Young boys gather around a picnic table. Two large plastic bottles of Vodka on the tabletop hold their gaze…until they spot Mare and Jack and I backing-up the pickup truck about three feet away from their tent. A sign with an arrow pointing south reads, “Quiet Campground.” A sign with an arrow pointing the other direction reads, “Not So Quiet Campground.” We slip into the ambiguous border, like back in time when the smoking section on a commercial airplane ended at aisle eighteen.
“This place is already full,” a man camping on the other side of us says. He’s about my age, but camping with a group of young children. I wonder how he will deal with the obscenities spewing from the young boys next door. The man continues, “You should be okay in that spot. Just leave room for folks to walk through.” He points to a strip of mowed grass that separates a patch of weeds from another crowded campground, perhaps the quiet one?
Sixty-miles off of the Alcan Highway, a twisty gravel road with constant summertime construction leads to Atlin, British Columbia. The lone road also leads back out. This town of 400 population thrived during the gold rush of 1898. Now, it survives as a destination point that sits along the largest natural lake in British Columbia, Canada.
The Atlin Arts & Music Festival is back, after a one-year absence. (Annual event since 2003) Pets are strongly discouraged, and no amplified music will be permitted in the campgrounds. Acoustic jams are okay…ahem, heavy metal blares from the boys next to us, while dogs roam freely.
We lock Jack the dog in the back, (where we will also sleep for the next two nights) and head for the music venue. A band called, “Home Sweet Home” from Whitehorse, Yukon performs fiddle music with two fiddlers and one guitarist. Nice. Next up is “Headwater” who strum fiddles, acoustic bass and ukeleles for a toe-tapping crowd. This band earns a billing in the program as “a fine, old-fashioned acoustic quartet from Vancouver who works their asses off.”
Back at not-so-quiet-camp we find our coach hemmed-in…behind us two women (one whom I recognize from a laundromat in Haines) pitch a tent which blocks the “walk-through.” In front of us a man finishes building a picnic table with a chain saw. He walks toward me. “Hello, I’m Wally.” We shake hands. He resembles Crocodile Dundee with a hat and no shirt.
“Ron, you and Marilynn are cool neighbors.” He grabs two beers from the cooler and hands them to us. “Don’t make any plans for dinner tomorrow night. I’m cooking a sockeye on genuine Yukon logs.” I thank him. He talks as he pitches his tent. “The first time I tried to set up this tent I was at a Grateful Dead concert in Buffalo. I did some acid and couldn’t figure it out, so ended up using it as a sleeping bag.”
The nineteen-year-olds next to us get me high. Soon, Mare and Jack and I sit back and absorb the atmosphere. Wally yells from his chair, “Ron! Hey Ron, make sure to eat some sockeye with me tomorrow.” I thow him a thumbs-up.
The nineteen-year-olds now drink Rum from the bottle and a few women join them. They get me high again. One guy climbs under the truck cap and cuddles with Jack and Mare, who is not quite sure what to make of it. A light darkness descends.
Before I know it, I am shirtless and nineteen-year-olds line up to take turns punching my stomach. (Abs of flab become abs of steel after a buzz) Thankfully, they know not the art of throwing a punch, and they are drunk. They get me high. I have to go to bed. Still, they stick their heads into the back of our truck. “We want to be cool like you guys when we get old.” I hand them my notepad and tell them to write something that I can read in the morning. When I looked at it later, all they did was draw penises and Chinese Dragons swallowing babies.
We wake to the sound of nineteen-year-olds retching. They look as horrible as they feel. On the other hand, I feel better than I deserve. Mare and I try our best to avoid the horrendous, (4) outhouses on the crowded grounds. Mare wins that battle.
After some coffee and scrambled eggs, we shoe to the venue and witness “Laughing Yoga.”Yes, widen your mouth, stick out your tongue as far as you can, and laugh powerfully from deep within your belly. Do this for fifteen minutes.
Back at camp, we sit behind the truck where weeds smell like puke. “Ron!” Wally yells. “Sockeye at six o’clock.” He waves us over for a beer.
I like the CD you’re playing, Wally.”
He pulls it from the player. “It’s your’s. Keep it.”
“I didn’t mean”…he interrupts.”No, you love it more than I do.” Wally tells us a story about his best friend. A woman liked his friend’s shirt, so the friend took it off and asked her to trade shirts. She said that her shirt only cost about five bucks. His was crafted while he was in Tibet. He gave her the shirt because she loved it more than he did. “Ron, I don’t want to get too attached to material things.”
Mare, Jack and I walk to the waters of Atlin Lake. Jack dunks under and retrieves rocks, while Mare and I share beers with two bush pilots. They tell stories of falling through thin ice and into the Yukon river, lucky to survive. One pilot is from Arizona.
Soon, we eat sockeye with Wally and about fifteen other people. Shawn, his camping buddy, rips apart cardboard from a 12-pack, and makes plates and utensils with it. Elbow macaroni in tomato sauce compliments the dish, along with desert brownies brought by others. We bring wine. What a great dinner. What awesome folks. This crowded get-along-well-with-others spews love, like a Canadian Woodstock.
Back at the music venue, jazzy, energetic trumpets, accordions and guitars from “Maria in the Shower” blow us away. One musician plays accordion with one hand, and holds a trumpet to his lips with the other. Afterwards, we sit cross-legged in the front row where Tom Jackson incites our tears with his touching lyrics and baritone, country voice.
Wally appears in the beer garden. I notice that he actually owns a shirt. We hug like long, lost friends. He wants to buy us a beer, but we are worn and want to head back. A group of folks party the entire night at Wally’s site, but Wally is in bed, like us. We wake again in the morning to the sound of nineteen-year-olds retching. Time to hit the road, so we snake the truck through the tents. However, I could not bear to leave before placing my business card on Wally’s windshield.
A woman from the all-night party group sticks her head in Mare’s window. “Are you okay? Did we bother you too much last night?”
“No, not at all.” I grab her hand and kiss the top of it. Then I become aware that she had just emerged from the outhouse.