“We’re like on a big hill right now!” Taylor says, referring to the thousands of people grooving on a grassy hill overlooking the Gorge amphitheater, the band Phish inducing musical waves upon us, the sea of heads drowning in dopamine. “We’re all being pulled towards the sound! No one is in the same place that they were before!” Taylor continues, in awe of the obvious.
“Gravity, dude!” I say, lightheartedly mocking the absurd pot-friendly hippie world we entered two days ago, like an alternate reality soaked in tie dye. Despite our state of mind, Taylor is right. No one in the crowd is in the same place they were before. Before the song, before the set, before the weekend. A weekend I can only describe as spectacular and extreme, from sweltering white heat to chilly darkness, relaxed bum-nothing days to sensory explosive nights, from who we are outside the Phish fest to who we are during. It’s the fourth and last set, and with the cotton candy sunset swallowed by nightfall, all I see are stage lights, blinking and twirling, stunning me into slack jawed amazement.
Two days ago we entered the Gorge, leaving a part of ourselves behind. Our jobs and responsibilities, any conservative inkling or inhibition. Everyone brought their best hippie selves and hit refresh. The Gorge is in George, Washington, a desert town containing nothing, I’m assuming, except the amphitheater and cows. Taylor and I were directed to our campsite, a patch of grass in a huge field, and parked in a row of other cars and tents. Our neighbors were from Colorado, a group our age, who hit a deer on their way up, denting the front bumper, and forgot to bring a shade structure. Nonetheless they were kind and generous.
There was no natural shade at the Gorge. Festival goers set up tents and canopies and RV’s and trailers. Taylor and I were proud of our Walmart brand shade structure we purchased for the purpose of this weekend, along with our mini grill, only to be mildly shamed by the hundreds of groups who essentially brought Lazy Boy living rooms and Gordon Ramsay kitchens.
At the top of the field was Shakedown Street, a migrating and ever-changing street of vendors to be found at every Phish fest. There were pretty established artists selling handmade clothing, jewelry, pottery and glassware, mixed with the less established, perfunctory vendors. A woman in a bikini selling vegan hot tamales. A red faced bro next to an open cooler of sports drinks with a sign, “WHAT THE FUCK IT’S JUST A BUCK!” A skinny white t-shirted dude slithering through the crowd muttering, “Doses.”
We spent the whole first day wondering where the hell the stage was. We were also shocked that no vendor was selling ice cream. It was gloriously hot, everyone walked around like sunburned slug zombies. But when the doors opened at 6 PM, energy was restored, the temperature favorable. The walk to the stage was impossibly long – tension building – until we crested the hill and emerged at the edge of the natural Gorge amphitheater in all its drama. After the first night Taylor accurately noted, “And we get to do it all again tomorrow!”
Really, could life get any better?
So the next night around 8 PM, we stood up with the crowd on the grassy hill and cheered. The smell of herb hung in the air. Bets were placed on what songs they would play. The members of Phish walked on stage, picked up their instruments and began. No words said. No time wasted. When the sun went down, the energy morphed from an epic afternoon picnic to a radical, high voltage, boundless rage.
So here I am, for the second night, feeling Phish like never before. The music prickly on my skin. It’s like I can feel my synapses connecting or diffusing or whatever they do. Science! Oh axons and dendrites! I feel you clearly now, underneath my skin, and how happy you make me. How happy I am to be alive! I look up and see glow sticks raining through the air like rainbow sprinkles. Streaks of colorful residue soaring and landing on the ground, lighting up the paths between people’s feet. At the start of a new song or a key change or an ingenious downbeat, the glow sticks explode in the air again and again, in perpetual motion, continuing for so long I wonder how many glow sticks there are and how people gather them so fast. I pick up the ones around my feet and toss them in the air.
I no longer feel like an individual. An hour ago the crowd was all strangers and I didn’t want to get too close. But now we are like bubbles in a bubble bath, connected and the same. The girl next to me, who at the start had her hands in her pockets, was now a musical body romping puppet. The nerve is no longer in you – you are the nerve, among thousands of other nerves inside of an acid trip. Suddenly everything is wonderful and my prior fear abandoned me. The fear that I’m not the rager type. The fear that the weekend wouldn’t live up to my expectations nor the money I paid for it. The fear that I wouldn’t be able to just let go and get out of my own head. My head that carries an air raid of thoughts such as these: I don’t like conversations with strangers. I don’t like crowds and I’m not a hugger. While several people consider me a hippie, inside I am skeptical of that peace and love crap. I’m not a very good sharer and never have been, ask my elementary school friends. I am an introvert and put a lot of pressure on myself. I realize it’s easier to know what you’re not than to know what you are. And equally as scary as realizing you need someone is to realize you don’t. Lately most people annoy me and I still don’t like dogs. I moved across the country on a whim and dearly miss my sisters and college friends. I change what I want every five minutes and have no life plan after March 2017. My feet always hurt and I have weak wrists.
All these things and more had me doubting whether I would have a good time at the Phish fest or whether a certain percentage of myself would be faking it, bopping along but emotionally dismissive. What actually happened was the opposite. Sharing music is the truest power I know. The Phish fest reminded me that life is an adventure and to not get bottled up in adult politics of what you should be, according to someone else. After the festival I seriously considered for about an hour living in a trailer. How fun would a house on wheels be?! Taylor and I could tour next summer and sell ice cream out of a truck! I’m still not over the idea. Neither is he.
Shockingly, the weekend surpassed expectations. In the middle of that crowd, I let go. One with the hippies. And I wished the moment lasted forever. In a sea of joyful expressions and absurd unpredictable music, it was almost too much—the nerves, the lights, the sound. My body sent into sensory overdrive as I tried to keep my heart and mind contained. It was impossible though. It was pulled right out.