Shortly after I arrived at the Shambhala Music Festival I found myself eating quinoa salad cross-legged beside the Salmo River with local filmmaker Jonathan Robinson, watching sun worshippers frolic across the river rocks and plunge into the sun-glinting water.
“This isn’t too bad, huh?” he said.
Jonathan had somehow spotted me admidst the 15,000-person crowd, having just finished a 12-hour volunteer shift that earned him his ticket to the 19th annual bacchanal. I didn’t recognize him at first, partially because he was wearing aviator sunglasses but mostly because he was dressed like Aladdin.
“Happy Shambs!” he said—a sing-song phrase I would hear repeatedly over the course of the next three days—before chest-clasping me. This was my second year at the festival and I told him I was determined to last longer than last time’s record: 30 hours.
“You should come to the opening ceremony with me, over at The Grove,” he said. “It’s really spiritual, so it’ll get us feeling centred, grounded. It’ll be good vibes.”
We wandered past the Living Room stage first, where I wanted to get a shot of Nelson DJ Mooves. He was playing Footwork beats for some sand dancers while a gentle mist rained down from protective awnings. A friendly volunteer in a flamboyant feathered hat asked me if I’d like a spritz from her spray bottle.
“Remember: consent is sexy!” she said.
Nearby a steady stream of semi-nude revellers were marching across the bridge to party, their bright pink flamingo floaties and neon tubes contrasted against the lush greenery beyond them. An abundance of nipple pasties were on proud display—hearts, Xs and smiley faces bouncing from venue to venue.
“I can’t believe this is the real world,” one dude said.
We eventually make it to the opening ceremony, where I saw Nelson musician Soniko Waira blessing a sacred, sand-sculpted space before Shauna Robertson and Soul Fire Dance entertained the forest-packed masses. Party-goers packed into the permanent, multi-tiered venue—which could easily be mistaken for an Ewok enclave.
“Each of us is present and alive and here,” Robertson said, white hair breeze-rippling, before having the crowd address the Creator with her: “Teach us and show us the way.”
It was a nice moment, spiritual. While all this was happening, though, I couldn’t help but notice that standing directly behind her in my field of vision was a green-bearded dude with nothing but a tartan flap to cover his junk—the sort of startling juxtaposition I slowly became acclimatized to.
Eventually Jonathan and I parted ways, promising to meet up in a couple of hours. I didn’t see him again for two days. Instead I ran into another friend, this one equipped with an impressive tickle trunk full of costumes, who invited me to camp alongside him.
Before long he had me wearing a pair of galaxy-themed tights and charging into the Fractal Forest to mosh.
As it turns out, media outlets aren’t allowed to take pictures or video inside the Fractal Forest—they even made me sign something promising I wouldn’t—but even if I’d been permitted it would be impossible to adequately capture what I experienced there. Suffice to say there was a bright-flashing Egyptian temple, green lasers criss-crossing the sky and glowing Star Wars faces looming overhead in the flashing canopy.
“How come Yoda looks so mad?” I asked someone, yelling over the music. “Don’t you think he should be smiling or friendly?”
The raver smirked at me.
“That’s his bass face!”
It was right around then an eight-foot dinosaur sauntered by me, snout-nodding politely in my direction as it passed. In the crowd I spotted familiar faces from Nelson everywhere I went. At one point founder Jimmy Bundschuh drove by me on his motorcycle, stopping long enough for me to run over and give him and his wife Jenna Arpita a hug.
In total I probably caught five or six hours of entertainment, a tiny fraction of the 400 hours of live music on offer. My main priority was to hit up the local acts, such as Moontricks and Val Kilmer and the New Coke, but I also caught sets from DJs Mat the Alien, Chali 2na and Beats Antique.
One thing I was fascinated by all weekend—an interest shared by Robinson, who would love to do a documentary on the topic—were the elaborate totems everyone was carrying aloft. I stopped a pair of girls to ask them what their sign, which said “Want” on one side and “Need” on the other, meant.
“Well, sometimes I have a hard time differentiating between my wants and my needs,” one of them told me. “This reminds me that they’re two sides of the same coin.”
The whole subculture fascinated me, and the people-watching was world class. Though I wasn’t going anywhere nearly as hard as many of the attendees, crashing before midnight on Friday and barely marking it to 2 a.m. on Saturday, I still felt like a giant brain sponge absorbing experience. Routinely overwhelmed, I would hike back to my campsite to sit, quiet, my ears thrumming.
“What are you doing, man?” asked one parking attendant, who turned out to be a Vancouver DJ named Tre Funk. It was 8 a.m. on Saturday morning and I’d just crawled out of my RAV.
“Are you reading?”
I shrugged, glancing down at the Harper’s in my lap. I was partway through an article about the “New Narcissism” of my generation.
“Dude, you’re at a rave!”
Funk convinced me to saunter over and join in the party banter, along with my friend, and ultimately the three of us spent the next four hours back-slapping and story-swapping. Before long we’d attracted a crowd, including a dude from Edmonton named Trippz and a tattooed party-goer with “Reality is an excuse for limitations” tattooed inside his bicep.
“I’m realizing that the hyperbolic, fictional version of Shambhala that I invented in my head doesn’t even touch how crazy it actually is here,” I told my friends. “I mean, look!”
Two rainbow-coloured men were nude-sprinting past, paint dripping from their danglers.
“What were you guys doing?” I asked, flagging one down.
“We covered ourselves in paint and rolled on the canvas to make art,” he told me, whooping. “Happy Shambs!”
From there the visual and artistic onslaught continued. By Sunday evening I was barely functional, underslept and stinky-footed. I’d done some river-bathing, forest-exploring and even acted as a human hand mirror while my new friend Bayley adjusted her purple wig underneath a pair of curled antlers.
Eventually I realized I didn’t have it in me to stick around for the Moontricks show I’d been hoping to catch, and my Nelson bed was beckoning. It didn’t help that a thunderstorm was whipping at the tents and keeping me RAV-hidden. By this point a small community had grown up where I was parked, so I wandered over to say goodbye.
First there was Chewbacca, a dude from Edmonton. He gave me a big hug, and so did his beautiful girlfriend Ashley, who had acted as the camp Mom and fed me repeatedly. Some people were asleep in half-deflated blow-up boats while others were already getting dressed for the last night of revelry. One dude with a silhouetted tattoo of E.T. bike-flying gave me a fist-bump.
I trudged off semi-conscious.
“Be in the moment,” read one of the signs chainlink-posted on the way out. “Art wakes up”.
Maybe so, but I was ready to sleep.