Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


It's definitely no longer summer, but I never did get around to posting about the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, so here it is. I have this account for this post, and in subsequent posts will share my other adventures from the summer and fall, and they will have pictures.

I didn't take any pictures at the festival, mostly because I broke my camera the day before I left, but also because it's difficult to take a picture there that doesn't have topless women in it. The festival is 6 days long and it takes place on a parcel of woodland on the west side of Michigan. It is run and attended entirely by women. I don't have figures, but I believe this year there were something like 400 workers and 3,000 festivalgoers.

To get there, I got up at 4 in the morning and drove to a park n ride in Thornton, north of Denver, where I caught a bus to the airport. I did this because I'd booked a flight that was too early to allow me to leave on the bus from my house. I did that because I didn't want to pay for airport parking. When I got on the airport bus I saw it wasn't like the airport buses that I'd been on before, when I took the bus from home. There was no place to put luggage. It was all seats. And airport employees sleeping in the seats. The bus driver was confused by my trying to pay the fare. I don't think he'd ever had anyone do that before.

Once on the plane I flew to Phoenix, then to Chicago. I did this because a flight that connected in Phoenix was cheaper than Southwest's other options. I stood in the terminal at Sky Harbor looking out on the palm trees and wondered if maybe I shouldn't just have paid $40 more to sleep in, take the real airport bus, and spend 2 hours in the air instead of 6.

But, money is not what I have a lot of. Time is what I have a lot of.

Did you know that Chicago is enormous? Completely overwhelming. I've spent a lot of time in Manhattan and was never overwhelmed by it, so I don't know what it is about Chicago, but this doesn't appear to be an uncommon experience. As I took the light rail in from the airport, the city was mounded on the horizon in a cakelike symmetrical way that did not at all approximate Manhattan. Perhaps what made the city seem so overwhelming is that the light rail comes in at about the height of the second or third story of the buildings, letting you see a lot more than you could as a pedestrian. Your perspective is not limited to the concrete in front of you. The buildings go up and up and the canyons between them go on and on.

I got off the train... somewhere in the city... and met Kris, who'd gotten there before me to attend a bachelorette party. We were very happy to see each other and went to another train station to wait for another train. There was a concession stand in the train station that served margaritas and hot dogs, but it was closed.

Another hour on that train brought us to a suburb of Chicago, where a couple of Kris's friends from St. Louis picked us up. We drove and drove, on past dark, around the south end of Lake Michigan and up along its eastern shore. Then onto dirt roads, up into the woods. We began to pass cars that were parked on the side of the road. They were lined up to enter the festival, which wouldn't open until 1PM the next day. They were lined up on the left side of the road. At some point, the cops came and told us we could line up on the right, and each of the 100+ cars was started and moved a few feet. I didn't completely understand this ritual.

Kris and I set up hammocks in the woods. The next day, as the opening time approached, we walked to the head of the line and, when the festival opened, went in on foot. I didn't have a ticket because mine had never arrived in the mail, so I had to buy a new ticket, the price of which would be refunded after the festival if my original ticket didn't get used by someone else. This is a distressing system for the purchaser -- what if my original ticket was stolen and sold on ebay? -- but I understand why it would be the best option for an organization that cannot afford a lot of overhead.

And what a lovely place, the eastern woods. This is one of the things I miss most in Denver; being in a deciduous forest, where there's actually green and shade. I don't like these forests around Denver, which have only one kind of tree, some dry dark-green conifer that goes up without spreading out much, providing little shade. When you hike in a forest here you spend much of the hike in half to full sun. And the sun is so strong here! I live 5,000 feet above and some degrees south of where I grew up, and the air is so much clearer here, it makes the sun feel like an enemy rather than a friend too much of the time. But in Michgan the summer became a pleasant temperature again, and if I was ever hot I could just get in some shade, anytime I felt like it.

One of our friends from Denver was working the festival and had arrived ahead of time. She had set up our stuff for us, somewhere in the square mile of land the festival is held on. Somewhere my tent and pillow were waiting for me. Somewhere, our friend who knew where my tent and pillow were was working. This brings me to what is simultaneously one of the coolest and most frustrating things about Michfest, which is that there's no cell phone service there.

It's a blissful thing to not be surrounded by people talking loudly to their mothers or having cell-phone fights with their girlfriends while you're trying to watch a comedy act, but it's a bit frustrating to not be able to physically locate the people you care about and want to spend time with, which happened with some frequency throughout the week.

We did run into our friend and she described to us how to find our campsite, in one of the many camping areas on the property. We were quite near the kitchens, which also proved to be the best place to find people. Your friends may or may not be at concerts, or take showers at predictable times or places, or even come home at night, but everyone has to eat. The best way to find anyone was to wait for them to show up at lunch or dinner.

The kitchens were to me the most impressive operation at Michfest. Your ticket buys you three vegetarian meals a day, and cooking three meals a day for thousands of women in the middle of the woods. Partly this is managed with volunteers. Everyone who comes to the festival has to sign up for two four-hour shifts helping out somewhere. I did both of mine in the kitchen, plus helping out an extra shift when they were short-handed, so that might be where I developed my fascination for the machine.

There were two refrigerated trucks, a massive white tent, and some kind of assembly of wood-burning ovens that I did not get to see closely. It was either the Army or the National Guard who came once to learn how the women cooked for so many on wood-burning ovens, so they could adapt the technique to their own operations afield. Volunteers' shifts were staggered so that all through the day, while I was chopping tomatoes or eating or simply walking past on my way to somewhere, every couple of hours there was a new group of people putting on white aprons and listening to an instructory speech from a kitchen staff member standing on an upended white bucket.

After hours straight of slicing tomatoes at a high table with five other women, just slicing and talking, I thought, This is what so much of history has been like for women... sitting around the home with other women, preparing food. For hours and hours of every day. In Africa, in the Amazon, our ancestors spent a lot of time grinding corn or cassava.

When it was time to eat we lined up and filed under another tent to be served salad or burritos from great bins. Mealtimes were made simpler by the requirement that everyone bring, and wash, their own plate and silverware. A rack with hooks between the kitchen and the dishwashing station held hundreds of meal kits in mesh bags between meals.

And what was there to do when I wasn't in the kitchen? At any given time, there might be five different workshops going on, latin dance, writing, car repair, meditation, and improving your communication in relationships. There were three stages and a movie screen, and spoken word performances, independent films, comedy acts, and of course music played through the afternoon and evening. At night there were parades and firepits and parties and dance parties with a DJ, and a coffee shop under a tent with books and games and hay bales for seats, so that at any time between 8AM and 2AM the festival was quite like a city, with any number of places to go and things to do at any moment.

You could hop on the tractor for a ride across town to listen to the drummers at the Triangle firepit. The tractors are all driven by women. They are maintained by women; women also set up the stages and the sound systems, the outdoor open-air showers, the great tents that house the child care and the health care stations.

A composite day for me:

8AM - Wake up, no matter how tired I am or what time I got to bed the night before, because the crazy people with African drums have started playing already, and musicians are already rehearsing on one of the stages, full-blast.

8:30 - Go eat, because I am starving. Having food available at only three discrete mealtimes during the day means I have to employ the sort of forethought I never have to apply to food at home. After the first starving day, Kris and I began hoarding fruit and chunks of bread from breakfast in our backpacks.

9AM - Go to a workshop to learn salsa, merengue and bachata.

12PM - Eat lunch, because I am starving. Possibly eat a second lunch.

1-2:30 - Stand around outside the kitchen tent talking with friends and hoping that my crush will wander through.

2:30 - Go to a workshop to learn sex things.

4PM - Go back to my hammock and try to take a nap. End up spending the whole time talking with lovely neighbors from Madison.

5PM - Eat lunch because I am starving. Stop at "porta-Jane" on the way and read the latest postings which are now covering the inside of the plastic structure with notices about workshops, advertisements for sex toy shops in Chicago, and invitations to theme parties at the Twilight Zone camping area. Take an hour to eat because I put so much food on my plate, hopefully enough to last through tomorrow morning, that it literally takes an hour to get it all chewed and swallowed.

6PM - Find my friends at the acoustic stage, where a performance is winding down.

7PM - Spend an hour walking around the forest trying unsuccessfully to find Kris.

8PM - Go to Night Stage, where everyone goes for the big-name performers each night.

10PM - Leave Night Stage because I am not that interested in the performers, and wander around with some other people looking for things that look cool, like parties, or campfires. Spend the last half-hour wandering around in the dark by myself before going to sleep.

Many people I know who have been to Michfest remarked that it was the safest they had ever felt in their life. Not only is your person safe, but your belongings are too. Kris and I would leave our backpacks anywhere, for hours, and come back to find them untouched. It's also a very friendly environment. You could grab anyone if you needed help with anything.

Also, people followed rules. I have never seen so many people following rules at once in my life. About how short your chair must be to use at concerts, about not making noise, or not playing any music that had men's voices in it. But it's an odd kind of music festival. It attracts people who believe in particular ideals, rather than people who just want to get stoned and party and have sex (though I'm sure there was plenty of all that too).

I was told that about 90% of the attendees are queer, which makes it a neat reversal of real life. All of the dating- or relationship- related things I went to just assumed that you were gay. Also, it's really nice to be out and about and not have to wonder, Is she or isn't she? Which is just a thing that straight people take for granted. By and large, if you meet a cute girl at a pub, you're not going to be agonizing inside your head, "God, do you think she's straight??"

One of the things I found most interesting about the festival was that it devoted great thought and resources to four particular minority groups: deaf women, disabled women, women in recovery from substances, and women of color. The first three had their own camping areas: I walked through the deaf women's area once late at night, and was nearly blinded by the high-powered lanterns that enabled them to see each other signing. Their were sign language interpreters for every performance.

Forest paths were made wheelchair- and scooter-friendly by being covered in strips of carpet turned upside-down, the woven backing on top. There were buses to take those with mobility issues from one venue to another. There was another whole camping area for the women in recovery, with all kinds of 12-step meetings all day, and the concert areas had sections for substance-free seating. The women of color had their own gathering tent and firepit, where--unlike the other kinds of areas mentioned above--only they were allowed to enter, and they had many events of their own throughout the week.

Here is a photo one of our friends took of me and Kris, at the night stage. We were there just over a week, but it felt like a month. I came back from it a very different person -- something about being surrounded by 3,000 friends and potential friends, and so much acceptance and caring. I felt much softer and more open. This proved impossible to maintain once I returned to real life. The loneliness for a few weeks after coming back was terrible... it makes me wonder anew at our modern age, where I live alone in a box, and each of my friends is in their own box miles away from me. It was so different.


Mom said...

What an amazing experience!

I love the picture of you and Kris.

Love, Mom

dasunrisin said...

Thanks for this! I am hoping to go to MichFest next year. From your descriptions, it sounds amazing. I am also coming from Denver. Take care!