And So On
We were solemnly advised to fill our gas tanks in Maxwell. We peel our sticky city-white thighs off the bench seat and tumble out of the dust-crusted pickup truck. Even under the prosaic shadow of gasoline pumps, the air here is velvety and languid, silently kneading the summer chill of San Francisco from my bones. The setting sun spills empyrean rainbow sherbet across the sky, drenching the surrounding fields in rose-colored light. As the crickets begin to sing in the high grass along the road, two boys pedal up, followed closely by a shaggy, happy-faced chocolate Lab; they buy Popsicles and ride off into the slowly gathering dusk, laughing with their dog. The local sheriff watches us from a distance as we buy gas and several bags of ice; he stops us outside the gas station to see if anyone's been smoking marijuana, then follows us out of town.
A small general store is meant to indicate the next town. The two-lane road is flanked by endless tawny fields and lazy-eyed cows; it stretches into the distance and disappears into a hedge of hills. When we emerge from the hills, daylight is done and the darkness is absolute, making the store easy to miss; the sign says it's an inn. We inch down a dirt road, shining our headlights on tree trunks, looking for a note or indication from S.P.A.M. Records -- the small East Bay label responsible for the proliferation of free, all-ages, nearly illegal, marathon punk shows called Geekfest. Finally, we see a paper plate nailed to a road marker with the S.P.A.M. logo and the hopeful epithet "Libertatia" scrawled across it.
Mythically, Libertatia was a pirate enclave established in Madagascar by Capt. Mission, one of many such havens scattered throughout the seas in the early 1700s. Libertatia was considered "pirate utopia," one of the truest manifestations of supportable anarchy -- no written laws, only moral principles based on the concept of individual liberty. In Libertatia, all men (and women if they were handy with a sword) held an equal vote, regardless of race, creed, or station. (Liberating slave ships was a full-time preoccupation.) Booty was seized and shared equally, but theft from their own was soundly discouraged, as was gambling and drunken fisticuffs. Music was of highest priority, and musicians were expected to perform on call, day and night, except during Sabbath.
Modern-day Libertatia is a seven-day collaboration between the East Bay's Geekfest and the similarly minded, San Francisco-based Pirate Punx. The principles of the temporary community are similar to its predecessor: Everyone is equal -- in this case, gutter punks, crusties, pirate punks, geeks, gamers, and goons -- everyone should contribute, no infighting or theft is allowed, and music is essential. To this last effect, more than 100 bands have been invited to perform at Libertatia, on public BLM land, in 90-degree heat, near a lake, in the middle of nowhere, far, far away from the stifling authority of The Man. In line with traditional pirate economics, admission is free if you can get there and the population sustains itself on the surplus of commercial overproduction -- that is to say, vegan mush is served in the morning and vegan gruel is served at night, made with donations from Food Not Bombs.
Sounds idyllic, if you like really loud punk music and have faith in the honor anarchy inspires among gutter punks, pirates, and the like.
We follow the sporadic trail of S.P.A.M. paper plates through a maze of dirt roads winding around the dark perimeter of Lake Ladoga. The thin, talon-shaped moon offers only enough light to reveal the immensity of the lake and the improbability of finding anyone. Fish leap out of the silvery water, large-eared hares dart in front of our tires, families of deer stand near the road blinking sleepily at the headlights. Our presence means nothing out here. The stars are dizzying. As we head down a small dirt incline, leading to the lakeshore, a leering man suddenly pitches against our windshield, wielding a dark bottle of beer.
"Are you Doug? Is Doug in there?" he slurs, pressing his face to the windshield before lurching off into the bushes. We roll a few more feet and find ourselves in the middle of a semicircle of ramshackle tents. A generator rumbles in the dark to our left. Grinding music blares from the open windows of half a dozen cars. Cigarette embers glow rhythmically beneath low-hanging tree branches as the mouths follow our progress. As we position the truck, our high beams catch the gleam of empty liquor bottles and piles of crushed beer cans strewn along the shore and a drunk sprawled out on the sand with his head dangling in the water. Two friends stumble out of the darkness and grab his combat boots, dragging him through the mud by his boot laces. A pit bull barks loudly, straining the leash that tethers her to a nearby tree. Three other large dogs join in before their owners shout them down.
We decide to camp just over the hill.
The heat of the day starts at dawn and the lake feels like bath water. Fortified, I head over to Libertatia where most of the camp is still sleeping it off or wiping slumber from their eyes and lighting morning cigarettes. A few teenage girls with multihued hair stand in the lake drinking beer, waiting for the first band to start playing, but Libertatia wakes up slowly. John Geek, or John Mink as his mother likes to call him, brushes his teeth under the shade of a tree before going over to check out the morning mush. "This is thoroughly ridiculous, isn't it?" says Mink with an unassuming, good-natured smile. "Being out here for an entire week with a hundred bands. By the end of it, we should be mentally deranged and hallucinating."
Mink is the "King" of the Geeks -- a loose amalgamation of punk kids with a penchant for Dungeons & Dragons and live-action role-playing games like Amtgard. He has dedicated all his free time to offering music to kids in culturally deprived locations -- like his hometown of El Sabronte. His booking policy is simple: If you want to play, you can. It doesn't matter if you're good; it's not a moneymaker, it's an outlet for young musicians and fans. Libertatia is his three-year anniversary and farewell.
"Maybe, I'm getting too old for this," says the 24-year-old, with the sympathetic air of a Dungeon Master. "I need a life again. But there are enough other people involved. Geekfest will carry on without me."
Punks between the age of 16 and 24 with names like Yogi, Scary Mike, and Roberto Eggplantia slide into the lake as Mink announces the first band of the day. The music is loud and fast, and only occasionally good, but on the lake, with enough beer in you, singing "Let's kill all the people we hate" or "I'm shitting blood" is enjoyable as hell.
Throughout the day, people run into friends from back home -- Cincinnati, San Diego, Reno. They share beer, river rafts, and stories. They play with their dogs (Monsterface and Barnacle) and giggle over the previous night's late-night movies (vintage dog porn and Evil Dead). A 20-year-old mohawkan named Pubby Applemaggot pushes his keg into the water to keep it cool, and sits on it most of the day, watching the bands and dangling his boots in the muck.
Nineteen-year-old Brad Rollander strings green rubber snakes through his hair, covers his face in electric blue war paint, and attacks another Amtgard player with a foam battle-ax (it's only the first of many costume changes and clashes for Rollander). Dylan McPuke -- head of foam-sword warfare -- collects treasure donations for the scavenger hunt: cigarettes, beer, pot, canned fruit, whistles, mushrooms, baby food. He hides the "treasure chest" on Rattlesnake Island and turns the map over to Marcus da Anarchist, captain of the Pirate Punx. For the most part, the Pirate Punx stay in their camp at the far end of Libertatia, until dusk. They are a harder bunch -- more leather, tattoos, piercings, facial hair, and muscle development -- but their language is also sprinkled with D&D references like "orc club" and "shambling mound" and there seems to be no end to their sense of virtue: They all keep their dogs on very short leashes; they pick up plastic bags floating on the lake; they ask before borrowing other people's floaty toys; and they share their booty.
Da Anarchist was born and raised in San Francisco by parents who also organized free music for their peers.
"Music brings people together," says Da Anarchist from behind an intricately braided black beard and a large silver nose ring. "It's part of our nature and should be free for everyone. It shouldn't be restricted. On that, the Geeks and the Pirates completely agree."
As night falls, gruel is served -- quite a tasty improvement, I'm told, over the previous year's chow, prepared by chefs on hallucinogens -- and the last of the bands perform. Mink announces a dating game, but since the prize is booze, nearly all the volunteers are men. It's funny anyway. The Geeks hold an old-school hip-hop dance party. The Pirates discover someone has looted the treasure chest, leaving only empty beer cans and cigarette packs for the diligent scavengers who were playing by the rules. Da Anarchist is not pleased. (The night before, he was forced to expel a group from Libertatia for stealing from within the encampment.)
More bands play. Folks get drunk and pass out with their boots in the lake. Lazy, beer-filled days roll into lazy, beer-filled nights. And so on. As Saturday approaches, weekend warriors with simple synapses and Jet Skis move in on my side of the lake. They wake at dawn, roaring back and forth, back and forth, over and over again, spilling gasoline into the lake and shouting, "Yahoo!" They are relentless. They listen to bad reggae music. I realize "Kamp Krusty" (as Mink's roommate Stephanie Culhane coined it) is more peaceful. At least they stop amplified sound before 2 in the morning, wake slowly, and pick up each other's trash.
It's not surprising when the local sheriff speeds up to Libertatia on his wave-rider; it's just to chat and help out with the failing generator. He's glad the punks have shown up in June instead of July, when they are more likely to pass out from heat stroke. Culhane and Applemaggot (in an "All Cops Are Bastards" T-shirt and on several illegal hallucinogens) sit on the sheriff's wave-rider and pose for photos. The sheriff smiles but does not fulfill their wish to be arrested for a free ride.
More bands play. One of them is named as the spoilers of the treasure. They are put on trial by their peers. Sadly, justice cannot be served since their attorney is stinking drunk. They are thrown in the lake.
"Kangaroo court," says Mink with an air of mock disappointment. He announces the evening's late-night entertainment. Some-one returns my last cigarette, left lying by a tree. Someone else passes around a bottle of tequila.
Lazy, beer-filled days roll into lazy, beer-filled nights, and so on ....
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By Silke Tudor