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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

We made the pilgrimage.

There is so much to tell and there are so many questions to ponder that you may want to make yourself a drink and settle in.

I love Pilgrimage. It’s a two day outdoor music festival with sometimes three, sometimes four different stages spread out across a hundred acres of farm. There are craft vendors and food trucks and ice cream carts and all sorts of things to do and play and sometimes kittens, which really… what event isn’t perfect if it has kittens?

Before we lived here we used to drive through and see the signs and wish we could go, but we were never here at the right time. The first year we lived here, I believe it got rained out.

Then Covid.

Finally, three years ago we attended our first event. It was spectacular. I was very much looking forward to doing it all over again. The weather was set to be perfect. Sunny, mid 80s.

Then I woke up Saturday morning with a cold. It started Friday but I hoped it was allergies. Alas.

No need to belabor the point, except to wail and gash the teeth a bit over how crummy I felt and how badly I wanted to enjoy the day. So I downed a shot of Nyquil and opted for loopy exhaustion over nose-dripping misery. It was marginally successful and I made it through two days that way, a bit crabbed out that a stupid cold couldn’t wait like two more days, but after a while when you’re baking in the sun and drinking and eating and listening to loud pounding music, you sort of forget that all for a while anyway.

Which is one of the great things about Pilgrimage. It is really hard to be miserable.

Things I love about it: the actual feeling of making a pilgrimage. It’s near enough that we walk there. If we drove down and got in and out of a car it would not be the same. Racking up like pack mules with our chairs and extra clothes and shoes for when it gets cold at night and a blanket for the grass then trekking the mile and a half down in the hot sun is part of the adventure.

Driving would actually be harder. Traffic is jammed for miles around. I’m pretty sure we were packed up and back home each night before most of those people got out of the parking lot.

I love that it is an all day event where you can sort of roam around or not roam around as you please. We park our chairs at the main stage and then wander from food truck to food truck, from weird tie-dye cowboy hat vendor to weird recycled backpack vendor. We stop in at the various stages and taste test all the music. If we’re tired or the music isn’t compelling, we sit in our camping rockers and watch people and eat hot dogs.

Each year I pre-listen to a few of the acts, usually because I’ve never heard of them before in my life. But it’s never much fun so after a day or two I give up. It’s different when you’re there. Watching people perform, hearing the music echoing across the field and pounding through the air is quite a lot more exciting. There is an air of celebration, there are people singing and cheering and jumping up and down. You don’t even have to know or like the music to cheer and jump up and down. You get right up there in the crowd and it’s impossible to stand there and do nothing.

Even with a cold I did my share of jumping up and down.

I love the little kids on their parents’ shoulders who wave their hands in the air and groove along, not a bit of self-consciousness in them.

I love the people who play banjos and fiddles at high speed. I love the people who whale on drums like their lives depend on it. I love the women who belt out a ridiculous note for a ridiculous eternity into a microphone all while wearing head to toe black denim and rhinestones.

Also, holy whipping lassos, Batman. The denim.

I have to talk about that for a minute because I understand that the acts have to costume up. But the regular people? Wow. I mean, it was mid 80s both days, which while not unbearable is pretty darn-tootin’ hot in the sun. There is a minimal amount of shade, and you’re out there jumping around wearing full-on denim?

Someone we ran into last year called it the Nashville Uniform and by god if it isn’t. Cowboy boots are a requirement. How you walk around for ten hours in cowboy boots on an 85 degree day is beyond me, but me in my flip flops was definitely in the minority.

Then if you’re a woman you are usually wearing not much else, but it’s either shorts or a skirt made of denim with a fair amount of butt cheek showing. It doesn’t matter what body shape or size, they all wear these cutoff butt-cheek showing shorts.

Shirts have to have an open back with no possibility of a bra, or made of pure lace with long frilly sleeves. There has to be a cowboy hat or at least some version of a giant brimmed thing that blocks everyone’s view.

The other version of the uniform is the one-piece. Sometimes it’s straight-up denim overalls. Sometimes it’s more like a bodysuit. Once in a while you get the wedding-dress knockoff, I swear, some of these people look like they are going to prom or walking down an aisle.

Which is fine, I’m not criticizing them, god knows me in my sweat pants version of shorts and my Kentucky Bourbon Festival t-shirt is not exactly winning fashion awards. I’m not mentioning them to disparage them.

I’m mentioning them because of the porta potties. Because beyond being covered neck to ankle in denim and/or lace on what amounts to a hot summer day, I really want to know how these women navigate a porta potty.

You barely have enough room to turn around without hitting your knees on the door, everything is… let’s just say gross… there is almost never any toilet paper and another thing I don’t understand is how anyone can be surprised by this. The number of women coming out with shocked and baffled expressions, repeating “No toilet paper! No toilet paper!” like a country music star Rain Man is astounding. Have you never been to a public bathroom before?

Carry tissues, babe. But I guess when you don’t even have a bra or panties to stuff them in, it’s hard to do that.

Maybe stick them in your boots next time, I don’t know.

Anyway, this sounds judgey. It’s not, really. I am just absurdly fascinated by it all, and really curious about some of the fashion decisions. I can’t for the life of me imagine disrobing out of these denim coveralls and managing a porta potty. I can’t imagine how you maneuver an ankle-length white gown or a skin-tight bodysuit in that plastic coffin of a bathroom.

Men just look like men. The vast majority of them feel no compulsion to look like anything more than men. They wear shorts and pants and sandals and socks, sometimes sandals with socks. And yes, sometimes denim and boots. How they look seems not to occur to them at all.

The rare few, they are special. One guy was wearing denim overalls in big white and yellow checkers, like he just stepped out of Mario Cart. Denim overalls seem to be popular with the men-wearing-costumes crowd, and often they are outlandish designs. No shirts.

I love Pilgrimage for a lot of reasons. But the thing that makes it most fascinating is this human spectacle.

In the past two years I don’t recall there being as much alcohol as there was this year. This year there was a LOT of alcohol. Three different major distilleries were there, two vodka vendors, plus beer and wine, and some terrible “cocktails” which basically amounted to someone behind a glorified lemonade stand throwing vodka in a cup with Red Bull. There is also an entire beer tent, which considering it was a tent and therefore in the shade, and beer was about half the price of a cocktail, was very popular.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated the options, but maybe boots plus denim plus alcohol plus sun is not the best way to spend a day?

No less than three times, at least that we could see, someone up in front by the stage passed out and they had to call medical. The show had to stop, everyone had to wait while someone made sure this person wasn’t dead, and then the show started again.

Other things I love: discovering new artists. I would probably never pick any of these people on Spotify but seeing them live, listening to their stories and watching the passion that goes into performing makes it a lot more fun. Then I can go home and listen to the albums and remember how cool it was and have a different appreciation for them.

Each year there are two different headline acts, one for each night. They are the big names. While every other band plays for about 45 minutes, the headliners get two hours on the main stage as the last act of the evening.

Historically they have been the least interesting acts. It’s as if once a band reaches a certain status, their mere presence alone is supposed to inspire you to paroxysms of glee. For a lot of people this is true. The amount of screeching is impressive. But personally I could sleep through them. For a minute or two I did sleep through them.

Everyone else though, they come to play. They are not big enough to phone it in yet. So they play and sing and dance their hearts out and put on a show.

This year, musically speaking, was heavy on the country. It is not my favorite.

You know those refrigerator magnets that come in sets of full words, and you can stick them on the fridge and rearrange them to make sentences? Country music sounds like someone got a set of refrigerator magnets and moved them around in between getting a couple of beers to make lyrics.

The country music refrigerator magnet set has the words shotgun and pickup truck. It has drunk, cry, boots, and daddy. Throw in heartbreak, lipstick and whiskey (or beer, tequila, or mostly any alcohol) and you’re halfway to a hit. Ain’t and y’all round out a full sentence.

But it hardly matters what you think of the music because you’re going to go WHOOOOO!!!!! anyway and even if you are not wearing boots you are going to stomp your feet. It can’t be helped.

Best act for three years running: Better Than Ezra. Those guys know how to perform. I guess since it’s their festival, they have to show up. But boy do they bring it.

They have to be what, about 90 by now? But they wail and play and jump around. They entertain. They engage the crowd, they are funny, they mix it up, they look like they know what they’re doing and want to be there doing it for you.

Once a year I break out the Better Than Ezra albums and put them on repeat for about three months. They are that good.

I feel like I’ve used quite a lot of words and haven’t even covered the food trucks yet. Let’s just say that while the selection this year wasn’t spectacular, I did have the best slice of real pizza I’ve ever had in Tennessee, and also the most expensive slice of pizza I’ve ever had in my life. We had absolutely terrible hot dogs (come on, how do you do a hot dog wrong??) and surprisingly decent paella. The whiskey lemonades were pretty darn good and they are about as effective as Nyquil at soothing a cold. I had four.

Overall, in spite of carrying a backpack stuffed with tissues, getting sunburned, and needing about a week to recover, it was a great success. I don’t know where we will be next summer but I suspect we will find a way to go to the event again. It’s called Pilgrimage for a reason. Upwards of 20,000 people show up from around the country and even the world to see it. Nothing like a cold is going to stop anyone from getting there, and no temperature is going to be too hot for those boots.

Photo: My boys, BTE rocking it on stage.