Running of the Tarps

Run boys
Run, boys

An Insider’s Slant on Bluegrass

By Rob Story
Photographs by Brett Schreckengost
Summer/Fall 2009

* * * * * * * * * *

Thursday, 12:11 a.m.

It’s hard to say when Bluegrass truly begins. But you could make a case for just past midnight, after Wednesday has morphed into Thursday. This is when festivalgoers by the score forsake the comfort of their own homes and sleep in Telluride’s dirt—specifically, the dirt along the river trail near the post office and the bridge over the San Miguel River, marking the Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s west entrance.

Sure, the river gurgles quite musically by the post office, but it’s not like anyone camps there the 361 days a year that aren’t eves of the four-day festival. It’s just that the nights before festival days, it’s important to hold down a place in line—to queue up for the great dash to place tarps in prime viewing locales of the Bluegrass stage. Pamplona has its Running of the Bulls; Telluride has a Running of the Tarps.

Wardy and I unfurl our Therm-A-Rests and sleeping bags, determined not to repeat the mistake of 2007. That’s when we laid down with our tarp on the west side of the river trail instead of the east. Big no-no. Because the guy who comes around about dawn, bequeathing queue numbers to campers in the dirt, doesn’t recognize sleepers on the west side of the trail. Only the east. And if you, like Wardy and me, sleep in the weeds and miss out on the honor of those little blue plastic-laminated queue numbers—well, you feel sorta like a homeless bum.

* * * * * * * * * *

Thursday, 8:08 a.m.

The beauty of the little blue plastic-laminated queue numbers is that they let us campers get out of the dirt for a little while in the early morning. The Running of the Tarps proceeds according to the numbers, not first-come, firstserved chaos. Once we attain our number (29, in this case), we can go home and brush our teeth with water from our sinks, not the San Miguel. We take home our Therm-A-Rests and sleeping bags and return the River Trail to its rightful owners: Telluride’s dogs.

The line murmurs with anticipation and groans from hangovers. Still, the tarp runners look as fresh and perky as they will for the next several days. Wardy and I do some light stretching and attempt to, as my old football coach used to say, “open up the hips.” When it comes for #29 to take flight, though, speed doesn’t really matter that much. There’s still plenty of room near the front, and we get our prized, traditional spot at “looker’s left.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Friday, 11:30 a.m.

The art of Bluegrass Festival for some is the banjo picking. For us, the local spectators, it’s the bag packing. “Showpack” is the term we use for the messenger bag, or backpack, we lug to Bluegrass. The mini foldable chair and hula-hoop hang on the outside. Inside: sunscreen, cribbage board, crossword puzzle, clothes for when the temperature plummets 20 degrees between paolo nutini and leftover salmon (jeans, puffy, beanie), KOTO beer booth cup, plastic bottle of water, and plastic bottle that looks to contain water but is actually full of vodka.

Don’t forget the shades, either. A good pair of sunglasses will shield your eyes from harmful uv rays and yada, yada, yada. But they really come in handy for scoping attractive members of the opposite sex without getting busted for leering. Which brings up another Bluegrass essential: jargon, a.k.a. the ability to speak in code. My buddy—let’s call him A.A.—likes to watch the scenery and point out any girls he believes were “born in the month of Jug-uary.” (I never said A.A. was politically correct.)

* * * * * * * * * *

Friday, 4:17 p.m.

The KOTO beer booth has been jamming for hours already. As a consequence, the lines for the port-a-potties are significant— especially if you, like me, are milliseconds from crossing your legs and hopping up and down. strategy becomes crucial. do I head to a corner, where I am sort of in line for three units (one on the vertical axis, one on the horizontal, and the very corner unit on both)? or do I congregate behind male-heavy lines, figuring to benefit from elimination efficiency? I choose the latter and—given my quick relief—the strategy seems to work.

* * * * * * * * * *

Saturday, 6:44 p.m.

They show up every year, but that doesn’t make them any easier to accept. I’m talking, of course, about the serial water sprayers—the jamokes who pack a super soaker squirt gun in their showpack and then proceed to firehose cold liquid about the festival for hours and hours at a time.

In the white-hot blast furnace of noon, I can sorta kinda accept serial water sprayers. But not after cocktail hour. I want to ask the dork idly shooting ice water in a huge circle, “Are you a teenager? Or, more likely, a tourist? Because you don’t act like you live here. And if you do, you don’t have any friends. I mean, do you have any freaking idea how rare sunny 80-degree perfect days are at 8,750 feet above sea level? Well, nimrod, there’s about 24 or 25 of them all year. The promising ones in May get shut down by ferocious winds. in July and August, the monsoons ruin everything. so, dammit, let our June perfect days stay dry. We locals crave the hot, sunny dryness, alright? We want to roast our flesh the whole spectrum between brown and red. We get way fewer opportunities than you Arizonans or Texans for lizard-like sun worshipping. We sure as hell don’t need or want your super soaker effluvium, ok? This time of evening, keep your personal liquids to yourself.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Sunday, 2:03 p.m.

Telluride is always and forever a small town. The local politics and soap operas don’t go away just because Appalachian hillbillies and angelic Alison Krauss are performing. Take the couple, on a “break” right now, of M and J. My loyalties lie with my buddy J, so I spend most of Bluegrass on his tarp. But, like other friends caught in the middle of their problems, I can’t just ignore her—so I now wander back to talk to her, and the dorky temporary boyfriend she imported from Austin, who’s boring as hell. Still, respects must be paid. That—and every Bluegrass—M makes the most incredible frozen margarita pops.

I really hope M and J get back together. They’re a great couple. And besides, those frozen margarita pops…

* * * * * * * * * *

Sunday, 7:54 p.m.

Locals, fried by four straight days of partying and sunshine, begin to reconsider their presence. It dawns upon them that they might have jobs and—even though it’s summer in Telluride—responsibilities. Still, there remain chances of magic, of encounters with new, perhaps compellingly attractive, people. Just such a girl walks into my Bluegrass orbit tonight. She’s all good. Can hold her new Belgium beer. Born in a month A.A. would approve of. And a runner, to boot (a veteran of the Imogene Pass Race)—which could come in handy next year, when it’s time to establish a tarp.