So I, like, really needed a vacation.
And I got one. A short one, but that’s plenty, if it’s the right short one.
I feel beaten up by this late-winter-into-early-spring, and it’s nobody’s fault but mine. I don’t have to be taking architecture exams. I put them aside for a few weeks, because now my goal is not to finish in five months, or even, particularly, to finish. My goal is to finish and not be a crazy person. That means changing my plan. I’m at peace with that.
I went to Merlefest a day early, a day before any of my friends could come, because…well, originally there were all sorts of logistical reasons involving work travel and borrowed cars, but then in the end, I just wanted to. I made it up to North Wilkesboro a full twenty-four hours before any music started. I got out of the car and was literally and warmly embraced by the veterans who run the campground where we go every year. I wrangled the Taj MaTent into submission, and it was comical in a stiff breeze on a bluff, as it is not as small tent, the Taj. And then I curled up in a camp chair, had Cheez-Its for dinner, and read a book I’d been trying to pick up for weeks. See if that line about the whales and the monks doesn’t make you swoon.
And it got dark and cold, but the campground was full of both veterans and early Merlefest campers, and I had solar twinkly lights on the tent, and suddenly it was morning. There were pancakes. There were long drives out in the country. There was some poking around North Wilkesboro, which is adorable and friendly. I bought a pound cake off the counter of the DMV. And then I climbed up into the bus, and the veterans drove me to Merlefest. And, by sheer force of preparation and to-do lists and determination, by the time I got there, I was already relaxed. It was a Type A Merlefest Miracle.
I should mention here that the first Merlefest Miracle was that my friend Joy won VIP tickets, and she totally deserved that. And then she couldn’t go- and gave them to me. I gave the second one to Julia, who’d confessed to not having purchased a ticket yet. BOOM. Like that. VIPs. “You should know that I am going to use my VIP wristband to throw myself at a musician,” Julia texted me. “I’m going to use mine to climb onstage and kiss Merle Haggard on the face and beg him to sing me Lonesome Fugitive,” I told her. And then I amended my statement to tell her that, in fact, I called dibs on a particular musician, kind of a great one who does one of the biggest Merlefest sets every year, who looks like he stepped off the cover of a seventies album, and I mean that in the best possible way. “He’s yours,” said Julia. “And you get all the rest,” I told her. (We didn’t actually have backstage passes. Universe knew better than that, I suppose.)
We kid. Half the fun of Merlefest is lying in fields under sun hats listening to music and catching up with each other, the four of us who go every year, and creating backstories for the people onstage. “That one spends Sundays out on his Momma’s farm, and you know he’s the kind that would bring you daisies,” Julia would say. “His favorite dessert is cobbler.” “Then I will roast him a chicken,” I’d announce. “That man deserves a roasted chicken.” It’s a fun game. That, and trying to stage a surreptitious photo with the Kilted Juggler guy who always stands next to the most crowded stages and does devil sticks or weird yo-yo things on strings to attract attention.
It went by so, so fast. Four days of spring sunshine and friends, and music all day and campfires at night. You get up and have breakfast made by the veterans’ wives, and head on over to the festival and drink a lot of coffee with whipped cream on top, because it’s vacation. You set your chairs up and all your extra layers of clothing in front of the big Watson Stage, and spend some time lying on the grass in front of the Americana stage, and then wander up to the Hillside and see who’s up there, or over to Creekside and catch a smaller show. You head inside for the workshops, where somebody will teach you about blues guitar, or maybe for a sit-down set with someone like Peter Rowan, who has the best hair of the festival and is just plain likeable in every respect. He made us chant along with a Tibetan singer, and wow, that was pretty fun. Sometimes there’s an act you want to see after dark, when the temperature takes a sudden nose dive from sun hat weather to three-four layers weather, and you huddle up and watch, or maybe there’s something fun in the dance tent. Mostly, though, we clear out just after dinner time, since we’ve already been there eight or ten hours and there are s’mores and bourbon and gingers and guitars back at the campfire.
We made a bunch of new friends, and we talked for days like we haven’t been able to since last year, and we’re still not quite caught up but we’re closer. We heard a lot of bands I love, and did a little Tennessee two-step, and then we collapsed in a heap on the grass by the dance tent. We were fifteen minutes from catching the bus when I looked up at the bench a few feet away from us, next to the dance tent, just off the path coming down from the Hillside Stage. A lanky, devastatingly handsome, affable-looking rock star was sauntering down the down the hill, where he sat for a few minutes on the bench taking in the music from the dance tent and enjoying the sunshine. Just after the most popular set at Merlefest. It was….Seventies Album Cover Man. I didn’t get backstage access, but then the Universe walked him down the hill and sat him down on a bench next to us anyway.
I briefly collapsed from sheer happiness and delight.
And in the end, Julia and I used the VIP passes to get up close to Merle Haggard, where he did sing me Lonesome Fugitive, and then out of left field I cried, like a lot, when he did Pancho and Lefty, because if anything unravels me out of left field for no apparent reason, it’s going to be old-school honky tonk, and suddenly I feel like a small child again in the back seat of the car with Dad driving, and we’re all wailing, “ALL THE FEDERALES SAY, they could have had him any day. They only let him slip away, out of kindness I suppose,” and that feels pretty great. And bittersweet. And great.
It’s been a high maintenance stretch. I’ve been trying to “Embrace Vulnerability” while “Acting As If,” and “Being Kind to my Future Self” and “Letting Go of Perfectionism” while recovering from my first round of architecture exams, and also working on “Do Not Play It Cool” and whatever new mantra the Universe throws at me this week until I Get It. I haven’t been doing it all gracefully. It’s fine.
It’s more fine, now. There’s no other time of the year when I spend that many days that firmly planted on the earth. I sleep on the earth, I sit on the earth, I listen to music and drink coffees with whipped cream and talk to my friends on the earth, I lie on the earth next to festival stages and feel the sunshine and breeze and music wash over me. Everything that feels tense and toxic seeps down and away, and I stand up, and it’s gone. Everything I need to repair the cracks and gather my strength and recharge filters in, through the soles of my feet and every other inch of me.
And it feels good. Good enough to get me through to next year.