By Aubrey Wieber
BIG SUMMIT PRAIRIE — It’s a place where nothing seems impossible, especially in the smothering darkness of a forest at night.
When the sun dips below the mountains you can truly grasp how incredibly elaborate the Symbiosis Oregon Eclipse festival really is. It’s a world of pulsating, multicolored lights, of lanterns and of festivalgoers cast in a neon glow.
And fire. A 50-foot-tall sculpture spits 10-foot-tall jets of flame into the night sky whenever someone below pulls one of its chains.
For revelers who have gathered in Central Oregon to view Monday’s total solar eclipse, Big Summit Prairie is the center of the universe. Thousands of people — estimates here ranged from 35,000 to 80,000 — converged from all over the world to the privately owned prairie amid the Ochoco National Forest for a music and cultural festival, the likes of which Oregon has never seen.
“It’s the experience of a lifetime, basically,” said 27-year-old Christina LeBlanc, who traveled from San Diego with her boyfriend, Tanner Moore, 23.
The festival started Thursday and runs through Wednesday, although the main attraction takes place Monday morning when the full solar eclipse crosses the Oregon sky.
On Friday, no one seemed to be impatiently waiting for the rare celestial event. There was partying to be had. Electronic music blasted from seven stages set around the man-made lake on the prairie. For those who didn’t want to dance, there was skinny-dipping in the lake, aerial yoga, relaxing in a meditation temple, slamming drinks in a heavily glittered Western saloon, fire dancing, countless art displays, a tea house, a massive, “Stargate SG1”-like portal and just about every type of food imaginable and more.
Many of the spectacles were courtesy of attendees rather than organizers.
Justinian Morton, 48, rode around in a vintage tractor, the hood of which was an old liquor barrel, that was being driven by a young girl.
Morton, who does historical restoration in Boise, Idaho, transports the tractor in a dump truck. The tractor also pulls a small house behind it.
“It’s sort of iconic of Burning Man and Symbiosis,” he said.
On Friday, it jerked and halted about, likely due to the driver rather than Morton’s mechanical skills.
“We came up to the fuel depot,” he said. “We were on our way back and just decided to let a 9-year-old drive it.”
During the day, the costumes shine. Attendees roam the dusty landscape in various states of undress. Shaggy fur coats were lit with neon lights. Many styled themselves in a sort of post-apocalyptic, “Mad Max” attire. And for many young women, lingerie was the norm.
But when the sun sets, the festival and its patrons morph. The props steal the attention as costumes are traded in for jeans and jackets. The desert landscape is set ablaze with color-changing lights, as if the Las Vegas Strip decided to spend a week in Central Oregon.
For some, the festival is more about the music than the eclipse. Danni McEchinney and Sam Thompson, both 23, traveled from Cairns, Australia, with a group of about 50 people. When asked why she took the long journey, McEchinney didn’t hesitate.
“To party,” McEchinney said. “To be honest, I just want to dance.”
For others, it was more spiritual.
“I think this is one of the most extraordinary experiences anyone could possibly be a part of,” said 63-year-old Hillary Hurst, who lives in Bend and is an artist and healer. “It’s doing the action of what the dream is. This to me is the revolution.”
Many walking around Friday were veteran festivalgoers, though some were wetting their beak for the first time.
Adam Townsend, 46, and Marci Kimball, 45, traveled from Arizona to get their first taste of festival life. They wore matching outfits: what could only be described as human-sized teddy bears that had been destuffed and had a zipper sewn to the front. They found them at Walmart.
The eclipse is a break from their normal lives. Townsend works in construction and Kimball as an executive assistant. The festival was a special time, they said.
“Just being together with everybody with similar interests for this amazing event,” Townsend said.
When you walk along the grounds of the festival, it’s easy to get swept up in the extravagant visual and auditory stimulation, and forget about some of the downsides that come with bringing tens of thousands of people into the middle of the Ochoco National Forest. But, attendees were quick to recall with horror the hours spent in traffic, some claiming it took 12 hours to get from Prineville to Big Summit Prairie.
The camping area resembled a shantytown in a Third World country. Cars packed to the gills with beer boxes and bedding were crammed tightly together. The contents spilled out of open doors, making it impossible to distinguish where a car ended and a tent began. Some people camped on steep hills, inches from other tents.
Parking was a mess, particularly the farther from the festival you drove, as people made new dirt roads over the sagebrush steppe.
It was easy to get lost in the sea of people and cloud of dust that covered everything. And with no cell service and internet available only for purchase, finding friends seemed about as likely as winning the Oregon lottery.
To skirt that challenge, many festivalgoers brought totems — large staffs with a creative, identifiable object on the top. Sometimes it was a flag, other times a sign, or even a blob with the mutilated parts of a doll attached.
Brandon White, 41, had the head of a giant teddy bear wearing a trucker hat on his. The inside was lit up so the eyes glowed, and hanging from the head were color-changing LED lights that looked like icicles.
“It’s so you can find your people,” he said.
Linette L. Derrick’s simply said “sick concert.”
“It’s an inside joke because it’s a festival, not a concert,” L. Derrick said in a deadpan tone.
L. Derrick, 25, and her boyfriend Doug Penny, 29, traveled from Vancouver, British Columbia. They looked as though they had been cast in a movie about hoarding resources after nuclear fallout, though when asked how they put together their ensembles, they looked puzzled.
“I wear this every day,” Penny said.
— Reporter: 541-383-0376, firstname.lastname@example.org