The Okeechobee Experience

Written by | Blog, Editorial, Editorials

The Okeechobee Experience

Words by Carly Rios


In recent years, the music festival has become a mythical beast that has taken over summer concert season. Everywhere, images of glamorously dirty, boho-chic waifs and crazy dudes wearing costumes circulate in articles about festival fashion; headliners try to outdo each other with CGI cameos, shock-inducing light displays, and spontaneous reunions; and festival regulars plan obsessively for the next year’s crop of weirdness, waiting impatiently for lineups and planning road trip schedules with their crews. Musical festival culture is increasingly prevalent, from genre specific one-day commitments to three-day camping experiences that offer a wide range of options. Which is why when I had the opportunity to attend my first festival this year, after my best friend chose a trip to the inaugural Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival as her birthday gift, I felt somewhat prepared for the experience. As it turns out, I had no idea.

A 13-hour drive, excluding a two-hour jaunt at a Jacksonville Cracker Barrel and a two-hour traffic jam, brought us to secluded Sunshine Grove in Okeechobee, FL, where we were greeted by dancing volunteers holding direction signs to the campgrounds, loopy after standing in the humid southern heat all day. Our campsites were larger than we thought and conveniently placed us in a lush, grassy field close enough to showers, port-a-johns, and the other festival activities that we felt comfortable and relieved that we wouldn’t have to resort to peeing in bushes or rushing late to shows that we wanted to see due to the distance of the stages. As soon as we hopped out of the car, neighbors on all sides of us began introducing themselves, welcoming us to the festival and showing us their campsites. From the first night, us festival newbies felt a connection with these unexpected hippies, a crowd of people all there for the same purpose: to enjoy the music and indulge in an experience.

Our first full day led us to explore the expanse of land that we had been brought to. The closest area was a man-made lake with a sandy expanse dubbed Aquachobee Beach, where tanned festival goers drank beer and casually played volleyball while listening to live music in the bright sun. Girls relaxed in crochet bikinis while others bought drinks from the bar nearby and threw up peace signs to passersby. We wandered through the smallest vendor village ever seen at a festival; whereas some festivals, like Vans Warped Tour, make a serious business out of packing the outskirts of the venues with an endless sea of tents, Okeechobee chose quality over quantity. We browsed through a hammock shop, a tent making custom shirts with pop culture patches such as Dragonball Z sewn on them, two handmade clothing boutiques, a vendor selling amazing glasses with dizzying lenses, and a store containing hats with solid wood, burnt design brims. We wandered over to a mysterious castle-like structure that, when we came closer, we found was made of recycled bottles, and as we entered, we were hit by an immediate sense of calm. Bells chimed lightly as we looked around and spotted a sign that let us know we were in a healing sanctuary. In front of us, a group of people laid hands on one of their members, who was bent over a healing crystal. Several people were scattered on mats, quietly chatting or meditating. Hammocks were strewn around the outer rim of the tent, filled with people quietly relaxing. We ran into two intertwining nets resembling butterfly houses, and gleefully spun in them like 5 year olds before exiting the sanctuary, feeling giddy and refreshed.

The two of us stumbled into a group of trees, expecting to find ourselves in the middle of a forest; instead, we found ourselves in an open, shady grove with festival goers peacefully coexisting on hammocks, sharing laughs and good vibes with all of those around them. We collected a few unsolicited high fives on the way out, and found ourselves in the middle of a group of black tents labeled Massage Therapy and Reflexology. Soft music hummed and bird chirps and chatter surrounded the area, giving the atmosphere a special sense of unity. As we walked back to our tent, we remembered that we needed ice, and stopped by the onsite General Store, where we spotted a Southern Falafel stand and an attractive sounding truck named The Velvet Cup. As I grabbed my piping hot order of fried Oreos from Southern Falafel and headed over to The Velvet Cup for a caramel latte, a young guy with clearly drug induced munchies stared at my basket and asked, “What are those?” Feeling engulfed by the peaceful environment I’d been immersed in all day, I smiled and said, “Fried Oreos. Do you want one?” He looked at me, slack jawed, like I’d just offered him the last piece of gold in existence, and slowly picked one up with a fork and ate it, savoring every bite. His donut order was called next, and as he passed by, he grabbed a new fork for me, plopped a donut in my basket, and without another word, shuffled off into the crowd. One for one, give and receive. I was overcome with starry eyed love for this temporary hippie commune we’d created on this beautiful piece of land, and that feeling carried me through the next two days.

I floated from concert to concert, meeting people from all walks of life who offered to let us borrow blankets and sweaters while we waited for acts to start playing during the 50-degree nights. I met a stripper with a four-year-old daughter who told us that we were the most grounded people she’d ever met and revisited our blanket three times in the same night for that exact reason. I met a girl dressed in black leather who exclaimed “Can I have your cheek please?” while I was walking through a field, then proceeded to kiss it and wish me a “good festival”. I saw many people wearing onesies, traipsing through the grounds in complete comfort and unabashed weirdness, toasting incessantly to the weekend and telling everyone to keep the good vibes going. I saw groups of girls camping peacefully and safely together, with everyone respecting each other and not daring to go near another’s campsite in a malicious way or attempt to harm another camper. I saw 60 people simultaneously square dance to “Little Lion Man”, even though there was no way that they all had known each other prior to that spontaneous moment. On our last night, as The Heavy played a set in the distance and I waited for Mumford & Sons to grace the stage after The Avett Brothers played an intensely beautiful show, I fell asleep peacefully under the stars, hearing the rush and chatter of other happy concert goers around me and feeling the cool breeze lull me calmly into a nap.

It’s not that everyone doesn’t go to a festival for the music; that’s what’s toted as the main draw. I saw the legendary Robert Plant bring a crowd to its knees with a ten-minute version of “Whole Lotta Love”. Hall & Oates played a hit packed Friday night show, where even in their late 60’s they jammed with the same kind of cool they perfected back in 1970. Mac Miller lifted the energy to an 11 and kicked off Saturday night with an energetic set that we actually heard from our tent before we even began walking toward the venue. Miguel was a sex-fueled spitfire, sweating it out all over the stage and yelping out with emotion through “Adore You” and “Coffee”. Kendrick Lamar brought his increasingly political show to an area often in the news for racial discord and proved a unifying presence for the diverse crowd. Skrillex played a pulse-quickening remix of his greatest hits for over an hour, then jumped right over to the Miguel-organized Pow Wow where he introduced a band comprised of John Oates, Mumford and Sons, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Win Butler of Arcade Fire, among others. Big Grams carried the energy over into Sunday night, with a lights show that blew the crowd away and an incomparable mix of trip-hop and synth pop that created a far-out vibe for the acts to come. The Avett Brothers impressed with an hour of tunes that turned me into a fan, while The Heavy, as I mentioned before, brought the funk and soul while the crowd waited for Mumford & Sons, who were the perfect closers for a festival all about good vibes, unity and simplicity. There wasn’t a sour note throughout the weekend performance wise, and the quality of the music made every cent of the ticket worth it, showcasing the festival experience as a once in a lifetime event to be cherished and taken seriously by the acts.

Funny thing though: as the weekend ended and the green grass of Sunshine Grove faded behind my Jeep, I wasn’t thinking about the ticket price. I wasn’t frustrated with the long drive that lay ahead, or the inevitable traffic I was stuck in. I wasn’t thinking of what the festival could have done better, or complaining about the port-a-johns, or thinking about when the last time I had showered was (okay, maybe that a little, mainly because I felt like I was reentering civilization and didn’t want to disgust the people who had washed their hair regularly). Instead, I felt a sense of calm, of peace, of purpose. As I loaded up the car and said goodbye to our neighbors, I reflected on the past weekend and the time that I had gotten to spend away from reality-no job, no school, no phone service. I felt accomplished, blissful, and already nostalgic, longing for just one more day to lay on the grass and eat fried Oreos while people around me gave each other flowers and offered free hugs.

Okeechobee taught me that festivals are not just money making machines. Festivals are life changing experiences, like yoga retreats and relaxation centers were created for. Music is what unifies people; when those people come together, amazing things happen. Music is a language that even the simplest person can understand; when a drum beat overtakes you or a bass groove makes you get out of your seat, you know that your mission is to enjoy and take part in something that was created for happiness. Music is what brings everyone together, but when people come together, experiences are created and memories are made through micro-interactions that are not easily forgotten.

As I laid in bed the night that I arrived home, dirty, aching, exhausted and starry-eyed, I couldn’t help but re-evaluate my life. I longed to hold on to the peacefulness and love-filled atmosphere that I had found. My life, as of late, had been in a shambles, and as I systemically thought through all of my commitments that I would have to jump back into the next day, I realized that the festival had taught me the most important, and timely, lesson that I could’ve learned: life is meant to be enjoyed. Those festival hippies had the right idea. Life shouldn’t be about rushing hurriedly from place to place, ignoring your own happiness and the happiness of your fellow beings. Life was meant to be really lived, not in spite of commitments, but alongside them. Life needs to have balance; there should be time to work, and time to take care of yourself; time to stop and dance to the music, have conversations with your loved ones, and still move your life forward, approaching everything with as much love and peace as you can muster while still understanding the ways of the world. Going to my first music festival changed my life in the most beautiful, heart breaking, and unexpected way, and while that means stepping away from Babetalk to better manage my time and experience the world around me, it also means that I will have the opportunity to better understand myself and work on re-balancing my life. Okeechobee showed me that music festivals aren’t just for music. They are for togetherness, self-discovery, and attaining understanding of yourself and those around you. As I move onto the next chapter of my life and away from this beautiful website community that I’ve been so blessed to be a part of through Babetalk, I take the lessons of the music festival with me and apply them to my life: love one another. Cherish your experiences. Learn from your mistakes. Stay grounded. And always, always, dance to the music.

Last modified: March 18, 2016