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Tuesday, October 19, 2004

LEAF, Fall 2004, Pt. 1

For ten days, we watched the weather report, picking our favorite weather web sites based on the most positive forecast for Black Mountain, NC. By late in the week of the festival, we'd determined we would not have perfect weather. In fact, we could only hope against hope to be dry. We'd done LEAF in the rain before. While always fun, being soaked for three days is not something to which you look forward. And one thing was clear: It was going to be windy. And likely cold. The meterologist among us was trying to avoid mentions of the phrase "wind chill," but it seemed inevitable that we would be forced to bundle up.

As the winds blew and blew, it wouldn't be long before the casino hostess among us, who knows about odds and such, would declare the festival to officially be the LEAF Blower Festival of 2004.


I'd packed the car the night before in anticipation of an early arrival on the mountain. I knew dragging Mrs. Otis away from L'il Otis for the first time would be difficult. She surprised me Friday morning by literally pushing me out the door--like a Band-Aid, ripping herself away quickly.

We stopped for ice, carefully steering clear of the drunk guy buying King Cobra at 9:30 in the morning (as we pulled out, he backed into an island of gas pumps, and later declared, "oh, well" as he stared at his dented bumper). Within thirty minutes, Mrs. Otis and I were exchanging looks as we wound through the colored mountains of northern Greenville County. Autumn had again painted well the hills and dales of the Blue Ridge foothills.

We were among the first to arrive at Tent City, bested only by Jane (Keeper of the Fire) and her daughter, Maggie. Setting up camp took a couple of hours. By early afternoon, we'd cracked our first beers, reviewed the music schedule for the night, and started playing the first hand in a marathon session of Euchre.

The weather reports carried few lies. The wind blew in gusts ranging from 10 to sometimes 25 miles per hour. When playing Euchre, we had to weight down the cards with beer cans. The only thing worse than the cold and wind burn was the campfire embers blowing into our faces at 20mph. I'm surprised we all still have our full sense of sight.

But we Tent City denizens are a hearty group. In the face of adversity, we do not back down. We do, however, find ways to forget about the weather.

As the sun went down on Friday night, I heated up a batch of soup prepared by Mrs. Otis. We ate, washing down our dinners with cold beers. By 7pm, we'd broken out a bottle of human anti-freeze, taken some nips as we strummed our guitars, and filled our flasks for the trek around the lake to see Billy Joe Shaver.

Throughout the day, there had been ominous and often-repeated reports circulating around camp that undercover officers were going to be making the scene. Not narc, but Alcs. That is, Department of Revenue officers were supposed to be checking for outside (meaning, not bought at the festival) booze. The alleged fine was $1200. We'd heard such reports in years past, but never so frequently mentioned by the early arrivals. We all made a mental note to keep the coolers closed and a close eye on unfamiliar faces.

We set out in small groups to the main stage. Billy Joe kicked off his set with "Georgia on a Fast Train" to which I sang along, drumming on my wife's back, and deciding to not care that a nearby couple had recognized G-Rob and I for who we really were. I passed the flask as Billy Joe sang songs of lament and survival.

At one point, I wished I had a notepad or recorder, because Billy launched into a monologue worth recording. At one point, he talked about how writing had saved his life. "Writing is better than any psychiatrist. I think everyone should do it," he said.

I knew I was getting a little loose in the noodle when I stole a guy's wife and began spinning her around in a haphazard dance that I thought was a two-step and she thought was a cha-cha. My wife suggested coffee might help and I agreed. After Billy Joe, I stepped out to a coffee tent and purchased a hot cup of joe to set my head right. It didn't help much, but it warmed me up. The bourbon was making my head silly. The next band on the bill didn't help.

Bernie Worrell and the Woo Warriors took the stage in George Clinton-esque fashion and dropped some funk on Lake Eden. Sometime in the middle of the show, I started to lose touch with myself, slipping into a familiar dance that people who know me well would recognize as an "Otis isn't long for the evening" move.

Mrs. Otis recognized it quickly and we agreed to make our way back to Tent City, where the fire still burned bright and a fresh supply of antifreeze awaited.

By the time I made it back, though, a fatigue had set in and I started considering the unthinkable. I actually considered going to bed.

T sat down next to me and we shared a look.

"T, there's no shame in not going to the drum circle," I said, which was, in fact, a lie. T had made a commitment earlier in the day to making the long walk to the bonfire and drum circle. Making a commitment meant there was sure shame in going to bed before the hike. Still, he believed me and for the first time in five years of LEAF festivals, he and I were both in our tents by 2am.

I fell asleep to the last few bars of the Woo Warriors music, wondering if, in fact, I had lost my ability to party like a rock star.

Saturday, though, had already begun. And the rumors of my demise would prove to be unfounded.

Coming in Part Two-- G-Rob--Dead Man, Boston Jay and the Gray Areas, The Naked Firefighter and the Water Tent, The Punk Kid, The Wine, and the long, strange trip three members of Tent City took to the drum circle


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