Nestled in the Kootenays of British Columbia, on a 200 acre farm, there lives an enchanted neighborhood where Canadians have gathered for 16 seasons to celebrate the end of the short, northern summer. Shambhala Music Festival is, like its namesake, as much a journey as it is a destination.
For those who have been following my travels, you’ll know that Canada was my northernmost destination planned this summer. This leg of the trip has been my summit, the apex of my triangulation. That isn’t to say that it’s all downhill from here, but I did pass the 5,000 mile mark on the odometer (plus an additional 7,000 miles flown).
I pulled into Nelson on Wednesday evening and explored the town before it closed up for the evening, at 6 PM, no less. Quaintly nestled between sharp peaks and a glowing lake, Nelson is a town that was hit with an influx of conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War in the 60’s, and has since become the pot capitol of Canada. One 5th generation local I spoke to claimed that more than 60% of households grow the plant, and it is a big part of the local economy. Whatever your feelings on the subject, there is no doubt that Nelson is a wonderful little town, full of hippie-centric businesses.
A waitress recommended checking out a nearby park that is normally filled with Rainbow folk. As I drove up, I spotted a bus and 10-12 barefooted, dusty people that looked friendly. I had a variety of beers leftover from my journey through Oregon, and as Shambhala is a no-alcohol festival, I was joyed to have a group of thirsty Canadians with which to share some delicious Ninkasi. There was guitar playing, I pulled out my melodica. Drinks were consumed, tales were told of cross-country hitchhiking in English and French. One girl needed a ride into Shambhala the next day to meet up with a friend.
The next day, Tiffany and I pick up some final accoutrements and head down the road to Salmo. Though I’ve traveled alone for a bulk of the trip, it was nice to have a DJ in the passenger seat blasting Sublime and The Beatles. I learned more about her story, which came out after she put on Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.” A hustle there and a hustle there. We finally pull into the lineup and get out of the car. Everyone’s getting to know the neighbors with whom we’ll be inching slowly towards the entrance. It was time to break out the bubbly!
The entrance procedure took about 4.5 hours in total, which was considerably less than the 10+ hours it took the day prior. It’s not a great performance on the part of the organizer, but a necessary evil when it comes to crowd management, checking for hidden passengers and removing obvious alcohol containers. By contrast, it took some festivalgoers 7-8 hours to get their tickets from will call at Lightning in a Bottle, and entrance to Burning Man often takes upwards of 10 hours. At Lucidity, we’ve successfully kept our gate times to a bare minimum, but 5,000 people is a lot easier than 15,000+.
Shambhala is not a cheap affair. Tickets were in the upper end of $300 and SMF happily nickels and dimes its participants throughout the weekend. It was $20 to car camp, and an additional $40 to enter a “day early,” since my ticket wasn’t officially good until Friday. I should note that the incremental costs for staffing the extra day or two for security and parking personnel is mitigated by spreading out the flux of people over 3 days of entrance. The extra cost is nearly 100% profit for the festival. Arrival on Friday is a challenge for those looking to set up camp, the shaded camping was already full on Thursday afternoon.
Tiffany couldn’t find her friend who had her ticket. I had to leave her at the gate in a flurry of madness and confusion. When I came back a few hours later, she wasn’t there. I’m hoping/guessing that she managed to find a way in, though we didn’t find each other at any other point that weekend.
I set up camp deep in the heart of Sunshine lot, aptly named as there was no natural shade available. My neighbors in line, Toni and Samantha, and I put together a quick lean-to shade structure with a silver tarp I had picked up in Spokane. It was in the upper 80’s, mid-90’s and the effort was considerable. This was my co-campers’ first festie, and it’s always fun for me to play tour guide. To describe my own philosophy and show off my preparation. I took a nap before the festivities truly kicked off.
Thursday night was Onesie night, which I didn’t know ahead of time. Everywhere were cute costumes of narwhals, dinosaurs, penguins and the like. I’ve often described festivals as one big pajama party, and nowhere has that been more true than Shambhala Night 1.
I should mention here that I’m a pretty big proponent of the Pace Yourself principle. Thursday night at Shambhala is not a night where people tend to pace themselves. The party hit the ground running and I felt a little bit left behind. So it goes, but I always need an acclimation period. There’s altitude, a completely new space, new faces to meet…
Only two stages were open the first night, but I set off to get to know the land the best I could at night. I was immediately floored by the venue. Everywhere was built out with intricate stages, vending spaces, an entire village of production space. The VIP area had a treehouse, the sound booths were ornate. This became even more obvious as the rest of the festival location opened over the next day: 16 years of building at a venue without the need to tear everything down is a HUGE boon for producers. I’m sure it’s a similar experience at the Oregon Country Fair, which has been at the same venue for many decades.
Shambhala is unlike any other festival for many reasons.With each new festival I encounter, I try to approach the experience with fresh eyes, open ears and rested feet. With the variety of themes and the inherited culture that many years of production entail, it is essential to leave my expectations and comparisons at the gate. That said, with my background in building these experiences, I always look through the lens of production quality, and each space lends its own advantages and disadvantages.
Security was loose. Very loose. You could do pretty much anything you’d like to, as long as you weren’t hurting anyone else. Unlike Lightning in a Bottle, there was no nudity ban and many women chose to go topless. That’s great for all kinds of reasons, except when you’re a photographer and you’d like to be taking a lot of pictures without intruding on someone’s privacy.
I was incredibly excited for Friday, which featured a set by Pumpkin at the Beach stage. On a dance floor filled with sand, one of my favorite DJ’s hit the decks, surrounded by his LA crew. Prior to his set, I met Kit, who was donning goddess attire and would be dancing during Pumpkin’s set. Kit is in the Santa Barbara crew and we shared many of the same friends and experiences. I instantly knew she was a kindred soul and I loved shooting her! Honestly, I’ve found that shooting hoopers and dancers to be one of my favorite things in the world. Growing up with so much dance in my life, especially in the World Arts & Cultures program, I’ve struggled to capture it in words. I love the way a true performer lights up in front of the lens. Having met with Kit since Shambhala, I know for a fact that there will be some great pictures to come out of this symbiotic relationship.
This little Wolf partied his heart out at this one, and I wasn’t going nearly as hard as the general zeitgeist of the event. On Saturday night, I donned my furs and my unicorn hunting sword (a foam sword wrapped in El Wire) and went out to steal some unicorn tears. (Okay, I usually just tap the end of the horn and steal some sparkles, but you get what I mean).
I danced my tail off well past sunrise, pausing now and then for food or a nap near some of the fire-oriented art. At night, the weather dropped comfortably into the mid-60’s, a welcome relief from the sweltering day that could only be tempered by a dip in the icy river that wrapped around the venue. I’ve been to many festivals, and I must say that the Canadians know how to keep a party going. For those choosing to partake in some of the more chemical enhancements, a full drug testing booth was available to check the contents of pills and provide information about dangerous dosages. They were also offering condoms and needle exchange. It was eye opening to see that sort of smart self-policing. By contrast, at Coachella I had a poster on my car for a group that was promoting testing kits and the mounted cops came by and forced me to stop displaying it. Stark, no?
I got to bust out this new incredible coat I found at a thrift store in Spokane. The guy said it’s fox fur, and whatever it is, there’s a lot of it. It was hanging on the wall behind the counter and when I asked about it, he said it wasn’t for sale. I wandered about, wondering about it, and I said to him: “I’m not sure if it’s that I really want that coat or it’s because you told me I couldn’t have it, but I’d love to try it on.” He had to let me at that point, and as soon as it was on me, it was obvious that it was meant to be mine. It wasn’t for sale due to a small rip in the arm that is easily mendable. I was ready to pay pretty much whatever he asked, but when he told me he’d sell it for $50…. I had the money on the counter before he finished his sentence. I’m going to get it appraised this week, since it is almost definitely worth more than what I paid. One Russian girl at Shambhala who claimed to be an expert in furs insisted that it’s mink and worth “at least $5,000.” I would have sold it to her on the spot for $4,000 and I have a bridge that’s for sale if she’s interested as well.
Shambhala set itself apart in many ways in its ability to seamlessly blend into its surroundings. I had so much fun meeting Canadians on their home turf, and they were all very excited and impressed that I had driven all the way from Southern California just to party with them! I said, and meant it, that I had never been to Canada and really wanted to meet them at their absolute best. Everything truly is magical at Shambhala, and I’m ready to bring the lessons I’ve learned with me to the next one: Burning Man. In one week.
Here we go!