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Tents & Tantrums: A Festival Survival Guide for Families 

click to enlarge HILLARY HARVEY
  • Hillary Harvey

When I looked over again at the stroller, I could immediately see, even through that ocean of darkness, that my two-year-old son was gone. "Where's Iggy?" I shouted over the music to my group. I began frantically scanning their blank faces until my 11-year-old started to cry and clutched her little sister tightly. My husband's flashlight was already beaming between people on the hill where the kids had been playing at sunset. "We'll stay with the kids here while you look," my friend said, corralling my daughters close to his.

I turned in the opposite direction, trying to decide where Iggy might go. Among the thousands of people, the pathways between their blankets presented hundreds of options, and a rush of overwhelm threatened to flatten me. I suddenly wished I hadn't dressed Iggy in dark clothes that morning, or that we'd left before the last band. Then, I was walking toward the light of the food truck court, and unexpectedly, Iggy appeared in the middle of it, wandering slowly. I hurried toward him, and when I pressed my face to his, he was still silently trying to recognize me.

What was I thinking? When I approached Ani DiFranco to buy a CD after her set on a small stage at my first Clearwater Festival, I knew I preferred that experience to seeing music in anonymous concert spaces. Even in the mud of Woodstock '94, I was happier than at some smoky bar. I loved seeing A Tribe Called Quest and the Beastie Boys, my favorite bands at the time, take turns on a Lollapalooza stage. I loved looking at the festival lineup on the drive there, friends in each other's laps and stuffed into the car's hatchback. It was just how Woodstock, the town that raised me in the folds of drum circles formed on the village green, probably always wanted it to be.

Festivals hold promise in their paper wristbands. We walk their grounds because there's the possibility of happening upon something amazing. It might be the only time we go camping with a group of friends. It might be the only time we eat fried dough. And we bring our kids with us because a festival is a micro-utopia, where a community is built around similar interests and goals, even if just for the weekend, and where the boundary lines between people are more penetrable.

click to enlarge HILLARY HARVEY
  • Hillary Harvey

It's not like the stuff that's labeled "family fun," but is really just for the kids. Festivals are about exposure and discovery, but also about spending time together. Just like when you travel, festivals take you out of your element and into the adventure of finding a bathroom or something the kids will eat, which ultimately knits your group tighter as you experience something together.

That's what I was thinking about when I rented the alumni house at Bennington College with friends, so our families could spend a weekend with bluegrass and art at FreshGrass, held each September at MASS MoCA. We hoped to discover new music, new food, and to have some time together to play outside.

Living the Weekend Pass

FreshGrass is a big festival, so we chose a go-to spot in the back, where the sound of our tantrums, games, or quick getaways would dissipate quickly before bothering anybody. It turned out to be right behind the food truck that sold mac-and-cheese spring rolls, a score unto itself. One of us was always there, enjoying whatever happened on the main stage, while others meandered off on personal missions. Between the food, the open museum, and the three stages of music, we never even made it to the kids' tent.

Because we had weekend passes, we picked our moments—when there was something we wanted to catch, or a good time of day for the kids to enjoy it—and we stayed only as long as the kids were happy. Going to a festival as a family is about balance. Sometimes the kids need to do what the parents want; sometimes the parents do what the kids want. We got to know our limits, and scheduled departures so it didn't leave our festivaling on a sour note.

There was a moment when my 11-year-old and I found a spot at the small stage in Courtyard D, and Valerie June's music reverberated against the old brick factory walls. My daughter smiled, engulfed in this new music, with the hush of hundreds of bodies around us, and we watched the blue sky darkening above us like a James Turrell art piece. It proved addictive.

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