It didn’t occur to me to be self conscious about showing up to the Work Exchange Tent wearing nothing but a bathing suit and a backpack until Adrian and I had waved goodbye to the local guy with cool shorts who had driven us there. So in a last ditch effort to come off as professional, I held the cardboard BARRIE sign to my chest like a towel.
“Did you guys come from the pool?” asked someone behind the desk as we approached.
“No, we were just at the lake.”
The Work Exchange people gave us each a t-shirt and an ID card with our shift times on it, which conflicted with zero of our must-sees: Alt-J, Girl Talk, Modest Mouse and Odesza. Although we were skeptical of whether or not we’d brought enough food, we were fully prepared for an awesome weekend. However, upon our arrival through the staff gates at our appointed check-in time, none of the general admission campers had been let in and the venue was a long way away from opening. Our friend Denby and her entourage, who we were planning to camp with, wasn’t going to be there for a good 5 hours. There was a whole lot of nothing going on at Burl’s Creek Event Grounds, so we resigned ourselves to a dusty patch of shade to make some food and be bored.
After what seemed like forever and ever, the camping crew arrived and we held Denby’s phone hostage to take possibly the best selfies that the world may or may not ever see.
INSERT PHOTO HERE IF IT SURFACES… UPDATE: it surfaced!
Then we joined them at the campsite, where we struggled through a few glasses of wine before passing out more or less sober. Because we party hard like that.
The next morning, our first shift started a few hours before the venue opened. It was kind of cool to be among the first people on the inside, but since none of the employees were throwing drunk trash all over the place, it made our jobs sweeping the grounds for cigarette butts and beer cans rather boring. I got stationed by the #SomersbySummer picnic table area on my own, where I was left to sulk.
It was my first day of working at something that resembled a job in a long while. For lack of a better word, it was humbling. I resented the bartenders who appeared to shower every day and the carefree festival goers who could afford to spend $10 on a single can on cider. I just wanted everyone to be naked, smeared with mud and environmentally conscious to the point that they’d never consider leaving a single scrap of anything inorganic on the ground.
Two things turned it around, though. The first was Denby, Adrian and Joanne finding me at my picnic table prison. They convinced me to leave my post and also convinced a lady working at the reebok stage to just give us free shoes in spite of the long lineup to scan your wristband to maybe get free shoes. The only catch was that to keep them, we had to paint them. It was a damn good deal.
After I returned to my post and caught up on the garbage thrown on the ground during my absence, I made a decision that made the rest of the day fly by. I began making rounds of my area, checking in with all the friend groups hanging out in the shade to see if they had any trash that they might want to get rid of.
Suddenly, I was exchanging “Thankyous” all over the place and people would call me over to tell me they’d been waiting for me. It made me feel appreciated, and there were other benefits too, such as the new friends (Hi friends! Including the friends who’s meeting story I can’t share for you know… reasons :D) I made and the half eaten box of poutine that got handed right to me. That was only the beginning of how we solved our not-quite-enough-food problem.
At one point, I picked up a few empties from a group of people who decided to ask me why I was volunteering instead of just buying my ticket. I gave them the usual spiel about the hitch hiking and the low budget and the long term and they asked me what the hardest part about it was. I told them it was probably the mean things people shouted at us and all the middle fingers we received in response to waves, especially after long hot waits.
I looked around at the group and they looked back at me, just staring with sad expressions on their faces.
“And when it rains, I guess,” I said, trying to lighten the mood.
They still said nothing, but one of the guys took a box of granola bars out of his bag and threw it at me. Suddenly the rest of the group was saying “Yeah! Yeah!” and nodding their heads at me.
The food was a valuable gift, but it was more than that. I could feel their support so tangibly. Also, I don’t know how we would have gotten through our second shift without those.
Before the second shift, which started at a shudderingly early 7:45am, we managed to squeeze in a mind blowing evening. It started with barefoot dancing to Alt-J, included silent disco, Neil Young and a really cool yurt, then finished with the coolest way we could have possibly seen Girl Talk.
When we arrived at the stage that Girl talk was set to play on, there was a cluster of people in one corner, away from the crowd.
“Hey, let’s stand here,” said Adrian.
A few minutes later, a gate opened and we were backstage. We spent the entire show dancing on stage. The energy was incredible. Everyone around us was beyond stoked. We couldn’t even see the end of the crowd.
After that, we walked around buzzed for a good hour before crawling into the tent, unable to sleep for what felt like a really long time. The next thing we knew, we heard Denby’s voice telling us that our shift started in 15 minutes… about a 15 minute walk away.
Without time to make sandwiches, we grabbed the granola bars and sprinted towards our 6-hour shift on an estimated 3.5 hours of sleep. It was surprisingly not that awful. We were released from duty with a dozen new lighters, $26 in change, an hour spent in the backstage area, and coffee from the catering tent that was exclusively for people more important than us. We got to hang out with a really cool group of people too. Music festival volunteers, we have found, are nearly always excellent people.
After a really fun two hour treasure hunt, we managed to squeeze in a nap before another crazy night.
First concert of the night was the top-of-my-list legends, Modest Mouse. We got there early enough to get pretty close to the front. Although we were packed in pretty tight, the second song played was Lampshades on Fire. After that, the crowd thinned noticeably. There was space to dance despite all the crowd surfers being delivered to the front. Everything that Isaac Brock said between songs sounded like it could be Modest Mouse lyrics “All I know is it’s bright and hot and I’m awfully happy when it’s not.” The crowd got lost in the music and so did the band. The conclusion was a sudden exit from the entire band, except for the guitarist, who said a hurried “Apparently we’re really out of time. Goodnight.” into the microphone.
There were 4 hours before the next concert that we were even sort of interested in started, but they passed quickly. We returned to our favourite places from the night before, including the yurt and the silent disco. Another good time consumer was walking back and forth between the port-a-potties and anywhere half decent to hang out. But the most fun we had was in a random spot near the water refill station.
Adrian sat down for just a second to put on his shoes and we ended up sitting in that spot for at least an hour. First we met a really awesome girl named Lara who was another volunteer, charged with emptying the bags of garbage bins for 6 straight hours. She looked just as bored as we had been on our shifts, so Adrian invited her over to chat. She turned out to be super fascinating. (Hi Lara!)
Then another guy in a volunteer shirt showed up, looking way more pissed off than bored. I don’t remember exactly what I told him. I just sort of started ranting about how you can have fun wherever you are and I think I told him that he looked big and powerful, and suddenly he was smiling. I don’t know how that happened, but I felt awesome afterwards.
Then we found this girl, Katy, who seemed super cool but had not been kind to herself that day. I went over to her because I thought she looked like she’d be good to talk to, but then she was passing out in puddles of her own puke. Adrian found her some firefighters that ended up saving her while I made sure she was breathing and tried to get her to drink water. There was a lot of chaos that night, and I’m sure that a lot of people were not fortunate enough to enjoy it as much as we did, but it felt good that we were able to help just those few people.
After all that, we danced off the very last of our energy, first at the Odesza show, and then at the tail end of Bassnectar, which we came across on our way back to our campsite. At the end, my body felt like it was made of ground beef and held together by staples, remaining one whole only by some miracle of physics.
The next morning, we slept until we couldn’t stay in our tent for the heat, then crawled out into a patch of shade and slept some more. Then Adrian and I took turns massaging each other’s backs. Then we slept some more. That was pretty much the end of our Way Home experience. There was nothing we were interested in seeing on the last day, but we had to hang around for our shift— a gruelling 8pm to 3am.
At that point we were feeling pretty good about volunteering, but the last night was different. Nobody was down to talk, the supervisor was a royal bitch, and it just just generally painful. But hey, we came out of it with literally enough ground scores— plums, cookies, sealed packets of candy— to feed us for days. Oh, and we also had an awesome weekend basically for free. In conclusion, I’m never not volunteering my way to a festival ever again.