USM8s Part VI: Eclipse
Eclipse Festival is an intricate global celebration, occurring in the path of totality of a solar eclipse every two years or so. It’s a fusion of the best festivals on earth, and each has a hand in its coordination: Bass Coast, Lightning in a Bottle, Ometeotl, Symbiosis, and (my happy place) Rainbow Serpent are just a few of the big guns involved. Past festivals have been held in Cairns and Indonesia, and the next one is in Chile in 2020. Generally, festival sites in the path of totality are small and tickets are limited to a few thousand. But this year the gods smiled upon us; the moon’s shadow would bisect the US from coast to coast, and within it lay the perfect location, Oregon’s Big Summit Prairie.
Helena had cleverly booked us a shuttle bus to the festival from Portland, and we boarded this at PDX airport at 2pm on August 16th. The time is important. Three hours into what Google advised was a four-hour journey, we hit traffic. We were 56km from our destination and stationary. Luckily we had the Best Bus Driver, a dude who looked exactly like Steve Martin, brimming with childlike wonder and enthusiasm. He had never experienced an event like this and was bowled over by his passengers’ camaraderie and energy. He let us off to roam the roadside, promising not to leave us behind. This was kind of laughable, as we’d move maybe 3km every hour or two.
The bus occupants became our family. We met a gypsy woman and her 10-year-old son Max, sporting the longest and most disgusting mullet I have ever seen. Two Chinese guys with limited English excitedly captured every second of our slow progress with a GoPro. We happened upon a hovercraft in the shape of a Delorean, towed by one David Lorean, who had already driven alone for 10 hours from San Fran. Once the sun set, the sky exploded with thousands of twinkling lights, the spine of the Milky Way clearly visible. The GoPro boys, Helena and I lay on the bitumen for hours stargazing, and were rewarded with a dozen or so Perseid meteors streaking through the night. One cut almost the whole sky in half; we gaped in silence as it died a fiery death and then stared at each other in wonder, bonded now despite the language barrier.
It took us 15 hours from the first standstill to reach the festival. 15 fkn hours. This was the longest anyone spent in line, I believe, as there was a road accident during. All overheard conversations for the first few days revolved around this: “Six hours I had to wait!” “That’s nothing, I was in line for eight.” Shut up and fuck off. Steve the bus driver was our hero, keeping up the chatter and eating all our snacks (which we had to hide for fear of starvation). He was amazed that we’d rather use the bushes than the on-board toilet, and we felt the opposite. “You Aussies are so adventurous!”
At 8am on August 17 (a full 18 hours since departing Portland), we pulled into Big Summit Prairie. Tired and grumpy, Helena and I erected our tent in the hard and rocky ground and waited for the gates to open. We’d agreed to meet our friends Ned and Sean the night before, but none of us had made it in time. I didn’t spot these boys once during the nine-day festival; they were lost in a sea of 30,000. At midday the gates swung open and we eagerly explored our new home: seven main stages, yoga and dance shalas, all kinds of cuisine, workshops and classes and lectures, interactive art installations, art cars and boats, and a huge, heavenly lake in the centre. On the lake’s northern edge lay the eclipse viewing area, its most impressive feature the Sun Temple. This was an array of wood lashed together, a structure reaching for the heavens, inviting communion with the cosmos.
Meow Wolf, a multidisciplinary art collective from Santa Fe, had constructed four tiny pastel houses on the shore. One had a video periscope to view the tomfoolery on the lake, one was simply a wall of flashing buttons (which presumably did something interesting if your eyes could handle the wait), but our favourite was the laser harp. A totally black room contained three lines of red lasers which, if interrupted, played musical tones. I became a child, flailing about in the dark and giggling. I think I visited the laser harp about five times.
On site was a technicolor bus called Furthur, owned by Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters. Author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey saw himself as the link between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. He was hugely influential in the psychonaut scene and the popularisation of LSD, mentoring the Grateful Dead. In the 1960s he and the pranksters drove around the US tripping out of their minds on LSD and encouraged others to do the same. The first bus was retired and deteriorated over the years at Kesey’s farm in Oregon. In 1990 Kesey bought another bus - this one! - and got up to some minor hijinks before succumbing to a stroke. This is not the original bus, but I was pretty impressed nonetheless. What a piece of history.
David Lorean and his hovercraft appeared on the lake, slow and loud and impressive. He was joined by a taxi, carousel, pontoons and hundreds of inflatable objects. On the western edge, a mud spa had materialised, full of naked and slippery bodies. The music was best at Sky Stage: deep, deep house. We established a new crew at Sky (most were from Melbourne and bound for Burning Man) and set to kicking up dust together. A group of Aussies was headed by Dale, who’d moved to Guatemala and launched his brand Toasted Party Shirts. “This was the very first Toasted Party Shirt!” he shouted through the glittering doof, gesturing at his half-open Hawaiian number with a box of Fruit Roll-Ups. He was constantly feeding people, giving them water, making sure their heads were okay. We nicknamed him Dad.
Before leaving Australia for his first international jaunt, a friend had given Wilson some sage advice: party hard, have fun, but do not fall in love. When we met in Portland, Wilson said he’d stayed true to this despite the many potential gorgeous European girlfriends he’d encountered. At Eclipse, DJs Mira, Be Svendsen and Feathered Sun were playing from 6am and, as I become a demon without sleep, I tucked myself in at dusk the night before. Helena saw sense and joined me. Wilson was less sure. “Yeah, man, I’ll be there soon,” was the last we heard. At 5.30am we roused Wilson, who’d just laid down, and said without opening his eyes, “I met a girl.” Helena looked up sharply: “Wilson, are you in love?” A smile spread across his face. “Yes. Her name’s Isadora, and I bloody adore her.”
The next day, a man with a clipboard appeared and asked if I’d like to make out with “someone”. You’d describe your ideal make-out partner and he’d try to find them in the crowd. Why not? I told him to find me someone handsome, confident and humble. Couldn’t be too hard. Less than three minutes later a girl with a clipboard materialised, saying, “I’ve got someone for you.” I was impressed by their efficiency (and the clipboards), until I spotted my match: a bung-eyed and brain-addled ugmo. He was cooked out of his mind, and neither handsome, confident nor humble. What kind of an operation was this? I politely excused myself and his brow creased as I backed off. “Wait, we’re not making out?” “Sorry, no, goodbye!” Zero stars.
August 21st dawned with blessedly clear skies. The air was electric, the mounting excitement inescapable. We did our usual morning errands: split up and obtain breakfast, coffee and snacks respectively. The total eclipse would occur around 10.20am but, standing in line for B&E burritos at 9.00, I peered up (through my safety glasses, duh) at our star and let out an involuntary gasp. “It’s happening!” I told the strangers around me, who rushed for their specs and did some gasping of their own. The moon had begun its transit, obscuring a tiny section of the sun. I itched for the line to move, to scramble around the lake and climb the sun temple, to gaze unfettered at luna and sol’s miraculous interaction.
Finally stocked, Helena, Wilson and I joined the sea of bodies streaming north. We’d formulated a grand plan to encourage hand-holding, connecting everyone present, becoming one under the sun, but this was more romantic than practical. We settled on just ourselves, hands gripping tight and hearts aglow, unable to stop grinning. The moon continued its slow journey, dimming the sun’s light and heat, as the crowd swelled. Twilight fell. I wondered briefly how this affected wildlife - and then it happened: a total eclipse. We whipped off our glasses and gazed in reverence at the moon, the sun’s corona licking at its edge.
The crowd was beautiful. There were no descents into madness, no insane outbursts or scary devolutions into id, just pure love. People whooped and clapped, unable to believe this was happening. There were hugs and dances and breathless laughter, bellows of “I LOVE YOU ALL”; this was joy on the grandest scale. The astounding energy of 30,000 humans is something one needs to experience to understand. It was one of the most profound moments of my life.
All too soon, the sun peeked around the moon’s other side, and we rushed to re-protect our peepers. The climax was over, but the celebration had just begun. The crowd’s energy became less focused but in no way diminished. My body buzzed; I was sober and shaking for literally an hour. After gathering ourselves, we headed again for Sky Stage and one of my favourite musical producers, Acid Pauli, who would perform for almost four hours. This was easily the best set of the festival. Acid Pauli is a magician. I don’t generally dance, but on this day I got down. There was no choice. A sneaky Marvin Gaye sample was thrown in once, never to be repeated, delighting Wilson and I.
There was so much dust at the festival (more than even Burning Man, apparently) that by the final day Wilson and I had developed coughs. Between boarding the return bus and alighting in Portland, mine evolved into full-blown bronchitis with a touch of pneumonia. I was aching, feverish, congested: basically dead. Desperate after being confined to a bus for four hours, Helena and I headed straight for a pharmacy. She babysat our luggage outside while I pled for help. After describing my symptoms, the pharmacist said, “You know, if you drive 30 minutes north you’ll be in Washington, and they’ll give you pseudoephedrine over the counter.” I dissolved into tears.
After several days of sweaty chills and eating ineffective cold and flu meds, I bit the bullet and sought medical attention. I saw a nurse (not a doctor) and received a prescription for antibiotics for the sum total of US$300. I had travel insurance and this was a one-time expense, so not a huge deal, but lordy am I glad not to be American. $300 for antibiotics - treatment for the common urinary tract infection, for example - is nuts. Muchas gracias to fate for orchestrating our births down under. Thank god for Medicare, and sorry, Americans :(
Overwhelmingly, this was a fairytale week, a perfect oasis, a combination of absurd surrealism and human connection that set our hearts on fire. I am so thankful to have had this opportunity, and to have shared it with two of my favourite people. If you want to experience something similar, the next Eclipse festival will be in Chile in 2020. Do it.
This was the conclusion of our combined trip: I was bound for New Zealand and Helena for Spokane, Washington. Over five weeks and thousands of kilometres, we explored a tiny part of the United States, expanding our minds and hearts and stomachs. It’s a strange and glorious and entirely unique country, land of the cheap and the expensive, self-obsessed and a little bananas, charming and scary and beautiful. Give it a visit before it collapses under its orange wig. America, fuck yeah.
Disclaimer: All the nice photos in this article are by Scott London