[FESTIVAL RECAP] Deserts Hearts Festival: Behind that “One Stage, One Vibe” Magic
The reality of how completely unprepared I was for the next 72 hours started to set in when our little Toyota rolled to a stop in the middle of a dark field, barren except for lantern light that glowed from a couple of tents whose inhabitants were taking a break from the constant throb of tech house just a few minutes’ walk away. We were two girls who had spontaneously decided to take the plunge into our first radical self-reliance festival just days before; while our hearts and minds were ready, our physical beings were much less prepared. Though we had brought plenty of champagne, we somehow neglected to bring a hammer to stake down our tent, let alone think about how to assemble our borrowed accommodations for the weekend. Had we been someplace else, we may have been SOL. Thankfully, we had entered the magical and lawless realm of Desert Hearts, where everyone has everything and loves everyone. Our benevolent neighbors–perhaps sensing our bewilderment–quickly lended some helping hands, and within ten minutes of arriving we had a makeshift shelter to call home for what was to be my most eye-opening and heart-warming festival experience yet.
Desert Hearts embraces you into its world the moment you pull up to the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation entrance. Any frustration I had been harboring at the two-hour-long caravan line leading to the entry evaporated when I saw that each car was being personally welcomed by official greeters with smiles and hugs. “Happy Desert Hearts!” was a common cheers among the attendees and the festival workers, which set the tone for the rest of the weekend. Everything I’d ever heard about Desert Hearts made me exceptionally curious–what made it so special? What secrets were behind the “One Stage, One Vibe” motto that made members of this community so devoted? Little did I know, I was about to have my inauguration. Once inside the festival, it didn’t take long for me to “get it.” It became clear that there were (basically) no rules except to leave your inhibitions, bad vibes, and pretentiousness at home. Essentially, bring all your own shit and do whatever the f*ck you want. Oh, and “no shiz-ing in the ditch.”
One might be lead to believe that such a lawless gathering of people would result in total havoc, but it was just the opposite. It was renegade but loving, wild and yet serene, full of strangers who were already friends. I have yet to experience Burning Man, but I could tell the culture was very much alive at Desert Hearts. It begins with the “off the grid” location–when was the last time you shut your cell phone off and didn’t look at or even think about it for three whole days? Before last weekend, it was probably that time in college when I dropped my flip phone in the toilet and was too broke to buy a new one until Mom and Dad wired me money. Forgoing our digital distractions enabled us to grasp the beauty of the moment with our own eyes instead of recording it through a Snapchat filter, to interact with each other instead of falling into the rabbit hole of an attractive stranger’s Instagram account. When was the last time you couldn’t easily buy any necessities you might need? Radical self-reliance was not only encouraged but required at Desert Hearts; while you could buy any range of expensive fur coats and precious gemstones, there was not an extra toothbrush or roll of toilet paper to be purchased. However, the people in the big RV a few lanes over could probably help you out. This scarcity of resources created a sharing culture that was incredibly refreshing in our self-interested society–everyone seemed to have extra of something and was more than willing to help out a fellow Desert Heart in need.
In an age where “more” is associated with “better,” a festival with one stage might seem antiquated. Only one type of music that plays nonstop could be hellish for some–but when that music is groovy house and spiritual techno, there’s nothing I love more! “One Stage, One Vibe” meant that everyone was on the same wavelength, and the loving connection was most palpable on the dance floor. No introductions were needed to start a dance circle with strangers, and faces quickly became familiar as groups found their respective spots facing the spinning heart. Saturday was the highlight of the weekend for me between DJ Harvey‘s party-starting noon set followed by the Desert Hearts crew’s showcase. My friends and I found ourselves onstage dancing behind Deep Jesus during his sunset performance, sharing our personal champagne bottles with our fellow revelers. I am not a backstage type of girl–I’d much rather be enveloped in the crowd’s energy–but at Desert Hearts, fans are welcome to show off their moves on stage as the DJs are doing their thing. There is no VIP here, no bribing guards for your 15 seconds of fame, and the ability to have a shared experience with the artists that lacked any trace of status symbolism made me feel like I was part of the family.
The weekend brought with it a series of random and ridiculous events that I’m sure would never happen so unceremoniously anywhere else: a pop-up wine and cheese party on the dance floor during Mikey Lion‘s set on Saturday, complete with tiny wine glasses free for the taking; meeting new friends who had brought their parents to experience the festival; french toast after sunrise for those of us who had survived the frigid night by dancing even harder. At one point we wandered into some seasoned veteran’s campsite and learned about the legend of “Fire Jesus” — who had apparently blessed freezing, hopeless attendees with small fires for warmth during one of the first festivals.
“I have a gift for all of you,” a new friend we’ll call Rob said to our little group. We had been bonding on the dance floor for the past half an hour or so, though not many words had been exchanged. “You have to trust me not to hurt you. Do you trust me?” That’s when I started to pay attention. What kind of gift was this? I nodded, thought not quite sure of myself. “Close your eyes, put out your arm, and make a fist,” he instructed us. I was instinctively inclined to peek from behind my sunglasses as I hesitantly extended an arm, my nerve endings on fire with anticipation. I felt a little tap on my wrist, but nothing more. “Now open your eyes,” Rob said. He had given us red slap bracelets that read “The Vulnerability Project.” I couldn’t help but smile, immediately understanding the point of this simple gesture. I’m a believer in the power of vulnerability to facilitate human connection, and that red bracelet was a poignant reminder of what positive things could happen if we all carried our best intentions for each other with us outside of these festival grounds.
I entered Desert Hearts emotionally and physically spent after a month of working 14 hour days, feeling devoid of connection to anything but my computer. I was a human doing instead of a human being before setting foot on the Los Coyotes Reservation last weekend. And although I was dirty, sunburned and sleep-deprived when I got home, the lucidity of feeling present, liberated, and filled with love lingered long after I had washed the desert dust away. On Monday, the contrast between my weekend and the stark reality of corporate life upon returning to work was even more severe than the desert’s day-to-night temperature change. I drag myself to my drab cubicle feeling cross-eyed and socially awkward, wishing I was still a champagne-wielding, fur-clad goddess decked out in crystals. The middle-aged woman beside me is chatting to her friend about how she was exhausted from a weekend of doing laundry and housework. I literally giggle out loud as I think “you have no idea.”
To relive the magical weekend, Desert Hearts Records had released the recording of their closing set:
All photos by Julia Bernstein