Standing on top of the abandoned strip mine under the clear night sky, the stars looked as if they were in reach. The electric guitar and keyboard sounds of “TAUK” faded in the background, giving way to a menagerie of guitars, banjos and fiddles. Seeing that my iPhone still had two bars, I tapped the text icon and typed, “On the mountain!”
My heart rate spiked, a result of nerves and anticipation. Just a few weeks earlier I’d seen my goddaughter’s name on the festival billing: “Sierra Ferrell – Live At Deep Roots Mountain Revival.” For me, that’s the equivalent of a “my kid is an honor student” bumper sticker. And now here I was, navigating around a mountaintop. Undoubtedly a first for me.
A few weeks earlier, Josh Thomas, one of Sierra’s former bandmates, and I had talked about the festival. Sitting together at a wedding reception, we made an unlikely pair, me wearing a Brooks Brothers blazer and Josh a Grateful Dead t-shirt, a knit cap holding his dreadlocks at bay. We exchanged trash talk about our respective football teams before I mentioned Sierra, “She’s coming back to West Virginia in July to play at a music festival,” I said.
“You should come check it out,” Josh suggested.
I just smiled, thinking to myself, “Yeah, right. Festivals are for musicians and young people, not lawyers in their late fifties.”
Josh went on to talk about the days when he’d gone to festivals every summer, both as a spectator and performer. Josh plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar, banjo, mandolin — basically most any stringed instrument. He’s also tried his hand at songwriting. His refrain, “Standing knee deep in yesterday’s rain,” somehow ended up in a Toby Keith song.
Sierra was back in Nashville, recording an album while on hiatus from busking in Seattle, when she mentioned selling tickets to the Deep Roots festival — apparently that’s how some of the performers get paid — and asked me to help spread the word.
“Sure,” I said, unable to identify a single friend who would consider attending a hippie music festival. Feeling a tinge of guilt, I added, “Do you mind if I come?” She tore off a ticket and handed it to me.
The festival was in north central West Virginia, on an abandoned strip mine owned by a retired school bus driver. The closest town was Masontown, population 546. A motel room was out of the question. Since Sierra was scheduled to play at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, I could drive up that morning, catch her show, and head out before sunset. But I pride myself in getting outside my comfort zone, in avoiding being trapped in an echo chamber of middle-aged lawyers. A voice inside my head said, “You need to camp at the festival.”
Before mentioning this to my wife, I confided to Josh. “I’m not thrilled with camping. But I think that’s the only way I will get the full picture.”
“Festivals are as much or more about the camping,” Josh said; “The different types of people you meet and the campfire jams can get to be marathon jam sessions with complete strangers! Ya definitely have to camp to get the full understanding of how it is almost like one large organism that is made up of all of us smaller organisms.”
Despite Josh’s poetic description, doubts lingered. Lying in bed in the days leading up to the trip, I tossed and turned as I visualized myself wandering aimlessly, trying to blend in wearing a Polo shirt. A throng of kids in their twenties wandering around me. I make eye contact, but they stare back at me with glazed eyes, like extras from the Walking Dead. Some shout, “Hey man!” and offer a palm or fist raised in the air. One extends a hand with a joint. I feel the grime on my hands as I rub my unshaven chin, the chafing on my inner thighs, the grit on my teeth as I chew on a Pop Tart. Despite lacking any real sense of smell, picking up the scent of marijuana on my clothes. Hearing Sierra’s soprano voice in my head, I drifted off to sleep.
On Friday I loaded my gear, consisting of a two-person tent, sleeping bag, and Coleman lantern, in the back of my Jeep. Not knowing what food options would be available, I threw in a box of S’mores’ Pop Tarts and a few bottles of water. I turned on my satellite radio and searched for a rock and roll station. The Grateful Dead channel came up. A good omen.
The road out of Masontown rolled through pastures dotted with houses and barns before transforming to woods and hills. The radio signal disappeared, and the only sound was the air rushing by the open window. The air cooled as the elevation changed, but all I noticed was the butterflies in my stomach. The same nerve-wracking feeling I get when waiting for the jury to render its verdict.
My GPS directed me to a county road before losing signal. Leaning against an oak tree stood a four by six piece of plywood spray painted with the words “Deep Roots” and an arrow. Out of habit, I turned on my blinker. The vibration created by the tires traversing the gravel resonated through the floorboards, and when I pulled the gear shift the Jeep lurched as the four-wheel drive engaged. Steering to dodge a rut as wide as my front tire, I spotted a board nailed to a tree. An arrow pointed to a dirt path on the left. The incline seemed twice the seven percent grade permitted on an interstate. I took a deep breath and ascended the final approach to Marvin’s Mountaintop.
The terrain leveled off at a clearing. A trailer camper was parked in the middle of the field with a table and chair sitting in front. I slowed down and stopped to meet a woman coming out of the camper. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties, with long hair and tattoos on her arms. I handed her my ticket. She took one glance at my gray hair and wrapped a green band stamped “21” on my left wrist, “Parking in the woods is pretty much taken up,” she said, handing me a sticker for the windshield. “You might have to unpack your gear and park down below in the GA area.”
The “general admission” camping area was located in a field that seemed to go on forever. Vehicles and tents were scattered about in makeshift rows. Porta-johns were located along the road, placed about 100 yards apart. At the far end of the field the road continued up a hill. A guy was sitting at the bottom, and I stopped to make sure I was heading in the right direction. “It’s on up the hill,” he said. “Mind if I ride up?” At the top of the ridge my passenger got out and pointed to the left, “Woods camping is up top.”
My tires spun in the mud as I pulled out to ascend the mountain. Tents were nestled throughout the woods and cars lined the dirt road. I’d paid an extra twenty bucks for woods camping thinking that the area would be more exclusive. In retrospect, I should have realized that “woods” camping means pitching a tent back in the trees with little chance of festival security peering in to take inventory.
Having no knowledge of which leaves are poisonous, I found a spot in a grassy area and undertook to drive the tent poles in the ground behind the Jeep. Not having put up the tent since my son’s scout days, I struggled for almost half an hour before deciding that staking three poles was enough. I threw my sleeping bag inside the tent and pulled the zipper closed.
Walking along the woods camping area I picked up wafts of the distinct odor of marijuana, though it was less pungent than I’d remembered from my college days. Turning down the hill, I engaged the iPhone’s flashlight app and pointed the phone toward the ground to avoid tripping in the ruts as I walked down the hill.
The entrance to the main stage area was located on a ridge line below the VIP campsites. One side was lined with food vendors selling vegan specialties, Thai food, and barbecue. Across the field, tents were set up for artisans to sell tie-died shirts, blankets, and hippie paraphernalia. Boxes constructed of plywood and painted green, orange and blue served as trash receptacles. Some were marked with graffiti, but until I returned home and Googled urban dictionary.com I had no idea that “dags” are “unfashionable, socially conservative” persons.
The beer tent stood out, distinguished by an ATM standing in the grass. The machine was constructed of hard plastic and appeared vulnerable to a swift kick, but the touchpad worked and the machine dutifully delivered a twenty-dollar bill. The purring of generators competed with the music. Trailers equipped with three taps each and logos for craft beers were lined up along the rear, “I’ll have an Almost Heaven Amber Ale,” I said.
“A plastic cup is $8 and a souvenir cup is $10, but refills are only $5,” the server said; “If you plan on drinking more than a couple of beers, the souvenir cup is the better deal.” Since leaving the mountaintop was out of the question, I chose the silver insulated cup with the Deep Roots logo. The beer was amber colored, darker than my standard Miller Lite. The first sip revealed that the taste was also richer than Miller Lite. I suspect the alcohol content was higher as well.
The crowd was a mixture of kids in their early twenties, adults who appeared to be in their late thirties and early forties, and young children running about with glow sticks around their necks. Off in the distance two people twirled batons with flames on the ends. Brandi Carlile held forth on the main stage, playing guitar and accompanied by a second guitar, bass and drum ensemble. Her voice and the band’s bluegrass twang carried across the field in the cool mountain air. The lyrics of, “Keep Your Heart Young” seemed apropos: “Don’t go growin’ old before your time has come … You gotta keep your heart young.”
I was on my second beer when I saw her. Short, with long dark hair and bangs, wearing shorts and a loosely fitting white blouse. She was dancing by herself out in the field. She caught my eye, smiled and walked toward me. I returned the smile, certain that I’d located my goddaughter. Sierra’s facsimile hugged me and said, “Let’s take a selfie.” I clicked a picture and then she was gone, leaving me to ponder whether I’d really seen my goddaughter.
Later Josh joined me and we walked up to listen to a group playing in the Revival Tent. Josh joked about the two of us “wookin’ at Deep Roots. Wookies are guys that usually look like me, dreads and a beard,” Josh explained, pointing to his long scraggly beard; “It started years ago when big hairy dudes were so messed up that they sounded just like Chewbacca and looked a bit like him, too.”
And there I stood, wearing cargo shorts and sandals.
After the show, I found my way back up the hill to the Woods Stage. I refilled my souvenir cup and stood on the tree line to listen to Eric Krasno. The crowd was mostly in their twenties; no kids with glow sticks. The band was slated to play until 2:30 a.m., but sometime after one o’clock I walked the rest of the way up the hill to my camp site.
Seeing that a second pole had come loose, I decided that the better part of valor was to spread my sleeping bag in the back of the Jeep. While not uncomfortable, getting out of the Jeep to walk the 58 steps to the nearest porta-john proved to be cumbersome. I cracked the windows open and drifted to sleep to the vocals of Eric Krasno, mixed with guitars and banjoes.
Shortly after six o’clock on Saturday I woke up and ventured out. Much to my surprise I encountered Sierra walking through the woods wearing a dress and floral cloak, “Good morning,” I said; “Strange meeting you here.”
“I’ve been playing music. I need to get some sleep.” Her tone was reminiscent of her teenage years when Tammy and I asked if she agreed with our suggested curfew. I surmised that she’d been part of a marathon jam session.
Continuing my walk through the morning fog, I saw that my fellow woods campers looked more like hippies than the crowd camped down below in the general admission area. Many had dreadlocks, but contrary to my imagination they made eye contact and said “good morning.” Hiking backpacks were strewn about the area, along with empty Hamm’s Beer cans. I didn’t remember seeing so may empty Hamm’s cans since helping clean up after my parents’ annual sidewalk party in the sixties.
Down in the field, people were lined up at one of the food trucks. The breakfast menu consisted of burritos and smoothies. I chose a strawberry-banana smoothie, along with a strong cup of black coffee.
I walked the long way back up the mountain and as I reached the top I heard Sierra’s voice. She was sitting on a camping stool in front of a full-length mirror propped up against a tree. Joe, her traveling partner and fiddle player, was leaning against her cargo van. Wasabi and Cinder, Sierra’s shepherd mix and Joe’s hound dog, ran over to greet me. I petted the dogs while Sierra and Joe practiced “I’ll Fly Away.”
While the music sounded wonderful to me, Sierra grimaced and told Joe, “You missed your part.” He apologized and they started from the top. I bid adieu to the dogs and headed down the hill.
When I arrived at the Revival Tent for Sierra’s performance, storm clouds were rolling in. Thunder and lightning followed. I was standing nearby the stage when I heard a festival worker say, “They’re telling people to get in their vehicles, but it’s everyone for themselves.”
I ventured into the tent that passed as the “green room” to look for Sierra. Seeing no sign of her but hearing another clap of thunder, I grabbed a handful of Lifesavers and started back up the mountain. I broke into a jog and as I passed a portable light pole a flash of lightning illuminated the woods. My heart was racing and I pondered whether I’d die of a heart attack, lightning strike or choking on a Lifesaver. My sandals were covered in mud and my shirt soaking wet by the time I passed the porta-john. I rushed across the last twenty yards to my Jeep. I took a few minutes to catch my breath, then drove down the hill and found a spot to park in a field.
The storm eventually passed and I walked over to the Revival Tent. About fifteen or twenty people had taken refuge inside. Josh joined me a few minutes later. Sierra and her accompanying musicians started reconnecting cables and the sound man powered up the system. Sierra commanded the Revival Tent. Her red dress and black cowboy boots struck a contrast in style and color. Her Gretsch guitar dwarfed her size two frame. Joe stood to her left, holding his fiddle down low rather than high like a concert violinist. He wore a cowboy hat — “It’s my George Strait hat” — and cowboy boots. To Sierra’s right, a lanky figure sat hunched over a pedal steel guitar. He eschewed cowboy boots for Converse tennis shoes. The stand-up bass player, who had only played with Sierra two days earlier, stood to the far right. Wearing jeans, blue shirt, and a straw hat, he looked more like a member of the audience.
Sierra opened the show with, “Rosemary” from her upcoming album and by the third song the crowd began filling the tent. Sierra looked as poised as Brandi Carlisle, engaging with the crowd and directing her accompanying musicians. A far cry from years earlier when she sat between two guitar players gripping a microphone with a cowboy hat pulled across her eyes. The lyrics captured the moment: “Misery loves company … I’m right where I wanna be.”
“Man, she’s gotten better!” Josh exclaimed, breaking my trance.
Sierra played her full set list, but the crowd wasn’t ready to leave. The sound man told her she had time for two more songs. She asked if anyone had a request. Josh shouted, “Gentle on My Mind.” Fortunately, Sierra had learned the song when busking in Nashville.
Following the show, people from the audience flocked to Sierra. She smiled and nodded thanks in response to their compliments, sometimes exchanging a CD for a ten-dollar bill. Fearing I was hovering, I waved to Sierra and walked down to get lunch at one of the food trucks. I was debating whether to refill my souvenir cup when storm clouds rolled in. Once more I broke into a jog, this time making it to the Jeep without being drenched.
Sierra called in need of a ride to her van up on the mountain. I engaged the four-wheel drive and ventured back up the hill and parked next to Sierra’s cargo van. I sat out the storm in the Jeep. When the rain stopped Sierra and Joe came out of her van with the dogs and offered me a warm beer.
Drake White and the Big Fire took the main stage later that afternoon. When the band booked the 4 p.m. slot, the group presumably expected to be playing for more than the nine people hanging on the edge of the stage and the other twenty of us mulling around in the wet grass.
By the time the show finished, my weather app and the skies looked equally ominous. I reached the Jeep before the storm hit and read a couple chapters of John Dos Passos’ “The 42nd Parallel.” Reading about Mac, the train-hopping newsman, brought back memories of the two years Sierra had spent hopping trains.
That evening Sierra was singing with “Mike Pushkin and the Loyal Opposition.” The show was a reunion of sorts. A few years earlier Sierra had performed with Mike and Josh in “600 Lbs. of Sin!” They were scheduled to play at 7:45 p.m., but as of seven o’clock the storm had not relented. Sierra called to check in and I volunteered to find out what was happening. I rushed across the road, jumping over the ruts formed by the runoff, and crossed the grass. My feet were soaked by the time I reached the Revival Tent. At that point I was oblivious to standing in the rain.
Inside the tent I found Mike and Josh talking to someone who, based on his lanyard and badge, I took to be a festival worker. “They’re meeting in twenty minutes and they’ll have a decision,” Mike told us. I texted Sierra, “No decision yet.” I stayed, listening to the rhythm of the rain hitting the tent and watching for flashes of lightning.
The storm passed, breaking the humidity and giving way to a cool breeze. The band took the stage and opened with one of my favorites, “Severine.” By the time Sierra sang “29,” Mike’s dirge about remembering the Upper Big Branch disaster, the tent was virtually full. “She’s got a wonderful voice,” I heard someone say.
After the show, I gave Sierra a quick hug and then carried Josh’s guitar and mandolin to the Jeep. Josh needed to be back early on Sunday. Figuring that that one night of camping was enough to capture the festival experience, I’d offered to drive him back after the show.
The dirt and gravel roads leading off Marvin’s Mountaintop are neither lit nor marked. Fog began to settle in beneath the cloud cover, and I slowed to less than twenty miles per hour. At one fork I veered right. Josh surmised that we might have missed the turn, so I put the Jeep in reverse, returning to the fork to go left. “That other may lead to someone’s place,” he said. “Don’t worry, if we get in trouble I’ve got the mandolin and I know a Merle Haggard song.”
Eventually we reached a road with a centerline and the Apple Maps GPS picked up our location. When we started up the interstate entrance ramp I breathed a sigh of relief and engaged the cruise control.
Sometimes, sitting in a conference room jotting notes on a yellow pad while talking at a speakerphone, I pause before responding to opposing counsel. Looking out the window at the late afternoon sun reflected in the glass of another office building, I find myself longing to be back on Marvin’s Mountaintop, wookin’ with Josh and listening to Sierra’s music.
Standing knee deep in yesterday’s rain.