Standing in line for a two-story waterslide on a floating DJ stage in the middle of the Woodward Reservoir, surrounded by brazen nudity, sunshine, inflatable unicorns and good vibes as far as the eye could see, it hit me: This is real life. This is actually happening. This is Symbiosis.
I scrolled through the Symbiosis Gathering Instagram feed prior to arriving at the festival to get a sense of what I was in for. The photos depicted a sun-dried grassland half eaten by lake water, high on vibrance and boosted saturation. They almost looked fake, but upon arrival I quickly realized just how real they were.
To say I was unprepared would be an understatement. I brought my swim trunks, a dust mask, every gifted crystal I could scrounge up and all the camping essentials. In that aspect, I was covered. I was not, however, prepared for the sort of symbiotic energy I can't unfeel and the surreal experiences of which I continue to try to make sense.
It was my first time at Symbiosis, or any alternative festival of similar nature. I was a blank slate. There were a few acts I wanted to catch - like Branko, Seth Troxler and Sabota, and I planned on attending a morning acro yoga class as well as catching a seminar or two. Ultimately, however, I’d make it a point to let the plumes of dust and infectious smiles steer my course.
I arrived at the festival campgrounds Friday morning in the back of a farm truck turned shuttle just in time to greet the rising sun. The shuttle guide, blunt in speech, helped unload my gear - and there I was, after a seven hours of driving from L.A. and three hours in the camping line, dropped off in the middle of a domestic oasis with 15,000 other humans eager to hit the reset button. For the next three days' time, normality and my social constructs had absolutely no bearing.
After a short nap between daybreak and enduring the scorching heat, my campmates were up and ready to start the day with a morning swim at the girl’s camp; a group of girls I knew arrived earlier in the week as a part of the permaculture experience and snagged a piece of prime real estate on the bank of the lake close to the festival entrance. I threw on my swim trunks, gradded a floatie and made way across the campground.
The most noticeable thing along the banks of the Woodward Reservoir was the nudity. Naked people were everywhere - but it was flagrant. In fact, it was the calming variety, enjoyed in large part by women. The lack of clothing set a tone of comfort, confidence, safety and acceptance that permeated the festival as a whole. Nudity was freedom.
Once inside the festival, I was awestruck. Symbiosis is, quite simply, another world - a combination of Neverland, Mad Max, and Waterworld - where the culturally absurd becomes an accepted norm. Gypsy tents lined every path, tea houses provided free refreshments and conversation, and live art occupied every nook and cranny.
The most unreal of the many fanciful stages at the Gathering was easily Swimbiosis. The stage was 72 straight hours of pure, unadulterated sensory overload. Besides amazing sets throughout the weekend, including an unforgettable Desert Hearts dance party, Swimbiosis acted as a cultural hub with live painting, slacklining, and performance art surrounding the stage.
Looking back on my first experience at Symbiosis, no particular day, artist, attraction or moment stood out as a favorite or most memorable. It was all one amazing experience that constantly kept me in awe. I ended up seeing a few of the acts I planned on seeing - Branko and Seth Troxler were amazing, and a few pleasantly surprised me, like Desert Dwellers and Opiuo - but I missed out on the seminars. Instead I talked to strangers, friends of friends, and enjoyed the company of those around me.
Symbiosis floats in a space between reality and fiction, where time (and even the sun) has no bearing. You nap when you’re tired, party when you’re ready, and eat, hopefully, when you’re hungry. The sights, sounds and scenery seem to unfold in real time as a manifestation of a collective consciousness focused on reveling in the present.
Symbiosis isn’t a festival. It’s a true culture; a state of mind. It is a world actively created and experience by the people that are there in the moment. It’s temporal, yet everlasting. The music is loud, but the conversations are quiet. Eye contact is key.
Symbiosis reset my concepts of what a festival is and can be. It is place where land and water, night and day, man and woman, roar and whisper become one. The music doesn't stop, neither do the smiles, and the dust never settles. I’ve never felt so dirty and I’ve never felt so clean.
Symbiosis Gathering 2016 was the final edition of the festival that will be held at the Woodward Reservoir in California. In 2017, the Symbiosis Group will instead be throwing the Oregon Eclipse Gathering on August 17-23. Details still have yet to be announced.