I jotted quick directions down as Kelli gave them but succumbed to her information of the green dots. A homemade brown plywood guitar scribed “Kickin It On The Creek” sits on highway 89 headed south into the hills. My first landmark. The drive is pretty, it goes from farmland to brush quickly, the rain continues to come down, I set my windshield wipers at half speed. I notice a string of vehicles lining up behind me as the brush turns to forest and the roadway inclines. Again, hesitant on speed at the recommendation of both my gas attendant and Kelli, I pull into an approach to let a quarter ton pick-up speed by me. I push the van but soon lose the pickup’s lead into the beginning stages of a winding labyrinth. Neon green cardboard dots show up intermittently with homemade signs as a payoff. One, a large skull. Paint on plywood.
The state and structure of the homes have changed considerably since entering the hills. For every home in good shape are two that push the limits of habitable. Slanted tin rooves with plywood patches. Steep embankments with trailer hitch dwellings parked in the bottom, small with wheels. Interm wooden crate patios. Residents working in the yards, harvesting gardens. Scrawny and shirtless. I gain altitude.
The width of the highway has narrowed. What has been referred to as hills by locals would be more properly labelled as small mountains. Birch for-sure, Maple maybe. The road is slippery from the shower and I decrease speed even more. Homes without windows and tenants looking through, as if they awaited my passing. A tin wall erected mere inches from pavement bearing an American flag tattered and torn. Off the front of the house another deck complete with swing – a young girl pets her dog as her father stands shirtless watching me pass. I stare back. Deer sheddings collected on the exterior of the house, ceramic and glass jugs upside down as if dripping dry on nails angled into the tree off the front step. Broken window.
As I climb, the worse the housing conditions become and the harder the rain comes down. Shanties constructed for the bear minimum shelter, dogs on the road. I recall the sound of the gun shots back in Irvine, miles downhill behind me. Habitually, I open up Google Maps and my anxiety is fed. A small red triangle with a white exclamation mark has “No routes found” underneath. In blue, Try again – there’s no point.
I make it too a communal settling before reaching the summit at a clearing in the trees. I grab my notepad to recall as many reference points as possible, visualizing my turns and documenting them backwards to avoid confusion when trying to get out. Next left after white church, right after American flag – tin house, masks on trees, left at “new” log house. I record my mileage with the intent of doing so again at other features.
A plateau opens a view that is breathtaking. The sun is completely blocked creating a multitude of texture. Charlie Russell would have added purple to convey the depth but the bleakness of greys and blues are saddened by the rich green hills. Open pasture with single donkey, slate coloured hide. Paths forking off the main route, or what I’m assuming is.
My decent is done at half the speed of the incline. Steeper. A roadway that cuts back on itself like an avoided commitment. One would be days attempting to exit without neon green dots – which at this point are few and far between. I’ve found myself lost where a loyalty to a general direction is usually a sure-shot resolution but that logic would not apply in this geography. My skill-set would come up short. I continue downward.
A man stands, a reflective highway vest with a pleasant demeanor. I feel safe in slowing to a stop and asking for directions. He calls me Bubba. I give him my name and he says he’s been expecting me, The Canadian. Standing on the corner of the last turn-off, sent by Kelli to make sure it wasn’t missed. As the turn cannot safely be made coming from the direction I am, I head up the path and turn around at a small clearing in the trees – my friend has since jumped in a small red pickup and went ahead of me. I already have a sense of intimacy about this festival – the host’s extended efforts in assuring my attendance, without a ticket and sold out. My vested friend not wanting me to damage my vehicle instructed me to take a “straight shot” down the hill. The pathway is of a white shale and slightly washed out at points, I laugh at my decisions in disbelief. Nervous and courageous at once. The kudzu vines reappear, destructive and calming – they’ve eaten the area and assumed the general shapes of the vegetation like a python ingesting a goat. I’ve fabricated them as protective entities and again, regardless of the vine’s nature, I’m placid.
I’m clearly late to the party. I reach the bottom and am among hundreds of vehicles parked in no particular fashion, some paralleled, some angled. Another group of people stand alongside the entry, again, expecting me. I’m given my wristband no questions asked. A young girl is taking donation for the local fire department, I give what would have been my entry fee and am told how welcome I am. Acres provide parking that feels more like a rural wedding on the home quarter than music festival. Aunts and Uncles cooking BBQ, second cousins sitting on the tailgates having an afternoon beer in the drizzling rain, extended relatives playing frisbee, and friends of the family introducing themselves to the subgroups as they meander. Hundreds upon hundreds of family members in what I am told is a holler.
At the base of the mountain is a stage. Covered, homemade, and epic. Practical and artistic. Semi stripped tree trunks as side pillars increasing in height from rear to front. A slanted covering faces lawn chairs and umbrellas. The base covered with garden lattice and the woodwork, neat. A reinterpretation of Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” comes from onstage – upbeat and hard, almost punk. I park the van and change into more appropriate attire – jean cut-offs, Nathaniel Rateliff tee, Bass Pro Shop ball cap and chucks. Wardrobe chosen solely by not wanting to get my straw hat wet – with the hat goes the boots, with the boots go the jeans, with the jeans goes the snap-shirt.
I made it. Kickin It On The Creek. A vibe of familiarity fills the air, zero tension, and a warmth that is juxtaposed by the light rain. Vendors line the side of the trees. Food trucks, tents, and coolers; libations and nosh. Again, more like a heroic family gathering than indie festival. A celebration opposed to financial endeavour. Deep in the hills of the Appalachian Mountains.
Deep in the hills of the Appalachian Mountains a man in a Moose Jaw shirt says hello.