NOTE: I will not be discussing my regular research topic (drug use) in this post–despite how much I hate the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ status quo between festival culture and the outside world that regulates us–out of respect to the organizers of Harvest. All names have been changed.
I inspected the external flash and took a few test photos. I’d found the flash on Craigslist. The eyes of the Richmond Hill man I was buying it from widened in shock when I told him we were on our way to a music festival.
“You’re going to bring your camera equipment?” he asked. “I’d never bring mine to something like that. Won’t it get stolen?”
I packed up the flash and got out a wad of $20 bills. “I think it’ll be fine. This isn’t a big festival full of drunk people,” I said as I handed him the money. “It’s called Harvest Festival. It’s just a bunch of nice hippies.”
“I wouldn’t trust anyone at a festival,” he replied. He clearly thought I was being naïve, but accepted the cash without further comment. Was I being naïve? I’d never actually been to this festival before. I mean, I wasn’t going to just leave my camera lying around or anything. But from what I knew about Harvest, it wasn’t the type of place to worry too much.
Just a bunch of nice hippies.
Diego and I drove up with two friends of ours, part of an extended group of people we’d met and became close to through my research. To be honest, we’d never really spent quality time with Erica and Dave before. We had slept in their house, though, when they were out of town. On their wedding night. “We won’t be needing it,” reasoned Erica when she offered, as if it was no big deal to add ‘last-minute houseguests’ onto the list of wedding day preparations. “Make yourselves at home!” That’s the kind of people they are.¹
Arrival: Welcome to your wildest dreams
As we rolled into the campgrounds, we were greeted by bright lights and 15-foot stone faces wearing 3D glasses. Diego carefully threaded the car through lines of campers dragging bags and coolers. “Happy Harvest!” chirped the man who exchanged our tickets for wristbands. We’d hear that refrain a lot over the weekend.
What a perfect welcoming sign. Photo credit: Becca MJ
Concentrating on bringing our stuff to our campsite was difficult while being blasted by unexpected weirdness from every angle. Disoriented but excited, we passed the sounds of drums ringing through the chilly autumn air from a hill dotted with bonfires. Grown adults wearing galaxy tights and onesies spilled out of a gigantic pink dome pumping out tribal techno. Chinese lanterns and hand-painted signs—one said “Beware! Clothing optional past this point”—lined the crooked pathway. We reached our spot near the enormous LED owl that one of our several dozen campmates had created for the occasion. As we set up our tent in the wet grass, I remember being glad I’d heeded the many warnings beforehand from seasoned Harvesters on Facebook to bring rain boots or spend the weekend regretting it.
The first night was low-key, spent drinking beer and socializing in the Thermodome, the pink structure near the entrance. (“Thunderdome?” I asked as we entered. “No, Thermodome! There’s no fighting in here,” called a grinning stranger.) I was told that this understated Friday is intentionally planned by the festival’s organizers, to ensure most people wouldn’t be too wiped out before the main night. They carefully design the entire weekend’s flow to maximize how and when the majority of people will be able to spend their energy without burning out. Their plan worked for us at least, as we were in bed before 3 am.
As I would soon discover, the fact that the work of the organizers is centred entirely around curating the most unabashedly creative experience possible, rather than maximizing profit, comes through in hundreds of ways. The collaboration of countless people on endless delightful tiny details adds up to a weekend where everywhere you turn, something new and weird and delightful is waiting to make you wonder, once more, how a perfect place like this can exist in a world so often full of pain and sorrow.
Weather and unity
Rain pounding on the tent woke me up then lulled me into a contented semi-slumber. I didn’t know what to expect of the day ahead of me. I had heard very few specifics. But the knowing smiles, the glint in the eyes of the people who’d strongly recommended I go to Harvest for my research formed the foundation of the anticipation coursing through me.
A rare break in the clouds.
About when I gave up on sleeping in, knowing I’d regret it later, I heard voices approaching outside. A man in a yellow rain slicker combo, purple tie and Santa hat walked into our campsite with a boom box, talking about the spirit molecule. I smiled and felt the familiar feeling of being at home with my fellow eccentrics.
I left Diego snoring in the tent and went with Erica and Dave to visit a few buddies in a nearby campsite, where they got to discover that being friends with me involves hearing me explain my research to someone at least once every hour anytime I’m at an event. (For purposes of informed consent and all that, but also it’s just my favourite topic and I never get tired of talking to people about it.)
I chatted with a guy about Burning Man as his friend made cup after cup of individually-brewed coffee for anyone who wanted one. Another man offered tea. “Is it caffeinated?” I asked, aware of the irony of being wary of the most benign of substances, considering the specific ways in which I usually respond to joking accusations of being a narc.
“I’ve got both. Black tea, and a non-caffeinated mix of green and white tea,” he reassured me. With a subtle nod to my topic of interest, he poetically explained the reason behind having both options: “There’s a lot of yang at these things, so I always make sure to have some yin.”
Suddenly, we heard cries coming from the camp next door, just up the hill. A girl ran down to our tent. “Can we get some help over here?” Their canopy had blown over in the strong winds. Several of us sprung into action and went to help out. I unclipped heavy hanging decorations then went to find rope as Dave joined in the group of people attempting to keep the weight of the huge burlap top from further breaking the metal supports. Within minutes, we’d moved and stabilized the canopy. Ad-hoc festival teamwork at its finest. When the sun broke through the clouds, a cheer rolled through the festival from all corners of the grounds.
We decided it was high time to go for a walk and check out the infamous Crash tent. As I waited for Erica and Dave to get their rain ponchos, I watched our campmate Ian painstakingly cut out pieces of cardboard and tape them together for his costume, undaunted by the misty rain. His creation didn’t look like much so far, but he certainly seemed determined.
The live music stage.
During our walk, we discovered why Crash, the psytrance stage, is called Crash: It’s in the shape of an enormous cartoon spaceship, crashed into the ground. This was my first taste of the extent of the unbridled creativity that went into that unbelievable tent (which I’ll talk more about in Part Two). Our visit was cut short, however, when a torrent of rain began in earnest. On the way back we passed by the rope-powered barge that led towards the Pyramid, from which bass music was already climbing out in waves. That barge would be my nexus of introspection throughout the coming day and night. It would be the source of both an anxious dilemma about the double-edged intersection between my research methods and my personality, and fleeting moments of zen-like calm that could muffle the surrounding chaos into soft wisps of pulsing sound, buttressing an untouchable, serene joy.
At 3 pm, we decided to begin the day’s real journey. For the next two hours, we got our costumes on and made food, including the most pathetically utilitarian pot of Kraft Dinner I’ve ever seen – chunks of cheese clinging to dry, sticky clumps of noodles. We shoveled it in regardless, juggling makeup brushes and clothing layers in the indecisive rain, under a layered chorus of giggling fits. The important thing was to get some sort of sustenance inside us, as difficult as it was during that particular point in time. Food is often more of a nuisance than a pleasure at festivals, especially as night descends and lengthens into near eternity. But constant maintenance of food in the belly is crucial to festival success for many, many reasons.
The mural that people THOUGHT that anyone could add to. It was different every time we walked by it. Turns out it was supposed to be one artist’s work and people didn’t know that.
“Let’s go check out the Pyramid,” suggested Dave. Decked out in a hodgepodge of feathers and thrift store miscellanea from head to toe, we walked past murals and giant spiderwebs and port-a-potties towards the barge to cross the river.
Wizard, the bargeman, gestured to the rope that needed manning. “Can I get someone to do the thing with the things?” With an impressive balancing act between jovial and sarcastic, he peppered our journey with casually hilarious banter as we were slowly pulled across. Just as I was about to get out my phone to take a video so I could remember exactly why it was so funny and prevent what’s happening right this second, which is that I can’t remember what the hell he said, he began a speech about putting away electronic devices and living in the moment. Well. So much for that.
I perhaps could have remembered that I was actually intentionally there not only to experience, but to document, and done it anyway. But though the ravenously obsessive documentarian inside me is not inclined to agree, I’ve gotten the sense from some people that it’s good once in a while to just let go and be able to remember only vague feelings rather than specifics. “I’m always trying to find a balance between capturing moments as they happen, and experiencing them to the fullest while they’re happening,” Dave told me later in a conversation about taking photos. My instinct to obsessively document stems from a frustratingly unpredictable memory, and though the kind of research I’m doing (ethnographic) is a perfect outlet to harness and utilize that instinct, finding the limit has been difficult and the source of much perfectionistic agony. I’m lucky that some of my friends have been very accommodating about giving me permission to turn my recorder on when we’re out at events.
Go to the Pyramid, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.
Our walk into the pyramid was framed by a square tunnel of rainbow LEDs. I teetered a little as we went, with confused sea legs from barely a few minutes’ ride. We followed a man who looked like he’d inherited Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat’s jacket and found a matching wig and pants. As we approached the booming, colossal yellow shrine, music pulsated from the walls, grinding into the ground and making my hair shake. Erica looked back at me with the same overwhelmed expression that was likely on my own face. We took a deep breath and the four of us walked inside.
I’m a little fuzzy on exactly what happened in the next sixty seconds. All I have are flashes of memory and a very strong feeling of being entirely not at all in the right state of mind for the seething cacophony of humanity that was inside.
We turned around and went back to the campsite.
“I need a nap after that nap.”
Waiting out the rain once again, our plan to have a snack break and disco naps turned into about an hour and a half of pretending the inside of our tent was a palace made of cheese, and a spaceship, in that order. It made perfect sense in context. Maybe you had to be there.
“Don’t forget we have to rave later,” Dave reminded us. We lamented having spent all our potential nap time giggling and eating tomatoes. Festivals are a marathon, not a sprint, and an ironic amount of planning has to go into lasting the whole night. It’s funny how much work having fun can be. “To think that it’s only seven o’clock is terrifying,” groaned Erica. At least twelve hours of partying still lay ahead of us.
I know. To jokingly complain about this is the quintessence of privilege, and we’re fully aware of it. There’s no guilt involved, really; it’s not a productive feeling. There’s only so much you can do. No, it’s not fair that we get to live this life. It’s not fair that we’re able to spend our weekends seeking pleasure rather than safety from gunfire. But fairness is irrelevant when nobody deserves anything, and everyone deserves everything. As long as our days in the real world are spent trying to chip away at all those infuriating inequities that blight our species, this utopic respite from that real world is medicine for the soul.
We devoted some time to preparing for the night ahead of us. Hot dogs scarfed, water bottles filled, granola bars packed, sweaters and onesies chosen. Earplugs, magnesium, Gatorade powder, chapstick, gum, headlamps. Harm reduction and benefit enhancement all wrapped into one responsible package. All the necessities of experienced campers and ravers, tucked away in our fanny packs so our future selves would spend the rest of the night thinking about how thoughtful we are. “Type A partying” became the running joke at an event earlier in the summer.
Getting our water ready for the night: This is me doing “science”. Ethnography is a strange endeavour.
As prepared as we were, there was something worrying me. Something in the form of shooting pains running from my right knee to midway up my back. All day, they’d been worsening. The sun had only just set and I was already scared that I wouldn’t make it through the night.
Enter… The Masseuse. Just a few feet away from where I sat munching on a cookie in front of the fire, a girl was sitting in front of a guy, receiving what looked like a possible solution to my problem.
“What do I have to do to get in on one of those?” I asked him. “Just come over here and sit down,” he answered with a warm smile.
This massage… It wasn’t just the solution to my aching back problem. It felt like the solution to every problem I’ve ever had. Unicorns and rainbows fell from his hands directly into my back and kicked the shit out of the Party-Pooping Pain Monster that had taken up residence there. I don’t think I ever need to try heroin because I know what it feels like now.
Sometimes, at the very best festivals, exactly what you need can just fall right into your lap. Harvest provides.
Partial photo credit to Diego for putting up with me constantly climbing on his shoulders for a better shot. Photography pro tip: marry a human tripod.
Waves of ecstatic cheering grew louder as we walked towards the Crystal 6 stage for the 8:00 circus show. We joined the crowd of people and strained to get a good view as fireballs exploded into the air to the tune of absurdist commentary from the loudspeakers. I climbed on Diego’s shoulders to snap a few photos but we eventually gave up and went to go see the “Screaming Heads” we’d heard so much about.
There they were, perched like dominoes in the moonlight. A monolithic hall of mirrors, giant stone faces swallowed up by the darkness. It’s been a long time since I’ve sat and basked in the sounds of a hippie drum circle around a campfire. I’d never done it surrounded by the Canadian transformational festival version of Stonehenge. It was nice. These moments of reflection and peace balance out the laughing, dancing insanity that takes up the majority of our time, giving meaning to both experiences that would otherwise be lost. The yin to the yang.
There would be a lot of yang happening very soon.
Continued in part two!
¹ Later we went to their reception where Dave, the groom, was wearing zebra tights, a tank top with a pepperoni pizza pattern on it, and a bow tie. You can see why we knew we’d get along famously. On the drive up we skipped the small talk and went straight into a political analysis of socioeconomic disparity and the pros and cons of research thereof.
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