For a man of such potent verbosity, I’m curiously at a loss for words after the 2012 Great Blue Heron Music Festival. Because this music festival has lodged itself so deeply in my ventricles over the past several years, after the festival is over, I surrender to a torrent of emotions that range from deeply, almost manically jubilant, all the way to homesickness and longing after the watermelon is smashed (a tradition marking the end of the festival).
To someone who hasn’t been enlightened by the deeper experience of volunteering at the festival, the occasion probably passes unremarked. I’m sure some guests dismiss it as only an awesome concert, pack up their SUV and travel home unaffected. But once you’ve seen the Wizards behind the curtain (in a place which ironically happens to be quite Emerald itself), you find that you wish you could click your heels and go back right away.
The Road To New York
After trying out a few different places to camp in our non-volunteering days at the festival, Nathan and I decided that a little cove tucked away in the quiet camping area fit our needs perfectly. By virtue of an unusual evening, which is a whole long story itself involving freestyle rap and Church Brew Work’s beer, we’ve become known as Grandma’s House and regularly accommodate a small village of about 10-20 individuals in our little city over the course of Heron.
The key to our campsite’s architecture has always been using our RV’s, Nathan’s Westfalia and my Dolphin, to claim the far ends of our territory, give us electricity, bathrooms, water, and bedding. (Once you go camper, a tent just seems damper) #shamelesslybadjoke. But in all seriousness… camping in a tent for a weekend is doable, but sleeping on the ground for 10 days is downright impractical.
This year though, Nathan’s little bundle of VW love was on its last leg. Cylinders misfiring, oil leaking, brakes smoking, and all around lack of reliability in making the 300 mile round trip journey, we started searching the pages of Craigslist for a solution. We considered everything from slide-in pickup truck campers, renting (and even buying) an RV, to even at one point considering making a temporary structure in the woods to function as Nate’s bedroom.
Finally, with days remaining, we came across a little camper up in Beaver County, PA. After Nate took a spin up to verify it was as-advertised, we pulled together the $650 and went to pick it up around midnight on Thursday (keeping in mind, we planned to leave Saturday morning for Heron). This purchase began one of the most grueling ordeals that Grandma’s House may ever have to face.
Just as Thursday turned in to Friday, we hitched up the pickup truck with the camper. No brake lights. We fidgeted with the plugs, wires, bulbs and sockets. Still no lights. So what else were we supposed to do? Of course we drove to the nearest Wal-Mart (haphazardly maneuvering the bulky trailer on the awkward streets of Monaca, still unlit) to pick up some temporary trailer lighting. After about an hour of running wires, at about 1am, we left the Wal-Mart parking lot destined for home. Almost.
Coming down 376W, about 5 miles West of the airport, Nate and I started to feel a pretty big sway in the trailer. Growing more and more unstable, both the trailer and the truck started to jack-knife left and right, and every time Nathan lightly applied the brakes, the sway would get worse. After about 10 seconds (which felt like 10 hours), an audible bang, the smell of burning rubber, and the taste of despair overcame us as the left tire on the camper blew, the trailer slammed to the ground, and both vehicles felt as if they were driving through quicksand. We pulled the trailer as far as we could off of the road, but the wheels locked up with the camper hanging several feet out in to the highway.
We got out to investigate, even though we knew what had happened. Armed with a weak flashlight, we started to make a plan to change the tire. There was a spare on the camper, so we thought this might be a 15 minute problem we could easily overcome. With the vehicle hanging on the road, we did a classic game of “Car!” akin to our days playing on the street when we were younger. However, all of the cars that passed us seemed be driving fast, erratically, and unwilling to move over in to the left lane. Only then did it dawn on us, after a car with a grey shark fin mounted on the roof whizzed by, that the Jimmy Buffett concert had just let out only a few miles away, and with it, a torrent of inebriated and rowdy Parrot-heads. When we discovered that the tire iron we had in the truck wouldn’t fit the lugs on the camper anyway, we called in reinforcements – the state troopers.
The troopers pulled up, had a brief conversation with us, lit the flares and ultimately guarded us as we scrambled out on the road (using their tire iron) to change the camper tire. After quite a bit of shoving and pushing, we got the new tire on and we were ready to leave. We bid the officers a pleasant evening (it was now about 2:30am), and got back in the truck. Just as Nathan put the truck in to gear, the officer knocked on our window. “Son, your tire is flat again.” [Expletive removed].
The camper spare had dry-rotted, and now we had no way of getting it home. The trooper instructed us to drag the vehicle forward anyway (gritting our teeth at the thumping noise as the wheel sludged over the road), and eventually we got it far enough off the highway to abandon it. We asked if they’d tow it. “This is our road, boys. No locals. We’ll watch it for ya.” They were good men, and wish I could remember their names to give them some glory they deserve – this all happened during one of their biggest bust nights for drunk driving on 376 all year, I’m sure.
We disconnected the camper and made way for home (there is an extended story involving a Great Horned Owl, the Pittsburgh International Airport, and a middle-aged couple at the gas pump, but it’s a long and different story).
While I worked on the following day (on 2 hours of sleep), Nate went back out to the airport, got all of the wheels off the camper, and had them replaced with new tires. We packed and picked the camper up on the way to Heron.
My RV, on the other hand, worked totally fine until we were about an hour away from Heron. Nathan, driving my vehicle because I have a little more experience driving trailers than he, was taking my motorhome on the off-ramp from Rt. 79 for our traditional Edinboro fuel stop, when we both heard a bang that sounded remotely like a shotgun blast. I continued in to Sheetz as Nathan got stranded on the side of the highway. I walked over to the motorhome and asked him to turn the engine over. It started, but sounded like there was a hole in the engine. Staring at it for several minutes, our only guess was that we blew a head gasket and it’d be out of commission for this trip (2 hours from home, 1 hour from Heron, Saturday night with nobody open).
It had enough power to limp in to Sheetz, where we took some more time looking it over. A gentleman (a retired military mechanic, as it happens), was fueling up next to us and we enlisted him for help. He spent several minutes looking it over, and couldn’t figure out what had happened. When all seemed futile, he remarked “Hey, whats that?” as he pointed to an object lodged in the hood hinge. He reached for the object and held it in the air as Nathan and I both stared blankly at a spark plug. Shining the flashlight in to the engine head, sure enough, the spark plug had simply backed itself out and shot out of the engine.
As serendipity would have it, or even the Heron pond goddess may have chosen, we broke down across the street from a Wal-Mart. A quick trip across the road yielded a new plug, a socket set, and a plug driver and in about 15 minutes, all of the week’s mechanical problems were solved.
Pre-fest: A Delicate Balance of Controlled Chaos
Nathan and myself have grown in to our own roles at Heron. A central tenant of the Heron philosophy is productive creativity, and we’ve been searching vigilantly for our place in the festival family sun. After some trial an error (it turns out, I’m not very skilled at catching chickens), Nathan and I started using our experience from stage crew, and my knack for lighting design, to form our own crew dedicated to art and lighting installations. Just two people strong, Nathan and I work with support from Steve French of Volt Vision and Doug Sitler of Heron Night Lights to hang LED fixtures, Christmas lights, run power cables, and creatively spice up the property to be more hospitable in the woods at night; a niche to call our own.
With very little infrastructure, we found ourselves constantly seeking resources and time to accomplish our goals, and actually a relatively stressful week. Having only two people means that complicated tasks tend to become very collaborative but lack certain manpower to accomplish quickly. Most crews receive a golf-cart during the week to shuttle people and equipment around, but as a newly founded crew, we are still working up to that level of responsibility and resource allocation. Luckily for us, Kurt’s pick-up truck turned out to be a guardian angel, and we used it during the entire festival; we were able to shuttle bins of equipment, bags of tools, and our tired, sweaty selves around the hundreds of acres of land with little trouble. The only problems we really had were during the festival when we had to move projectors and speakers, change bulbs, cover lights during inclement weather, etc. We are hoping that next year, we might be able to bring a few people and resources on-board to accomplish more in the pre-fest week.
This year, our directive was to spruce up Dragon Run (the main pathway in to tent-camping for the festival), and spruce up we did. Our centerpiece project was a sculpted dragon, several feet tall, that we constructed during the prior week (amongst the camper fiasco). We didn’t get the paint on until pre-fest week, but most of the sculpting and logistics were taken care ahead of time. Unlike our mechanical nightmare from last year, we had few engineering problems to overcome, and we found some talented artists to help us paint it. In a last minute icing-on-the-cake decision, we bought some fluorescent paint and blacklights and painted the sculpture to glow in patterns at night. We even had an interactive button that caused smoke to shoot out of the dragon’s nose and mouth.
We also hung hundreds of feet of Christmas lights in the dance tent, hung several LED color-changing par cans about 20 feet up in the trees (I’m a ladder pro from my stage crew days), built a few smaller lighting structures, lit the enormous tapestry at the drum circle, lit Jeremy Holme’s ribbon sculpture on the hill, lit the pond goddess and the newly installed metal Heron sculpture, among about a hundred other smaller tasks. Working up to gate-opening (and actually much after), we completed everything we needed to get done.
Socially, Grandma’s House was a hit this year. Maybe too much so, as the spectacle of our campsite brought in many volunteers almost every night. We did our best to control the crowd and protect the younger folk, and despite a few small complications, we were able to accommodate dozens of folks every night. We had a brutal beer-pong tournament going against the Skilletation Nation (Logan and Skye, Steve Rockcastle’s kids), and eventually were defeated in the third round. Next year, boys…
There were several residents of Grandma’s House that were younger than Nathan and I, so we committed a lot of effort to protecting and nurturing the group, and even though that responsibility wound up being quite difficult, I made some friends with some new and wonderful people in the process; especially new Grandma’s House residents like Beth (Kristine’s daughter), her friend Myra, Cassidy’s friends Joe and Hilary. I think our campsite will be much less stressful in a few years when everyone is of age, but for the time-being, we are doing our best at having a blast while keeping everyone safe.
Thursday night, the feeling was positive and ominous. As I drove out on to the road to take photos of the guests in line, I was astonished by the party going on in the middle of the street. People in costumes, bands playing, beer pong games, and positive, outgoing people festooned the side of Wait Corners road.
Maybe I’m a little too metaphysical about the whole thing, but I always feel like I can guess the vibe at the festival by the vibe in the line on Thursday night. And true to my prediction, this festival seemed much more community oriented and socially outgoing than ever before. I went to bed Thursday with a smile.
The Festival – The Biggest Party of the Year
I woke up early on Friday. Before the sun barely creeped its way in to my camper’s windows, I could hear the roar of excitement from the line at the gates, clamoring with anticipation. Finishing up some last minute tasks, the gates opened and Grandma’s House was surrounded by neighbors within an hour or two.
One by one, old friends started to pop back in to my life, and the festival started to become very real. All week, Nathan and I kept remarking that we were so dissolved in to the pre-fest mentality that we kept forgetting that there was an actual festival to count down to.
When I think about what it’s like to actually be at the festival, this is what I remember:
I am moved by my senses. The smell is humid and heavy in the air, and on each breeze you catch elements like campfire smoke, incense, vendor barbecues, coffee, cigarettes, wildflowers, sweat, each provoking a different memory to dislodge from the back side of my brain and make me re-live a different moment from festival’s past. The sound is iconic; the muffled roar of the band that happens to be playing, filtered through the forest, melts in to the landscape. It’s layered with the sounds of children laughing, twenty-somethings horsing around, cheering from the crowd, and the occasional performer – some guy playing a horn for no other reason than that he brought it, or a girl in a fairy costume with bells around her waist, or any other surprise you might uncover at any moment.
The visuals of the Heron can’t be found anywhere else in the world. The landscape itself has iconic scenes to lose yourself in; the sun bouncing off the bog a twilight as flies zip around avoiding the thousands of bull frogs lying in wait, the shade of the mushroom grove in the pine forest on the west side of the property. The stars, clear as I’ve ever seen them, as viewed from the top of the hill on the east side of the of the road. One scene that sticks out for me is the way the south parking lot looks at night; cast blue by the hue of the mercury vapor lights at the security posts, the water vapor rolls like clouds over the hills and disperses over the endlessly flowing hills and fields going towards the horizon. The moon, usually a star player in this scene, casts hard shadows off of people walking by and blades of grass moving in the breeze. But a whole other element of seeing Heron is seeing the people; the guests that come to escape their ‘real’ lives and instead enjoy their real lives. People are compelled to be themselves in this setting, and its awe-inspiring to see how unique people are. Girls in sundresses, silk skirts, straw hats and knit bikinis bathe under the hot afternoon sun. Men in tie-dye, outrageous hats, flip-flops and cowboy boots chase them around, all excited about the prospect of making new friends, if not meeting somebody special.
But then again, everyone is special in a place like this. Everyone is at their best, at their happiest, and is purely ecstatic to be baking under the sun with each other. This is nirvana for me.
Kurt joined us on Friday and even though we were one-down from the original group that went to our first Heron (DPM was very missed), we had the best weekend yet. My new friend Jess from home also joined us and she went out of her way to make my weekend very special by driving three hours alone to and from the festival. One of my favorite experiences of the festival was when Nathan, Kurt, Jess and I took a walking tour of the property together.
Sunday night, I did my annual tradition of taking Torie, Eileen and their friends on a golf-cart tour of the property. I think its the second or third year in a row, and is always the keystone that marks the festival as successful and complete. A large reception was held at Grandma’s House every night, and after we worked out all of the kinks in lighting and other projects, the festival wound up going fairly smooth for Nathan and I.
Of course I saw some of my favorite bands (hanging out with the infamous Town Pants is always a highlight in my year), and enjoyed the normal festival attractions like the vendors, other peoples’ art, and especially all of the campsites. These are hallmarks that can’t be missed, but Nathan and I noticed some new influences for us this year. The deeper we get in to the Blue Heron family, the more the experience changes for us.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that as a regular guest, what gave me happiness was consumption. Consumption of music, of beer, of food, of art. But the closer we get to the family, what drives me now is production. Producing art, producing music, producing food, producing art, moving crates, shuttling performers, hanging lights, contributing. I love dedicating myself to producing this event. I can’t explain why. I wish I could. But for whatever reason, seeing the festival grounds transform from empty fields to a huge celebration just makes me smile. I love being a cog in a machine that gives people a place to be themselves, express who they are, and ultimately, escape a lot of the troubles of the world we live in the other 51 weekends of the year.
I want the festival to grow. I want it to prosper. I want the culture to flourish, and I want people to have the same life-changing experiences that I did. It’s hard to communicate that expression, ‘life-changing’, to someone who hasn’t had it happen to themselves. How can you possible explain to an outsider that a ‘concert’ changed their lives? But I guess what I want to write to all of you, and myself, is that it’s not a concert, or really even a festival. At the heart of the organization, the festival is merely a skeleton to give the family a structure. We need to have jobs, roles, responsibilities and accomplishments to be ourselves, and that is what Heron really is… a vehicle to be yourself. When I started volunteering, I couldn’t decide who I wanted to be up there. I wanted to be a lighting designer and a photographer and an engineer and a designer and a friend. And I remember laughing at myself thinking about how indecisive I was and how I had to commit to one thing to be good at it. But somehow, organically, guess what I have become? A lighting designer and a photographer and an engineer and a designer and a friend.
The festival is an alternate universe; a different life. An opportunity to keep a secret identity in the foothills of the Appalachians in the Amish countryside and start life over again, in that way, we are all reborn when we participate. As I sit in this cubicle, I think about how I have to appease my 8 bosses, finish a dozen proposals, file reports, type emails, and before long, I start to despair over how much governance is actually in my life. But when I pack my RV and build a commune for a week up at the Heron, I am my real self. I take direction from others, and greatly respect all of the elders who know so much more than I up there, but the only person I’m really accountable to is myself. It’s my choice to be compelled to make the festival better every year, and I don’t need a resume, a degree, a suit with a grey tie, or really even a clue to do it.
The people up there have different values. They value drive more than experience. They value community more than independence. They value blood and sweat more than money and power. In a lot of ways, the people at the Heron are an example we should all strive to follow. They reward hard work, creativity, motivation, and admonish those who stand in its way. I want to live like that forever.
I’m curious what Julie would say if I asked her what the ‘philosophy’ at Heron really was, but I believe that the philosophy is to create the ideal world, if only for a moment.