As the morning sun slowly turns my tent into a sauna, I grudgingly open my eyes and survey the damage. Two days ago, when I arrived at Lightning in a Bottle, I carefully arranged this space to be my oasis from the festival madness. Now it looks like an angry badger tore through it. Dirty clothes, used Kleenex and half-empty water bottles are strewn everywhere. The air mattress has suffered the fate of all air mattresses and half-deflated into a lumpy repository for tangled sheets and sweat-stained pillows. Despite my best efforts, everything is covered in dust, dirt and tufts of dead grass. My oasis has become a hovel.
It's too hot to stay in the tent so I begin gathering myself to venture outside. Pants are more or less optional at LIB but I'm nothing if not modest so I shimmy into some shorts and find a belt hidden under a pile of dirty socks. Flip-flops? Check. Sunglasses? Check. Hat, bandana, water bottle. Am I forgetting anything? Of course I am. After several false starts in which I comically circle back to my tent for a towel, some toothpaste and my wallet (showers are $9, and worth every penny), I am finally ready to leave camp and start my day.
Lighting in a Bottle is a camping festival; all attendees stay on-site, and except for a "boutique" section where the big spenders can just drop their Louis Vuitton bags in a fully decked-out tent and head straight for the party, everyone must bring in whatever gear they'll need to survive and get the most fun out of their LIB experience. So most of the festival grounds are a welter of tents, shade structures, RVs and camper vans, many festively decorated with Buddha banners and blinky lights and pool floaties. It's basically a shantytown for an odd mix of trustafarians, EDM bros and Burning Man lifers, many of whom do this sort of thing several times a year, for a growing list of West Coast camping festivals that includes Lucidity, Symbiosis, Dirtybird Campout, Boogaloo and Woogie Weekend (and Coachella, if you'd rather camp than shell out $800 a night for a hotel room).
To those who've never camped at a festival, especially one like Lightning in a Bottle where, even after the stages shut down for the night, the throb of bass from car stereos and portable sound systems never ceases, this all probably sounds insane. Why would anyone spend hundreds of dollars on tickets and hundreds more on gear to subject themselves to four straight days of heat, dust, noise, porta-potty stank and squalid tent life? Why not go a festival where, at the end of each night, you can sleep in a hotel, or your own bed?
I found myself pondering this question several times throughout my first Lightning in a Bottle — especially when I was crawling around on my saggy air mattress trying to figure out where I had left my sunscreen. LIB was my first time camping at a music event in a decade, and I had forgotten what a challenge it can be. Every departure from my campsite, which was a good 15-minute walk from the stages, required careful planning and taking of inventory: Did I have everything for my immediate needs? What about if I decided to stay out late? Should I bring an extra layer for when it got cold? Where did I leave my earplugs? Should I fix myself a cocktail for the road or buy one when I got there? Was my phone charged? Why was I doing this again?
When I first moved to California in the late 1990s, driving out to the middle of nowhere, pitching a tent and partying was a regular part of my life. I went to Burning Man six times in eight years, and so many desert raves and forest gatherings in between that they're now mostly a blur of dusty dance floors filled with friends and strangers in goggles and fun-fur jackets, losing themselves in all-night soundtracks of house and techno and psychedelic trance. I even had a "Burner" nickname: Poncho Andy (long story, although I will say that, yes, it does involve a poncho). For the first time in my life, in my own fumbling, socially awkward way, I felt like I belonged to a tribe.
Over the years, as I've gravitated away from that hippie desert lifestyle and into normcore middle age, I've come to remember Poncho Andy as almost a different person, a total pro with a closet full of fancy festival attire and a car trunk full of elaborate camping gear. But at Lightning in a Bottle, more accurate memories came flooding back. I remembered fumbling around my tent at Burning Man at 3 a.m. because it was 40 degrees out and I could only find one glove. I remembered the time I brought 10 gallons of water in two five-gallon containers, but no bottles or cups to pour all that water into. I remembered the time I borrowed a campmate's bike — and came back several hours later with the wrong bike. The flood of memories continued all weekend: dead cellphones, dead car batteries, lost shoes, spoiled food, forgotten meds.
Those 10 years between campout parties hadn't made me more of an amateur; they had just erased memories of the fact that I was always kind of an amateur — which, now that I thought about it, probably was one of the reasons why I stopped going to campout parties. Some people took to tent life like ducks to water, and I was never one of those people. The one year I splurged with friends and rented a 30-foot RV for Burning Man was heaven. When it came to festivaling, I was a broke-ass music journalist with rock-star taste.
One of my campmates, Rand, tried to reassure me that mine was a common feeling, even among veterans. "I've been to 14 Burning Mans and I've never gotten it right," he said. "You always forget to bring something." I was grateful for the commiseration, and even more grateful when Rand and my other campmates kindly shared with me the long list of essentials I had forgotten, including wet wipes and deodorant ("fucking deodorant?" I thought to myself upon realizing this; "seriously?"). But if what Rand was saying was true for most LIB attendees, it only begged the question even more: Why do so many people love camping festivals if they're such a huge pain in the ass?
Once, I must have known the answer to this question, or I wouldn't have spent nearly eight years of my life car-camping to untz-untz music. But by my third day on the beautiful but gnat-ridden shores of Lake San Antonio, surrounded by my fellow LIB-ers and their seemingly unquenchable thirst for 4 a.m. dubstep, I was having trouble figuring it out. So I spent a good chunk of Sunday asking friends, acquaintances and random passers-by for their take.
One reason for camping festivals' appeal, of course, is purely pragmatic: When you're staying with friends on the festival grounds, it's much easier to get back to your bed if you, shall we say, overindulge. Or as one person who wished to remain anonymous told me: "I like doing drugs to the point where I can just go crash 10 minutes away."
But the real reasons run deeper. "Community" was a word people brought up a lot, and I certainly found that to be true at LIB, where I had more friendly conversations with strangers in three days than I'd probably had over the previous six months. "You've living close to all these people, so you find yourself part of a world," said Reid Godshaw, a photographer from downtown L.A. who's done long-exposure "light art" portraits of attendees at, by his count, hundreds of music festivals. "You feel like you're supported by an extended family."
Tucker Gumber, an author, entrepreneur and festival consultant who calls himself "the Festival Guy," echoed this sentiment. "When you go to a camping festival, you're in it from right when your car parks until when you leave," he said. "You're in that world. You become a little community just with who you put your tent next to. With other festivals, you're just visiting."
Being immersed in a camping festival also opens you up to experiences you might not otherwise have. At a festival like Coachella, it's easy to micro-manage your entire schedule down to the last minute. But at LIB, because there are sometimes hours to kill before the next act on your must-see list, you can wander, have a swim in the lake, take a yoga class, get a massage, let that intriguing music from the next tent over lure you in. "That's what it's about, to be able to embrace the unexpected," Godshaw told me — right after giving me an unexpected moment of my own by having me and Gumber pose for one of his Harmonic Light portraits.
My favorite explanation of camping festivals' appeal, however, came from a wise 27-year-old from Huntington Beach named Heather. Heather and her boyfriend, Ryan, joined me on a bench under a tree near the $9 showers, where we talked while some karaokers serenaded us with a very shaky version of "I Am the Walrus."
"I've come up with this saying that goes with festivals but also carries [over] into my real life," Heather explained, "which is: You'll never stumble upon anything if you weren't stumbling in the first place. If you just take the fastest, shortest road, you're never gonna find all the magic."
Ryan rendered her aphorism into more prosaic terms. "Learning about yourself and your limitations, what you like, what you don't like. Just finding out more about who you are as a person."
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I was a little startled at how much the word "stumble" in the context of camping festivals resonated with me — and not just because, after three days of hiking up and down the steep ravines that separate many of LIB's stages, my calves were shakier than that karaoke version of "I Am the Walrus." My first camping festival was Burning Man in 1998, a time when I was, in a very real way, stumbling. I had a master's degree in theater and a desk drawer full of unproduced plays that, in my heart of hearts, I knew weren't very good. I had spent the better part of my brief adulthood pursuing something that now seemed like a mistake. I had no idea what my next move should be.
That first Burning Man, and all the Burning Mans and camping parties and desert raves that followed, were my time to stumble. To figure out who I was, and how to be a better version of that person. Without those experiences, I'm sure I would not now have a job that occasionally pays me to go to festivals and write about them, nor would I have found an amazing, patient wife who lets me occasionally go to those festivals even though they're totally not her thing. I definitely would not be fortunate enough to know kind, generous people who let me stay in their campsite and mooch off their deodorant. (In my defense, I did at least remember to bring bourbon.)
If you've read this far and you're still thinking, "Spend $300 and sleep on the ground? No thanks," that's fine. Camping festivals are definitely not for everyone. But for those who don't mind risking a little hardship in return for a deeper experience, they really are worth it. The positive energy and sense of camaraderie is unlike anything you'll ever feel at Coachella or FYF.
And you'll learn something about yourself. At Lightning in a Bottle, I learned that one of my hidden festival superpowers is the ability to make the inside of a tent look like a crime scene in less than two days. And that I may still have more in common with that Poncho Andy guy than I realized.