Last Wednesday morning, a friend — who agreed to take care of some things for us while we were away at Dragonfest — asked, “So, what do you get out of this thing?” Meaning, of course, Dragonfest.
It’s a good question, and deserves a better answer than what I gave him in the few minutes we had before we were off to the mountains.
Let’s start with Dragonfest itself. It’s a festival in the mountains. You pay a fee, then you camp for five days with a bunch of other people. The fees cover various amenities, such as Porta-Potties and a truck to clean them out periodically, a free breakfast every day, and so forth.
Attendance has varied over the years. At its peak, site restrictions capped attendance at 1000, and the event sold out. The current site has a smaller cap, but has stayed well below its limits — we had somewhat under 300 attending this year.
It’s a festival, but also a spiritual retreat focused on “alternative spiritualities,” which might be loosely defined as spiritual paths and traditions with very few members, as compared to the “major world religions” such as Catholicism or Buddhism. Wiccans have typically been in the majority at Dragonfest, though we have at various times had practitioners of Vodon, Santeria, Gnostic Christianity, Asatru, different shamanic lineages, and (of course) Druidry, and doubtless many others.
I think the best way to describe Dragonfest may be to simply give a day-by-day diary.
Wednesday — Whee! Work vacation begins, and the work computer has been shut off since last night. I left my iMac running, just in case we needed it for something, and sure enough, neither Marta nor I can remember exactly how to get to Dragonfest at the new site. So I print directions, shut down the computer, finish packing the van, hitch up the casita, and we set off.
Interesting omens appear. Leaving our neighborhood, a truck passes us on its way to a nearby construction site, carrying a Porta-Potty that trails a long streamer of toilet paper out the door: we laugh all the way to the highway, and reassure ourselves that we have our own toilet paper with us, just in case. Just south of Longmont, we witness an SUV in a roll-over accident in the median. I don’t actually see it happen: I glance at Marta, who is driving, to say something, and glimpse the SUV rolling and raising dust as we flash by. I call 911, already too far past the scene to do much but cause more accidents, and we drive extra carefully the rest of the way.
We arrive just after noon. Synchronicity strikes immediately: two members of our grove have just started walking down the road to look for us, and they guide us to where they’d held space for our group. We back the casita up the hill, level it, and open it; then while Marta makes the inside livable and beautiful, I set up the rest of our camp, which includes “The Pub,” a canopy under which we arrange all our extra chairs for loiterers, and the Shrine of Modestus.
The Shrine of Modestus was apparently intended by some crazed Chinese engineer to be a camping shower stall. Setting it up requires advanced origami skills, and when fully erect, with a typical SunShower hung from the hook in the ceiling, it contains just enough space for someone of my height to squeeze inside and brush against every wall simultaneously while vigorously showering his knees and ankles. Since we are camped in Bare Country (clothing optional), and since I do not revere Modestus, we make plans to help his Shrine find a new home.
After lunch, Marta and I wander down to Merchant’s Row. I’m in the market for a new T-shirt, and Marta is looking for tapestries. We are both successful.
We all spend the remainder of the long, warm afternoon helping people set up their own camps, decorating the group site with banners and flags, loitering, and drinking beer.
Our site has Phil, a completely delightful storyteller and retired aerospace engineer; Pat, a computer nerd like myself and a very fine drummer who lives just a few blocks away from us; George and Logran, members of our grove and both retired software engineers; Anne, another of our grove and a professor at Naropa University. Just down the hill is a huge group of Dragonfest staff members, most (I think) of Asatru persuasion, complete with a half-dozen or so very polite and delightful children ranging from perhaps two to young teens. Two other members of our grove, Iannin and Candelaria, have camped lower on the hill, overlooking the central tent and the merchants. Above us is filled with aspen groves winding amongst spruce and pine forests. There is almost no pine beetle kill here: the forest is lush and green.
Dinner is a lentil, eggplant, and beef stew Marta had prepared earlier in the week: all we had to do was heat it, which is how we’ve come to deal with the stress of having to loiter and pontificate so strenuously at Dragonfest. I wash up dishes afterward, and — as is the normal procedure in bear country (not Bare Country) — all food-smelling items go into the locked car for the night.
We all make our way to Opening Ritual in the big meadow at sunset. This year’s opening has an Asatru (ancient Norse) flavor, and is short, direct, and sweet.
As has been the tradition in as long as I’ve attended Dragonfest — eighteen years, now — the bare bones of the Opening Ritual consists of acknowledging and/or calling the spirits of the four cardinal directions, acknowledging the spirit of the land, and casting The Dome: a sacred circle that encompasses the entire camp for the duration of the festival. The Opening Rite makes the campsite our cathedral, an appropriate and safe space for spiritual exploration and work.
Marta and I return to camp for more loitering with friends in the Pub as the sky darkens to a rich azure. At 8500 feet, darkness brings swift chill, enough to call out the poly-wool Long Johns and fleece jackets and hats.
Randy drops by toward evening and introduces himself, just wandering from camp to camp. He is a young military almost-chaplain who has served his required active duty terms (in Afghanistan) but now finds himself hung out to dry as the military draws down its forces and all new chaplaincy postings are frozen. Randy relates some good stories of the Last Jew In Kabul, whom he had met during his tour of duty through an odd chain of events. He falls into an extended discussion with George and Anne about similarities between Hasidic Judaism and Paganism. I sit and listen like a child before wise elders.
Most of us are tired, still shedding the stresses of Mundania (as we’ve long called our “normal” day-to-day environment), so we go to bed shortly after full dark sets in. Others head out to the drum circles for drumming and dancing, and we fall asleep under our warm down-filled duvet to the sound of distant drums.
Thursday — First morning in the mountains is always a challenge for me. It’s usually cold and always far, far too early. Marta knows me well — she entices me from our warm bed with the smell of sausages, eggs, and coffee.
A bit later in the morning, we walk to the big watering can — a 500-gallon tank of potable water brought in for the festival — where we fill our SunShower. Golf carts run a circuit around the long, oval road, and we are able to hitch a ride back to our camp with the thirty-pound bag of water. I spend some time rigging up the shower to hang from a tree branch at a more useful height than our Shrine to Modestus permits, and hang one of our new tapestries between two trees as a semi-shrine.
There is no opportunity to use the shower, however, since clouds begin to blow in well before noon, accompanied by threatening grumbles of distant thunder. In the mountains, a tiny white cloud that blocks the sun causes the apparent temperature to drop ten degrees instantly. When real storms blow in, often accompanied by hail, temperatures can drop thirty degrees or more. The light overcast guarantees no heat in the shower water, and we choose to wait.
Marta gives a workshop at one o’clock, her first Dragonfest workshop ever, which she calls An Elemental Walk With Marta. She shares her experiences of walking our dog in the morning as an exploration of the four cardinal directions and their corresponding elemental powers, as well as using nature observations during these walks as a kind of oracle. She leads us out into the woods where we open our senses to wood and field as we walk, and then return to share our experiences. It is lovely.
The storms hold off just long enough for us to finish and retreat to camp.
Several people join us inside the casita for much of the rest of the afternoon, as lightning strikes all around us, while heavy rain, then light hail, pelts the forest and our aluminum roof. Rain continues intermittently all afternoon. We eventually warm up dinner: spicy Swedish meatballs over linguini.
Marta stays up for a bit with us after dinner, but again goes to bed early. Our gathering in The Pub discusses science, religion, history, magic, and various conspiracies, real and imagined, throughout the ages.
Come full nightfall, the drummers again take off for the fires, and I join Marta in bed.
Friday — The second morning in the mountains is usually an early one for me as my body starts to adjust to the new schedule. This time I cook breakfast for Marta.
We align the SunShower with the rising sun and wait for it to heat. I find a comfortable spot in the shade and read while Marta showers. Friends, new and old, drop by to chat. As noon approaches, the fluffy clouds begin to appear, so I retrieve the shower as-is and enjoy a tepid but very welcome shampoo and rinse. There is something uniquely exhilarating about showering in the woods, in the open air with no walls wrapped around me.
Friends of mine live in Rainbow, Alaska, and I visited them once in September. Their shower consists of a large watering can, filled with water heated on the propane stove. You carry the heated can to the deck of the sauna, hang it from a hook, and then tip it to shower, standing in glorious sunlight and brisk air on a high platform, surrounded by Alaskan mountains and forest. Showering in these woods takes me back to that September, standing on that deck in the morning sun, and then later in the long dusk as the first auroras of the season snaked through the air high above.
I come back to camp without dressing and sit in the sunlight for a while. As I mentioned, I am no devotee of Modestus, and the hot sun feels wonderful on too-pale skin.
I eventually dress, and Marta and I drive into the nearest town with a supermarket, about forty minutes away, for extra beer and other items for guests in the evening. We manage to miss the campsite storms, and return just as the sun reappears. Marta and Anne spend what’s left of the afternoon making mozzarella/basil/tomato hors d’oeuvres while I read.
Friday is the traditional time of the Drawing Down ritual, first thing in the evening. Briefly, this is a rite in which different priests and priestesses channel various deities, and provide oracles to the querants who come to them. Marta goes, and has — as usual — an amazing experience. I spend some time meditating, and decide to forego the Drawing Down this year, which is not uncommon for me, though I have always had my own amazing experiences.
When Marta returns, Anne helps us finish the set up for our tenth anniversary party.
You see, Marta and I met at Dragonfest ten years ago. By whatever synchronicity was in play at the time, we found ourselves camped across a trail from each other, both of us across the main road from Wellington Heights, A Coven-Controlled Community (that’s what the sign said) where certain long-time Dragonfest Wiccans camped each year. Marta and I met over dinner at their campsite, and met again the next morning working the breakfast shift in the camp kitchen. That led to a swim at the clothing-optional beach, and … well, it’s been ten wonderful years.
Our grove and camp mates gather, ask entirely inappropriate questions and demand answers, and we eat and toast and laugh and tell stories under the rising full moon, until the drums call once again. Those of us who remain behind, swiftly pack all the food and dirty dishes into the van, and Marta and I crawl under our duvet, still very much in love.
Saturday — Saturday always dawns with a hint of sunset. Dragonfest is almost over; the ice in the cooler has melted; the dirty clothing items outnumber the clean.
Marta and I, along with Anne and George, make our way down to the community kitchen for a reprise of our ten-year-ago kitchen shift — that’s where I introduced George to Marta, the morning after she and I had met. In 2004 I’d mostly hung around the hot water equipment, hauling cold water to the boilers, eighty pounds at a time, while Shy David made the cold water hot. Shy David is there this morning, too, still making the cold water hot; but this time, they put me on the front line, serving, where I keep up a constant tirade of good cheer and silliness between calls for more cheese, salsa, and bacon.
After breakfast, I spend the rest of the morning finishing my book and noodling on my violin (to some applause and no catcalls, which is gratifying). Years ago I’d brought my violin, and had on a whim broken into the violin theme from Young Frankenstein. As I finished, someone out in the deep woods let out a perfect imitation of The Monster, and everyone within earshot nearly died laughing, including me.
The rains arrive shortly after lunch, complete with light hail. Anne races back from the workshop she attended, and George and Anne both sit in our casita as the rain beats on the roof. George’s wife is Jewish; both of them have been deeply involved for years in the Jewish Renewal Community under Reb Zalman in Boulder, and his recent death has hit both of them hard. On top of this, George turns 69 this year, three full cycles of 23 years, which has been a personally significant span for him. An ecstatic dancer, George had connected with the teens at the dance circle the previous evening, drawing them into the dance circle and “teaching them to dance,” as they put it — the experience had taught him some profound lessons about the nature of what he calls “the fourth quarter of life” that he is now entering.
We are all moved by his description of connecting so strongly to what would have been his grandchildren’s generation, had he sired children.
As the rain lets up, we join Anne for her afternoon workshop on working with tree energy. Anne presents wonderful short classes of this sort, and moves directly into practice, without wasting a lot of time on speculation or theory. By the end, we are all nestled against a tree, back-to-bark, meditating along with the tree.
It’s hard to describe the pure delight of the experience. I also find it enlightening — the tree and I have a rather frank discussion about the Homocene (our current period in which humans are causing global warming) and past ice ages, and it’s clear to me that the full picture is a bit more complex than anyone selling ideology wants to say out loud. That’s perhaps another topic for another day.
After the workshop, we return to camp and warm up dinner, the second half of the lentil stew we’d brought, foregoing the Stone Soup dinner down in the main gathering area.
After dinner, we deck ourselves out in full array for the Main Ritual, usually held near sunset on Saturday. Tonight, this is a full, high-church Wiccan ceremony for a crowd of over one hundred: a sweet and affirming celebration of the magic each of us holds within.
We return to our campsite after ritual, and I make a pilgrimage to a distant Porta-Potty — there is a growing line at the nearest one, and I need to spend a little “quality time” — and on the way back, fall to chatting with an old friend camped in that area. By the time I return to our Pub, Marta has invented a new drink, which she calls Aztec Marta: all I will say about it is that it is delicious and you should ask her to make you one. But only if you have a designated driver.
As full dark sets in, I pick up my drum and catch one of the last shuttles to the Trance Circle. Drumming around a campfire is pure magic in itself, and the dancers — many of them teens — pick up the magic and amplify it. After a long and satisfying set, I pack up and return home. The night is cool, the moon is bright, and the walk through the forest is entirely blissful.
Sunday — Sunday is always sad, sweetened a bit this time by a special breakfast Marta prepares for our camp-mates. We spend the morning packing and preparing to travel. Marta is anxious to get home to our cats, so we work through the Closing Ritual, which — by tradition — is performed by the teens. This is when The Dome is taken down, and you can feel it disperse from anywhere inside. We say our farewells to friends, new and old, dump our trash and recycling in the appropriate places, and start the long drive back to Civilization.
Writing now, after a full day back at paying work, I still feel a trace of the Dragon in my blood. A scent of magic in the air. A sparkle in the sunlight on the evening trees. A brief thought that perhaps it isn’t only realpolitik and money that makes the world go ’round.
That’s what I get out of Dragonfest.