Shambhala 20: When Love Brings A Storm
Shambhala 2017 will go down in history has one of the most infamous and controversial music festivals of all time. Not only was this Shambhala’s 20th anniversary but it was also only my second year at the farm, and this year I finally got to experience the true promise of this uniquely singular festival. As I crossed the Canadian border and was once again surrounded by the familiar majesty of the Kootenay mountains, an inescapable emotion began to bubble up inside me. Few things in life come close to replicating the anticipation and excitement you experience when returning to Shambhala.
Prior to my first year at Shambhala, the stories and tales told to me by friends seemed fanciful and even unbelievable. Upon arrival, the reality of the Salmo River Ranch dwarfs any expectations or preconceptions you could possibly have. My first year at Shambhala was a complete dream, smashing through the boundary of reality into a wide world of unbridled opportunity. However, while popping my cherry last year was, of course, a seminal moment of my musical journey, returning to the farm in 2017 transformed Shambhala into a real part of my life rather than a wide-eyed summer dream.
Tradition, trust, and love are the cornerstones of Shambhala. You don’t get to 20 years of groundbreaking excellence by accident. Shambhala’s ability to blur the line between festival attendees and the festival staff is, in my opinion, what makes it a truly unique experience. Everyone on the farm is so deeply invested in the betterment and enjoyment of one another that a palpable network of admiration becomes apparent. For this reason, the decision to begin pre-evacuation protocol on Thursday, August 10, followed by the even more difficult decision to call off the final day of the festival off on Saturday, August 12, and then finally deciding to keep the party going on as planned Sunday, August 13, is a complicated and deeply emotional topic of discussion.
Love is the most powerful force in the universe. It brings people together, forges bonds and can change lives. Every single person at Shambhala is loved so deeply that their health and safety is guarded far more intently than at any other festival I have attended. So on Friday when news that the McCormick Creek Wildfire was indeed growing in size and closing in on the festival, Shambhala organizers had to make a decision out of love.Thousands of lives were thought to be in peril, and with a momentous occasion years in the making on the line, organizers did the right thing and chose safety over the celebration.
For me, this was a difficult pill to swallow. As I had mentioned before returning to Shambhala was like experiencing a dream become reality. The prospect of that reality being endangered was all at once sobering and mind-blowing. Sobering for the obvious reason that a place full of so much joy and love would have to be evacuated and mind-blowing because it proved that reality is inescapable, even in those mountains we all call home. The decision to evacuate was the right one. The air quality at the festival site was oppressive. Thick plumes of smoke blanketed the sky blocking out the sun and creating a Mad Maxian, post-apocalyptic atmosphere. I stood in the midst of downtown Shambhala unable to see a few feet in front of me blown away by the smell of burning timber. The situation was bleak, to say the least.
However, in true Shambhala fashion, something incredible happened. People became happier, laughs got louder and hope survived. With the knowledge that Sunday morning may have well have brought a mass exodus, the Shambhala faithful who decided to stay embarked on a nearly mythical endeavor. Saturday night’s festivities took on a completely different energy. We danced love, we danced for rain, we danced for one more day in our home. Countless hugs, kisses, squeezes, and smiles were shared Saturday night at every single one of Shambhala’s beautiful stages.
The reality that there could be no tomorrow did not diminish the love. In fact, it only stoked the flames of togetherness and unity. With the 20th anniversary possibly hanging in the balance, it was as if the universe itself dropped the gauntlet and everything lined up. There was no fear in anyone’s eyes just the acceptance of the challenge. We believed that together Shambhala could change the course of reality and maybe the flames approaching our beloved home would be extinguished.
Imagine my jubilation when the unmistakable pitter-patter of rain drops on tent flaps woke me up on Sunday morning. Once again I found myself questioning whether this was yet another dream. Sunday was not cut and dry, however. Shambhala organizers learned that the McCormick Creek Wildfire was no longer a direct threat to the festival sometime early Sunday morning. The mass announcement to continue with Sunday as planned did not come until late in the day.
Many friends and family still packed up a left. Even more had to turn around to get back in. Speaking to some staff members I did get a certain sense of annoyance at the lack of widespread communication from the very top. For example, the famous and beloved ANKORS tent packed and had to leave before the end of the festival. The decisions Shambhala organizers made were difficult, stressful but in my opinion always from a place of love.
Shambhala 20 was a wild tornado of emotions. Love built this festival into what it is, so it is understandable that the backlash was as severe as it was. In the end, love brought a storm that quelled the flames of doubt. We danced, we loved, we stressed but, Rich E Rich still played in the Fractal Forest Monday morning. Shambhala is not a dream. It is a real place, that faces real challenges year after year, but most importantly has real people who deeply care about it. Shambhala 20 will go down as one of the most controversial festivals in music history. But rather than dimish its reputation, I believe this year’s iteration solidified Shambhala’s status as the most legendary festival in North America.