The modern existence of arts and music festivals are curated experience of predictable fun. From Bonnaroo to Coachella, you spend hundreds of dollars for a wristband, bestowing full trust that the organizers (backed by big money) are going to provide you with a portfolio of vendors that offer really irresistible food, cocktails, swag – all in addition to big soul-shaking sound and imaginative eye candy for every act in the star-studded lineups. You’re already there, you’ve already spent this much, so why not treat-yo-self to Tempura Macaroni and Cheese Balls (or your vegan equivalent of luxury yum).
And I frickin’ love that stuff, too.
But those are festivals. Have you ever been to a “hoedown?”
We go to one every year. It’s called The Lost Sierra Hoedown. It’s early fall after months of summer filled with adventures, road trips, and off-the-grid exploration.
Then it’s September again, and there we are, once more, in the driveway, shaking our heads, looking (laughing) into the Deso van overloaded with excessive camping gear, a wardrobe full of denim and hats, boots for dancing and/or hiking, an assortment of musical instruments… This year we threw in a few surprises we’d been spitballing about for weeks.
The Hoedown is a perfect distance from us in Reno -- exactly one playlist away -- winding quickly into the mountains, deeper into a charming zone known as The Lost Sierra. You pull through a sleepy town called Johnsville, switchback up a decent grade and the road ends in the parking lot of a nonoperational ski area, formerly the Johnsville Ski Bowl.
Just over the knoll is the actual lodge (singular, one lodge, not a resort), dressed up for the occasion, encircled by a village of camping tents terraced up the old ski run. You earn your keep dragging your crap up to your camping spot, tucking your tent and beer cooler into the spaces between the manzanita.
And this is a hoedown – This is what your wristband gets you:
Three stages: the old deck of the antique lodge, with plenty of room for dancing, or real estate for your blanket and camp chairs. Inside the lodge – a hand-built circular stone fireplace is the centerpiece in front of a tiny rectangle space for bands. Intimate as it gets for any genre. And last, a temporary tent structure with a stage decorated with hanging tapestries.
There’s a popup tent for beer, a taco truck, someone else slinging grilled cheese. There's a tiny merch tent run by our friend’s parents who are more than happy to volunteer their time. There's a big fire pit that gathers everyone up late at night when the sun's been gone for a while.
That’s it. Like I said, downhome.
And the music. You’re probably picturing a bunch of banjos and fiery fiddles, yodeling harmonies, a standup bass, someone playing the washboard. Yep, that’s there. AND those bands also jam on some funk music; some disco, even. There’s rock and slashing guitar solos. There’s stuff that sounds like Bourbon Street in New Orleans. And there’s bourbon, too.
That’s the thing about Hoedown, you’re never far from your whiskey. Or somebody else’s whiskey, either. You’ll inevitably be slugging a rogue bottle of Wild Turkey or whathaveyou.
At any point you can trudge a hundred yards back to your tent to reset, or to put on some layers at night, or laugh your ass off with your crew of people you know or just met. You’re never forced to dish out cash for expensive beers in trashy plastic cups – but if you want some good beer, those are cold on tap, too - from Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and The Brewing Lair where 100% of proceeds are donated to the Plumas Ski Club non-profit to help improve and maintain the Ski Bowl.
ON THE DOWN LOW
This year we pulled off a few things that are not to be attempted at anything called a “festival.”
At the back the audience of Friday’s sunset headliner on the lodge deck stage, we set up a table, artfully ornamented with Autumn flowers and a Pinteresty display of glass jars filled with pickled vegetables. I pickled every vegetable in our fridge a week before. We set up a sign saying “Pickle Back That Ass Up @ 6:30.”
Around then (a little late probably) we cruised down from our camp with a few bottles of whiskey to find curious people lingering. Were we a vendor? What is a pickle back?
I stepped up on my soapbox.
“Step right up, get a pickle back! This is not your imagination, let us serve you some whiskey!”
Two shot glasses per person – a pour of whiskey and a swig of homemade pickle juice.
I doled out the sequential concoction to the first row of patrons. They started cheersing each other, and I stopped them.
“Now hold on. That’s the thing about pickle backs – you have two glasses, so cheers your damn self!”
They understood right away. It was a celebration of self-love. Whatever they’d done, they’d earned this pickle back, and they’d earned the right to honor themselves. And after that they still cheersed each other. Then they signed our guest book.
It was a frenzy. We were splashin' whiskey and pickle juice around like mad while Handmade Moments grooved the mountains into dusk.
But here’s the thing – you don't do something like this at your generic corporate festival. You can't and you won't. You're there to have fun, not make it yourself.
At the Hoedown, everything is different.
Our new friends boogied back into the knee-slappin’ foot-stompin' crowd. We drained the last drops of whiskey, folded everything back into our wagon and joined them.
- Luka Starmer is a creative contributor and forever friend to Deso Supply Co. Follow him on IG @lukawarm_