The Dragonfest pan-Pagan gathering got its start back in the 1970’s with a smallish group (as I’ve heard tell) of about 25 people, who decided to go up into the mountains and do a communal “Pagan” sort of thing.
I’ve only heard stories of that time. My first encounter with the festival was in 1996, two decades later. By then, it was a “going concern” with admission tickets, liability waivers, a full board of directors, and a very thick three-ring binder containing tips on “What to do when….” Dragonfest is a going concern in 2020, though it will be interesting to see how they handle the post-COVID-19 world.
The organizers have asked for stories from the olden days, and looking back through my blog, I see that I’ve never fully commented on my first experience.
Perhaps it’s time to share.
Every story lives in a context. To understand the context of this story, which is intensely personal, I think the relevant personal points are just a few: I was raised in what I would call a large urban center in Wyoming, which qualifies as a small town anywhere else, in a household dominated by a particularly unhealthy form of Protestant Fundamentalism uprooted from rural Oklahoma. I went to Long Island and got an advanced degree in physics. I never felt at home on the East Coast, and returned to Colorado to raise a family. In 1995, the marriage ended, and in 1996 I found myself catapulted into a slightly-early mid-life rediscovery of myself. A work acquaintance recommended Dragonfest, and in the spirit of why-ever-not?, I decided to go.
I was both excited and apprehensive. I knew this was a “Pagan” gathering, and I did a little bit of reading beforehand, in much the same way you’d learn a little German if you were planning to travel in Germany. Danke schön, Blessed Be. Don’t lead with Hitler or the Burning Times. And just in case, keep your passport handy and your car keys on you, in case you fuck up majorly and need to beat a quick retreat.
Bring condoms. Just in case.
I think that captures the personal context well-enough.
August, 1996. Wednesday.
Dragonfest is held at the Wellington Lake campground, under the shadow of the Dragon. From the flat beyond The Point, just below the entrance to the Old Boy Scout Camp, you can look up at the mountain and unfocus your eyes, and the Dragon pops right out at you: usually sleeping, though if the light is just right, s/he looks like s/he’s maybe thinking about a getting up for a snack. The idea of anything that large looking for a snack is a bit discomfiting.
The drive takes me down I-25 into Denver, then the cutoff to I-70 and E-470 all the way around to US 285 running toward Conifer and Bailey: the point being it’s a less-than-idyllic drive through big-city traffic, in early August, which is invariably hot, dusty, terrifying, and did I mention hot? My car is a Toyota Tercel without air conditioning, a tiny car with a tiny engine that cannot maintain highway speed on the uphill leg of a mountain road, much less power an air conditioning unit, and I have not yet learned the trick of having a liter bottle of water handy to sweat out on the trip. I drive through the smoggy, frantic Hell of the Denver freeways, and then, bit-by-bit, find myself climbing into a quieter, cooler, more breathable Wild. After the turn-off in Bailey, I get a mile or so of pavement, and then it’s gravel, and then dirt, surrounded by dense green forest. I cannot drive fast on the wandering, washboarded road, so I slow down. There are signs pointing the way: a bunch of balloons tied to a fencepost at a turning; a sign taped to a rock. I roll down the window, and the air is cool and scented with pine, aspen, and sage. I start to relax.
The lake appears suddenly as a glint of sun on the water, seen through the trees, and then I am there.
Attendance is far short of the peak it will reach, sometime in the early 2000’s. Even though they have not yet opened campsites on the upper fire road — this week, we are all crowded down onto the edge of the lake — the area seems almost deserted.
There is a sense of timelessness. Only one person is at the “greeting” tent, and she’s deep into her book, a floppy sun-hat on her head. She looks up, smiles broadly, and waves her hand at the table. There are some things to be done, like sign up for a two-hour workshift sometime during the weekend, pick up a schedule, collect some free bling. There is little urgency to it. The quiet, following after hours of the roar and rumble of tires on highway and gravel, is a benediction.
Because I am here for the full-tour experience, I decide to camp in Bare Country, which is the clothing-optional area on the flats below the Boy Scout Camp, directly under the amused gaze of the Dragon. I know I am in the right place when I drive past a fellow wearing hiking boots, a mountain-man beard, and nothing else, pounding in tent stakes. I find a place to park and get my tent set up just as the afternoon rain comes, a gentle but bitterly frigid sprinkle. I see other people who have arrived after me, struggling with their tents in the rain, and I spend the rest of the afternoon helping them get set up.
Drums in the darkness.
I will one day in the future read an interesting article about culture and sleep. It turns out that our modern ideal of sleeping in a dark box inside a bigger box for eight solid hours, is neither common in human history, nor particularly beneficial for our bodies and minds. The band hunter-gatherers — the social organization of homo sapiens for at least 95,000 years before we started writing down “history” — seem to have slept in shifts through the night, where there were always a few people awake, tending the fire, having sex, preparing food, getting high, telling stories — and, of course, drumming.
I know nothing of this in 1996. Indeed, I don’t have a drum, don’t know anything about drums, and have no idea drumming has anything to do with Pagan gatherings. But I do experience it. It touches something primal, something profoundly restful. It says that I am not alone, that there are others watching for the tiger, the wolf, the flood and the fire and the enemy lurking in the darkness. The regular, meditative beat of the night drummers says that all is well. Something deep in my brain relaxes. Something that may be truly relaxing for the first time in my life.
I decide to brave the lake.
The issue isn’t the water, though the lake is quite chilly.
The issue is that this is a clothing-optional swimming area. In mixed company.
I am here for the deluxe, full-tour experience. I am not going to chicken out over this. Yes, there are naked people everywhere, but I’ve seen naked. I was married for years. I’ve changed diapers. I’m fine with naked.
I’m still standing there, dressed, gnawing on my lip. I’m the odd one on the beach, wearing clothes.
I take a deep breath, and remove my clothing. It’s not much different from showering at the gym. Just take it off, fold it, walk down to the lake, and wade in. I make sure to keep my sandals on — when the lake isn’t crowded with Pagans, it’s crowded with fishermen, and fishermen leave hooks and broken beer bottles in the water.
Fuck! The water is freezing! Keep moving. There are other people swimming out here, they aren’t drowning, it isn’t going to kill me. Even if it feels like my heart will stop any second. AAaagh! My navel just got wet, and my diaphragm froze. Puff. Puff. Puff. Dive!
There is something about getting your head under the cold water that changes everything. Within seconds, the water is merely cool, almost tepid. I swim out, and back, dipping under the water again and again in pure delight. There are warm currents, and cooler currents. They all feel heavenly. I dive again, and there is no swimsuit that threatens to pull off and leave me embarrassed. There is no possibility of such embarrassment. I am naked. I swim as people swam for 95,000 years before getting trapped by modesty.
When I come back to the beach, I glance around, and realize that no one is paying any attention to me. We are all naked. I also see there are no supermodels on the beach, male or female. There are rolls of fat. Scars. Birthmarks. Wrinkles. A lot of nipples, mostly in pairs, all different, yet all alike, on both men and women. Pubic hair, of all colors. All colors, including …. fluorescent pink? Oh, my….
I relax on my towel on the warm sand, and I start to realize — viscerally — that clothing is about power, and modesty is about submission to that power. I wear the software engineer’s T-shirt and jeans — I have power over the people in coveralls. That fellow has a suit — he has power over me. That guy in the uniform with a badge has power over the guy in the suit. The guy in a slightly different uniform with stripes on his sleeve has power over the guy with the badge. And on it goes.
Strip us all naked and throw us in the water, and where is that power? It’s why they tell us to imagine the audience naked if we are nervous about public speaking: when we lose our clothing, we cease to proclaim our rank, and without rank, there is no power.
These are thoughts that will develop over the years, from this and many other experiences of public nakedness yet to come. But my first experience is right here, right now, under the sleepy gaze of the Dragon with sand on my feet and the sun on my face. There is something very right about sunning naked on the beach.
I stand outside the Drawing Down circle.
I’ve inquired a bit about this rite, and read a little about the general practice. It’s an Oracle. Priestesses of the Goddess “draw down” or “channel” a higher power, and will respond to questions from people who ask them. It’s very popular: the waiting circle fills with people.
This is a “Goddess” rite, and I’ve somewhere gained the impression that this is primarily for the women at the gathering. On Saturday there will be a Sun Rite, where a Priest of the God will channel a higher power, and I’ve already decided I will go to that and not this one. I will simply observe from outside the circle. I do see that there are some men in the circle. But it is mostly women.
I do not want to offend by barging in where I’m not welcome. Danke schön.
Someone is beating a slow heart-rhythm on a mother-drum, a large drum with a deep tone that is almost subsonic. THUM. thum-THUM. THUM. thum-THUM.
As I stand, watching, I feel … what is it that I feel? A pull. An invitation. I take a deep breath, realizing I’ve become slightly entranced by the drum, by the wild beauty of the sun setting over the back haunches of the Dragon. I let myself fall back into the rhythm, and the pull is still there. “Come,” it says. I follow the pull into the waiting circle.
I don’t know what is proper. But I belong here. Tonight.
We are gathered before four high arches erected at one edge of the circle, each topped with a banner of a different color. One of a small army of guides will step forward to lead a single person standing at a gate through the arch and across a field to where the oracular priestesses hold audience. Then another. One by one.
I have been raised with a God who demands sacrifice and obedience: perhaps not literal sacrifice any more, in the form of goats and doves and firstborn children, but certainly obedience, and right-thinking, and modesty. “We are not worthy even to gather up the crumbs under your table, but it is your nature always to have mercy,” we recite from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Or, “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis — Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us,” from the Latin Mass. We are sinners. We are not worthy. We are not worthy. Have mercy on us.
What I had read of the Pagan paths was that we approach the gods as suitors seeking a lover. We approach as peers and collaborators. As companions. As equals, living in different realms. Rather than us asking them endlessly to stoop to lift us up from our perpetual inadequacy, they call upon us to rise. To speak with a Goddess, I must must not abase myself — instead, I must find the God within me.
I feel a bit terrified. What have I gotten myself into? Seeking the God within myself? What nonsense is this? What heresy is this? What if I get it wrong?
When the guide at last takes me across the field, it is nearly midnight, full-dark under a black sky scattered with pin-prick shining diamonds. I am led to a cleared area, where someone in a dark, hooded cloak stands, dimly lit by torches and a low fire. At first, I think this is the channel, but that somehow doesn’t feel right. Then I notice a lump on the ground: a smaller figure seated — kneeling? — in front of the standing figure, who stands guard. I approach and kneel, not in supplication, but merely to meet on the same level. The channel is also hooded, face in shadow, looking at the ground. Then she looks up, directly at me.
I don’t really know what I see. It’s like her eyes are backlit, but they aren’t. It’s something else, something deeper. It isn’t a human gaze: it is far too intense. It involves recognition. Welcome. Delight.
I know Her.
My heart is pounding.
It’s only a moment later that I notice the neatly-trimmed beard on her face. The channel is male.
It’s not important.
We speak, briefly. The words also mean very little.
All of the real communication has already taken place.
I skip the Sun Rite. In the same way I had felt pulled into the Drawing Down circle the night before, I feel pushed back from the Sun Rite.
Instead, I attend a Discordian Wiccan rite. Question: How many Discordians does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: One, standing in a bathtub full of brightly-colored East German power tools.
(Don’t try too hard: it isn’t supposed to make sense.)
We start by raising energy, stomping vigorously in a counter-clockwise direction while chanting: “We love bananas, because they have no bones! Hey!” We call the cross-quarters, rather than the quarters: instead of air, fire, water, and earth, we call dust, hot air, steam, and mud. The assistant High Priestess passes out red construction paper circles stamped in small letters proclaiming “Model GP-18 suitable for all ritual purposes,” and we “cast the circle” by throwing them in random directions. The High Priestess enters the circle and channels the spirits of Moose and Squirrel. With puppets. Ritual degrees are conferred upon all participants, very few lower than Bishop, drawn from an old hat. The high priestess moons the entire gathering and and then leaves the circle, walking backward.
The High Priestess, Amber K, holds a workshop after the ritual, and we discuss the essential role of humor, mockery, and anarchy in ritual, religion, and culture. It’s like the Fool in the Medieval Court, who is often the only one who can speak the truth, because, hey, he’s just the Fool. It would be undignified to be upset by anything the Fool says. Even the truth. In the same way, any ritual can become encrusted with self-importance, and it’s good to give it a bit of an irreverent thrashing when that happens.
I wander the entire campsite as night falls, feeling very much at home here among these mad, wonderful people. Many of the campsites are individual covens or clans, and they are doing their own rites tonight, for themselves. It is the last night of Dragonfest.
A peculiar thing begins to happen. I begin to feel very alone.
I walk past one camp, on a low hill above me. They are toasting with a mead horn, and laughing and speaking, and there seems to be something wrong with my hearing, because the sound seems muted: the soft lapping of waves on the lake seems louder than the laughs above. There must be a lake breeze carrying the sound away. There is also campfire smoke, which perhaps accounts for the fact that they all seem dimmer than they should. Or maybe my glasses are dirty.
I would like to join some group — it’s getting quite chilly, and the sense of aloneness is growing a bit oppressive — but it feels more and more like I’m the only person actually in the entire campground, surrounded by a vast wilderness. Just me, and the bears. There are bears. I’m not wearing a hat, which is stupid: I’m shedding heat like a candle. Perhaps I should go back to my tent and get warm in my sleeping bag. Maybe just go to bed. It’s dark, and cold, and I’m all alone in the woods.
I come to a three-way junction in the road, and stop. I can’t decide which way to go. There’s a nearby campsite with a lovely campfire, but it seems completely unwelcoming. I don’t understand why.
And then, the light from the nearby campfire seems to brighten — perhaps someone threw wood on it — and it’s suddenly very welcoming. My indecision vanishes. I walk toward the fire.
As I approach along the path, I feel a sudden agitation, a kind of “butterflies in the stomach” feeling. I chalk it up to incipient hypothermia: I’m clearly about to start shivering. There is an older man, and two older women, puttering about with the fire. I greet them and ask if I can share their fire for a bit.
“Your timing is perfect,” Judith, the more outgoing woman says. “We just finished up our ritual, and opened our circle.”
“Oh,” I say. “So the circle is gone now?” I’m thinking about that sudden sense of openness.
“No….” she says. “We only opened it. It’s still there, and we’ll likely leave it up all night. The big drumming circle right over there is … well, they don’t do a very good job of warding their space in the first place, and the drummers get drunk and they walk in and out and punch holes in it all night long, and they have all kinds of chaotic energy spewing out all night. Sloppy, and it’s annoying. It gives me headaches. So we’ll leave ours up until it fades by itself.”
“Interesting,” I say. I don’t really understand a word of this. How do you open a circle but leave it up?
We make small talk while I soak up heat. Earl is a retired nuclear engineer from Rocky Flats, and we talk shop for a bit. I’ve been surprised by the number of engineers and scientists at the gathering.
Once I’m warmer, I ask if they would mind if I … well, played with their circle a bit. Seeing that it’s still up. They have no objection.
I’ve still got butterflies, though I’m reasonably warm now. I walk back along the path, and suddenly — instantly — the butterflies are gone. I step back toward the fire, and they return. So it isn’t incipient hypothermia.
“Right here?” I call out. They’re all watching me closely.
“That’s right where I cast it,” Judith says. I’m now playing all kinds of confirmation bias hypotheses through my head: they can see me, I can see them, we’re just playing off each other without realizing it.
I start moving around their campsite, in and out, in and out, and there seems to be an invisible line: when I’m inside, I’m quivery; when I’m outside, I’m not. I get to the far side of their tent, where we can’t see each other, and I call out, “Seems like you cut really close to the tent on this side.” More assent, called back across the tents. I follow the tent line back into view from the fire, and they are all watching me and grinning.
Then I stop. No quivers. I move around, and I can’t pick up anything at all. I move back toward the tent, and the quivers are still there. I move forward, and it’s gone.
“I’ve lost it,” I say.
To my surprise, Earl and the other woman start laughing out loud, while Judith scowls. “All right, that’s enough, you guys. It’s not my fault. It was a nice, tight circle.”
“Yeah,” Earl says, “but you forgot to leave the firewood inside the circle.”
Judith seems really embarrassed, and irritated.
“Earl is right, I don’t know what I was thinking. I drew the boundary, and then cut right across there and left the darn firewood outside. We couldn’t have Earl walking back and forth tearing holes in it during our rite, and I didn’t want to start all over again, so I made a cut right where you’re standing, and patched on an addition. To cover the wood.”
I will think about this experience, and others like it, in the coming years. It isn’t that humans can sense things more subtle than flashing lights and loud sounds and television advertising — I will continue to have plenty of experiences with subtle “energies” of one sort or another, just as everyone does, though most pretend they saw nothing, heard nothing. The astonishing thing is not that we can sense these things. What is astonishing is that one human can draw a line in the air with their finger, imagining a curtain of fire rising from the ground, and another human can come along later and find the line, and where they scrubbed it out.
A blot of mustard. A bit of underdone potato. Bah, humbug.
Our philosophy leaves much to be desired.
The festival shuts down at noon. I don’t know where they do the working, but “the dome” comes down. I feel it happen. The entire campsite has been enclosed in something like what Judith had constructed, a bubble or a barrier of some sort, so big that I hadn’t noticed it until the moment it was gone. It’s like the sunlight changes color, imperceptibly. The world gets larger and more impersonal; time begins to flow inflexibly again, where one second is always and everywhere the same number of beats of an oscillating Cesium atom in Boulder.
I remember that sense of timeless ease the afternoon I first arrived.
I think of that moment in Lord of the Rings, when the Fellowship leaves Lothlórien and at the boundary of the land, some light seems to leave the sky, and the earth.
I don’t want to leave. But I have obligations, and — for the moment — the magic is hidden again.