Up ahead is a sign for Camp Timber Trails, and below it is a sign that reads “Unifier,” with an arrow pointing to the right.
Upon taking this right, you follow a dirt road there in the Berkshires, which at this time resembles a foggy day on Endor, and along this road are more signs to guide you. They’re all made of wood, painted with multicolored lettering in a mystical print, or simply symbols of peace and love – a bright red heart, or a familiar yellow circle with what looks like the foot of a chicken in the middle. And when you reach the festival and walk the grounds, you see more of these signs, some with quick lessons for your further steps.
“Surrender to the mystery,” one sign says.
“Notice life within and without,” says another.
“Welcome Unifier,” says the biggest and tallest, and really, so do the rest.
I can’t speak for you, but for me these signs come with memories.
I see fantasies of Woodstock ’69, where cardboard and wooden signs scratched with ink and paint ask for or demand things like water, grilled cheeses, Bob Dylan…
I remember my first festival, Bonnaroo, and being baffled by people reading aloud their haphazard billboards: “Acid! Mollie! Boomers!” so proudly and distinctly, such that no fear could hinder their civic duty…
I remember the first year of Lockn’ and reading “KILL YOUR LOCAL HEROIN DEALER” off of a young woman’s cardboard chest plate…
I remember the backside of a Pabst Blue Ribbon box that my friend would use to hitchhike off-campus our freshman year in order to put his fake ID to use, back when my strange flight toward something interesting really took off. I remember these moments and notions, and I’m excited to get into it.
But the first night of Unifier was difficult for me. I had been feeling sick since that morning, due to some chicken I undercooked the night before, and the whole day was an off-tempo tango with denial. Nausea sat like a gaseous marble. Weakness wrought its weary wisdom. Dizzy spells danced like a troupe of ne’er-do-well fairies.
And so at around 9:30 that night, I hustled out of the Art Gallery stage building – which played host to many artists’ psychedelic works, as well as a sizeable dance party – to a place in the dark, far away from anybody who could hear the impending purge, the sayonara upchuck, the burly hurl, the Himalayan yak, the curried grain nightmare which had fended off digestion like a snow leopard does the elements of Kashmir. It was midway through a tantalizing set from the Grays, a band which encapsulates the sounds that Jack Kerouac would seek had ayahuasca been his beloved bottle.
Disgusted, and disheartened, I returned inside for water before heading back to my campsite. There I saw my dear friend Melissa Cokas, festival co-runner and all around Earth goddess, and I told her that I had gotten sick and would be calling it a night. She already knew that I hadn’t been feeling well, and had fed me elixirs of the potent sort in order to help it pass. Over the past few months she had been a sort of spirit guide for me in the ways of good health, and so as I hurried the conversation along, she kept me a moment.
“Look,” she said. “You have to stop the story,” pointing to her head.Melissa Cokas
“Sure it’s creative, and that can be good, but now it isn’t doing you any good…everything is up here,” pointing again to her head. “We create it…. There are people who are in pain who never suffer…. You were fighting it? Right, well you can’t fight it, purging is necessary… Your body was telling you what it needed… Whatever is happening to you is exactly what’s supposed to be happening.” I listened as best I could, and it was all things I’ve been told and known intellectually for many years, whether I found it out on my own, or been told it by my brother, Sean. Reminders are necessary, but nausea can be a cruel captain.
I continued feeling bad for myself as I hurried back to camp by the sound of the Grays’ syrupy-smooth cover of Grant Green’s “Jan Jan,” right up until around three in the morning. With several purges come and gone, and about thirty minutes of delirium-addled sleep, I arose for what would be my last regurgitation at the vegetation station. Only this time it was no longer spicy rice madness, but sweet aqua moon jellies that fell from my system like polished pods of rain. I began laughing, and relief wrapped me in its cool, summer-night embrace.
My friend and teacher’s words echoed like a mantra as I finally drifted calmly into sleep, off to where delirium turned to dream and where comfort grew another dimension. The lesson was learned, for about the hundredth time.
I awoke in much finer form, ready to dig in, and the rest of the weekend was like a waltz through the summer of love had it taken over Congress two years later. Damn near every conversation I heard, every soundbite in passing, was purposeful – bereft of bullshit. If it was bullshit, it was often silly and whimsical and electric, and therefore with heavy purpose. If it wasn’t, as no place or community in this life is perfect, there were teachers and insightful minds who’d help move it in the right direction.
People dug deep, and the lessons were teeming. If there was a problem, someone was there to help you fix it. If it was universal, someone was already exploring it, and you were welcome along. If it could heal, they’d listen. If it smiled, they’d smile back. If it could hug, they showed you what a real hug felt like, and I swear I’ve never had more minute-long hugs in my life.
If you needed to hear it, but didn’t want to – shit, they’d tell you anyway and you’d know it would all be okay in the end. It was a community of high-vibe rebels and conscious pilots, some even ayahuasca test pilots, the cream of the daring crop, all refusing to accept that weird, wild fetes such as this couldn’t create a better world, and a better life, for those taking part.
At the center of this affair, as always, was the music. The spectrum was considerable. One set you’d find yourself bouncing heel-to-toe by the kora-woven grooves of Barika. Another set you’d be channeling the acoustic spirit of the Sixties with Matthew Human, which was described better than I ever could by my friend Chris Lennox. He called it, “Jimmy Buffet for the permaculture crowd.”
Another set you’d be in a feathery soul-waltz to the intricate energy traffic of the Peruvian music of Don Gato IX – a symphony of string flutters and ethereal lyrics chanting love-laced blessings over life-paced rhythms. And another you’d be smiling along with Hayley Jane, whose sweet songs sang relished tales of good looks and Escobar into the sunny, breeze-brushed trees; and whose eyes and facial expressions led you happily through the wardrobe and unto the wonder of the other side.
If you were watching Afro-Peruvian Novalima, your hips would find range they didn’t know they had, and you might’ve had a DMT flashback, if you were the fella dancing next to me.
If you were lost in the deep-dubbed psychedelia of Club D’Elf or Dub Apocalypse, the shredding lead guitar from my friend Van Martin touching paradise with teases of “Third Stone from the Sun,” you might’ve wondered if there was something else hidden in that fresh carrot-apple-ginger juice, or activated-charcoal shot, or fire-cider shooter, all from the elixir bar just a few beats away.
Felt like popping off and yelling about the devil? Bella’s Bartok did, too; like a pirate circus from the beatnik bar by the River Styx.
Does it pain you to see what the devils of the world do to people, and to our ever-loving, profoundly patient, yet clearly ticked Mother Earth? Rebelle felt your pain, and they were there with a cure only reggae music could brew.
Still couldn’t sleep? Deep bass and disco daydreams pulsed through the night and planned to see sunrise, and they welcomed you to join.
For those who needed their freak to fly, the energy was ubiquitous. For those who sought the inward journey, the space was safe to cross your legs, close your eyes, breathe and travel deep. For those who were tight, Shiatsu massages were readily available. For those who needed to cleanse, the sweat lodge could take out the bad, and there was plenty of good to put back. The healing was there, and the music was there, and like a good community does, the people mingled.
Hayley Jane jumped right up with Barika, fresh off her dancing shoes. Members of the Grays and Don Gato interchanged like electrons revolving around a musical nucleus. Tracey Kroll and Jeff Sullivan jumped on drums like jam defibrillators. Evan Tosi’s fingers ran marathons of bass licks while he grinned the grin of a thousand funks. Cailen Campbell proved that indeed, everything’s better with a little fiddle – music, life, love…fiddle.
In all realms, and on all fronts, people listened when their musician family played, and they gave respect when their sisters and brothers, parents and children, elders and newcomers, spoke from open hearts. A profound mind by the name of Julie Woods – a.k.a., J-Wow – said to a group of us at breakfast, “Diamonds are the lovechild of dinosaur shit and stardust, which told an entire planet to fuck off so it could transmute from crap to clarity.”
This community was that diamond, and it maintains its gleam.
And so on the last day, after a windy swim under the sun, and deep discussions with my friends Adam, Stephen and Casey, I sat and enjoyed a meditative set with Raganova Kirtan, led by a Mr. Mason Lucas. On my way to the festival on Thursday, I had been listening to a recording of “Brighter Days” by JJ Grey and Mofro, in which JJ tells of a place very dear to his heart. It’s called Lochloosa, and it’s in Florida.
He opens by saying, “It’s all about home, man, you know. That’s where we’re all headed, where we wanna be. Wherever it may be.” And then, “But it’s all about havin’ them places where, you can just feel it, you can feel somethin’ come through, somethin’ shinin’ through, somethin’…whsheww, takes you away from the world of problems, the world of worry, the world of…care, ya know.”
And eventually, “Somebody told me, well…‘You just go there to escape reality.’ And then I thought about it for a minute and was like, ‘Well…maybe I do go there to escape reality,’ but then I thought a little longer and I was like, ‘Naw…hoss you got it backwards. I go there to get TO reality, and get away from all these problems that I invent. So long-live places like Lochloosa. If you got it, you hold it, and feel it every chance you get.”
I had been thinking about this, and had been meaning to make it the focus of this write-up, whenever I got back to the world of things to do, and then Mason spoke. “’Shiva Nataraj,’” he said, “’the lord of the dance.’ We go out and think this is counterculture, but it isn’t. This is normal human terrestrial existence. When we go back, that’s the weird stuff.”
And so as I write, back in the weird stuff, back with my prideful inventions and my impenetrable care, I wonder about the validity of this happy memory.
Was it really so sweet? Was it really so powerful? So serene? So genuine? I can’t speak for you, and for me it can be difficult to get back to that place. It’s difficult to feel that moment during Tribe of Love on the final day, when the heat from the fire rippled the fabric of reality, when the sun gleamed through the trees, which rustled gently as the cool breeze filled my nostrils and straightened my back with rushes of chills.
It’s difficult to get back to the ceremonial cacao gathering on Saturday night, when Incus played the sounds of the universe, and loving energy filled my heart, ignited my perception, and soothed my soul. It’s difficult to remember leaving Yaima, the final act, after a euphoric ramble with friends and strangers familiar, and the ride home that night on a moonlit river road in the Berkshires, high on the fruitful serum of happiness and unity.
But as difficult as it is, I do know, when I awaken my heart to the memory and put to rest that prideful intellect I hold so dear, that it’s as real as anything I’ve ever known. And a damn fine thing it is and will always be, at that.
So long-live places like Unifier, and with that I’ll write something that my friend Stephen would say to me whenever we parted ways that weekend. It’s something that makes all the wonderfully pure and simple sense in this whole freaky life we’ve found ourselves in, this big pot of oneness, this universally tiny cup of tea, and I’ll hope to whatever spirit that guides us, that the cheese stays in the fridge:
I’ll see you in the flow.
Photos by Alex Kratzert