Road to Camp Bisco – D.S. Lyons
The Road to Camp Bisco
I grew up with Camp Bisco. Every hot and sweltering summer of my formative years was marked by the Bisco experience. Camp was a trial by rain, blood, and sweat from the ages of 16 to 24. I could easily tell you how every year my favorite musicians, artists, and producers took the stage like Gods; forming my putty-like mind with every note, improvisation, and flashing light. I could tell you a story that would suggest how these experiences molded me into the person I am today, or how so many of these sets and shows at Camp Bisco inspired me to follow my passion of drumming that would eventually lead to me sitting behind the kit in my band, SOLARiS.
…But if I tell you a grandiose tale of heart-healing inspiration, then you better believe that it’ll start with plenty of pain, pressure, and endurance. The following is that story: a brief anecdote that asks why we do what we do in that mud-pit every single year, and why we keep coming back.
Oh, and it’s also a story about horseshoe crabs.
Camp Bisco IV, Van Etten NY.
Approx. 6 am.
I couldn’t take it anymore, and I had to face the fact that I was starving all over again. The previous night I had slept out in the woods on a bath towel, sporadically waking up and feeling beer and festival food twisting its way through me and dragging its heels. In the night I could hear ominous howls, human or otherwise, ricochet off trees and encircle me while I laid awake. After the Biscuits had finished playing the night before, I tried to convince myself not to spend my last 10 dollars on food and a beer. I knew that in the morning, I would be completely broke and unable to get breakfast. Moments before bringing my bath towel out into the woods to collapse, I caved in at the smell of a nearby grill. I spent my last 10 dollars on a sloppy vegetable burrito and a Yeungling. What can I say? I’m a cheap date.
I emerged from the woods with my Birkenstocks and bath towel in hand, my feet slick from the morning dew. There is that moment in the morning at Camp Bisco when you realize that you’ve woken before everyone and there’s no turning back. The walkways to and from the tree line were empty and the festival had an eerie hush over the grounds that alerted me to the fact that it was still Camp-wide crash-time. I considered going back to bed, but using a knotted tree-root as a pillow under my bath towel the previous night had left me feeling like I had been in a car wreck. I decided it was time to get my life together after the day before had stripped me to the bone.
But perhaps I should elaborate first.
Kevin was working at the Brickyard that summer with me. He was wild-eyed, a bit dimwitted, and had the temper of a pit bull. His sweat always formed in aggressive beads on his militantly shaved head, rolling down to his lips and exploding when he barked commands at the crew. The Brickyard was an unrelenting work environment. The place was fully outside and away from shade, on the wrong side of town, and was completely naked to the elements. All of my t-shirts that summer lost their sleeves and all of my boots seemed to disintegrate. The Philadelphia area is humid, nearly amphibious, and that summer had all of the nastiest attributes of a Bayou swamp. I was stung, bit, infected, and exhausted. I won’t go much further into all that that, but what was important was that I wanted, and needed, a vacation.
One day at work, Kevin noticed the Disco Biscuits sticker on my new car and nearly went into a fit. We found that we shared the same obsession over the Biscuits, but Kevin hadn’t seen a show a show since Camp 2. His mounting bills, arrests, and substance problems had held him back from touring with the band for several years. I told him about how I had seen the Biscuits thirteen times already, and was completely in love with them as well. I also told him these would be Sammy’s final shows with the band, and we both consoled each other with the still-shocking news.
And thus a pact was struck between the two of us: Camp Bisco IV – come hell or high water. I had never been to a festival before and frankly had no idea what to expect. Just like my much older friends in high school, I thought I could put a considerable amount of responsibility and trust into Kevin. Unfortunately for my teenage self, responsibility was never concept I was able to fully gel with.
The day finally came and I excitedly prepared for my trip like any 16 year-old. I was more interested in what I was wearing than why, and picked my items without a hint of practicality. I forgot a toiletry bag. I brought only sixty dollars in cash. I didn’t bring a tent, pillow, or blanket because Kevin said that he had room in his two-person tent. I brought one pair of shoes: my still new Birkenstocks from Phish tour. I had my brand new driver’s license in my pocket, tucked inside my first leather wallet . A day before the festival, I received a call that Kevin’s car (of course) had died, so I was forced to take my brand new 2005 Toyota Matrix, which had less than 50 miles on it. In retrospect, preparing for and going to Camp Bisco IV was akin to walking onto a raging battlefield with a toothpick and pajamas.
We arrived in Van Etten, New York around midnight of the night before the Camp gates opened. Kevin told me he had a good camping spot for us to stay in that he used to frequent in the Ithaca area, but by the time we arrived at the camp ground I was already drained. I drove the entire trip with my hands at 10 and 2, my knuckles squeezing until they lost their color and feeling. It was one of the first times I had ever driven on the highway by myself at night and Kevin insisted on getting inebriated (obliterated) while I drove, endlessly fiddling with the radio and turning the volume up to levels that made my skull buzz. He was in a clockwork state of lighting up non-menthol Newports and chiefing them to the bone, despite me asking him not to smoke in my car.
That night we huddled around a very weak fire and Kevin imbibed in plenty of adult beverages, all the while proclaiming that he didn’t want to set the tent up and that he would prefer sleeping in his own lawn-chair. After he passed out with a half crumpled beer and fully smoked cigarette clutched in each respective hand, I spent a half hour in the black of night trying to erect the damn tent. I was met with no success and started to regret quitting boy-scouts before we reached the outdoorsy stuff (because all anyone could do was talk about Jesus). That night I had slept on my bath towel for the first time, curled up in the fetal position. I kept telling myself that the next night would be better once I could be snug and asleep in a tent. As I shivered myself to sleep I realized that bringing a sweatshirt or a pair of pants would’ve been wise as well.
The next day, my car was one of the first in line to get into Camp. We found ourselves pitched at a wild angle in my car at the top of a high and steep hill. As the line of cars began to snake down the hill behind me, I thought it was finally time to unwind. I cracked my first beer of the festival, of the day, and of the weekend. The lukewarm fizz hit my lips, and while it was probably something detestable like Bud Light, all I could taste was nectar. Then a fat and firm hand clutched my shoulder.
I turned around to see a Mad Max-esque ATV packed with four security guards stopped behind me. My first instinct was to toss my beer since I was underage, but before I could flinch I was already instructed to drop the drink and get my hands on the hood. Kevin was around the passenger side of the car and it looked like at any moment he was going to break off and flee into the woods. For a moment I considered joining him in his escape…but then I pictured myself as Arnold in “Predator”, running through the woods covered in mud making crude weapons out of sharpened sticks and screaming “Come kill me!” to the heavens. In the end I thought my allergies would end up getting the best of me, so I stayed put. Without saying a word to me, the security team began deconstructing the internal contents of my car. I looked down at the gap between my hands on the car, seeing my vague and distorted reflection in the shiny blue finish. For an instant my eyes met Kevin’s. He was livid, and in a hushed fury he whispered to me under his breath:
“Anything they find in there is yours. I ain’t going back. They can’t take me.”
I started feeling woozy. Was I still sleeping? One of the brutes walked up to me and told me to face him.
“Got a driver’s license, son?” he said, rhythmically chewing gum before and after the question.
“A…what? Yes, yes I have one,” I stammered, shoving a shaking hand into my back pocket. This was the first time I had ever spoken to an authority figure before, and surely the first time I was asked to present my I.D. for something other than a Rated-R movie. Although I was petrified, I was also titillated by the opportunity to finally present the little plastic card that labeled me as a semi-adult.
“Officers in Van Etten had a Toyota they were tailing with some suspicious cargo. Female driver, though. Looks like neither of ya’ll ladies are her. Sorry for the inconvenience,” the guard dog said, tossing my wallet back to me. I fumbled it in the air and all the change sprinkled out at my feet. “We’re just gonna have a little look-see in here and be on our way. Comprende?”
I nodded despite the fact that he was already past me and back to searching the car again. Kevin finally started looking like he wasn’t going to kill me, but I could see heavy beads of sweat cascading off his chin onto the car’s hood. After another minute of rustling through our stuff and taking some essential items from me, the goon-squad platoon departed on their ATV’s to shake down someone else. In the meantime I checked to see if I had soiled myself.
When we entered the festival I was covered in sweat and a bit drunk from the handful of nervous beers I drank in line. I needed to relax. I needed to re-up on remedies. We were finally inside, and Kevin and I hugged and high-fived. Suddenly it felt like the cloud had been lifted–and then Kevin asked me for money. I lent him everything I had for things that he “needed”. He promised to get me cash from the ATM (which didn’t exist) later in the day. I gave him 50 out of the 60 dollars I had brought, and in a flash he was gone. Turns out that with 50 dollars and some old friends, you can really have a party at Camp Bisco. Once I returned from exploring the grounds, I found Kevin with a gaggle of old tour buddies (all of whom were even more frightening and straggly than he was) gathered around our 2 person tent and my car. There were unhealthy dogs with bizarre names like “Anthony” and “Mango”, glass cases of crystals and trinkets that were either being poorly advertised or were just for show, and neon-riddled flat brim hats splayed across the camp site. Keep in mind that this was in 2005, folks. This was before Brownie wore a flat brim with his own face on it. This was when the flat brim kids were part of the scary crowd while true heads usually wore neutral colored Biscuits flex-fits. These kids were straight jungle-warriors, and my car had become an open-air market for bizarre and exotic wares.
For the most part, I could barely understand what they were talking about. It was like stepping into the middle of a foreign film without subtitles, or possibly like discovering a new planet with flora and fauna unseen to the human eye…but all much more disgusting than majestic. My food, drink, and various items I brought to Camp were already getting torn into by Kevin and his friends. I began to have a little bit of a fit over it and decided to explore for another few hours and let things blow over.
For the rest of the weekend I was shut off from my camp site almost entirely. Some of Kevin’s friends used my car as part of their camp site, basically building their community of tattered easy ups alongside my car so I couldn’t even get in it to sleep or change. At one point I returned to my car that afternoon and two guys who I hadn’t seen before in my life wouldn’t let me into my own car until Kevin came back to ‘okay’ it. The 2 person tent had 3 to 5 people sleeping in it at any given time, always including Kevin. In fact, after the first night was over, Kevin literally slept straight through the next 2 days of the festival until the very end. He ended up seeing 1 set of live music the entire weekend. God knows what else he was up to.
And so here we are again. I feel like we’re all caught up. It’s day two of Camp, and I had no money, no clothes, no tent, no friends, and no direction. For a while I literally wandered during the day begging for change and even selling someone a ten minute back massage for 5 dollars. It turned into 15 or 20 minute ordeal however, and my hands ached as much as my back and feet did afterwards. Broken, I made my way back into the woods as the sun began it’s descent behind the hill. It was around this time I completely rolled my ankle on a dirt path, snapping the top strap of my sandal. It was irreparable, and so the sandals came off. At one point I wandered up to clearing where a massive drum circle surrounded a smoldering bonfire. I took this time to bury my head in my lap and cry for a few minutes. It was bad enough that Sammy was leaving the band, did I really need to be dying while it happened?
I collected myself and began trekking back down the hill. The Biscuits would take the stage soon and no matter how awful I felt, I still couldn’t fathom missing a second of the show. On my way down, my nose began to wiggle as it picked up the scent of hot food. This is what I need. I stumbled barefoot down to a clearing where I saw a sign that said “Free Kitchen.” My senses began to burn and I quickly ran around the front of the table to see what I could get. A girl in a floral patterned drug rugdress smiled when I walked up to the table to order.
“Sorry,” she said grinning, “we’re all out for the night.”
The news hit me like a ton of bricks. “Then why are you smiling?” I grumbled under my breath.
“Why not?” she said smirking and turning away from me. I stood dumbfounded for a moment, and as I reviewed a summation of the past few days in my mind, I cracked again. My lips soured and my eyes squeezed, and again I started to cry. I walked away from the Free Kitchen, sniffling pathetically. Once again I felt a hand on my shoulder, but this time the touch was gentle and slow, the fingers feeling frail and boney. I turned around to see an eyeful of a human being standing in front of me.
He was shirtless, stood about 6″5, had wily red dreadlocks, and was holding a bowl of macaroni and cheese. I must have looked at him like a stray dog, and in that moment he reached out and handed me the food. I stumbled to thank him, wiping my red eyes and preparing my stomach for it’s first meal in nearly 24 hours. We sat together alongside the dirt path, and whatever His name was, He began to ask me about my weekend. I told him a tale of woe, exhaustion, misery, debauchery, and inexperience. He laughed with a tone of pity instead of complete condescension, and I felt his genuine empathy pouring out from next to me. I felt the love, okay? And the food was doing me wonders as well. It was then as my stomach finally stopped rumbling that I got a good glance at his bizarre backpack.
“What the hell is that?” I said, pointing at his bag. He whipped it around in-between his knees to show me.
“It’s a horseshoe crab, man. It’s my shell-bag.”
It was what he said it was: the hard exterior shell of a hollowed out horse-shoe crab made up the bulk of his bag. He told me he acquired in Atlantic City on the beach after a Phish show the year before. I looked at him puzzled, and he must have seen my jaded quixotic reaction to his coveted hippie item. The truth was that in my current condition, after the takeover of my campsite and the destruction of my first festival experience, I was pretty much hippie’d out. All I could think was “What on Earth am I doing here?” He sensed this darkness in me, and cradled the bag in his hand as he spoke.
“You know man, horseshoe crabs live all over the place. In different bodies of water, in different oceans, on different continents. But every year, like clockwork man, all of the horseshoe crabs go to the Delaware Bay. And you know why?”
I searched my mind and shrugged, but I could feel the words already starting to seep in.
“Because who knows man? No one does. Scientists don’t. Millions, and I mean millions of these guys meet up in the Delaware Bay, once a year, and they spawn. They have sex man, they–” he motioned with his hands. “You know. Anyway no one has a clue, dude. But they all need to get together. They all find their way to the exact same place. Force of God, maybe. But that’s what they do.”
“And you’re saying that that’s what we do?” I said somewhat sarcastically.
“Who knows man? I’m just talking about horseshoe crabs. Enjoy your dinner.”
The lanky red man unfolded his long legs and stood above me. I shook his hand genuinely and watched him saunter away. His story wrapped itself around my mind, curing the cancerous thoughts that had plagued me since the day before Camp. I felt something close to joy; maybe elation. I felt my adrenaline kick in, looked around my surroundings and just said to Hell with it. I threw my tattered sandals as hard as I could into the woods, and abruptly broke into a sprint. My bare feet slapped against the dry dirt and I began to smile wildly, yelling out into the air to anyone who would listen. I was alive, this was my heaven, and it didn’t matter that everything else had turned to ash. The Biscuits took the stage, the lights dropped, and like my ancestors before me and my cousins in the sea, I returned to the bay to spawn.
About a year later, I finally received my Camp Bisco IV DVD in the mail. I was shocked to open the disc jacket up and see myself standing right up front in a picture of the crowd. I was wild eyed and smiling with primal joy as I watched my favorite band on stage, at what would soon become my favorite festival of the year for seven years to come. And as I recalled how much the events of that year had changed me and how truly naive I was, I noticed that only a few inches above my devious, 16 year old grin was the word “Tranceformation.”
Sensible Reason is looking for submissions to our Road to Camp Bisco (RtCB) series. Please submit posts to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on how to write your own and examples of last years posts check out this link!