our hitchhikers made camp right next to us, scuttering any hope I might have had of being rid of them once we’d gotten inside. Luckily, they proved helpful: Offering up a hatchet we needed to pound in the tent stakes, some zip ties, and other necessities greenhorns like us hadn’t thought to include (Amanda grew up Manhattan, for God’s sake).
As we got to talking I slowly began to see them as real people with complex thoughts and lives, and came to accept a grown adult with a rap name. One of them was a robotics engineer. A hitchhiking robotics engineer, whod’ve thought?
On our first exploration of the sprawling grounds, I instantly realized I’d made a mistake not packing a costume. Not wearing anything with fur, sequins, fringe, or exposed genitalia basically makes you a narc in these parts, or at least that’s what I assumed everyone was thinking. It’s okay, guys, I’m dressed as “high school principal!” It’s ironic!
To my further chagrin, I realized those steampunk-style goggles I’d always made fun of (“what do those protect you from, the steam?” I’ve joked on enough occasions to qualify for dad status) actually were functionally appropriate in a sun-baked landscape of ever-present dust clouds. Looking like you just stepped out of 4-Non Blondes video actually made perfect sense at Big Summit Prarie.
The aesthetic was basically “county fair on the moon,” and, as you might imagine, the people watching was incredible. Walking between the stages, impressive structures that resembled retrofuturistic circus tents, there was a mix of porta potties, food stands, merch booths, sculptures made of wood, and interactive art whatsits, like a giant ball made of wire that, when we passed, was filled with people — two or three inside, two or three on top — trying to coach each other in or out of it, like a giant Rubik’s cube puzzle. It seemed the perfect jungle gym for adults on psychedelics.
The booths on merch row had names like “Buddhaful” and “Galactic Unicorn” (“The creative result of weaving the ancient wisdom of indigenous handcraft with galactic channeled symbols in a new galactic era.”), selling things that wouldn’t seem useful anywhere else — ornate leather fanny packs, and hoods attached to pockets with no sweatshirt in between. Walking around with a water bottle attached to a belt loop by carabiner, wearing an old bandana around my neck to keep from breathing in dust, these suddenly seemed like necessary accessories.
One thing that’d never occurred to me about one of these festivals was all the stuff I’d have to carry. Unless you plan on making a bunch of trips between your camp and the festival ground (which was about a three quarter mile walk through miserable dirt clouds) you’ll need more than a pocket’s worth of gear — water, drugs, maybe a blanket or stadium chair, giant inflatable swan raft, etc. With no transportation or cell service, everything happens at the speed of feet.
We spent most of the first day walking. We were supposed to meet a contact at a press mixer at the Moon stage. We got most of the way to the Moon Stage before Amanda realized we were actually supposed to be at the Moon gate. At the Moon gate we learned the mixer was at the press tent. When we got to the press tent, the mixer had long since ended, but we heard our contact might be at the Solar Temple (he had already left by the time we arrived).
No cell coverage! What a great way to relax and escape the grind!
Far from being free from my normal, workaday worries, I felt like I was living inside a logistical problem. How do these Buddhaful Unicorns do it? If you don’t set and adhere to precise meeting times with your friends, you’ll never find them. If you don’t bring the right gear to the right place, you’ll starve or go thirsty (or worse, be stone sober at a massive outdoor rave thing). There’s so much to see and explore, but you can’t really just wander off, at least not without the gnawing fear that you’d lose your group, and more importantly access to your drinks, clothes, food, shelter (drugs). I spent the entire day feeling anxious.
As with everything, the more seasoned festival goers had accounted for these factors and adapted. Probably my favorite part of the festival, aside from all the naked people, were the organizing poles. If you’re trying to find your friends in a giant crowd with no cell service, it’s hard to beat a unique symbol attached to a long pole, and everywhere you looked you’d see Game of Thrones-esque house sigils. These came in the form of a stuffed cat’s severed head puking red satin or, my favorite: A combination penis/vagina/testicles/boobs symbol painted on a birdhouse. The boobs doubled as balls, and the penis had a vagina in the shaft. During bigger shows, you could look out over a sea of humanity and watch the banners sway with the music, like a medieval battle.
One could also leave a message on the analog message board set up near the merch row, if one had the confidence that one’s friends would also be checking said board for messages. There were so many messages tacked up that finding yours didn’t seem much easier than finding your actual friends. There were many people there though, and as with everything, they seemed far more relaxed, capable, and perhaps most surprising of all, organized than me. All of the musical acts even started on time — something I’ve never experienced in comedy, concerts, or journalism, where in 10 years I think I’ve had less than five interviews ever start at the agreed upon hour.
By and large, the amount of logistics that went into a festival like this, of building a temporary city of 30,000 in the middle of nowhere, of providing enough services to keep people alive, of booking dozens of musical acts, lectures, and exhibitions, of marketing it and making it all legal, was staggering. And like a wedding, if one thing goes wrong — if the porta potties are out of paper, if the food trucks can’t handle the crowd, if an act gets delayed and can’t perform — the temptation to say “man, this festival sucks” would be overwhelming. Or at least it would be for me, professional cynic who can’t imagine waiting 18 hours to get inside a music festival. It’s both awe-inspiring and alienating, a thoroughly impressive feat I can’t in a million years imagine wanting to perform.
We spent most of the first day trying and failing to meet up with people we were attempting to meet up with, usually walking for 30 minutes at a time between failed meet ups. Needless to say, I was miserable. I didn’t even get to stop to take in one of the lectures, like “Vision and the ‘Age of Awareness,'” “Consciousness in the Universe,” “Psychedelic Data Science,” or “Bodhisattva Coyote’s Trickster Renaissance Council.”
Syncretism is a sacrament: astrology guides us to invite the Hindu pantheon to cavort with Taoism, the Quabbala, Aikido, Alchemy, Egyptian Mysteries, that we may honor and cultivate each planet, as a living Intelligence, and bring ancient wisdom alive in a fresh vernacular, that we may each embody within our unique selves. We magnetize, animate, cultivate our considerable Medicines to contribute to the world at this Time of Dire Beauty
We passed by a few times and the speakers changed, while the content remained indistinguishable — a kind of unbroken, cosmic new agey word salad, a collaborative scat poem that always seemed to hinge on “the universe” and “mindfulness.” Whatever the topic, the speaker would invariably remind the audience that we were indeed a part of a vast universe.
It wasn’t until we gave up on trying to get to our meet ups and just hung out in the camp that I actually started to enjoy myself. No more appointments to keep or supplies to bring or logistics to work out and we could sit right next to our stock of snacks and water and booze. It’s important to be food secure.
That night, we finally got out to see some music. It had been background noise all day, often in the form of spontaneous mash-ups, created any time you stand roughly equidistant from multiple stages. Now we would watch and see.
We saw a sort of jam band-influenced EDM act with a drummer front man called Sound Tribe Sector 9 who were fun. A festival veteran friend of ours, Mo, called it “swamptronica.” We swung through a DJ set from someone’s friend Colin (not his official title, though “DJ Someone’s Friend Colin” would be an awesome DJ name), who was also particularly enjoyable, specializing in what I would call “raunchy bass grooves.” Later we caught Bassnectar, who seemed to be the big draw of the evening, based solely on the number of people asking “did you see Bassnectar last night?” the next day. His music mostly sounded like every dubstep song I’ve ever heard, with bass drops and thumping and sirens and computer farts, a collection of vaguely unpleasant sounds made repetitious and shoved down a spiraling sonic staircase. It was impressive, in a “no thanks” kind of way.
Overall I was sad not to learn more ridiculously hyper-specific genre terms, like swamptronica. No vaporwave or steamcore or calypso jizz house or retro funkadelic psuedohorse. There was a dedicated “psytrance” stage just within earshot of our camp which for 24 hours a day blared a type of music in which every song was 185 bpm or above, and sounded like it was best enjoyed while high on meth and cutting up a body. That’s truly the only situation in which I could imagine it being appropriate; just trying to describe it makes me feel old. I tried to google psytrance to prove this theory to you here, but everything I can find sounds about half-speed compared to what was coming from the stage.
One of our failed meetings that day had been with the hot air balloon guy. The hot air balloon ride had been one of the selling points of the trip. After I’d realized I was basically going to Burning Man and it was a terrible idea, I’d figured “Hey, at least I’ll get a hot air balloon ride out of it!” But when we showed up at the appointed time and place, the hot air balloon guy told us it had been rescheduled. For 7 am the next morning.
Could people up doing drugs all night really be up by 7 am? Or just stay up until 7 am? It seemed unlikely, so we hedged our bets for some extra sleep by going to camp at 4am, and dragged ourselves out of our sleeping bags at about 7:45. We made our way to the rendezvous point, though we could see from the balloons in the sky that we were already too late.
The Oregon Eclipse Festival: Where you may wait 18 hours to get inside, but after that can expect Mussolini-like precision.
Being awake turned out to be a good thing though, because the early morning vibe was one of my favorites. The powdery dust hadn’t yet been kicked into the air, which was crisp and bracing; the sky was the color of a ripe peach. People staggered around in a respectful silence, most either just waking up or just getting home, in that loopy, slightly wired state of reverence just before a hangover. I was thinking about food again, as I often do. The food vendors weren’t open (and food row was another 20-minute walk in any case), and our camp was running dangerously low on pretty much everything but half-squashed bananas. Almost at that exact moment a chipper, matronly woman materialized out of a camp along the path holding two foil-wrapped cylinders twinkling like diamonds in the morning light.
“Hey! You guys want some breakfast burritos?”
Oh dear God, yes, a million times. It should’ve been a mirage, that scene in the cartoon where the starving man looks at his friend and sees a juicy steak instead, but this woman was real. The palm-sized burritos were already perfectly wrapped in wax paper and foil with a heat-absorbing napkin as if from a neighborhood restaurant. I took a bite and warm, cheesy eggs and sausage hit my mouth, the warmth slowly radiating through my entire body. I was running on a few hours of sleep, covered in a thin film of dust from uvula to asshole and could probably have been smelled from space, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been so content.
“You think these are dosed?” Steve asked — the obvious question when a strange woman emerges from a hobo camp and hands you food.
“Mmmaghghghfff,” I responded through mouthfuls of warm cheese, an expression halfway between “maybe” and “it’s in God’s hands now.”
Was it hunger that made us accept food from strangers, the atmosphere of the festival, suddenly reduced standards of sanitation, or a combination? It seems to me this question goes to the root of why these festivals exist. How much you trust the people around you is a somewhat nebulous concept, but most social scientists seem to agree that Americans’ trust in other Americans has been on the decline since the sixties. Further, this has a deleterious effect on society, which manifests in a number of measurable ways, from civic participation, to corruption, economic inequality, and basic health and happiness.
It doesn’t take hard numbers to know that my parents in particular (and probably most of their generation in general) would’ve picked up similarly-aged hitchhikers without a second thought back when they were young. I looked at Steve doing it in 2017 like he’d lost his fucking mind. Mine is a generation raised on stranger danger, the satanic panic, and razor blade-filled apples — of course we don’t trust each other. The dominant political strategy has evolved from wedge issues and fear to a level of weaponized distrust, to the point that we almost don’t even vote for things we like, but whatever we think will most piss off a perceived other. We’re terrified of each other. It’s part of the reason we own most of the world’s guns (and I say this as a person who enjoys guns).
If there’s one thing that I “get” about this festival environment, it’s that it’s like a vacation from the mass distrust inculcated in us since childhood. I don’t entirely understand why it’s that. There’s nothing about being at a festival that would prevent one from being robbed or raped or killed or whatever, and it’s even situational. We accepted burritos from strangers but still locked our car and tents when we left camp. Trust is always more than anything else a state of mind, a decision to see your neighbor is inherently well-meaning or inherently predatory. I don’t entirely understand what it is about the structure of the festival that allows people to lean towards the former, but I can tell you: They do. And for everything else about these temporary communities that seems like an insane hassle, the trust thing is… nice. Really nice.
It was still fairly early when we made it back to camp, but already people were up and about and shouting about having a great time — even though they either hadn’t slept or had slept only briefly. It basically goes without saying that this whole thing couldn’t exist without cocaine. My eyes drifted away from our encampment down the aisle of cars, where I could see in the distance a freckled, topless girl in a dusty black skirt jogging down the aisle towards me, looking slightly manic, pausing briefly at camps along the way. She stopped in front of an older woman who was in the process of dumping water from a cook pot about 20 feet from where I stood. The younger put her hand on the older’s forearm. Finally I could make out what she was saying.
“Can you say it? Say it: ‘I renounce all violent realities.'”
Looking vaguely amused, the older woman complied, looking the young stranger in the eyes and repeating patiently, “I renounce all violent realities.”
The topless girl looked relieved and bounded away.
Having finally connected with some friends (friends much more festival savvy than us), we joined them at their camp a few aisles over. When we arrived, they were in the midst of a spirited face painting session, and their entire extended friend group like old friends. Jonah, a wiry guy in a purple speedo, hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. He had a mustache that looked strangely natural on him, the kind of mustache that convinces other men to grow mustaches, shoulder-length jam band hair, and looked basically like the beau ideal of a ’70s rock star. Billy Crudup, but more compact (though equally handsome).
“You guys wanna see my butthole?” Jonah asked, pulling down the bottom of his speedo to reveal a slit across the middle.
It was an innocent butt, the butt of a child, like a 20-something Coppertone baby. As we met the new old friends and exchanged mustache kisses, a guy wandered into the camp holding a large hunting knife. My eyes followed him as I did some quick mental calculus, trying to figure out how many hippies I’d need to throw between myself and the knife guy should he mean to do us harm. I thought of the train killer in Portland a few months back. I seemed to be the only one who noticed the guy, who had frizzy hair and a permanent half grin, with a horizontal crease above his nose, a dead ringer for Randall Tex Cobb as the Lone Biker in Raising Arizona, if you can believe it. The sound of Jonah and his friends laughing and carrying on seemed to fade out as I watched the knife guy to see what he might do, whether he was a friend of the group or just someone who wandered up.
He surveyed the scene, smiled to himself, and plunked down on a stadium chair, pulling a salami out of his pocket and contentedly slicing off pieces to eat. Okay cool, not a psycho killer, I thought. Just a Dan Dierdorf looking guy with some salami to share. I started to hear the gang’s voices again.
Steve, God bless him, even though he’d dragged me along to this dirt convention full of weirdos and was constantly making me follow the trail of tears from one failed meet up to the next, had at least redeemed himself in one respect: he’d brought rafts. There’d be another long march out to the big pond carrying even more gear, but at least this one would have the promise of being able to relax at the end.
On the walk, or really the entire festival, I can’t recall seeing a single piece of litter. The festival-goers, despite spending the entire time on multiple mind-altering substances, had taken the festival’s stated directive to “pack in, pack out” to heart. Still, the irony wasn’t lost on me that at a festival that was ostensibly about nature — with multiple lectures on veganism and environmentalism, with probably more concentrated usage of the word “gaia” than at any other time and place in history — most people had arrived after upwards of 10 hours in large gas-guzzling vehicles. We were there to honor the planet… by dancing under gas fueled torches (some of which were incorporated into Mad Max-style sculptures that flared periodically just for fun).
I wrote in my notebook, “We love the Earth so much we drove an RV 10 hours out into the desert to light her farts on fire.”
It wasn’t until we were out on the lake that I felt like I really got into the festival experience, that I felt like I had something approaching a transcendent moment. We could sit in the rafts and relax with a cold drink (more like a luke warm drink, since all the ice melted on the first day, but it was still strangely refreshing). From there we could simply observe the craziness from a comfortable distance. There was a giant water slide (an art water slide), a few barge parties (art barges), and probably a quarter of the crowd was mostly or fully naked.
In fact it was hard not to be impressed by the quantity and concentration of incredible bodies, both male and female. It almost seemed like an optical illusion. I saw people with three feet of dreads that looked like they’d been marinated in stagnant puddles and faces covered in grime and scabs, that were nonetheless attached to torsos with six-pack abs, the bodies of swimsuit models, or trapeze artists. If you want to look great naked, it seems, the ideal regimen is to combine maximum drugs with minimum food and sleep, plus 10 miles a day of walking. Though it does sort of dampen the whole “everyone is beautiful/body positivity” vibe when 90% of the naked people look like personal trainers.
In any case, there are few things better than having a comfortable vantage point from which to watch (naked) strangers un-self-consciously have a great time, without feeling any particular pressure to join in yourself. Combining undisturbed nature with slightly disturbed humanity, it was the perfect combination of serene and surreal.
Snaking through the crowd on the beach at one point were seven or eight girls in tight green outfits and face paint who seemed to be playing follow the leader. The leader would raise her hand or spin around and they would all follow in succession. Were they supposed to be a snake? A dragon? Unclear, but they were fun to watch, pirouetting in succession as they slithered down the hill towards the water. Another group were dressed in some kind of “evil hospital” theme, with one guy in impressively authentic looking “old man” makeup, and a girl with artfully smeared mascara staggering around smelling her novelty syringe. I guess she was some kind of… goth… nurse? I didn’t get it, but their commitment was impressive. We were at a massive outdoor party where the theme was “anything weird.”
At one point an overweight kid with a rat tail haircut, probably 13 or 14, finagled his way into Steve’s clearly-designed-for-one-person raft. Which is to say that the kid was already sloshing on top of Steve’s legs before asking “Hey, can I get on your raft?”
It was a bit of a dilemma, because on the one hand, who wants a slippery fat kid on their already rapidly deflating raft? But on the other, he seemed like he had just been treading water out there and it might be a public safety issue. The problem resolved itself a few minutes later when the kid ditched Steve’s raft to flop himself next to some nice topless lady who had been floating by. She gave the kid an accepting, or possibly just resigned, half smile.
Ahh, to be young. Being the child of rave-hippies must be the cruelest paradise.
We packed it in after a few hours of rafting. Later the same day we were supposed to meet William Close, a Malibu artist who plays the “Earth harp,” turning large outdoor spaces into stringed instruments, for an interview. In the past he’s built them out of skyscrapers and appeared on America’s Got Talent. He turned out to be easily accessible after his show, and promised to meet us later that night in front of the merch booth where he’d bought his jacket. It seemed like as good a landmark as any.
“It was… what was it called…” he struggled, trying to remember the name.
He couldn’t remember the name, but said it “definitely had a big bird out front,” spreading his arms wide to illustrate this obvious landmark’s grand wing span.
Later that night, as we neared the appointed time, we had a heated discussion over whether Close had meant a giant wood sculpture near merch row that kind of looked like a bird, a booth that had a dragon on the sign with spread wings that he might’ve misremembered as a bird, or a booth with “bird” in the title and no bird art. Merch row was about a half mile long, and most of the booths were closed at the time. 50% of them had some avian connection. Needless to say, we never found him.
Finally it was Monday morning, eclipse day, the main event of the weekend, the show’s headliner. At least for Steve, Amanda, and I it was, because we’d be leaving right after.
On another beautifully crisp, coffee-less morning, we hiked to the big open plain where people seemed to be congregating to watch the eclipse. We spread out a big blanket and joined our extended group, with Jonah and the rest of the festival veterans. Knife guy was nowhere to be found. As ever, the people looking the most excited and chipper in the early morning you’d eventually realize were the ones with drugs. I didn’t have any, but I was feeling happy and contented with the event, as it combined my favorite things about the festival: morning and sitting.
Waiting for the sun to make its way across the sky isn’t the most climactic thing in the world, but Jonah provided a constant, stream-of-consciousness soundtrack to the event, a mixture of jokes, commentary, free association, and nonsense. It would’ve been unbearable except that he had that irrepressible golden retriever quality, one of those personalities that only works if you’re cute. “BOOORING!” he’d shout, heckling the eclipse, and then “Hey you guys wanna see my butthole?”
In a weird way, I imagined that this is what Charles Manson must’ve been like. Not because Jonah seemed crazed or violent in any way, quite the opposite (I think he was actually a nurse for old people or something), it was just that I could imagine people going along with the chirpy free association guy who doesn’t give a shit. The Beach Boys famously let Manson hang around because he was always with girls and they thought his improvised songs were funny, which was basically Jonah to a T. It’s easy to be swept away with someone who seems like an endless party, even if nothing they say makes much sense. Tom Wolfe famously wrote about the phenomenon of Boomers writing “beautiful people” letters to their parents, with the idealistic young letter writer explaining that he or she had quit college or the army or whatever but was otherwise safe, the letters all containing some variation on “don’t worry about me, I’ve found some beautiful people and…”
It was suddenly much easier to understand the beautiful people phenomenon. Consciously or not, so much about these festivals seems to be an attempt to recapture that pre-Manson Family 60s idyll, the vague sense of love and art conquering all. Which is much easier to believe in when it’s mixed up with drugs and freedom and good looking young people. Being the cynical child of hippies, I went in believing that that idyll never really existed, that as soon as the innocent flower children showed up for the Summer of Love, so too did all the hucksters, predators, and pimps looking to prey on them — ideas gleaned from Hunter Thompson and Joan Didion, et al. And while I certainly witnessed my share of dopey, blissed out innocence, I honestly didn’t see too much predatory grifting. Probably I just wasn’t there long enough.
The other possibility that occurred to me was that there were enough barriers to entry — part natural, part deliberate, mostly financial — to keep out the proverbial riff raff. In addition to $300-plus tickets, in order to attend, one also had to have a vehicle capable of the journey, some available vacation days, and at least a few hundred bucks worth of camping gear (tent, sleeping bag, headlamp, hatchet, food warmer, etc). Anyone who’s been inside an REI understands the paradox that pretending to be homeless is fabulously expensive. You’d also need a few hundred bucks worth of drugs if you wanted to have any fun at all. And even once you had all that, you still had to be willing to wait up to 18 hours just to get in, which would really separate the die hards from the fair weathers.
The festival was a Summer of Love theme park for millennials, a Disneyland section next to Tomorrowland. Not that I believed it was a deliberate attempt to recreate a past neither the organizers nor the attendees had even experienced, but my generation’s techies are constantly accidentally inventing things our parents already had, only more exclusive — the “lounge on wheels” that sounds suspiciously like a city bus, the unmanned Bodega that sounds suspiciously like a vending machine. We like an old-fashioned sense of community, but only among some kind of self-selecting group of early adopters. Perhaps this was another example.
As the eclipse went past 80 percent, the light started to change. The air began to cool noticeably, a breeze began to blow, and we could hear the sounds of birds chirping that hadn’t been noticeable a few minutes earlier. There was a period of golden hour conditions that put the real thing to shame, bathing everyone in a soft light that made us tan and happy and glowing, like a sepia-toned photograph. The thin coating of dirt simultaneously deepened our tans and whitened our teeth, like that Mitch Hedberg bit come to life. At full solar eclipse we dropped the glasses and looked directly at the sun, a razor-thin outline of white light behind a black orb, the sky a dark blue like the simulated night of a movie set, or a children’s book. We looked wide eyed from the sky back to each other as if to say “can you believe it?”
From my vantage, all the way to the horizon was a blanket of glowing cell phone camera screens reflecting the sky back to it like upside down stars. It was awe-inspiring, in the truest sense of the phrase. People were crying. I didn’t cry, but I had taken my shoes off because someone said something about it “grounding your energy”‘ during the eclipse or some such, so it wasn’t like I hadn’t totally not gone native.
Soon it was over and magic hour had given way to the harsh midday sun again, and I’d never wanted to leave a place so badly. We trudged back to camp shoulder to shoulder with a mass of humanity, collectively feeling like a three-day hangover had finally caught up with us. Walking back across the bridge over the pond, I could just hear the sound of a three-word chant, so regular and repetitive that at first I thought it was a recording. As we got closer to the shore I started to make it out. “WATER IS LIFE! WATER IS LIFE! WATER IS LIFE…”
The leader of the chant was standing waist deep in the pond and she kept the chorus going for at least 10 minutes. She was very strident, very committed. Water… is… life? That’s… true? Ish? The important thing wasn’t that her words made any sense, it was that she was saying them, and we could all come together and agree, sort of, because why not? Who doesn’t like water? Were we all out here searching for something vaguely positive? Is that why we’re always using words like “mindful,” urging each other to think better and do… something?
With the streets choked with eclipse chasers, the ride back to San Francisco took 17 hours. It was almost 10 hours just to get out of Oregon. We waited in a long line of cars at the first gas station — the one across the street had run out of gas. We filed into a line for a pump, but there was one car stopped at the front, just sitting there, neither moving nor pumping gas for what seemed like forever. Steve finally got fed up enough to jump out and find out the reason for the hold up.
The little guy behind the wheel looked startled when Steve knocked on his window, possibly panicky from residual drugs of some sort. “Hey, are you getting gas or what?”
“My friends left on an errand,” the guy said. “I… I don’t want to lose my friends.”
“They’ll find you,” we promised. “Now get out of the way.”
†The eclipse festival is a collaboration between numerous international producers including Bass Coast (CAN), Beloved (US), Envision Festival (CR), Hadra (FR), Noisily (UK), Ometeotl (MX), Origin Festival (SA), Rainbow Serpent (AUS), Re:Birth (JPN), Sonic Bloom (US), and Universo Parallelo (BR). The event will have seven stages of music and over 40 different areas of workshops, art pieces, and over 30,000 people to witness a total solar eclipse. Oregon Eclipse is the largest event of its kind (and the first US event) to offer a ticket only available to be purchased in Bitcoin.