999 Days

Part 2 – We Made It!

I’m gonna see the folks I dig
California, I’m coming home

Joni Mitchell
Still calm, just getting started (past campout photo)
Reminders everywhere

I’d set out with the intention of keeping a mask in my pocket. I’d be that person who backs up while others keep getting closer, strict about the hand washing/sanitizer thing. With 80 people, this was a potential super spreader event complete with kissing, eating, and singing in each other’s faces. But it was also 95% outside, and Covid thoughts fled as soon as I arrived. Everything in me wanted to trust, wanted closeness, wanted this community – that want highlighted by the pandemic itself. My good intentions and mask stayed in my bag. Off the grid, the outside world fell away, and I immersed into this more real world. With less fear there’s more life, and I jumped in.

Read Part I of my trip here

Day bled into night. Potluck cooking and shared meals, dishwashing dances, wiffle ball and bocce ball, long tables full of food, conversation and music, always music. I stayed up too late and woke too early. The younger children and beautiful teenagers, so changed in the 999 days since I’d seen them. Little kids played wild and free. The teens, so stressed from their pandemic years, flowered into rebonding and freedom and school being out. All of them in and out of each other’s tents.

Bocce ball (past campout, photo by Mark Brown)

We met many of these folks over the years at the Strawberry Music Festival outside of Yosemite every Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. We camped with our families and friends, and our kids grew up there. Eventually various camps merged as friendships solidified. When the 2013 Rim Fire destroyed Strawberry’s surrounding environment, our new friends created a private bash at a camp near where many of them lived. Now a solid core of folks of all ages attend; new friends join, and others move off, but the unique culture and community stay strong.

Long ago Strawberry jam

There was much to talk about. In these 999 days, we’d all experienced varying degrees of challenges and suffering. Stories flowed, along with relief and gratitude in having each other there to listen, being survivors or thriving or both. The pandemic highlighted how important it was to all of us to have this music-based community, to recommit to one another, to hold each other up and cheer each other on, and to know that these friendships would be here when we return.

If you get confused listen to the music play.

Robert Hunter

The ultimate intimate connection for me is the music. When words fail, there’s music. From early morning hours until the following dawn, a revolving group played, sang, and listened. Someone led – a familiar song or something new. Chords might get called out, we fumble or watch the guitar players’ fingers across the firepit. Interspersed among the many guitars are mandolins, bass, fiddle, dobro, keyboard, snare drums and accordion. There are rousing choruses or a single voice, plaintive or raucous melodies, harmonies or unison singing. Instrumental leads get passed around, beginners are encouraged, sometimes words forgotten or changed. There’s laughter and talk and intoxication in between.

We play all types of music, whatever has spoken to us in the intervening time: bluegrass, folk, reggae, blues, jazz, rock, pop, oldies, country, a whole lot of Grateful Dead, all easily wrapped up in the term “Americana.” Sometimes small groups gather all over camp, and sometimes it grows into a force of nature, everyone together, dozens of instruments and even more voices. The forest rings, echoing into the night.

And the fields are full of dancin’
Full of singin’ and romancin’
The music never stopped

John Barlow & Bob Weir
Where instruments sleep

That’s the nuts and bolts of it, as best I can express it, but can the magic be explained? I thrive on this unique connection between musicians. I struggle in conversation at times, but locking eyes or notes or blending tones and harmonies, sinking into the song – this is nirvana, my bliss, my paradise. I try to let go of ego and self-consciousness and settle in, in “service to the song” as someone once told me. I can’t pull myself away, and by the end my limbs no longer work, and my brain is on the fritz. If I die with any regrets, it will not be that I spent time, brain cells, energy, or money with this group in this way.

In service to the song
People we love, and the two of us

Let there be songs to fill the air.

Robert Hunter
Mt. Shasta as we head back home

Finally Monday came. We packed up, shared goodbye hugs over and over, and rolled out with a sigh. This time the drive was a hazy blur, too many nights of carousing on too few hours of sleep, too much living out in the elements in temporary quarters, close to the ground, in continual conversation. Too much and yet never enough. Our drive home was mostly silent, peppered with “Were you there when…?” and “What was that song…?” and sharing separate experiences from over the days, so that our memories melded and smoothed into one. Fantasies and plans started for next time, which is how we always end vacations.

Over the next week we shuffled through recovery, learning to sleep again, checking online for shared photos, and any covid reports. Only three, a lesson in worry. Putting away the gear, doing the wash, straightening up, it’s all part of the recovery as the glow continues. We gaze out on the garden growth in our absence, pale at the amount of weeds, and keep checking for symptoms.

I think about new songs for the fall, plan on better, warmer clothes to bring. Forgotten lyrics get solidified again, and I plunge into summer. Only 95 more days til we do it again.

16 thoughts on “999 Days

  1. My first thought is this: if this were a movie I would want to play it on a loop. I’d want to buy it and stash it in some secret place and pull it out when I needed to be reminded of gathering and friends and the joy of togetherness. The beauty of reading this lovely vacation tale is that I don’t have to know anyone, I don’t have to have been there, to get a sense of the magic. I see it in the faces and I read it in your words. Thank you for sharing this lovely, vivid account. Now if only there were a soundtrack … 

    Liked by 2 people

  2. M A G I C – yassssssss! I am bookmarking this! Everything you said = Ghandi. This is all you need. If you get confused listen to the music play!!! “In service to the song” might have to be my next tattoo. You told me that a long time ago and it was/is transformative. Thank you! You are such an incredible human and I love this story and all your descriptions. xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is just so, so, great. What a magical time, what a life. There is an annual music camp in Centralia; I attended once as the guest of a neighbor of the camp ground. I was just blown away by the camaraderie around a single interest: making music. I’m thinking if you have one regret in life, it will be that you didn’t do it more! And I’m with you on just knowing what is worth a mask-free Covid risk, and what is not.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sure there are other communties that have found a central theme around which to gather and enjoy, but the music is such a great one, I haven’t had to look for more or other. Thanks Gretchen.


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