Ode to the Festival

Our favorite whys, wheres, and hows.

Words by Beth Lopez, photos by Bradley Davis

We humans have gathered for festivals of every sort since time immemorial, and yet somehow, more recently, this joyful occurrence has been more associated with “festival fashion” than anything else. In the fashion mags that we pretend not to read in waiting rooms, we see a fixation on what everyone wears to such an event. And don’t get me wrong—there’s truly nowhere else a gold-flecked, feather-bedecked headband is so delightfully fitting.

The biggest headliner music fests have succeeded in painting these events in a more trite kind of light. And the huge ones are a giant, sticky to-do with ridiculous room rates and ticket prices that could clear out your season-pass savings.

But don’t write festivals off just yet. There are countless small and mid-scale music fests around the country, and if you pick right and plan right, you’ll have the time of your life. For those of us who often unwind by disconnecting fully from society on, say, a solitary backcountry trip, it feels like a different flavor of fun. Surrounded by fellow revelers and music enthusiasts, you enter a parallel realm of existence that’s part escape, part community.

So let the larger herd shell out piles of cash and battle the crowds at festivals that have become their own cultural forces. Here’s how the small-fest uninitiated can play things a little differently.

You don’t have to plan everything. But do plan some things.

Don’t stress the details—but at least know what you’re working with. If you fly by the seat of your pants and don’t reserve a camp spot, you’re going to miss the first day of shows, aimlessly circling around the nearest BLM parcel looking for a place you can put up a tent by daylight.

Same goes with food and booze: what’s available? What time of day are vendor stands open? How long are the lines? What role will they fill in keeping your tummy satisfied—are you going to stand in line for every meal or will you have your cooler and food bags stocked with goods to get you through?

Does the crowd stand and dance, or will you be psyched you brought a picnic blanket and camp chairs? Is hula-hooping a “thing”? Where are dogs allowed? And what’s the nearest place you can pick up a refrigerated six-pack?

What to wear matters deeply—comfort-wise anyway.

As mentioned above, by all means, any event with the word “festival” in the title is permission to throw convention to the wind. This is about fun and ditching convention the second you enter the parking lot. But you should be just a little calculated about it: if temps might be scorching during the day or a storm might roll in, it pays to be prepared. Because like any other outdoor activity, it’s only as fun as you are comfortable. Stash a few layers in your tote bag or pack, then bask in the payoff.

Use festivals as an excuse to travel—or a reason to get to know your own region better.

We in Utah are pretty psyched on our own Bonanza Campout, Salt Lake Jazz Festival, and the Mystic Hot Springs Festival. And our friends to the north in the Tetons sure know how to serve up a good time with their Targhee Fest and Targhee Bluegrass Festival. And the Telluride Music Festival over in Colorado? Say no more.

Find funky festivals small and large, in places you’ve always wanted to visit or right in your backyard. A festival is the perfect excuse to load up the car and check out someplace new.

Tack on active adventure before, after, or during.

Many of us get incredibly restless after a couple days of “relaxation,” no matter how good the local craft brews are or how dance-able the music is. If you find festivals near outdoor adventure opportunities, you can blend the best of both worlds. There’s nothing better than getting a mountain-bike ride in before spending the afternoon gleefully singing along to Michael Franti for the twenty-fourth time in your adult life.

Check out the Mountain Music Festival in West Virginia, where the New River Gorge and all its attending adventures await outside the festival gates. Or head to the Joshua Tree Music Festival and tack on a couple days of primo climbing. You can even head south of the border to the Genius Loci Fest in Baja California to pair surfing with music (and, obviously, ceviche).

Tell us about your favorite festivals and all the adventures you tack on along the way. We won’t necessarily steal your ideas. We’ll just share in them. See you there.

Beth Lopez is a Salt Lake-based writer and editor who nurtures an irrational fear of sea creatures, enjoys fine-tuning her vegetarian cooking, skis too fast, and hostel-hops in countries whose names are hard to pronounce.