We are finally on our way, heading west toward I-87 and upstate New York on a bright, hot Thursday morning. The car is packed with sheets, towels, pillows, and coolers with snacks and liquor and bottles of water left over from the party last weekend. We have toiletries, sunscreen and bug spray and some of the sample-sized soaps and lotions my sister gave me after attending that convention for organic goods some years ago. It was quite a haul she brought home then, and I still love sorting through the pile of perfectly packaged miniatures, picking out the products that will allow me to live richly for a weekend. They are tucked into my Kelly green cosmetic case, along with the new wide-tooth comb I bought to replace the one I must have left at my mom’s house in Vermont, the one I have owned for no less than twenty years, the “unbreakable!” claim once printed on its side long gone, rubbed off the side but still inscribed in my mind. I depend on this comb in the summer, and its age reminds me how long it took to figure out how to encourage, instead of trying to tame, my hair’s natural curl.
Stuffed under my cosmetic bag in my canvas carryall are my clothes. I have assiduously chosen my options for the weekend: cool, comfortable, attractive outfits I love yet cannot wear just anywhere. There are the Indian cotton dresses Newman or I have bought at previous festivals, flowing and full of confident colors and designed to hug a woman’s curves. There are leggings and easy stretchy cotton bras—treasured and frequently hand-washed now that they’ve become so hard to find in stores filled with padded polyester creations. There are worn cotton t-shirts to protect my increasingly sensitive skin from the sun, linen pants that keep the bugs off in the evenings, my most comfortable skinny jeans and soft long-sleeved jumpers in case of a chilly night. There is a rain poncho, along with some books, a magazine, sunglasses, and my Epipen. For this weekend’s trip, I have also splurged on a $1 hand-held mirror, remembering my desire for one in the camper last year, and in that same infinite experience, I have also added baby wipes and chocolate to the weekend’s supplies. Everything I could possibly need for comfort or sheer survival is here, and Newman and I are on the road. Tucked into the compartment between us are our early bird tickets to the annual Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, printed when we bought them in March and carefully stored away in the months since then in anticipation of today.
Newman has aired the pop-up to rid it of the smell of moth-balls he stores in it over the winter; he has examined it for evidence of critters or mold and found it clean and ready, no doubt due to his extra care. While he hitched it up and put our bags in the car, I have said my goodbyes to Free and her cousin and my mother as they stretched themselves awake in the house. My mother will watch Free for two days until her dad picks her up for their week on Martha’s Vineyard. My last image of Free before I head out the door is of a wild-haired beauty, with skin already a rich brown despite my repeated slatherings of sunscreen, leaning in to study and pick at her favorite birthday present, the brand new guitar I bought her at a yard sale. Before I see her again, I will have traveled to New York and back again, then to Ohio and back from a visit with Newman’s family. I take a second to capture this view of her: happy, at ease, eager to explore something new. Then I am off, blowing kisses to the kids and thank you’s to my mother, and we are on our way.
Later, we arrive and set up camp with Newman’s friends, some of whom he only sees here, once a year. There are hugs to hello each-other, assessments of the site, the new story of how the space was claimed, and old stories of how the group was formed and grew over the years. This is my third year here, and already I have heard some of these stories before; already I have been gently accepted into the fold of this company. As we unpack, rolling out our things and our dreams for the days ahead, I marvel again at the organized flow of this group, of the friendly banter and ease with which everyone comes and goes. Newman has always stayed somewhat on the fringes here, preferring not to join in the cooking and cleanup so that he is free to wander at his own bidding, yet he and I are always welcomed when we sit and listen to the swapping of anecdotes about music and memories.
Each year, Newman brings his instruments, but he rarely plays publicly, so I wait and simply follow his lead, content to see him come alive when we sit down at a stage where a great artist has begun to perform. As it turns out, I love bluegrass music, with its hoppy edges and old-time rhythms, but I am not yet so knowledgeable that I care which performer we see or what the schedule is. The real draw of this festival for me is that it is free time, meandering and whimsical and requiring nothing of me other than to examine and follow the next impulse as it arrives, whether it is to reach out and hold Newman’s hand, mix a cocktail, follow the music to the nearest stage, lounge and read, or simply take a nap.
This year, however, the heat-wave has us somewhat beaten down. In all my packing, I brought only one bathing suit to don while washing outside with our shower bag, and now it’s all I can fathom wearing. Leggings, long hippie dresses, linen? Everything seems constricting and will be sweat-drenched in minutes. We are sagging; the walk to the stages feels miles long, and when Newman tells me “it’s too hot to even look at you,” I am too hot to even laugh. We make the best of it with ice-cold cocktails and sweaty costume changes, sweltering but knowing we are spoiled to be here, to be able to come here and do this. I am still trying to be careful in my choice of clothes, still conscious of how I look to the closely contained camping world but mostly still trying, years into this relationship, to attract Newman’s attention, to feel alive in our love, to remind me and him how good it is, how much there is for us to be grateful for. He notices, of course, as he always does, and even in this unrelenting heat, there is still pleasure to be found in kissing him, in leaning my head against his chest, in simply watching him engage in small yet significant acts of living. I convince him to set out to find the swimming hole we have heard about, and we are rewarded with a long dip in deep, cool water that restores us for a bit. It feels like we can make it, like we are able to look up and really notice things for the first time. I see the children nearby and miss my girl again, wonder if she would like it here, if she will one day wish to join us and what that might be like. By the time we get back to camp, we are hot again, but it is enough, having had a break, and we know that the sun will go down and the music will play on.
There are the usual ups and downs, the noisy drunken neighbors who remind us not everyone here needs only an occasional cocktail to keep cool. There are the quiet morning moments when you are awake, wildly alert to the presence of thousands of others all around you, yet wondrously, there is not a single sound. All the world is holding its breath until something breaks the silence, and then there is a collective exhale as we roll over, stretch out, gradually and gently teeter towards the port-o-potties, the coffee-pots, the next round of music and each-other. I am struck by how nice people can be when you least expect it, at how, as just one example, nobody has questioned the noisy presence of an intellectually disabled girl who exclaims loudly every few moments throughout the day. Her moanings have become part of the background noise of the camp, and I’ve noticed how her parents take turns tending to her, holding the water bottle for her to drink from and playing music for her at their campsite. Industrious children younger than Free scoot here and there dragging wagons of ice, water, and even rocks to sell to kindly campers. We admire elaborate campsites where equally industrious festival-goers have hauled couches and kiddie pools and constructed bars, putting our simple pop-up and handheld mirror to shame. Tiny tents are crammed everywhere, tucked in between giant RV’s with generators for AC. It is a wonder everyone has a place, but we do, and we go about our business, smiling, slowing down to accommodate the heat and each-other.
And when Newman gets the call that his friends’ son had died in the night, from the cancerous brain tumors diagnosed back in January, everyone understands when he decides to leave the festival early. We pack up slowly on Saturday morning, Newman taking breaks to ask again if it’s really ok with me that we’re leaving, which of course it is. Strangers lean in to express sympathy and to help ease our way out of the tight formation of cars and campers surrounding our space. We take one last morning walk to get breakfast before we go, and as we walk up the hill one last time, the music starts playing out of the speakers at the big stage. It is being piped through the speakers from a recording, and none of the thousands of lawn chairs spread in front of the stage is occupied.
Newman and I walk over to find ours, the last thing we have to pack. We are ragged, my good efforts to keep myself fresh in the heat-wave having finally gone by the wayside, my hair frizzy and my feet caked in dirt except for where the straps of my flip-flops cover the only remaining patches of clean, pale white skin. With no thought to anything other than the sound of the music, I start to move in response, and Newman and I take up an impromptu dance, our feet and hips and arms jiving and jittering us through the haze of another hot morning sun, rising on another festival day. I smile and let myself feel it, not caring if anyone or no-one sees us, for it is enough that he and I are here, dancing together. I close my eyes and feel this hello and goodbye to another Grey Fox, another summer memory.
Soon it will be time for mourning, for sitting with and crying for and holding. It will be time for Newman to remember and to love and to say and do whatever he can to help ease his friends’ way through the most awful thing in the world. And of course there is nothing that can ease it, and we know that, yet we will go anyway to try. It is all here, even now, in the hot haze around this dance, but this is also what brings the dance forth, the dance of being alive and needing to feel what it is to be so.
And now we have found our destination, and we turn to go back, and we pick our way slowly through a sea of empty chairs, discarded food and cans and tarps that spread this way and that, disheveled and trampled by the energy of last night’s crowd, who are now still sleeping, or just waking, or already moving gently, gracefully, through the motions of another festival day.