Nearly every summer, my husband, son, and I parlay communal living into a catalytic, mass-camping "they-cation" with 60 other ringleaders, earth mamas, players, appreciators, and their children. Once a demure arriviste, I've grown surprisingly accustomed to musical jams, hip dinners, theme parties, unstructured activities and philosophical debates in bathing suits. Here's how to do it in five easy steps.
Step 1: Terraform
Our group of friends and friends-of-friends bought lakeside property south of the Mason-Dixon line seventeen years ago, when a modest five-figure investment was enough for a little land that was totally raw. Over the years we've acquired some 200 acres, which have gradually been subdivided into common spaces (fields, woods, waterfronts), neighborhoods, and individual lots. Continuous improvements and community structures — notably a kitchen, a gazebo, barn-condo ("barndo"), bathhouse, and hot tub — now offer modern conveniences to friends who first operated out of a painted bus parked by a waterfall.
No-frills travelers bunk in chairs, hammocks, tents, and campers; early builders have opted for simple cabins and, in a few cases, actual second homes, complete with AC and recording studios. Many still plan to build; some of us have no intention of building anything more than a tent platform or a drum circle.
If you happened upon us, we'd resemble something between a planned community and a family reunion in a pre-concert parking lot with private toilets and refrigeration. We're still evolving. But our early years prove you don't need more infrastructure than what's offered in most parks to recreate our brand of fun in any neck of the woods.
Step 2: Rally a Horde
Our annual get-together is made up of freewheeling college friends and luminous associates gathered from childhood, global romps, and romantic attachments. The social core radiates a playfulness that keeps things light when leathery neighbors on horseback drop by to bum cigarettes or the ice machine breaks down. Our humor levels the kibitzing that accompanies our self-governance and constant adaptation through economic, tribal, and relationship changes. A team of energetic problem-solvers predisposed to sequins and sarongs (and, helpfully, engineering degrees) will usually find the best design for a bridge while remembering that it's 5:00 somewhere and dress for it.
Step 3: Be Gravity-Free
Knowing how to do nothing together is a trick I had to learn. Loose timelines and improvisation have taught me that important things like hydration and child surveillance don't really require stress or muscle in a village environment. Everything rises and falls and the community sustains us. I know from experience that quirky and amusing moments are waiting for people who hunt for coffee filters together.
Step 4: Do Little, Well
We lounge, play pick-up music, tell stories, and have massages during our week outside. Children run and play without many rules; teenagers roam in a shy, impenetrable pack. But at night everyone convenes to throw costumed soirées, group dinners, and dance parties. Our resident pyros always guarantee a fireworks show, and we hold what I assume is everyone's single bikini-clad business meeting of the year.
Step 5: Eat Richly
Many hands do make light work. From our magic hats and open-air kitchen we produce authentic Thai and Indian dinners, all-day pig roasts, exotic soups, salads, and cocktails delivered by sweaty prep teams in batik. Anything is possible with one sharp knife, a blender, and bleach.
And now, the Practical Essentials.
What to Bring →
Astra's Packing List
- Festival accessories: body glitter, glow sticks
- A camera
- Anything for trade
What to Explode →
Chris's Fireworks List
A budget of $500 will yield a 15-20-minute display that meets crowd expectations for a real show. (Increasing time or budget only breeds repetition.) Design and shop with these product categories in mind and skip the bundled packages:
1. Mortar shots: Fireworks that drop into reusable tubes with 1-4 shots in a single fuse. These go high in the air with each shot delivering one effect. Spend roughly $175 on mortars and don't waste money on anything less than $15 to avoid disappointments.
2. Table-top launchers: Multiple shots in sequence on a single fuse. These don't go as high as mortar shots but provide a lot of action. Allocate $175 for these.
3. Finales: Single-fuse fireworks with multiple shots rising high in the air and saved for last. Spend about $150 on two big ones.
What to Drink →
Debu's Chocolate Espressotini
2 shots chocolate vodka
1 shot espresso
½ shot Baileys
Shake chilled ingredients together over ice and strain into compostable cups. For especially hot evenings, 1-2 ice cubes per drink permitted. (Stir in a shot of Guinness Stout before pouring for variation.) Grab a napkin and don't forget to attend to the novices.
Where to Eat on the Road between New York and North Carolina →
The Green Room Bistro and Juice Bar
36 W. High St.
Carlisle, PA 17013
Wildflour Café and Bakery
1212 4th St. SW
Roanoke, VA 24016
The Black Sheep
901 W. Marshall St.
Richmond, VA 23220
371 Merrimon Ave.
Asheville, NC 28801