I peek through the window of my tent and see it’s morning. Ross, my 17-year-old, lies under a nearby tree, wrapped up in his sleeping bag, sound asleep. Not far away, I hear a sound check: “One, two, three. Check. One, two, three.” Welcome to Friday morning at Floyd Fest XI.
Inside my tent, everything seems to be scrunched down at one end—sheets, pillow, sleeping bag. My body is slanting downhill, too, as I check my phone and discover it’s only 9 a.m. I figure I got about four hours of sleep. I shake my head to loosen the cobwebs, and two things come to mind: did I really fall asleep to the crooning sounds of Frank Sinatra last night?—and I NEED COFFEE!!!
FloydFest, an annual music festival in Floyd. Virginia, has been on my radar for years. A college friend attends every year and raves about what a cool, laid-back festival it is. When I hear that Jackson Browne, Michael Franti, Bruce Hornsby, and Allison Krauss will play at this year’s festival, I know I have to go. Ross, a big music fan, says he’ll join me, and we start making plans.
I have to admit: the idea of tent camping at my age fills me with trepidation. The last time I slept in a tent, I was pregnant with Ross, and that memory is not particularly pleasant. My husband reminds me we have an air mattress, which will make sleeping on the ground a bit more bearable. But I’m also thinking about the heat, the bugs, and most important of all, the bathroom facilities. How far will they be from my tent? Can I find them in the dark?
Then there’s the food. I know there will be plenty of vendors selling food at FloydFest, but I also know eating festival food for four days will cost a lot and won’t be particularly healthy. But I’m a problem solver, so before long, I plan a menu of tasty food to bring along—pasta salad, potato salad, hard-boiled eggs, salmon wraps, fried chicken, cheese, and crackers. OK, maybe these menu choices aren’t super healthy, but we’re bringing fresh fruit and veggies as well.
As I research what conditions will be like at FloydFest, another worry surfaces. Turns out FloydFest takes place on eighty acres of land next to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and festival-goers are shuttled from parking areas a half mile down the parkway. Once on the festival grounds, other shuttles are available to help carry you and your goods to the camping area. I begin to stress about how we’ll transport everything to our campsite—tent, sleeping bags, food, coolers, chairs, and all the other accoutrements of modern camping.
THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
All these concerns swirl around in my brain as Ross and I pull up to the festival grounds on a hot July Thursday about noon. Luckily, being a member of the media has its perqs. Besides providing Ross and me with four-day passes, Mandy, the PR gal, also gives us an X-Spot parking pass, so we can park close to the action and forego the shuttle bus. Soon a golf cart comes by, and Ross and I load up our things and head into the colorful crowd.
As we zip down a dirt road toward the camping area, I think we’ve landed on another planet, a place filled with energy, purpose, and conviviality. Music spills from all around us—twanging banjos, a lilting sax, happy voices singing—and in the woods beside us, I see tents nestled up against tents side by side with more tents. I have never seen campers camped so close to each other, packed into the woods like chickens in a coop. The festival formally opened this morning, yet folks with VIP tickets arrived Wednesday, choosing the best (i.e, closest to the Porta-Potties) camping spots. I wonder where Ross and I will find room to pitch our tent.
Our driver drops us off near a path that winds downhill deep into the woods. Luckily, I spy three Porta-Potties nearby. Ross and I find a relatively uninhabited spot shaded by thick rhododendron about 40 yards down the trail and decide to call the space home for the next few days. The slanting ground troubles me, but flat areas are pretty much non-existent. We are in the mountains after all.
Ross takes on the role of sherpa with little complaint, and we schlep our belongings down the path and pitch our tent. I throw a few Mardi Gras beads up in the branches—decorating campsites is part of the fun at FloydFest. I can’t wait to explore the grounds and listen to some soulful music. After slathering myself with sunscreen, Ross and I head up the path and emerge, blinking, in the bright July sunlight. The adventure begins!
THE GODS OF MUSIC
Like a cosmic village, FloydFest unfolds before me. Besides eleven (!) stages spread strategically across the grounds, themed neighborhoods welcome you: a Healing Arts area, where you can enjoy massage, meditation, prayer; learn about ayurveda, psalmistry, and medicinal herbs; participate in yoga, tai chi, and hula dancing. Next door the Children’s Universe invites kids to try a rock-climbing wall, hula hoops, and art workshops or watch performers give kid-friendly concerts.
On the far side of the festival at the Global Village, the Teen Scene in the Imagination Tent offers teens a chance to hang out and drum, journal, and dance—plus take workshops in composting and creativity. Nearby a dozen colorful hammocks invite escape. A fire burns in a huge fire pit, and I make a mental note to return to the Global Village after sundown to sit by the fire and watch the world go by.
FloydFest is a place that invites reflection, I begin to discover. The most astonishing thing I learn in the first few hours is that this festival is ageless and classless. The crowd is a complete mix of humanity. There are guys with grey ponytails, young studs with dreads, new parents with babies on their backs, college kids, barefoot teens. Tie-dye is hands-down the favorite attire, and tattoos are popular as well. Ross seems to think there are more 50-somethings than 20-somethings, and I have to agree. Guess I’m not the only one trying to get in touch with my inner flower child.
Vendor tents line the pathways throughout FloydFest, where you can buy hand-hammered singing bowls, homemade soap, kilts and kilt accessories, essential oils, cold-forged jewelry, yurts, hula hoops, tie-dyed shirts, wind chimes, dulcimers, eco fashions, yogawear, crystals, moccasins, walking sticks, pottery, hand-painted parasols, gemstones, candles, backpacks, toe rings, and henna tattoos. Food vendors serve an array of choices: popcorn, pizza, pulled pork, organic teas and coffee, hand-dipped corn dogs, fruit smoothies, crepes, Gator bites, and ice pops. The smoky smells and sizzling sounds of food are all around.
Beverages, too. Vitamin Water, a sponsor, gives away free bottles all weekend long, a perfect hydrator for sun-dazed festival-goers. Beer and wine are, of course, on tap in special roped-off areas. I’m pleased to see Starr Hill Brewery for sale in the Beer Garden, which becomes my favorite stage. Tucked among the trees, this cozy spot has bistro tables and a pond with a tinkling fountain. Here I listen to my first FloydFest performance: a band called Spirit Family Reunion whose homegrown music gets the crowd clapping and dancing. As I drink my cold beer in the shady beer garden and listen to this spirited band, a breeze rustles the leaves overhead and afternoon sunlight sprinkles over us like fairy dust. I’m enchanted with FloydFest and feel like I could stay forever.
That night I join my son and friends at Dreaming Creek, the main stage, and listen to the melodious sounds of Jackson Browne, one of my all-time heroes. He plays “Running on Empty,” of course, and the moving ballad “Late for the Sky.”
How long have I been sleeping
How long have I been drifting alone through the night
How long have I been dreaming I could make it right
If I closed my eyes and tried with all my might
To be the one you need…
At the end of his set, I make a dumb decision to go back to my tent to sleep. Ross says he wants to hear Galactic, and I let him go, hoping he’ll behave.
I’m tired, but it turns out sleeping is impossible. The Global Village Stage is upwind from me, and, even with earplugs, it sounds like the bands are playing right outside my tent—think jet-engine loud. The music continues until 4 a.m. when Ross returns, grabs his sleeping bag, and announces he wants to sleep out under the stars. I toss and turn and slide down to the bottom of my tent, wondering if sleep will ever come. Then in some odd homage to the gods of music, someone puts on Frank Sinatra, and I finally find blissful sleep as the sky outside my tent begins to lighten, and a new day begins.
HERE AND NOW
I feel suprisingly good in the morning and head for the coffee stand and then the shower line. Yep, you have to stand in line for a shower, but it’s fun way to meet people, and I chat with ladies from across the state as the line snakes up to the shower trailer. Freshly scrubbed and caffeinated, I am ready to enjoy Day Two of FloydFest XI.
The hours and days blur together, becoming a cacophony of music and impressions. I see men in kilts and wonder if this is a new fashion statement or just something mountain men do. Girls wear frilly dresses and skirts with leather boots. I see cowboy hats and ball caps, Birkenstocks and Crocs. Theres’s an overwhelming sense of individuality at FloydFest, something I find refreshing. People here—especially the younger folks—epitomize self-expression. They are who they are and not who somebody wants them to be. What a freeing thought.
I also begin to discover that folks at FloydFest have left all of their worries behind and are completely tuned in to this exact moment, this place, this band that’s playing, this day in their lives. No one thinks beyond the moment. No one looks backwards or forwards. Everyone is here and now. It’s another lesson that hits home for me. I’ve always had trouble living in the here and now. FloydFest is teaching me awareness and gratitude for this slice of my life.
As if on cue, rain clouds gather overhead. What would a music festival be without rain? Ross and I run back to our tent site to stash things as best we can. When the rain showers down, we’re standing beside the Blue Ridge and Beyond Dance Tent under an umbrella, listening to Megan Jean and the KFB, a duo who I decide is destined for greatness. Megan sings and plays a washboard, and her partner, a banjo. The music is original, haunting, upbeat, raging, and cathartic. It speaks to the gypsy in me, and I am transformed. Megan peppers her performance with homespun philosophy—music is how souls communicate—and her belief that music shouldn’t be a competition. That said, her band is one of the Under-the-Radar performers who is vying for first place and an invitation to return to next year’s FloydFest, where they’ll get to play on the main stage. I know who I’m voting for.
The rain clouds float away, like a bad memory, and later just after sunset, the most amazing thing occurs. I’m standing at the Streamline Stage at Hill Holler. My son and friends have headed off to hear other bands, and I’m listening to the funky fusion sounds of Toubab Krewe, whose signature sound combines rock with West African roots music. The band is jamming, the stars are coming out in the velvety purple sky, and—wham—I see a meteor blitz across the sky. It is so beautiful and stunning that I look around to see if anyone else saw it.
Behind me three teenaged girls stand together, and the middle one is looking up with a huge grin on her face. “Did you see it?” I ask.
“Yes,” she gushes, “I saw it.” Her friends look at us like we are crazy, but I know this pretty young girl with the rapturous smile and I have shared a very special moment, a glowing memory that stays with me all night.
FloydFest continues for two more days, highlighted by Michael Franti’s concert Saturday night. An hour into his performance he comes down into the audience and sings a few feet from me: “That’s the sound of sunshine coming down.” I brush his fingertips as he high fives the crowd around him. A moment in time, a moment etched in my memory.
As Ross and I pack up our things on Sunday—he’s anxious to hit the road—I sneak off to hear Bruce Hornsby play. He invites Ricky Skaggs on stage with him, and they collaborate on a few numbers, spontaneous, unrehearsed, and heartfelt. All weekend I’ve seen this over and over, musicians jamming together, creating instant art, going to the edge and back again and bringing the audience along on a musical journey.
That’s what FloydFest has been for me: a journey to the edge, to a place just outside my comfort zone, where music and merriment are what matters. Everything else fades away.
FloydFest XII? I can’t wait.
FloydFest XII will be held July 25-28, 2013. For more information, visit www.floydfest.com.