Way back in 2004, my friends and classmates were gearing up for our senior prom. For some reason, I just couldn’t get excited about the thing. As a single guy, it was hard to get stoked about not only working up the courage to ask girls out, but then dishing out all of my hard-earned cash on a tux, flowers, spots in a limo, and an overpriced restaurant. All that to go dance to awful music while hoping the teachers didn’t ask to smell our breath. Yeah, no thanks. Seeking a way out, I was beyond pumped to hear of a music festival called Summer Camp. With moe., Umphrey’s McGee, MMW, Leftover Salmon, and more, I was sold. It didn’t take much convincing to get three friends to come along, and just like that my first festy experience was starting to take shape.
Packed into my buddy’s Jetta with the simplest of set-ups – one tent, a few sleeping bags, a couple of chairs, a cooler, and random snacks his mom packed – we hit the road for the 6-hour drive from Detroit to Chillicothe. Arriving a bit too late to grab a spot in the woods, we plopped our tent down in the field and got the frisbee out. The scene couldn’t be further away from our lame prom back home, and we immediately knew we had made the right decision.
It was an incredible two days full of music, until the ominous clouds started rolling in. This would be no ordinary storm. Soon, the organizers were alerting everyone that the park needed to be evacuated due to tornado warnings. With our tent still set up, we braved the rain back out to the car and simply drove off. It’s hard to believe such a time existed, but this was before the age of smartphones. With no map and no idea about the surrounding area, we found ourselves aimlessly driving in rural Illinois during a wild storm – a scene that seemed right out of the movie “Twister.” Eventually, we found a roadside motel and managed to convince them to rent us a room, even though I was the only one over 18 at the time. With Late-Night Tickets for Umphrey’s in the Red Barn, we were hoping things would clear up and the festival would go back on. A random w00k in the room next to us insisted he was going to find out and he’d let us know. We never heard from him, so we had to settle for watching the NBA playoffs. At least our Pistons were on, and they were halfway to wiping the court with the Lakers to take home the title.
The next day, we headed back to Three Sisters Park. It looked like a disaster area – tents, easy-ups, and lawn chairs bent and twisted in ruins all over the site. Many of the bands had moved on, but quite a few agreed to stick around. They even went ahead and opened the park to the public, making it a free show. We were bummed to hear that the UM show had gone on without us, our wristbands serving as a ticket stub for a show we never got to see. 110+ shows later and I still haven’t seen them play “All Night Long.” Despite the disappointment of missing the late night and the near-tornado we all experienced, my first Summer Camp was a life-changing moment to say the very least.
For the next four years, I would make the pilgrimage to southern Illinois every Memorial Day weekend. Each and every year, my crew grew larger as more and more friends became interested. That’s not to mention the countless new friends I got to see, most of whom I’d met traversing the
country countries seeing UM and the Biscuits.
There was Banana Man, who raged so hard every year you wondered if the guy ever slept, and Watermelon Steve – a legend of a man who no longer rocks the melon but is still an U mphreak hero. As the years went on, the lineups got better and better. New stages were added, and additional late-night options sprung up for those who couldn’t get into the barn. Summer Camp always kicked off our summers, and was often followed by trips to Bonnaroo, All Good, Camp Bisco, and Rothbury. Going to festivals and shows was my life for five years, but life took a drastic change in 2008.
At Rothbury, I met a girl from Tennessee. I was carrying around a bag of wine, and she was seeing stars on a trampoline. Two weeks later, we were together for all of Camp Bisco. A few days after visiting her and seeing UM and STS9 in Atlanta, I flew to the other side of the world to start a new chapter of my life in Beijing. Talk about great timing, right? Arriving just in time for the Olympics, I started working as an ESL teacher while struggling to use chopsticks and speak caveman Chinese. What was supposed to be one year turned into five, and I even brought my new girlfriend along. We had a great life working in Beijing, traveling to other parts of China as well as Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Laos, the Philippines, and Bali.
We loved the Island of the Gods so much we decided to live there for a year on an extended honeymoon. While life was good, we always missed the shows and festivals that were such a big part of our lives for so long. After all, we met at a festival, got engaged at Phish New Year’s, and went to GD50 for our “Hippy Moon.” With my program in Bali finishing at the end of May, I knew it was time to bring her to her first Summer Camp. Getting there turned out to be quite the adventure.
With a flight path going Bali-Kuala Lumpur-Shanghai-Chicago, we knew it was going to be a long trip. We didn’t know it would be the trip from hell. We ended up sleeping on chairs in the KL airport, eating lukewarm, crusty Burger King, getting stuck in a Shanghai motel for a night, and having bags that reeked of dead fish. With the worst jet-lag ever, we pounded lots of coffee and made ourselves GITV (Get In The Van) to head to Summer Camp. Having volunteered at tons of festivals in the past, we decided to go that route last year and join the SCamp team. We were exhausted and our clothes reeked of Leftover Salmon, but we powered through.
In all my trips back to the US while living abroad, never did it feel more like coming home than last year when we pulled up to Three Sisters Park. I was back at Summer Camp – back where it all started. In our eight years apart, it was immediately clear that we had both changed a lot. It was Thursday morning, and the line to get in the festival was already huge. Clearly, this festival wasn’t a best-kept secret anymore. As volunteers, we breezed past the line, snagged a prime spot in the woods, and got to work in the VIP areas of the two main stages. We met tons of awesome people and shared stories during our shifts, then cut loose and boogied down to so many of our favorite bands.
That one band with a silly name whose late-night I missed way back in 2004 now had their own stage with five sets over the weekend. A band we saw before they even had a name, managed by one of our good friends, threw it down in a barnburner of a late-night. You know them as Cherub, and they’re the only band who can make that icebox of a Red Barn heat up like that.
There were three other stages that weren’t around back in my glory days, getting rocked by bands like Greensky Bluegrass and TAUK. There was a Vibe Tent, where the EDM kids and their glow hula-hoops could find untz beats to groove to all weekend. And there were rage-sticks. My lord were there rage-sticks.
Wanting to be a part of the fun, I took our stuffed mascot known as Pooperman and crafted a sign that read “Make ‘Murica Rage Again.” It was heavy as hell to carry and wave around, but my crew always assembled under our Chinese toy with a pile of shit for a head. Cell phones don’t work at festivals, but rage-sticks do.
Now living in my third foreign country (hint – this one has lots of tacos and tequila), it’s fitting that I’m once again gearing up for a trip home. To Summer Camp, that is. Because Summer Camp is my home. As a guy who has lived out of a backpack for most of the last three years in countries where I can barely speak the language, nothing feels more like coming home than walking up to the gates at Three Sisters Park. I don’t even need to take a roll call – I already know I’ll see tons of friends there. Many of them I haven’t even met yet. Whether you’re a moe.ron, an Umphreak, a Bisconaut, or whatever they call Pretty Lights fans, we’re all in this together. We’re getting ready to build a community that’s 15,000 strong for four days of music, games, art, friendship, and love. We’ll be swaying in our hammocks in the w00kie Woods, throwing up the rock hands during an UM metal jam, gathering round the campfire for late-night sing-alongs, and laughing hysterically at the madness that is sunrise kickball. We only get 52 weekends a year, guys. Let’s make this one the best. This Grateful Gypsy is coming home, campers. See you all very, very soon. I’ll leave you with this image that sums up my SCamp 2016 quite nicely: