“Do you do acid?”
It was the question I was being asked again and again this weekend, often repeatedly from the same person within only a few short moments. “I just did two hits of speed, and a bit of acid. It really makes the experience so much better. I’d dose you right now if I had some.”
These had been my people once: long-haired, hemp-clad, barefooted. They had come from all over the country, sometimes further, just to spend a weekend mingling about a field, basking in sound waves and positive vibrations. But ten years can be a long time, and walking into the Midsummer Madness music festival late on its second day, it might have been a lifetime. A long and jaded decade stood between me, and them. Gone was my long hair, my mud encrusted feet, my festival ponchos, and my youthful sense of adventure and optimism with them. More than that, I don’t recall ever having a tail, this new and surprising accessory that has somehow become essential to festival culture.
Do I do acid? No. Almost certainly not, at least I didn’t think so, but the pulsing lights of the Electrofusion Stage and the endless stream of conversations that would skip like an old record made me wonder. This was something new.
“You become a family with everyone. It’s a community. You can just go up to somebody and say hi, meet them. You don’t even have to; they come to you.”
I had been here before, almost ten years ago exactly: the same backcountry clearing in the relatively wild expanse of the Kingston Peninsula had been the site of its ideological successor, the Sunseekers Ball. Ten years, and at least a decade younger, I had been an innocent only just wading ankle deep in festival life. The concept of legally drinking anywhere, let alone publically, in a field, was new and exciting to me. The immensity of that freedom itself was intoxicating. But then, Sunseekers Ball had also been in its infancy; less trance and more jam bands. I can recall, or at least half guess at, the likes of Grand Theft Bus, and Jimmy Swift Band. Low hanging pockets of cloud wafted above and around those good people whose names I will never remember. This was a whole subsection of the human race eager to embrace me, anyone, regardless of how many days either party had spent living in a tent.
Now, entering the festival grounds of Shakedown Ranch, I was once again a stranger in a strange land. The campground loomed ominously ahead, simultaneously full, and yet bereft of familiar faces. A sudden fear passed over me, and encased my body in a sheen of sweat. Had I missed the signs? ‘You must be this high to ride!’ Was I dead at thirty? Had all of my friends already passed on into careers, mortgages, parenthood? Was it too late for me? The urge to flee crept down my spine and coiled its way around my Achilles tendons. Deep breaths and perverse fantasies of becoming an investment banker. The precipice was that close, and with it the nearly uncontrollable desire to jump.
“I’m not a Wizard. I’m a Party Gnome. It’s a common mistake.”
And then, before me in the road was a shining, bearded, figure garbed in… whatever, but most certainly a Wizard. As he stood there beckoning forth festival-goers on their journey toward happiness, enlightenment, and a subscription to his Grateful Dead newsletter, I realized that our position in this universe is fluid, that greater things might be just beyond the horizon, and that the main stage was also coincidently in that direction.
I was ready to be embraced once more, to rejoin the tribe, as it were, to experience that unique sense of euphoria only available from being pressed against a speaker the size of a Volkswagen bus by a pulsating mass of warm bodies. I imagined crossing that threshold as being reborn. Future friends greeted me at every turn. Rhythmic music enveloped me, and lifted my feet. Beer was thrust into my hands, and everything became right in the world. The Earth continued on its gentle rotation, daylight was replaced by neon projections, and great fires leapt up as the tribe commenced its nocturnal ritual; the inexhaustible and orgiastic gyrations.
“I love, more than anything, getting the chill up my spine. You feel it down in front of the speakers, and you get that moment”
“Do you do acid?”
The question was repeated, and again I answered in the negative. Pharmaceuticals were never my game. Too many anti-drug campaigns about them making your brain go all donut-shaped. They must have gotten to me as a child.
“Are you a narc?!” No, it’s much worse, I explained, I’m a writer who has been taking down this entire conversation with some highly sophisticated recording equipment, and zero sense of journalistic integrity. You’ll have three heads by the time I’m done with you. His saucer plate eyes collapsed back into his skull, and he let out a roar before stumbling into the fire. He sat there in silence for a moment after that, perhaps pondering the deeper meanings of life, or the fireworks dancing before his eyes. Then he turned to me suddenly, as if noticing me standing there for the first time. “Do you do acid?” he asked.
This sort is to be found at any festival; enthusiasts determined to gobble up anything put in front of them like a kid on Halloween, just to brag to their friends that they ate a whole case of Snickers bars, even if they did throw up on their own shoes. They are fortunately an exception to the rule. This is a family place, with eight year olds pumping their fists in front of the stage possessing a better sense of what it is to feel alive than the twenty year old on molly in the middle of a field claiming it’s a spiritual experience. Their presence is a stark reminder that I’m an observer here. Sober as a judge in crisp gingham, I am an outsider, and fresh off the boat.
“The DNA doesn’t give a shit. It doesn’t care if you have a job, or a family. The DNA wants you to be here. I’m sure that thousands of years ago we were all doing the same thing.”
It was getting cold, and the distant throb of music was no longer enough to distract me from the building pang of hunger. The festival continued on around me, and without me.
I began to despair as my new-found enthusiasm wore itself thin, fraying at the edges, unravelling with every wandering step. Wizards, and other more experienced revelers, moved past me in accordance with some great invisible design that I’d been unable to discern. Had I been pretending? Was I the only one? Like a child grown, had I lost that special youthful capacity to see faeries, elves, and Santa Claus? I was a man without a people. An orphan. The contemplation to return home, defeated, became very real. My feet began their slow and unhappy march back towards the gate, skirting the festival grounds, my eyes lowered to avoid the disappointed gaze of those around me. I moved in a stagger, downcast and disregarding of my actual path. The exit was somewhere ahead of me, and beyond that, my old and familiar life. I was convincing myself that I could still be content in a world without wizards, hoolah-hooping girls, spontaneous friendships, and music.
Then a voice called to me. Or at least, I thought it had. It rang out clear above the sounds of the festival; the trumpeting clarions of all the host of angels. There, sitting against the main stage, was Mandy McHaffie, patron saint of wayward festival goers. She took me in, and gave me strength. She clothed me, and dressed me as one of her own. She beered me, and gave me hope. Then she gave me one final gift; she leaned in, and whispered a single word, “OKA.”
The world spun on its axis. The heavens opened. I died, and was reborn. I found redemption in the wake of a didgeridoo jam that stretched out beyond the walls of eternity.
Sometime shortly before dawn, I collapsed, exhausted, and sitting around a campfire looking up at the stars with a dozen people. We’d only just met, but between us existed the quiet intimacy of those who have experienced a great journey together. In that moment, I remembered why we were here.
Cover photo by Jack Harris. For more of his photography visit his facebook page.