Telluride Contest 1
My first day at the thirty-fourth annual Telluride bluegrass festival is my first brush with festival grandeur. Jim is our camp site’s chief of staff. He is lean with grey-hair and eyes that sparkle with the responsibility of task delegation. When we meet my fingers almost disintigrates in his handshake.
Though he salivates over duties like staking out a campsite weeks in advance, Jim’s true passion is for the line.
To some, the line is maddening. I hear two women in the bathroom bitching about it later in the week.
“Come on, it’s five p.m.; the doors don’t open for eighteen hours. Are these people for real?”
Oh, Jim is for real. He is the first to plop his lawn chair next to the fence; the first to invoke comments like “Oh shit, line’s started,” from passerbys. The first one in line to practice the quick snap needed to open a tarp when the pressure’s on. And then, when it seems there couldn’t be any more “first” titles to attain, he’s the first to give up his spot in the front, because “you can’t be first all the time.”
Yeah he’s for real–for good reason. Every morning around 6 a.m. a man named Bill rides his bicycle down the length of the fence and distributes numbered sheets of paper starting from one (front of the line) to a triple digited number at the end. When the gates open at ten a.m., those bearing numbers are allowed into the park to lay their camp’s tarp (its spectator spot for the day). They are staggered by a few seconds, which is where the height of competition kicks in. Even if you’re first in line, a stroll to the front won’t secure you anything. And even if you’re fast, you’ve got nothing without a quick tarp fling.
The tarp run–the festival’s legendary spectator spot–is important enough to turn a campsite into a highly structured office room. Jim pulls out the spreadsheet five minutes after we pull into the site. Each day is divided into five shifts: early evening, late evening, overnight, morning relief and tarp runner.
Day one of the festival I’m on my first tarp run. I stroll up a couple minutes before nine and find Jim stretching next to Tracy, the thirty-something year-old school teacher in our group.
“Oh, uh, hi Kaitlin,” he says. He clears his throat uncomfortably.
“Well, I didn’t see you this morning, so I thought you weren’t going to show, so…”
…I was replaced by the next available fit chic on site.
The next day, my make-up shift, I am more prepared. After sleeping out overnight to secure our site’s spot in line, I take my stretching stance next to Jim more visibly determined. I’m wearing my “tough shirt” (a beat up, hand-me-down camouflage tee), slick black nylon pants and a red bandana. I jog along the fence to warm-up and return to learn the proper tarp-flinging technique. Despite Jim’s confidence (“You’re a runner, you’ll definitely pass somebody.”), my stomach is doing motor-cross loops faster than Sam Bush can twiddle his fingers on a mandoline.
A bag pipe recording sounds on the loudspeakers and we are escorted to the Festival’s entrance. There are scattered cheers as we halt before a festival guard. The music shifts to banjo bluegrass and, one at a time, we explode through the fence, leaving a cloud of baseball diamond dirt in our wake.
We get to the front left (our objective), no one passes us and and we line up right behind one of Jim’s line buddies. I do a little victorious booty shake, and we collapse onto blue tarpaulin.
As we rest, the back field is rapidly eaten by checkered shades of blue, hunter green and black. I give a snort of contempt when I look at how far back some of the tarps are falling.
Few of them will see Emmylou Harris’ wrinkles with as much clarity as we will. Few will see Jeremy Garrett from the Stringdusters stroke through half a set with three broken strings.
We can count them easily from our supreme seat.
Most will probably still see Adam Duritz sucking on his oxygen mask mid-set. That one’s hard to miss.