Communion in the desert

After our long stay in Bisbee and our quick jaunt through Sedona we went to Arcosanti, Arizona, a tiny utopian architectural community about an hour north of Phoenix, perched on the rim of a high desert canyon (picture Tatooine with cacti). A music festival called Form: Arcosanti was happening there that weekend, and we had tickets.

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Arcosanti architecture

We set up our Airstream right down the road at the Cordes Junction Motel, RV Park and 50s Diner Backseat Bar, in a no-frills gravel plot with neighbors close by on either side. It was cheap though, had full hookups (water, power, sewer), and there was enough WiFi and cell signal for us to continue working during the week before the festival started.

Next to the RV park was a huge, empty dirt field, and by Friday it had been converted to the main festival parking lot, dubbed Parkosanti, and was quickly filling up with cars sporting California plates and rentals from PHX. Parkosanti housed the booth where you could get your wrist band as well as a free shuttle service to and from the festival site, which was up a long dirt road in the village of Arcosanti itself.

After logging off from work on Friday we put on sunscreen, packed a tote bag with snacks, walked across Parkosanti, and hopped on a packed tour bus to the festival. Everyone on the bus was young and excited, and they had lots of gear. They all got off at the first stop, which was the on-site festival campground down at the canyon bottom. We were the only ones who weren’t camping, so we just rode the bus (now our private chauffeur) back up to the rim and the entrance to the main amphitheater.

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Tent city

The festival was easy and wonderful, like a tiny, comfortable Burning Man. It was capped at about 1,500 tickets, so even the biggest shows felt like high-school pep rally size at most. The architecture was retro and futuristic, with strange domes and ziggurats that you could climb up to sit on the roofs.

We went back and forth between the two intimately small amphitheaters to watch a bunch of bands we loved. Fleet Foxes, Courtney Barnett, Blood Orange, and Daniel Caesar were some of our favorite highlights. Beach House and Skrillex played too, but they went on after our bedtime. Again and again, the performers remarked that they’d never played a show like this or had an audience like this. Everyone was respectful and attentive, and It felt like we were part of something.

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Fleet Foxes from a few rows up

Each night we’d take the bus back to our Airstream, take hot showers, and sleep in our own beds. The next morning we’d make coffee, have breakfast, and walk out to the shuttle to take us back to the Arcosanti compound.

On Saturday at sunset we communed with nature on the opposite canyon rim. We were alone on the butte, and could have been anywhere, anytime in history in the great West. The lichen on the red rocks glowed neon in the sunset light, and the cholla cacti looked like a coral reef. We heard cheering from across the chasm. A slam poet who was opening for Blood Orange had started to perform, so we hiked back across so as not to miss the headliner.

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The canopy above the main amphitheater provided shade and whimsy
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There was ample time to relax and plenty of shade to recline

The staff at Form seemed to be made up mostly of LA festival kids, and they loved to drive very fast on the dirt roads. A funk musician associated with the festival gave us a lift in his SUV on Sunday morning when the official shuttle was late. As soon as the door was closed he floored it and turned up the music very loud (his own band, we’d later learn), and bragged about getting reprimanded for going 70 on the gravel. “It’s just a rental,” he said. We left the vehicle a bit shaken from the g-forces, and promised ourselves to never hitch any more rides.

That evening was the last night of the festival, and after seeing Hundred Waters at sundown (the Gainesville band who founded Form) we decided we were beat, and went to the transportation station for a ride back to the Airstream. We waited for a long time for an official shuttle to appear. Apparently the vans were backed up servicing the canyon campground, so we, along with a few other folks who were ready to call it a night, just had to be patient.

Finally a young woman appeared and said she had a set of van keys and could take us back to Parkosanti. She seemed to be working for the festival, and was very friendly, though something about her seemed a bit off. We loaded into the van while our driver negotiated a burrito for later from her colleague, remarking that she’d been consuming only Adderall and Diet Coke all day and didn’t want to throw up later from an empty stomach like she did last year. Courtney and I looked at each other as the sliding door slammed closed. The woman stepped on the gas and we shot out across the dirt road into the night.

Bouncing down the center of the two-lane dirt track, our driver started to tell her captive audience about herself. “I was born in LA,” she said. “But my family was poor and didn’t want me to get jumped into a gang, so we moved out to Arizona. I became a stripper anyway. Now I live back in LA and I’m trying to be an actor. Is anybody here from LA?” Most of the van said yes.

At this point our driver was turned around telling her story to us, only glancing back at the road occasionally, the van still positioned right over the center line. Another shuttle van approached us going the opposite way, and I thought, “we’re going to get into a car crash.” At that moment several other passengers politely interrupted the woman’s narration to urge her to stay in her lane, and she casually steered out of the way of the other vehicle without pausing her story. We made it back to Parkosanti unharmed, and as we disembarked our fellow passengers were giving each other looks like we had just survived something together. The glow of the festival utopia that day had burned off, and we were thankful to soon be heading back to the real world.

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Festival folk

We got up early the next morning to locate Courtney’s bus to the Phoenix airport (work trip, San Diego). Up at the airport shuttle station near the VIP tent area we were surprised to see that the person checking people in and manning the walkie-talkie was none other than our LA driver from the previous night. She was more sober now, though maybe still a little stoned. Her personality was just as big at 9am as it was at 9pm. She checked Courtney in for her ride to the airport without recognizing us from the night before, and we desperately hoped she wouldn’t be the one behind the wheel. Thankfully this shuttle bus was a real bus with a real driver, and Courtney made it on her way without incident.

After she left I went home and finished my work day. Then I took a meal at the RV park’s 50s Diner Backseat Bar and quietly eavesdropped on the local clientele. They were veterans, motorcyclists, and gun enthusiasts, none of whom seemed to know anything about the large and inclusive music festival that had just concluded up the road. I had assumed ahead of time that Cordes Junction would be full of other Form-goers like us, but in the end I think we were the only people at the whole festival who lodged at the RV park. The internet makes it look like the RV scene is full of #vanlife folks, technomads, and Airstream dwellers, but in reality we are almost always alone in a sea of retirees.

I went inside to pay for my beer, and a country karaoke night had started. I signed up and sang “Chattahoochee” by Alan Jackson. It felt good to perform for an audience of strangers. Somebody in a booth mused, “way down yonder on the Agua Fria,” which is a local river that for much of the year, including that day, was dry.

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