After a mind-blowing five-day weekend spent camping at Lightning in a Bottle festival with friends, a LIB newbie returns with some tips for what to bring and what to leave behind.
Let me be clear. I have not camped since I was a teenager, and even that was limited to one overnight trip with adult counselors and an operating bathroom and shower on-site. Still, I went into this experience with an open mind, excited to see what this four-night excursion would reveal about myself and what earthly trappings are truly necessary for my comfort and survival.
Before the festival, my boyfriend Jon and I spent the entire night grocery shopping, organizing our bounty, packing it into his SUV, and marinating chicken. I helped as well as I could, but around 3:30am I conked out for about an hour and a half, waking just as he was finishing his shower and preparing to get on the road. We made one pit stop for ice and swung by my house for an Amazon package that had arrived the night before, officially getting on a barren 5 South fwy at approximately 6:30am on Thursday.
We encountered minimal traffic, but between bathroom breaks and a quick gas station stop to pick up some last minute amenities, we didn’t arrive at the campgrounds until 10:30. We were both bleary-eyed and exhausted, but we had land to claim, tents to set up, and an entire car to unpack before we could crash.
After Lightning in a Bottle tickets went on sale in January, several friends created a Facebook group and invited everyone they knew who was attending so that we could arrange a close-knit campground. We had some close friends arriving later in the day, but already several acquaintances and friends-of-friends were setting up nearby, so we did a quick round and introduced ourselves before figuring out exactly how much land to set aside.
Jon had brought a luxurious eight-person tent for the two of us to share, complete with a porch, two entrances, and enough room for us to keep our respective belongings on designated sides. We borrowed hammers and mallets from generous neighbors, and had erected our temporary home within about an hour’s time. One of our friends who was arriving later in the weekend had donated an EZ-up to provide some shade and a little chill-out area, so we quickly set that up, but decided not to stake it in as campers were arriving at a rapid pace and we weren’t sure if our friends would need the land for their tent later in the day.
Sufficiently dusty and exhausted, I made us both pb&j sandwiches before we toppled onto our air mattress and attempted to pass out for a few hours. We tossed and turned uncomfortably, unable to will our bodies into slumber. About an hour into our restless nap, we were startled by a wave of gasps and yells chorusing through the campground. For some reason, I associate such ruckus with violence and assumed a fight had broken out. I stubbornly rolled over to my other side.
As the yells drifted closer, it became clear that our camp was the unexpected victim of a dust tornado. I sat up just in time to see our EZ-up launch 50 feet into the air, Jon wearily stumbling out of our tent to retrieve it.
When we recovered the EZ-up and assessed the damage, we saw that one of the legs was bent and part of the roof had collapsed into a mangled spiderweb of metal parts. Jon told me that a girl walking by had offered duct tape, but he couldn’t find her and figured she’d reneged on the offer. We began asking around, and Jon got in touch with some of our other friends to encourage them to bring plenty of stakes to secure their tent.
A few minutes later a couple of smiling young women approached us with a roll of duct tape. We laughed about how we’d assumed they had forgotten us, and they explained that they’d had to return to their camp to retrieve it. They took the time to help us mend the EZ-up into a reasonably sturdy fixture, and our neighbors lent us tools and extra stakes to help secure it.
As disruptive as the dust storm had been, a giddiness slowly enveloped me, impressed and encouraged by the community and friendship we’d already discovered.
Allow me to preface these items with one suggestion: given the overwhelming amount of sustainability-practicing, free-loving vegans in attendance at Lightning in a Bottle, I do NOT recommend wearing actual fur.
After our friends arrived that evening and with about ten solid minutes of napping achieved between Jon and I, the five of us donned our warmest clothing and set out to explore the festival grounds. Tipsy from the whiskey we’d been swilling before we left, I decided to assign everyone a buddy so that no one would get lost. The group was dawdling on the way up to the grounds so Jon and I decided to do a quick run back to the camp for one last swig. We returned no more than 90 seconds later to find that we’d been abandoned. So much for the buddy system.
The week before LIB Jon and I had both scored great deals on fake furs. His was an especially glamorous, plush wolfish grey coat that hung below his waist. Mine was obviously faux and of a deep blush color that one would be hard-pressed to find in nature.
Our campsite was one of the furthest from the festival grounds, and in order to reach the 80’s Prom party we’d set our sights on, we had to climb a steep, rocky hill. This was especially treacherous at night, with our primary illumination being the strobing music tents and smogless, star-filled sky. Thankfully, Jon had given me my own flashlight, so I was able to successfully navigate up the hill without incident.
The flashlight also proved useful when, on Saturday night, my friend Elysse and I decided to quietly ditch our boyfriends and sneak back to our camp to indulge in a night of secretive girl talk. Jon ended up stumbling in just as the sun was rising and it turned out that the boys had hardly even missed us.
But back to the 80’s prom. An electronic remix of Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” was playing at the Pagoda Bar when we walked in. Always eager to dress according to theme, I was outfitted in a lavender-grey velvet flared dress with a mock turtleneck. As we made our way through the crowd, smiling faces reached out to stroke our jackets, audibly wishing they’d brought their own. Jon had also purchased vintage sunglass frames the week before, and their unusual hexagon shape only made him appear cooler.
Despite a predicted forecast of cool and cloudy days, our time at Lightning in a Bottle was defined by dusty, shadeless afternoons and frigid, windy nights. If ever we lost someone during the day, we could almost guarantee seeing them back at the campsite around dusk, trading their crop tops and booty shorts for layers of tights, scarves, jackets, and beanies.
Jon and I wore our furs every night, and each night the crowd seemed more receptive, until their once-timid pets had turned into full-fledged bear hugs, one girl hugging both of us at the same time and then shouting to her friends to do the same.
“You have no idea how amazing this feels!” she exclaimed, as Jon and I obligingly embraced her in return.
I had trouble sleeping my first night at LIB. Most of my friends were somewhat used to sleeping in tents and the ever-present thumping bass that accompanies festival campgrounds, but I, a finicky sleeper who typically cannot fall asleep with clothes, music, or the TV on, was not. I finally dozed off around 5am, and was surprised to wake up only a few hours later feeling refreshed and energetic. We made a hearty breakfast of bacon, scrambled eggs, and pancakes, and Elysse and I quickly got started on an late-morning bottle of white wine.
Perhaps it was the chill campground vibes, but everyone was slow-moving on Friday. After lunch, Jon and I finally got motivated, doused ourselves in sunscreen, and began trekking towards the festival grounds. In addition to the sunscreen, I kept my head covered at all times, only trading my floppy sun hat for a knit beanie around nightfall. Jon was lucky to have prescription sunglasses with polarized lenses that didn’t make it difficult to see at night.
I had heard Yaarrohs on Spotify’s Lightning in a Bottle sampler playlist, and deemed her set at the Lightning Stage a good place to begin our Friday journey. The latest addition to Glitch Mob’s Glass Air record label did not disappoint, enamoring the audience with her moody electronic sound and a stage show that included a talented aerial silk artist.
It was our first time seeing the full festival grounds during the day, so we took the opportunity to explore, peeking into different stages and getting a sense of each one’s theme. We jokingly referred to the Thunder Stage as the “Molly tent,” as most of those inside seemed almost hypnotized by its buzzing bass. It was outside of the Thunder Stage that I saw a man cradling a massive speaker, his body pulsing hypnotically while a concerned friend attempted to peel him off. We called the Woogie Stage the “hippie tent,” since it’s slightly inconvenient locale attracted the most eccentric, free-loving festival-goers. It was there that I met a woman with a plastic microphone who claimed to be Tina Turner and to have taken nine hits of acid. The Lightning Stage was the main tent where the biggest headliners played and an assortment of attendees could be found. There were quite a few smaller venues as well, from the Grand Artique’s rustic, folkish vibes, to Amori’s burlesque, love-themed palace, to the booty-bouncing Jive Joint.
We didn’t see as many shows as I’d originally anticipated, but as the weekend progressed I learned that Lightning in a Bottle is about a lot more than the concert line-up. During my stay there I had the opportunity to be immersed in a gong sound bath, liberate my limbs during a blindfolded yoga dance class, tour an art walk and bid on art, and meditate with friends at the serene Meditation Lookout. Of the handful of shows I saw in full, my favorites were Yaarrohs, Polica, and SBTRKT.
I only forgot to wrap a scarf around my face on Friday but its absence was felt, and during our walk into the festival grounds on Sunday, I was caught off-guard when my nose suddenly began to spout blood, something that hasn’t happened to me since childhood. I’ve also been nursing a croaky voice and sniffling nose since I’ve returned home, an inconvenience that has definitely encouraged me to be even more vigilant about protecting my nose and mouth in the years to come.
Five days without a shower may sound like a long time, but when you learn that a 5-minute shower in a 3×3 wooden cubicle, for which you’ll stand in line for at least 30 minutes to an hour, is $8, it suddenly seems feasible. Luckily, our camp came prepared with enough baby wipes for a newborn’s first month of infancy and a Costco supply of hand sanitizer. Elysse and I also came equipped with generous portions of facial cleansing wipes.
Still, after two days of relentless sun beams, pore-clogging dust, and waking up in a claustrophobic, muggy tent, most of us acquiesced to the idea. Around 2pm on Saturday we grabbed our toiletries and towels and trudged over to the showers. I was under the impression that although the individual showers were single-occupant, the shower lines were co-ed, so naturally I gravitated towards the shorter one, which I realized shortly afterwards was filled mostly with men. After waiting for about 20 minutes I saw one half-nude girl angrily approach the shower attendant, complaining that she had been waiting for an hour and had been told that she wasn’t allowed in the men’s shower line, even though it was moving faster.
She glared at the few females in the line, myself included, and demanded that we be given the same restrictions. One tomboyish girl managed to sneak away from the attendant’s view, but another woman and myself were forced to move. After standing in the unmoving line for several minutes, it quickly became clear that the women were not limiting their showers to five minutes. I schemed with the other girl who had also been moved to get back into the male shower line. By the time we’d both showered and dressed Veronica and I had become fast friends and she ended up tagging along with our group for a good portion of the evening.
Although we had intentions of taking showers on Sunday and Monday, the lines continued to dissuade us. By the time we got up, ate breakfast, and were actually alert enough to venture over the showers, workshops, yoga classes, seminars, and concerts had already started, and proved to be much more tempting than baking in a slow-moving line for an hour.
Another reason for the baby wipes? Portapotties. Those and the outdoors are your only bathroom options, and for whatever reason, I’ve noticed that people seem to forget every ounce of home training as soon as they enter those blue cubicles. By the end of the weekend, I wasn’t the only one getting excited when I happened upon one that had been recently sanitized. We’d eagerly let those waiting know, “This one’s pretty clean!” and they had no shame about making a sprint for the stall in question.
I would advise against wasting your money on PMate, a Marine-approved, disposable contraption that allows women to discreetly pee standing up. I’m sure they work perfectly well, and it was the idea of peeing in a portapotty without having to squat or touch anything that persuaded me to buy two five-packs, but I didn’t use a single one during my time at Lightning in a Bottle. I forgot about them until Saturday, but even after I found them at the bottom of my tote, I held onto a fear of accidentally soiling myself in the process of trying to use them and ended up sticking to the tried-and-true method of squatting.
I’ll also add that few things will prove your significant other’s love more than their willingness to cuddle up to your dirt-glossed, sunscreen-sticky body every night. The near-freezing nights might have also had something to do with it.
This should go without saying, especially since LIB expressly warns participants that no plastic water bottles are sold on site. It’s a pack-it-up, pack-it-in event, which means that trash is expected to be consolidated and taken out with festival-goers as they leave the campgrounds. You can understand how providing us with water bottles (other than the reusable, souvenir ones sold at the merchandise booth) would defeat that purpose.
I mention this only because I was forced to listen to one girl’s complaining about this very practice.
“I wish they sold disposable water bottles,” she bemoaned, while my friends and I scarfed down breakfast burritos in the shade nearby. “I only brought a gallon-size water container and it’s so annoying and heavy to carry around all day. I’m like, so dehydrated.” She sighed.
Do not force me to internally mock you while you relay these complaints to an unsympathetic audience, later on at the campsite with friends, and then again in my festival recap blog. Bring a reusable water bottle. Do not be that girl.
If you are not willing to hug strangers, do not come to Lightning in a Bottle. If you are turned off or intimidated by people coming up to you and randomly recognizing the beauty, strength, and energy within you, do not come to Lightning in a Bottle. If you are not able to dig deep to unearth the hidden truths about your existence that you aren’t normally capable of witnessing, do not come to Lightning in a Bottle.
Yes, Lightning in a Bottle is a music festival, and partying and having a good time are certainly central to its theme, but so are personal growth, discovery, community, friendship, and awareness.
Bring an open heart that will allow you to unlock those barriers and embrace strangers in return. Allow yourself to have a frank and eye-opening discussion with someone simply because they are close in proximity. Do not be afraid to audibly recognize the beauty in others, the beauty within yourself. Give yourself permission to cry when you are moved, to laugh at a joke that exists only within your mind. Lightning in a Bottle is a place where you are encouraged to be your freest self, where you can safely explore the lightest and darkest corners of your heart, so that when you leave you can do so with a greater appreciation for this chaotically beautiful world we reside in.
We took our time leaving on Monday. We knew that we’d all been changed for the better, but we also knew that our day-to-day lives would not easily accommodate these habits. We knew we’d have to find ways to reconcile these practices and beliefs with societal norms, which demand schedules, induce stress, and are at times restricting, but we didn’t yet know how. We wanted to exist on that intangible plane of higher consciousness for as long as we were allowed.
I remember in the weeks leading up to the festival pondering on its name – Lightning in a Bottle. What did it mean? It certainly was attention-grabbing, and I had fun remixing it with Christina Aguilera’s 90’s hit, singing, “I’m a lightning in a bottle, baby, gotta rub me the right way honey…”
It was only after experiencing the festival that the title was given a new, deeper meaning. Lightning in a Bottle was how we arrived: frenzied, swirling energy, trapped and dying to break free, to ignite ourselves and those around us. Each night of the festival, the bottle cap was loosened, so that we became more comfortable and aware, less self-conscious and closer to our true nature. By Sunday night the bottle had burst and we ricocheted off one another without fear, recognizing our endless potential and the responsibility it carries; for this infinite power we wield can be used to destruct just as easily as it can be used to generate light. I cannot speak to the resolutions of others, but I felt a strong desire to actively tap into that power, to not let it intimidate me, but to continue to use it to create and protect and grow.
Thank you, Lightning in a Bottle, for revealing a beauty within myself and others that my heart and mind were too shy to see. Thank you for providing me with a sacred space where I could be myself without boundaries, and discover that I actually prefer that person, that me without the lingering doubt, stress, and anxiety is my best version, and that she deserves to be shared freely.
I’ve never felt so light.