Two hours near dusk. Unlike last year, August 9th in central Nebraska is perfect 70 something degrees, green, and cool and wet at night. Hundreds of jeeps and lifted pickup trucks and maybe a handful of Wagoneers and Suburbans with their doors removed descend upon the winding, marsh-like path of the Platte River. The Jeep Jamboree started on Friday, but B and I arrive just before the second and last night of the festival, which included a performance by Whiskey Bent: 100 Proof Country, whose lead singer is rumored to be the owner of the one and only bar in Marquette, and site of my first interaction with fried gizzards last summer, the Don’t Care Bar and Grill.
I had passed on a group outing to the Don’t Care the night before. Despite my fond memories of the place, I was anxious about all the attention that a group of artists from the mysterious Art Farm would garner as we entered; the probing questions that would be stitched with distrust and curiosity and I would be so distracted by it that I knew I wouldn’t be able to relax, be myself, maybe meet someone on equal footing.
Bethany/Beelicious, a builder and artist who just trekked from New Mexico to land in the Art Farm and find that the place is exactly what she needs, has a contagious enthusiasm. She is right in the middle of finding and wading in one of those one or a few in a lifetime experiences of stepping foot in a place that makes her heart sing. During a day at the Art Farm, in the middle of instructing me on how to re-route the water supply in the house from the washer to the hose so I can wash out the filthy shop vac, she looks for the words to convey what this place says to her. I can watch her but I can’t join her. The Art Farm is my savior too, but it’s not the same savior as it is for her, and she is feeling fulfillment and manifestation of something wider that includes the fact that her very great grandparents were homesteaders here in the late 1800’s. She’s visited a gravesite and chatted with a librarian who knows at least a little bit of where one possible descendant still lives in the vicinity.
I envy the way central Nebraska has offered her a return to love and a creative well. I watch her grasp for the words that capture what she’s feeling and realizing and, well, birthing, for lack of a better word. I want to say something that’s a combination of “I’m listening” and “It’s okay that the right words aren’t here” and “This is an unraveling revelation” but as happens so many times when someone experiences something bigger than the two of us, that encompasses more emotions and thoughts than I can respond to at once, I mumble and trip over “I hear you.” I feel exhausted in the face of the swirl of energy that she is tapping into here. But not because of her, or the energy she is getting from the Art Farm. Because as usual, I tried to answer it, to say the right thing in response to someone’s intense experience, and as usual, that’s impossible.
After several turns down the wrong river roads, we finally found where everyone was headed, turned off 14 in the direction of a small neon sign, and walked down a muddy road jam-packed with parked RV’s, trucks and jeeps with flags emblazoned with pirate skulls and cross bones with mottos like “NO SHOES NATION” Tents, coolers, tailgates, country music and maybe a little Lynard Skynard. Families, teenagers, older men and women, their dogs and their mud spattered lifted Jeeps lifted my spirits and reminded me with not a little pang of homesickness of southern Louisiana, even though I have never been to a Jeep Jam in southern Louisiana or anywhere else, even though I suspect I’m not entitled to be homesick for a place that was only my home for five years.
We walk through the crowd and the idling Jeeps who have exited the river and circled back along the dirt road in a line. We raise our beers in the direction of the guys who gave us directions before sunset, we smile and tell them that they were right–it’s worth the $10 to get in here and see this. The vehicles–maybe a hundred–splash in and out of the river using a steep incline and patient idling and circling back to re-enter the river and slosh around in the waterway all over again.
They exit, parade along the narrow dirt path choked with people and tents, circle back, and re-enter the river in some sort of choreography that is easy and intuitive. The first Jeep we see exiting the river is all smiles, and everyone waves at us from the Jeep, and that’s when I realize that this is the kind of annual event that people look forward to all year long, and we are welcome here. The driver clutches a Budweiser in one hand and offers us repeated high-fives with the other, his vehicle wet and full of his wife and two little boys in the back. The two kids have the widest smiles stretched across their faces and all at once I knew this ranks as one of the happiest days of their lives. Their mom and dad just put the whole family in the car and drove through the river. And then they did it again. And again. The mom leaned over, her neon tank top falling off her shoulder and revealing a tan line older than this summer. She laughed and high fived me and Beelicious a few times. The American flag posted from the top bar of the Jeep fluttered lazily and the foam cooler bungee strapped to the back bulged with a night’s stock. The boys eyes shine up at us. They will remember this weekend.
Beelicious called this giant-sized happiness, this feeling of community and the wide openness and the big sky, eternity, for lack of a better word, when you try to grasp onto a joy too wide to put your words and arms around. “And if this is eternity,” she said. “Everyone has access to it.”
We watch a young boy dance in front of the band. “He’s got the light,” B said, and grins and nods appreciatively. “And he doesn’t have to explain it to anyone.”
“Are you tired?” Beelicious asked me an hour later, and we’ve taken numerous videos of the gorgeous crunching and sloshing performances in and out of the river.
“Yeah,” I said. I look up at the sky and smile at the fact that once we were away from the band’s lights and the vehicles, I’ll see a quilt of bright twinkles before I go to bed here, in the old farmhouse called Victoria which is in constant partial re-construction and anticipated repair.
I remember how last summer, sitting on my friend Kristin’ sloping New Orleans roof, someone once asked me if I looked for the stars when I felt sad.
Yes, I do.