I witnessed the end of an era. For 35 years, the Bele Chere music and arts festival has been held in Asheville, North Carolina. The city decided that this would be the last year the festival would be held, and I arrived in Asheville two hours before the end of the final day.
Bele Chere takes over downtown Asheville. Several main streets are closed off to vehicles. There are four music stages set up, this year featuring the likes of The Mountain Goats, Moon Taxi, and Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band. The pedestrian roads are lined with craft booths selling incense holders and handmade serving spoons. The area surrounding Pritchard Park is turned into a sort of food court, serving falafels and curly fries and deep fried candy. I’d often heard that there are places in this country where one can purchase a deep fried Twinkie, but I’d never but able to experience it for myself. I was torn, because they also had deep fried Oreos, Reese’s Cups, etc. I texted my dad due to his years of experience playing festivals to ask what I should try, and conducted an impromptu Facebook survey via my phone while I circled around the food options looking for what I should have for dinner before purchasing my deep fried dessert. Eventually I decided you only live once and skipped dinner entirely. The deep fried Twinkie is a classic, but the cake and fried batter leave something to be desired. The deep fried Snickers, on the other hand, is the stuff of dreams.
In addition to the wind chimes made from up-cycled utensils, there were a lot of opinions for sale at Bele Chere. There were several topless women who were exercising their right to expose skin with the same level of legality as men. I walked by a man holding a sign that read, “Ask Me About Free-Market Anarchy” as he began talking to a group of young men who had made the possible mistake of taking him up on his offer.
The most noticeable opinion came from a man standing on a step stool and speaking into a microphone. He had a printed sign proclaiming that “The Wages of Sin is Death,” and was able to keep a continuous stream of Biblical quotes and religious rhetoric going for several hours. Almost as noticeable were the 5-10 people that were commonly seen surrounding him. They also had signs, some hand written and some printed and crafted with care. Their signs claimed things such as “Being Gay is Sin-Sational,” “There is No God,” and “Free Bigotry.” Sometimes I heard people yelling to the crowd to disperse and stop listening to the man with the microphone. “Get the children away, don’t let them hear,” one man proclaimed.
I wandered over to the nearest music stage to find a sizable and eccentric crowd. They were dancing to the fantastic though not always danceable beats of Nahko & Medicine For The People. It was a hot, sunny day in July and many people in the crowd were shirtless. There were women with long skirts and dancers with hula hoops and dreadlocks. One woman was dressed it what looked like the Earth Child version of Princess Leia’s gold bikini from Return of the Jedi. I got up on top of the cement support of a streetlight to get a better view. The lead singer began a single note chant and everyone in the crowd put their hands up to his commands:
All my power people put your hands
recognize your sides are independent and restless
searching for purpose beneath the rubble and wreckage
forgiveness starts with me
stop blaming other people, take on the responsibility
a generation to come
may they live in a world without governments and guns.
I got down off my pole to allow some other festival goers the space. The singer began to sing that “we are the ones we have been waiting for” and the crowd joined in. If you didn’t know better you’d think the revolution was starting right then and there. By the time I left, the band had switched back to a dancing beat and the crowd was jumping up and down.
It was almost six o’clock and the festival was about to end. I walked towards the stage on Haywood Street where a bluegrass band was finishing their set. The lead singer introduced their final song, a lovely tune about infidelity and river crossings and “in true bluegrass fashion somebody had to die before it was all over with.” He also introduced a photographer, and told us we were all about to be a part of Bele Chere history. At the very end of the song the photographer was going to run out to the middle of the stage and take a picture of the band with the crowd. It would be the photo to mark the very end of Bele Chere. Thirty five years ended with a single shot. The band played, and as they neared the end they signaled the photographer. I held my hands up with the crowd. My very first experience at Bele Chere was also everyone’s last. This is the first time in my life I’ve been in North Carolina, and who knows if I’ll ever be back again. I couldn’t help but thinking, as I watched a festival die, that I didn’t belong here. I wasn’t supposed to be here. This wasn’t my tradition.
But on this trip, there is no where that I’m supposed to be. It makes me wonder if the same is true in everyday life. We think things that are common and planned indicate the places we are supposed to be. But those are just places we expect to be. I end up a lot of places I don’t expect to be when I travel. I end up a lot of places I don’t expect to be in life. If there is any true “supposed to” in this world, I think perhaps it can be found in the moments of unusual attendance. Maybe I was supposed to be there to watch Bele Chere fade away. Maybe I arrived just in time to be exactly where I needed to be.