At 8 a.m. Friday morning, I was sitting on a dry Eastern Washington hill sharing a smoke with two hippies. They'd driven up from San Francisco to play on the Phoenix Family sound system, which was thumping out psychedelic trance on the slope below us. One of the hippies gestured to a long rectangular canvas event tent.
"You been inside there, man?" he asks me. I shake my head no and admire Mount Hood peeking up over the trees.
"It's amazing! You walk in, and you're, like, somewhere, man," he extols, exhaling a cloud of smoke.
That sleep- deprived hippie on a hill had managed to describe just what the Phoenix Festival had created—a destination in the middle of nowhere. Held in the rolling terrain of drought-stricken Klickitat, Wash., the outdoor rave brought together almost 2,000 revelers, DJs, artists, and freaks—myself included—over the Fourth of July weekend. Phoenix is the Northwest's low-budget Burning Man. People bring their art, set up elaborate participatory areas (such as the "fun with foil!" tent), and barter goods back and forth.
Sprawling over 80 acres, the scale of the festival was massive. The camping areas alone took 20 minutes to traverse by foot—a discordant obstacle course of geodesic domes, RVs, tepees, trampolines, Porta Potties, people having sex in full view, and hundreds of cheap dome tents. The main field's 10 sound systems took up 40 acres.
To spend three days at Phoenix Fest was to have an immersive experience of amplified sound. Wherever I walked, whatever time of day, I was drenched in beats. For every sound system condoned by the organizers, there were two car stereos blasting. Even in the camping areas designated as quiet, at least two systems could be heard booming away at all times, creeping into my dreams as I slept and vibrating my tea when I awoke. I learned to identify speakers quickly by sight, knowing that a small glowing blue light indicated Mackies, with potential to blast treble that can make a dog's head explode.
It was a menu of electronica's esoteric sub-genres, ranging from the ever-present psychedelic trance to house to live drum 'n' bass to ambient. Electronica may be the antithesis of the quietude of nature, but the mechanical music and the joyous outdoors balanced each other perfectly.
Unlike previous years, 2002 found the festival fully permitted and carrying the stamp of approval from the local sheriff. This was fantastic, although a little ironic since there was drug taking and public sex, which I'm assuming isn't the Klickitat County standard. Mixed amongst the crowd were the dealers calling out "magic mushrooms!" in the night—and making encore appearances, hollow-eyed and twitching, on the yellowed grass the next morning. The drug use was hard to miss, with dumb asses like the guy in a pickup truck screaming, "FUUUUUUCK! FUUUUUUUCK! I'M SO HIGH ON COKE!" I was also introduced to the term (although, thankfully, not the practice of) "stiffy flipping," a designer drug cocktail combining Ecstasy and Viagra.
People-watching at raves is an endangered pastime. The events have become increasingly homogenous, dominated by suburban high schoolers wearing plastic jewelry. They start to blend together. So it was a treat to see the diverse crowd at Phoenix Fest. Sure, there were candy ravers decked out in their pants with the 40-inch cuffs. But there were also hippies aged 9 to 50, their dreadlocks turning white from the fine dust; anarchist parents with toddlers in tow; locals with beers; geeks with long capes. At times we all seemed to have only a few things in common: a love of dance music, orange wristbands, and nostrils clogged with black-crusted dirt. (That, and our almost uniform skin color: white.)
There was even the Church of Mez, a group of outspokenly polyamorous thirtysomething tech workers with a painted school bus that read, "If this bus is a-rockin'—Come on in!" The Mezzbians, as they're known, had set up camp—a large white shade structure with couches, mattresses, and carpets—on the festival's main drag. In the mornings, they practiced near-naked yoga behind the bus. They even had their own inflatable jousting set.
Above all else, it comes back to the dancing. There is nothing better for the soul than grooving under the stars night after night. The Milky Way was brilliant, unobstructed by city light pollution. Ask anyone—rock fans, old hippies, ravers—they all agree that heaven has loud speakers and no roof.
The constant noise got to me only once. Saturday morning, after many dancers were headed for their sleeping bags, the "Chicken Hed" stage blasted noises that included a woman screaming for minutes on end, strange television theme songs, Warner Bros. cartoon sounds, and children's voices singing creepy music at decibel levels that would make your ears bleed from a quarter-mile away. Shortly after 9 a.m. the sounds abruptly stopped, and the audible sigh of a thousand ravers' sanity returning washed over the campsites.