It is bound to be a strange trip.
I am going to Telluride Bluegrass Festival for the fifth year in a row - but this is the first year that I am not a full staff-member of Planet Bluegrass. My travel companion is a persistent, nagging feeling: a low-velocity anxiety, not unlike the one who joins me while awaiting an overdue train at the station. On some level I know the train is coming; that I will board shortly and be delivered to my final destination without incident. On another level, I fret that I have misread the schedule, or perhaps that the train has crashed, erupted into fiery disorder down the line. Today, I worry that the Festival will either be fine - a joyful extension of our past years together - or a disaster, some kind of retribution from the Universe for finding a new position last fall.
It is a Tuesday, and the Festival will not start until Thursday morning. However, I have the opportunity to split the 8+ hour drive in half and meet up with my dear friend Lexy, who is visiting from Pennsylvania with her boyfriend Pat. We will all be in a similar region during the same period of time; it is quite serendipitous. However, Lexy is not yet sure which region this will be, and when exactly it is that we will be in it together.
It is a Tuesday, I need to leave soon, and I am not sure where I am going.
For the last few hours, I have been glancing uneasily over my shoulder through the large picture window in my office, tracking the dark cumulonimbus clouds as they edge closer. My last task for the day is a conference call, one to which I am not a vital party, but am merely "opening up the line" for a traveling coworker. I decide to call in from my car.
I head out of my climate-controlled office and into the storm, dialing as I walk through the parking lot. Cradling the phone between my chin and shoulder until Bluetooth picks up the call and I can convert to "hands-free," I pull into rush-hour on the highway.
The next hour involves conditions ripe for hydroplaning and bumper-to-bumper traffic traveling at a third of the speed limit (or less), I have covered in an hour, the same distance which could typically be traversed in twenty minutes. The traffic thins, the downpour eases up, and Lexy calls with a rendezvous location. My mood improves as details click smoothly into place.
There are all the trips down in the Planet van, listening to the team talk animatedly over each other as they contribute to the highlight reel of Festival memories, each storyteller one-upping the last with the laughter they incite. The first year I interned, I felt that this display was for my benefit, to fill me in on the years I had inadvertently missed. To prepare me somehow. Later, I came to understand that this ceremony was a Festival tradition, of which there were many others, each vital to properly enjoying the experience. The memories, for the most part, were not arbitrarily selected: it was always the most enervating, improbable, magical, or just funniest situations that were faithfully repeated. It was a matter of pride to volunteer a particularly poignant story before anyone else.
I smiled, imagining the stark difference between these trips and the handful of times I drove down with my former bosses for off-season meetings. Nearly everything was the opposite: instead of chugging along, painfully slowly, in a 15-seat passenger van stuffed with laptops, liquor, stringed instruments, and a few dozen pairs of boots, we hurtled through the mountains in a Porsche Cayenne as if the speed limit were merely a suggestion. We did not take the scenic route, and we did not stop for bathroom breaks. We did not muse over the past, but planned for the future. The scenery out of the tinted glass windows was not lush and vibrant, but still, shrouded in hibernation. I made myself fall asleep in the backseat after four hours of discussing business.
There was the first time I drove down alone, when we produced the first Pretty Lights show. Because I was coming from Salida rather than Boulder, I arrived a day earlier than the rest of the team. I spent the afternoon driving down a scenic dirt road outside of Telluride, turning around at one point to avoid a pot hole, impassable in my low-clearance sedan. The alternative, however, was a one-lane dirt road towering what must have been 1000 feet in the air, cutting back and forth in sharp switchbacks with blind curves and no guard rails. I didn't realize this was the alternative when I chose to avoid the pot hole. Perspiration erupting on my palms, I clenched the steering wheel with one hand, nervously leaning my body weight onto my left foot on the brake, barely depressing the clutch as my white knuckles shifted cautiously into first gear. I rode the brake for a couple of switchbacks, stopped. I considered leaving my car in park on the cliff, but it occurred to me that it may slide off the road and crush me as I walked down to the highway. Eventually, of course, I made it safely down. I smile now, remembering how the fear consumed me; how grateful I was to reach the "SAWPIT: POPULATION 40" sign clinging to the muddy russet shoulder of the road below.
I make good time to Gunnison. As my headlights flood Rhea and Neil's driveway, the door bursts open, releasing a herd of dogs. Lexy steps onto the front porch, calling with increasing frustration, "Opal. Opal! Opal!" at her small red blur of a dog. In one motion, I throw the Cruze into park, unclip my seatbelt, and push open the door. Lexy and I hug emphatically. She has a signature smell, something earthy and delicately expensive, like herbs and roses. Hippie Chanel. It is irreconcilable in my mind that months can pass in between seeing her now, when at one point in my life I regularly slept in her bed, as my own house across the street was unreasonably far to be away from one another, twins conjoined by an invisible tether. She explains that they have nearly finished a bottle of tequila, and I am impossibly glad to see her.
As Lexy talks, I marvel at the stars, so bright in the dark alpine sky that for once it's believable they are actually giant balls of fire. I wonder how three whole years have passed since graduation, how the time can seem both insubstantial and eternal - my memory of that time is still so accessible, yet it exists in another plane, and I will never live it again.
Lexy takes one of my bags up the steps, and I follow her inside. The room erupts with sound as we exchange more greetings, more hugs. The gift of Presence is the perfect tonic for Nostalgia. We finish the tequila.
Everyone sleeps in, in the mountains. Even the birds. Even the sun. Six hungover friends are certainly no exception. When we finally pull out of the driveway, "boys" and dogs in Neil's truck, strapped down with kayaks, and "girls" in Rhea's old green Ford Escort, it is mid-morning and already hot. Before long, we are tearing up a dirt road at the base of Mount Crested Butte, stereo at full volume, windows rolled down despite the cloud of dust turned up by the wheels. Our arms dangle out the open windows, fingers surfing through the wind currents. We giggle like primary school children. Everything is so perfect, it is surreal: it feels as though we are part of a story, that someone has taken special care to write us into this moment, to ensure the skies would be cloudless and the verdant foothills ablaze with the cheerful colored bonnets of wildflowers, violet for larkspur and gold for the Aspen sunflowers.