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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2007/08/22
by David Steinberg

Festivals Local – an Epic Tale of Heroism

One of the problems of living up in the northwest is that festivals tend to avoid this area. It might be due to the weather or increased distances between towns or antiquated laws (not to mention the shadiness of the Shakedown Festival), but the String Summit is about all we get. Fortunately, the trend started to shift this year.

Flowmotion's Summer Meltdown to receive more attention, perhaps due to people loving its wooded location. Island Festival debuted, bringing a festival to the west side of Puget Sound. And yes, String Cheese Incident – along with Peak Experience – decided to return one last time to Horning's Hideout.

In honor of what will most likely be my final Peak Experience event, it seems appropriate to explore The Hero's Journey. Joseph Campbell wrote about the mythic structure that underlies many stories. Much how the mathematician abstracts theory from the physical world, he looked at the structure that stories share and studied that instead of any one particular tale. While not every story follows this structure – David Brin for one is adamant about telling non-Campbellian tales- a lot of classic myths do conform to it.

Is attending a festival really a heroic feat? Why not? There's sacrifice and revelations, poor food and amazing adventures, and occasionally people even converse with gods. The markets of Faerie resemble Shakedown more than anything else, with the bright clothing and the mysterious items for sale. Festivals lie beneath the surface of the mundane world, unnoticed to most people, but promising illumination for those who venture there. In an era where reason rules supreme, it's not as easy to find quests and adventures. You might not save the world but many tales are of personal journeys. For that, festivals can serve quite nicely.

Step 1: The Call to Adventure

The announcement of Karl Denson at Island Fest followed by Horning's the week was indeed a call. Preparations were made, costumes were created, and alliances were formed. If we’re going to quest, we might as well do it correctly.

Step 2: Refusal of the Call

Festivals have always been about traveling. If you are going to Wakarusa or Langerado from Seattle, you have to have tickets purchased well in advance. The additional commitment forces your hand. For all of their advantages, there’s one issue with local festivals – you can play them by ear. When you wake up to yet another grey sky – Seattle has not been having a summer this year – your interest level might be reduced. Seeing an article warning of the potential of 5 inches of rain across the Sound is likely to destroy it.

I apologize Island Festival. You seemed like a great time and all that, but Karl Denson and Creeping Time just weren't enough of an incentive to deal with the front. It did sound like a lot of fun and I hope to go next year.

Step 3: The Long, Dark Night of the Soul

I wasn't sure what to expect from Horning's this year. Rumors came forth from 2006's Northwest String Summit of invasive security. Past years have largely had a laissez-faire attitude which seemed to fit the venue very well [1]. The complaints from neighbors were going to have some effect, but no one knew how much.

The other change for this year would be our camping style. We were going to camp with our friend Karly and her daughter Summer. I've never spent a festival in family camp before.


After setting up our camp in a bizarre spot [2], we headed over to the venue. Security was indeed increased. They actually had a drug dog parading through the venue and we witnessed a policeman escorting a fan from the seating area right after we arrived. It didn't set a good omen for the weekend.

Peak chose that time to stage a "workshop" on how to dance up front. The goal of it was to encourage the traditional rail riders to share their space. That's a noble goal, but their methods weren't the best. At the same time as the police were wandering through the crowd, busting people, people were onstage telling stories about trading pot for closer access. Fortunately, it's not likely that law enforcement was paying any attention to their speech, but it was frustrating at the time. Just because you know you're safe from searches in the backstage area, doesn't mean you should ignore the potential consequences of your actions. [3]

While this was a little irritating, it would have been quickly forgotten if the show had been better. Unfortunately, this night was techno-Cheese. There were a few bright spots (e.g. "Rivertrance" and "Ring of Fire"), but it was largely not to my tastes. Even that could have been forgiven, but the worst part of the night was yet to come. The grounds were arranged poorly and we were about to face the brunt of that.

One of the reasons we were so willing to camp with the families – other than the challenge of spending the weekend matching wits (and frequently losing) with a bright pre-teen – is that we figured it would be a quieter environment. As my 30s are rushing towards my 40s, I no longer want to camp where the excitement is. Give me a quiet, non-sketchy place to sleep and let the people who want to party all night do so somewhere else. Unfortunately, that would not be the case. Family camp was put right near one of the all night DJ camps.

I don't know who decided on that plan, but it was a horrible idea. The music didn't get quiet enough to facilitate sleeping until well after 3 AM. When I finally did fall asleep, I was woken at 6 to the sounds of people banging on trash cans, screaming, "WAKE UP HORNING'S!!!!" The long, dark night of the soul wasn't quite as metaphorical as it usually is.

Step 3: Temptation

I stumbled around in the early morning, wanting nothing so much as to leave immediately, but the tickets were expensive enough that it seemed silly not to give the band another shot. Instead, I went for my secret weapon. Two years earlier, I found a really cool wand for sale by the lake. Being purchased at the Hideout, its powers were likely to be strongest there, so it was packed. I walked to the car, grabbed it, and cast a spell that the weekend would improve. That might have been the turning point.

Ok, to be more accurate, the turning point was the second set. Standing on the hill wasn't giving us the experience we were hoping for, so it was time to give rail riding a shot; if nothing else we could get some good photos.

While the photos were taken, far more important was the music that was played. The energy was much higher than the previous night. They secretly replaced the techno band with an all weather mountain dance band and we definitely noticed the difference.

Saturday night at Horning's is about exploring the grounds. Our plan was to check out what was on the far side of the lake, but getting there would be a challenge. You see, between our campground and the lake, there was a carefully laid out trap, an elaborate construction of sequenced colored lights.

Much like the call of the Sirens, the light installation was an irresistible attraction. It was visible from the main path, leading to people frequently warning their friends not to look lest they be enraptured. Those who were unable to muster the force of will to resist sat there for hours. It was a pleasant enough diversion, but we had a goal. There was something on the far side of the lake and we had pledged our honor on visiting that area before sunrise. Begone foul lights! We have a mission!

We wandered through the camp, amazing at our fortune to have escaped. Past the playground we wandered, over to the lake. At the quarter mark, some creatures emerged from the darkness. Glowing jellyfish [4] were cavorting on the bank. Were they allies or enemies? Was their goal to guide us with their lit costumes or were they going to trick us into wandering into the lake? Much like the trickster gods of – well – Campbellian myth, they were neither. They just wanted to play, sometimes leading us towards the promised land, others directing us dangerously close to the watery depths.

So what was on the other side of the lake? Eh, not that much. The highlight really was a magnetic poetry board. To be honest, the lights were more interesting, but Hell frequently comes across as more attractive than Heaven. Why should this be any different?

Step 4: The Ultimate Boon

Sunday came, and with that came my final String Cheese Incident show. Saturday had reminded me that I actually liked this band and made sure that I was going to have an enjoyable weekend, but Sunday was to be something different. My final show wasn't a pleasant diversion for an evening; it was one of those shows that inspire people to write rambling columns comparing concerts to hero's journeys.

The setlist – especially for the second set – was largely pulled out of my favorite songs. While the jams weren't the longest, they were all well placed. The show was good, very good, and then, just when I figured that I was going to have a blast even if they didn't give me my "Black Clouds," out it came.

When you ask me what I will most remember about Horning's, it won't be hanging with some incredible people at camp. It won't be the costumes. It won't even be trying to make walking across a field into a major accomplishment. Rather, it will all center around three minutes of music. The "Angel from Montgomery"-esque theme is one of my favorite pieces of music that String Cheese has written [5]. The transition into it was sloppy, but once they got there, they built it quite nicely. By the time Kang got to his mandolin riff at the end, I was jumping as though the nine years since my first show had never happened. For a brief period the jadedness was gone, leaving me with a moment of pure joy. The long, dark night had passed, temptation had been conquered, and now I was receiving the reward.

Step 5 – The Magic Flight

Sunday night at Horning's is always a little weird. Portland is just far enough that the post-show drive is difficult but just close enough that it seems silly to camp another night. As always, we started to creep out with the encore. We were halfway to the lake – when much to our surprise – the band came out for a second encore. Should we stay for it or start the trek back to reality? The band seemed to know our dilemma and answered it for us with their selection, "Way Back Home." We rolled down the windows and listened to the end of the show. That was the protection we needed to help us travel the 200 miles back to our bed and our kittens. It was time to take the quest and reintegrate it with mundane reality.

Step 6: Future Quests

Right now, it does seem like doors are closing. The end of String Cheese Incident means that another summer plan is gone. It's frustrating to have to scramble to figure out what to do with vacation time instead of trying to find ways to stretch it as far as possible. That isn't a completely bad thing though. Summer 2008 might be wide open for me right now, but that also is an opportunity. I'm looking at you High Sierra. Come on Island Festival. You both seem like wonderful events. Provide that last bit of temptation to lure me to you. You guys have a great opportunity now. Provide that call to adventure, and people will follow.

Author’s Note: I want to thank
“ this rather good summary of The Hero’s Journey”: to help me in writing this column.

[1] Having said that, there were some creepy stories about very sketchy events occurring in the back of the parking area.

[2] Getting to our tent required us to ford a stream and walk through some brush. It was really fun after shows.

[3] That paragraph is reflecting my view at the moment. Fortunately, the overblown security mainly seemed to be focused on that first set. After it got dark on Friday, they figured they had made their point and pretty much disappeared. I didn't hear of any arrests, so odds are the people they caught were just given tickets. It was a scary moment (especially after experiencing 2006's Wakarusa) but ultimately wasn't a big deal.

[4] Ok, people in jellyfish costumes, but you have to give me some poetic license here if I'm going to make an epic out of visiting some art installations.

[5] My absolute favorite is "Glory Chords," but "Black Clouds" is a much better fit for Horning's, both due to the setting of the venue and that they have a history of playing it there. It wouldn't be Horning's without a "Black Clouds."

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at

He is the stats section editor for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at

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