“This isn’t a mandatory evacuation, but we suggest that everyone head for their cars.”
For the past four days, Brent and I and a dozen friends were hanging out in Hillsdale, New York, a sleepy town of 1,800 residents and several hundred cows, about 30 miles southeast of Albany. According to the official website, “hills and dales are prominent throughout the Town, from which the name Hillsdale is derived.” In case you needed further explication…
We attended the 20th annual Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, 96 hours of music and merriment. We arrived Thursday afternoon after four days in the Berkshire Mountain region of western Massachusetts. We’d visited the Norman Rockwell Museum, staked out the site of the famed Alice’s Restaurant, attended a phenomenal production of Othello put on by the Shakespeare and Company’s annual Shakespeare Festival, walked with ancient dinosaur footprints, hiked to a natural marble bridge, and visited the International Basketball Hall of Fame and Dr. Suess Memorial Sculpture Garden.
We were in need of some hardcore sit-on-a-tarp-in-the-middle-of-a-field-and-listen-to-feet-stompin’-
We discovered that Officer Obie from Alice’s Restaurant and the man who posed for Rockwell’s The Runaway were one and the same!
During the week leading up to the festival, summer storms had rocked New England, and we were prepared for some good soakings throughout the weekend. It was pretty dreary as we set up our tent on Thursday afternoon, but once the showers rolled through, most of the weekend was perfect – warm sunny days, ideal for morning bike rides and runs and afternoons spent lying around, reading and listening to music, followed by crisp, clear nights, filled with singing and dancing and counting the stars before crawling into the tent and bundling up in sleeping bags as our breaths clouded the air.
Highlights included Crooked Still (they’re still rocking hard, even without their defunct frontman, Rashad); Dar Williams (especially her performance of Iowa, during which she invited about a dozen other musicians and their children on stage to witness of the sea of cellphones that were swaying to the beat); Vance Gilbert (though I could have done without his constant commentary on the financial woes of successful folksingers); Eddie from Ohio and the rest of the gang at the Gospel Wakeup Hour; Martin Sexton’s soul-inspired Saturday night spectacle; the mandolin plucking Farewell Drifters, the Folk Brothers’ big hit, Worst President Ever; and the amazing stylings of the ASL interpreters, who spent the weekend creating visual – and visceral – representations of the tales the singers wove.
And then came Sunday afternoon…
We’d returned to the tent after the Gospel Wakeup Hour to pack up our stuff and make some lunch, when the sky – overcast for much of the morning (pleasant for an early eight-mile run, ominous for an afternoon spent sitting on a tarp in the middle of a field) – began to darken. It rained steadily for about an hour but let up briefly in time for us to return to the concert for Tracy Grammar and Jim Henry. We sat through a couple songs as the bolts of lightning and rumblings of thunder began to surround us on all sides.
And then, in the prophetic words of Eddie from Ohio, “the rain crashed down on the roof, sayin’, you didn’t see it coming?”
Sheets of water began to fall as Tracy looked at Jim and said, “Okay, I think it’s time for us to take a break.” Turning to the crowd, she shouted “Run!” just as the first golf ball-sized pellets of hail shot out of the sky. Jenny and Dave and Brent and I had scooted down to the foot of the tarp and covered ourselves with the other half to create a small cave, but once the chunks of ice began to pelt our heads, Jenny and I decided to make a run for it. Not realizing that Brent and Dave were still under the tarp, we grabbed our shoes and our bags and raced to the merchandise tent. As we ducked inside, we noticed that the far wall was beginning to brace under the weight of the water.
Men and women stood on tables, reaching to stabilize the tent as the rain and thunder and lightning continued on. Children screamed and adults hovered in tight circles, some embracing and some, it appeared, praying. We all stood in the middle of the shelter, wading through ankle-deep water as volunteers searched frantically for a way to shut down the central power source. It wasn’t working simply to unplug the lights from the temporary outlets set up on the base of the tent. In one corner of the crowd, someone started singing, quietly at first but with increasing intensity. Soon more people jumped on tables to brace the walls as dozens of others joined in and the entire room erupted into a rousing rendition of Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore.
There was a quick pop and everyone took a deep breath as the 50 lightbulbs illuminating the room went out. And then one woman, apparently oblivious to the entire situation, walked up to the cash register with a stack of CDs and said, “May I check out now?” The volunteer looked at her friend helplessly and said, “Um, do you know if we have a battery-powered credit card scanner?”
It was then that Jenny and I decided to head for the dance tent, where we thought the rest of our group had gathered. We ran the 100 meters over, stopping briefly to help one of the craft vendors load what was left of her booth into a van. The sky was starting to lighten a bit and the thunder sounded further away, but Brent and Dave were nowhere to be found as a man stood up in the middle of the room, called everyone to listen, and said, “We don’t want to alarm anyone but we’ve just been informed that the visitor tent has collapsed. This is not a mandatory evacuation, but we’re asking everyone to leave this tent now and make their way to their cars or to the big red barn down the street.”
Brent called me moments later – it turned out that he and Dave had weathered the storm from under the tarp in the middle of the field – and we met up by the brownie vendor to head to the car, walking through shin-deep puddles and taking in the immense devastation along the way.
No one was hurt, from what we could learn, but the the festival had lost two large tents and craft vendors were wiped clear of their goods. A footbridge leading from the parking lot to the campsite, dry and cracking Sunday morning, threatened to burst from the swells of water breaking overtop, dozens of cars sat helplessly coated in mud, unable to gain the necessary tread to move even a couple feet, and hundreds of festival attendees lost tents and gear to the storm.
Brent and I walked back to our campsite to discover that a gust of wind had lifted our tent off the ground, collapsing the central pole and soaking everything in the process. Several stakes had been ripped from the earth and various articles of clothing lay scattered on the ground. But it was all there, and all (mostly) in one piece. We were cold and muddy, but none the worse for wear as we loaded up the car – we were not one of the folks that decided to drive up to the campsite only to get stuck in the mud – and decided to head back to Amherst and Brent’s parents’ house for one more night to shower and do laundry before heading to the border.
Next up, four days in Montreal!