Despite the fact that I usually tell him to turn too late, that my directions are based on a complicated system of memorized landmarks from my childhood (“turn right at the Chili’s and you’ll see the Dairy Queen my stepdad used to take us to in our pajamas…”) coupled with a generalized sense of hubristic “feeling” (“I just know it’s up here, over this hill”)—-when we travel, my husband Michael occasionally–albeit, foolishly–allows me to navigate.
This means we take a lot of detours. I like to think of them as adventures.
Recently, on a trip to Denver, we searched for a vaguely identified “historic district,” only to end up lost in a park, somewhere in the middle of the city. I was sure the old buildings of historic Denver were just past this square. I just knew that if we parked our car and walked in a northerly direction, we would stumble on the vestiges and relics of majestic General William Larimer himself.
If the antiquity of Old Denver DID lay out just beyond us, I am, to this day, unable to say. Because we soon came across a very official looking sign, in the middle of the park. And our afternoon plans immediately derailed.
The smell of sativa suddenly threaded through the hot mountain air. I did not know exactly what my chakra was, but I was pretty sure it started vibrating. I noticed a scraggly young man with a wet cigarette dangling from his mouth sitting cross legged on the grass. He looked like he had wandered out of a Cat Stevens music video, if MTV were a thing when Cat Stevens was still Cat Stevens. He was wearing jeans and a Jefferson Airplane t-shirt. I liked him almost immediately. Two women surrounded him, their arms each stretched out, eyes closed. They seemed to be murmuring something, but Jefferson Airplane was on a planet of his own—his eyes were wide open and dude was smiling. This appeared to be as close as he would ever come to a threesome.
All around me there were small clusters of people gathered, participating in what I assumed to be the officially sanctioned Pagan Pride Festival activity: dancing to music that only they could hear.
I was loving it. My husband, meanwhile, stood aghast nearby, digesting the entire scene in abject horror.
I pretended not to notice. Instead, I gleefully meandered through the pop-up tents that surrounded an even larger clearing. Soon, I was fingering the beads of a bracelet on a metal card table, beneath the watchful gaze of what I could only assume, was a Sorceress.
“Sunstone.” The Sorceress coughed approvingly. I peered back at her thoughtfully. Clad in a pair of stonewashed jeans, a red flowered shirt and sucking on a Swisher Sweet, she didn’t quite resemble any of the witches I had seen in the movies. She most certainly didn’t any witches from the fantastical books of my youth. She was no Bette Midler a la Hocus Pocus and she looked nothing at all like the sweet, next doorish and matronly Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.
But witches, I assumed, could present themselves in all shapes, toting all brands of mild-bodied Cigarillos.
“I cleared all of the beads before I strung ‘em.” She hacked, proudly tapping one pointed orange finger nail on the card table. I had absolutely no clue what that meant, but I’ll tell you what, unlike her potentially cancerous cough—-I instantly liked the sound of it. I wanted those “cleared Sunstone beads” encircling my arm PRONTO. Not even Michael’s scowling face, as he handed over a clammy twenty-dollar bill could deter my good mood.
“I’m super thirsty.” Michael whined a few minutes after I strapped on my new bracelet.
I was starting to feel like my husband wasn’t cut out for the Pagan lifestyle. Between his constant complaining and sweaty baldness, he stuck out among the festival goers like the lost foreigner that he was. With his Banana Republic button down and 6 foot 4 frame, he more closely resembled a lost goalie looking for the hockey arena (which was sort of hot). Or perhaps even more concerning against our current tableau, he resembled a former leader of a Young Republicans delegation (which was not).
I suddenly didn’t want my new witch friends to know we were together.
Then, in a plot twist of Wes Anderson size proportions, a crew of helmeted visitors on Segways whizzed by. A history tour, perhaps? In their khaki cargo shorts and Old Navy t-shirts, they, like us, appeared out of place against the backdrop of the chanting, coughing, bead clearing Pagans.
Most people, I have recently come to learn, are vaguely familiar with Paganism. Ask someone to describe their experiences in a few phrases and a general image comes quickly into view. Pagans wore their thick hair in their face and burned Patchouli incense in their mother’s basement. They loved Tori Amos and wore black frumpy sweaters, even in their senior photos. But no one, not me, not Michael and certainly not the Segway-ists who had signed up for a tour of Denvers Historic Landmarks, actually thought Pagans existed outside the halls of our 1990s high schools.
And yet here we were, at THEIR FESTIVAL!
The tourists began wondering aloud amongst themselves what the hell kind of excursion they had signed up for.
“This is the courthouse!” the guide was shouting to the increasingly dubious crew, gesturing wildly in the vague direction of some wizard hats strung from a tent. Just beyond, a stark white building with stone cornices rose up weakly behind construction scaffolding.
A few feet away from us, a duo of stoned troubadours opened up their guitar cases. Soon we could make out the smoky opening chords to Bob Seger’s Turn The Page.
“Let’s head up toward the county building!” The tour guide motioned frantically to the mounted Segway riders.
“When you’re ridin’ sixteen hours, And there’s nothin’ much to do
And you don’t feel much like ridin’, You just wish the trip was through”
The troubadours were really belting it out now. And in the heat, everyone was starting to feel it. The traveling, the magic, the history. The music, the beads, the buildings.
There was one question that seemed threaded between us all—hazy, humid words tripping down a tin-can-telephone line. Uniting together in this foreign space, all of us each from somewhere else—wondering to ourselves, “how exactly did we get here?”
Maybe the tour guide, who was sweatily consulting her map, had the answer to that question—a wrong turn, perhaps. A miscalculation, poor planning. She was going to have to get her act together. Her boss wasn’t going to be happy about another “incident” this week.
It seemed to me though, that we were all wanderers. We came from various places, distant cities and dirt road counties. We honored different gods. We were confused tourists and Ankh clad-witches chanting in broad daylight, conservatives from Kansas and liberals from Detroit. We were housewives and Pagans, we were a lady sweating in Juicy couture on a Segway and a man in a purple fanny pack and white tube socks. We were Michael and me.
But in that moment, we were all a little lost together.
Here I am, on a road again
There I am, up on the stage
Here I go, playing the star again
There I go, turn the page
But then, just as quickly as we all melted together in the middle–one big holy mess–the various groups dispersed– some on Segways and others on brooms. The oddly tranquil minute of community dissolved into the ether.
As Michael and I too made our way out of the park, I fingered my bracelet and thought about how even when as a people we were all lost together in a common space, the distance between us still seemed still so vast. I wondered if any of us would ever really be found.
That would be some kind of magic. I wonder if there is a festival for that?