Oceana county is a small wooded patch of land north of Muskegon on the west side of Michigan. For 51 weekends out of the year, not much happens here. The locals might scoff at that, citing their Asparagus Festival or the Apple Pie and BBQ cook-off that happens every Fall, but that’s bullshit, absolute bullshit; as far as the world is concerned, all Oceana County gives is Electric Forest. People call it The Electric Forest, or Forest, of maybe even The Electric Forest Music Festival, but, whatever it is, it’s a cultural event. More so than the thousands of tents capriciously melted together on the dusty savanna, more so than the hundred plus bands and DJs who played countless sets on any of the several stages, more so than the 50,000 drug addled nomads who roamed the festival grounds, the Electric Forest is a complete and absolute spectacle, an animalistic nod to all those who demand that, for a few days every year (or sometimes more), they be given a chance to buck their societal bounds and drink deep in ambrosial chaos, taking weird drugs and dressing like savages, grinding together in giant pits of flesh and sweat and grime. Of course, not everyone comes there for that. There’s a whole different crowd of people that line the edges, filthy hippies strumming on guitars, singing chants and hula hooping- God, the hula hooping! That’s all they seem to do! I am not sure where the hula hooping came from, but it has reached pandemic proportions! You’re hard pressed to walk 15 feet without finding a dread-locked vixen whipping the circular plastic around her waist. And between those two, those who thirst for carnal satisfaction and those who wish to be washed over by life and music, I sat in a tent next to two strange men I had never met, one rummaging in his pockets for drugs and the other vacantly staring at the blue nylon siding.
“I just got a thing for hippy girls” he said to me. The one with both his hands dug deep into the sides of his nike athletic shorts. It was around noon so the heat hadn’t hit us yet but. “Something about them- I just love’ em! I think it’s cause they’re dirty. You know, I’m a pretty dirty guy so I guess I just feel better when I know they smell like shit, too” he said. I laughed a bit.
His name was Jay, he was from Malibu, now living with a girl he met who lived in the woods south of here. Jay was on the lam. He’d been hiding from the authorities for a few months now. I didn’t ask for what. He just told me that, if they caught him, he’d be in jail for a long time.
“I’ve been to prison before, man” he said, “can’t go back”. The way he said it was like in a movie, maybe before the anti-hero, holed up in a back room, blasts his head off so the cops can’t take him alive. He had invited me into his tent, it was big and he shared it with a guy named Wilder. Wilder was the guy staring at the side of the tent. He was also from California. He was real weird- I don’t think he trusted me. I think he thought I was a cop. I can’t exactly blame them, my story for being there wasn’t typical and I didn’t know shit about the bands playing.
It was quiet for a bit then be broke his gaze and said “so why are you here again?” It was conversational, but forced conversational.
“I’m here to write about the festival, that’s why I got this good spot” I said, pointing through the tent to where I assumed my car was parked. Not being able to see out the walls made me a little nervous. I’m a pretty big guy, but it doesn’t matter how big you are if some dude in a tent ODs on bath salts and decides wear your face as a mask. “I know it’s a little weird, but I guess they just want people to know what the festival is like”.
We’d been through this before so he didn’t ask more questions, I guess he just wanted to make sure I kept my story straight.
“You ever do drugs?” Jay said. I shook my head. I hadn’t and the last thing I wanted to do was lie to them. Guys like this are animals, they smell fear.
“Well have I got a treat for you” he said, pulling out a half dollar sized bag from his pocket. He said it like the way you’d talk about giving a child some cake or maybe if you were a car salesman and tried to sell a vehicle with some sexy, exclusive rebate or discount you never could offer before.
“What is that?” I asked.
“It’s drugs” Wilder said, a little mean like I was dumb for wondering what strange powder they planned on ingesting.
“I know it’s drugs but-” and then Jay interrupted me.
“This right here is some A+, veterinary grade, cat tranquilizer, better known as ketamine or, on the street, Special K”.
When someone says something like that, you think they’re joking, but he wasn’t. In his hand, he had about a palm full of ketamine. I had a roommate in college who told me about ketamine once. He worked in a lab where they did animal testing and said they fed it to rats as a more humane way of killing them.
“You want some?” he said, dumping the bag out onto the cardboard back of a notebook and lining it up with a fake ID.
“Naw man, I’m good” I said. Something about snorting lines of rat poisoning didn’t feel right.
I met a yoga instructor from Omaha in the media tent, a place which turned into my home away from home away from home, most notably because of the free red bull and power outlets. I made some joke, asking if she had a lot of clients because people in the slaughterhouse got so stressed out because they had to kill cows all day and she didn’t laugh. I thought it was funny, but I guess people in Omaha must get a lot of cow jokes. All I’d been eating for the past three days was Kroger’s ring bologna and Canadian Club Whiskey, maybe my delivery was affected. I asked her why she was sitting in the media tent 1000 miles away from home and she told me that this is what she did, that she went around the world and instructed people to do yoga. Every morning, at 10 am or noon or whenever it was, she got up on stage and a couple thousand people wandered over and set down their yoga mats and did downward dog and flying lotus and all that good stuff. I don’t know, I never saw it, I must have missed it.
I figured that probably must have been a pretty good life, other than living in Omaha. We talked about something introspective and metaphysical, it was the kinda conversation you think you’d have with a yoga instructor but I forced it so the only meaningful relics hung from the sides like rickrack trim. It was a weird interlude between pounding rhythms and mud and grime and human zombies pumped on upper and downers and everything in between. We talked for about an hour and then she said she had to get back to her hotel and meditate and I wanted to see some band perform perform and when I was walking away I realized how weird it what just happened was- not the conversation, per say, but the circumstances. I came into this festival with a certain prejudice and it was only enhanced. Up until this point, it was only reinforced.
Her name’s Mary Clare Sweet. I told her that only serial killers and rockstars have three names. “I guess that makes me a rockstar”, she says.
I lost Jay and Wilder on Saturday. We had become friends and shared stories the night before. I still hadn’t ask him what he did. I had snuck an ax in my car into the festival and told him about it. It was an accident, I was just cutting of some trees a few days before and never took it out from the back seat of my car, but if he was running from the law due to a history of violent crime,at least knew I’d be able to defend myself. Not that I was worried, he was a squirrelly guy and I pinned him for an addict that stole laptops and shit to pay for whatever his current drug of choice was. He had this weird thing going on where patches of his hair were gray, like how you’d imagine straw looking in a black and white photograph. I haven’t seen much gray hair in my life, I guess that’s a consequence of growing up in a society obsessed with youth and beauty, but still, it didn’t look right. Wilder didn’t have many stories. I thought it was because he didn’t trust me- that that was why he fidgeted when I talked, but the more I got to know him, the more I thought there might be something else. Before I left the next day, I saw an empty prescription bottle of Xanax with his name on it next to the tent. It was empty. I couldn’t find them to say goodbye.
The last time I saw Jay and Wilder was at some jam band concert on one of the main stages inside the venue. If you’re not familiar with jam bands, I envy you. Dave Matthews runs a jam band, Phish was a jam band, the String Cheese Incident is a jam band. If you’ve ever seen a guy who looks conspicuously nonchalant, he probably listens to a lot of jam bands. Jam bands are the are the equivalent of chronic musical masturbaters, absolutely content with their own auditory expression, so much that they’ll play with themselves for hours and hours not caring what you, the audience, thinks. They’re the kind of people that wear flip flops and cargo shorts and ill fitting short sleeved button down shirts and maybe the black drummer has a beret. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with people who cover their bodies in sewage either. Jay and Wilder loved this kind of thing and even though it wasn’t really my scene, they convinced me to go to it. Up until this point, I’d avoided these types of events. They attracted hippies who would lay in the dirt and braid their beards or armpit hair and bask in each other’s shared refusal of norms and expectations. Frankly, it made me sick, and maybe that nausea came from the contempt that they weren’t forced to go through the trials and tribulations of society that I had to wear, but, goddamit, it was still there. Beyond that, they judge you, even when they’re upset because of the judgement they receive. I know not all hippies are like that, I mean, I bet real hippies live in the forest and don’t ever come into contact with civilization but to sell their hemp messenger bags and buy wood nails or something, but the kind of hippies that go to this sort of thing are the ones who always seem like they’re trying to promote their agenda. Jesus Christ, I don’t care about how you haven’t showered in three weeks- I don’t even care that you’ve brought your bastard child to an internationally recognized community of debauchery, so why do you have to care that I’ve turned my car on to use the air conditioner? It’s 90 degrees out and I’ve just been dancing in a sweat fueled maelstrom, let me have my peace! You know why they do this? Because they see their lives as worthless and need to establish arbitrary standards of meaning of which they can apply to not only themselves, but others as a means of establishing relative worth, thats why.
So, it was me and Jay and Wilder and ten thousand stinking hippies and Jay pulls out some candy. He says “this is acid, man” and he takes one and gives one to Wilder and tries to put one in my mouth and I’m thinking “Good God, I’m not going to let this deranged lunatic drug me!” so I push his hand away and tell him I’m feeling sick and he shrugs and turns around and smacks the ass of some girl wearing a short knit skirt and then shows her the candy and winks at her and puts it in his mouth and then they start making out and, for a moment, I have my first rational fear that, at any moment, the world around me could devolve into a festering orgy. Thats how Electric Forest was- at any given time, I was moments away from _________. Moments away from this or that or whatever your secret boogeyman is. Some absurd situation brought about in B-movies where three friends going away to college or a psuedocumentary about coke-infused night clubs from the 70s.
I looked around and saw that we were a teetering boulder of humanity, tipping back and forth, balanced by our shared morality construction; a sharpened fulcrum. I stumbled away from the pit and sat down at a picnic bench towards the back where the scores of food vendors peddled overpriced vegan paella to unsuspecting undergrads (they were the ones with the money!). On one side of me, there was a guy and a girl. The girl was sitting backwards on the guy’s lap they they were facing each other and they had both their hands up against the other’s face and they were rubbing the other’s cheeks and it was absolutely the most stereotypical scene of psychedelic drug use that I had ever seen. I had to look away for fear of becoming a background extra in some straight to Netflix National Lampoon movie. On the other side of the bench were two older men wearing t shirts and ball caps, but not poor, ratty ones like you see on homeless people. One had a pony tail and the other wore a Woodstock shirt and I didn’t know if it was a real Woodstock shirt or not because, while he looked pretty well off, he was a 60-year old man at a music festival specifically marketed towards the 18-26 demographic.
“What are you doing here?” I asked they guy in the ballcap, but not like how a cop does.
He told me about how he and the guy next to him were there with their kids, two students at Pomona College, a liberal arts college that costs 50k a year. He told me his son is studying musical therapy. I thought it was nice to see some father-son bonding going on until I realized that it wasn’t bonding so much as using your dad for a free ticket then abandoning him with your friends dad while you get zonked and dance to shitty music. I began to feel bad for the guy. I’m not good at sympathy, but I listened to him talk about his glory days. He told me Jimmy Page watched him do some black girl in Hoboken. It was a weird thing to say to a someone you just met.
Three days of yelling had killed my voice and I was sweaty from squirming my way up to the front of the Krewella show which was really more a rave than a show. Krewella is a group of DJs, two of them are hot girls from Chicago who dance around on stage when they play music from their computers and the third is a guy, also from Chicago, who doesn’t really do much except contrast against how hot the two girls are. If either of those girls read this, get at me. I don’t know much about music, but I know a lot about having a good time and, goddam, these raves are a good time. They’re a bunch of maniacs jumping around in fluorescent colors and big shoes, waving giant flags and throwing glowsticks all while you’ve got this overwhelming music blaring in the background and the bass picks you up and rumbles through your body and then throws you down into the dirty ground. These raves act as mediums for ongoing contests between people who want to see who can come the closest to being naked. I saw a few girls who traded away tops in favor of strips of electrical tape and even a dude wearing a red cowboy bandana as a loin cloth. The girls seemed freed by it, but I can’t imagine he did much dancing. I pushed my way up to the front of the crowd, jumped up and up and up until the bottom of my feet began to blister, and when it was all over, decided it was time for me to leave. Besides that my body was beginning to succumb to the effects of sleep deprivation and malnourishment, it was Saturday night and I had to work in Flint on Monday. I can’t imagine what hellacious torture it would be to wake up at 4 am Monday morning then drive across the state to work so, instead of seeing more of the same, I packed up my campsite and drove home underneath the Midwest stars.
It was funny to me, where I was leaving in contrast to where I was going, I mean. I was leaving this area of absolute lawlessness and driving across the state to a city, also renowned for its lawlessness, which doesn’t seem like much contrast, but you’ve got to dig further. I’ve got a buddy who lives in Flint, he’s an engineer somewhere around there. When he first moved, I went over to meet him and we were driving around in his pickup truck and I go “how do you like Flint so far?” and I was kinda saying it sarcastically because Flint isn’t the nicest city and we were driving through a more unsavory part of town but he looks at me and smiles and goes “I like it quite a bit” and I say “why?” and he goes “open the glove compartment” so I do and right there, hanging out in the glove compartment of his truck is a 12-inch Bowie knife and I look at him because I don’t know what he’s gonna say but he keeps silent and just looks out the front window down the road and a few seconds later says “… no rules”. That’s how I think of Flint and, really, that’s how Electric Forest was. Not nearly as violent as Flint, but still, the same sort of Wild West mentality prevailed. I like that contrast. Or maybe I just appreciate it. Something about how two separate systems with similar constraints can function so differently. I guess the difference is that people paid to get into Electric Forest and, likewise, will instead pay to get out of Flint, but still, that sort of anarchy can hardly exist anymore. Maybe that’s what Electric Forest is, benevolent Anarchy. I know you can’t have any sort of direction with anarchy because of the nature of it, but stick with me here and bend the rules. It’s what us humans need. Not all the time- but once in awhile. Every few months of weeks or, years, we need to cut-loose. We’re animals after all, animals that wear clothes and drive giant hunks of metal powered by tiny explosions and have ventured a quarter million miles away from the Earth, but animals nonetheless.
We’re animals. I think we should embrace that. Hear blood pounding in your ears, feel a stranger’s moist skin slide across your body, taste the adrenaline you’re not sure if from fear or excitement. Do this all, they’re artifacts from when we knew we were alive. I think that’s probably why they call it the Forest; where else do animals roam?