That’s Shambhala

By Lawrence Bailey

On his fifth year in attendance at the famous Kootenay music festival, Gauntlet legend Lawrence Bailey brings us a whimsical look at his personal half-decade experience with Shambhala’s unique and unforgettable atmosphere.

Many would argue that all people simply want to belong, to feel as though they are a part of something. Whether it’s a family, a group of friends, a team, the notion of contributing, being valued and participating is a very powerful and often subconscious human desire. Politics, religion and the like satisfy this need; they provide community and belonging. For those who cannot rationalize agreeing to a predetermined dogma or bring themselves to accept a set of beliefs simply to belong, the quest is often a more social exercise.

This is the element of Shambhala that leaves so many feeling awe-struck and counting down the days until next year.

The 2005 edition of the music festival, nestled in the middle of nowhere in the Kootenay mountains, was my fifth consecutive trip and my last as a writer for the Gauntlet. Though I will likely be back there next summer loving every second of those four days that seem to be removed from time and space, there was a finality to the rickety ride down the long, winding road out of the Salmo River Ranch on Monday morning. Indeed, every step of the way, every experience unique to Shambhala carried a different weight this year than it had in the past, much like the last time you walk through the house you grew up in before you say farewell.

Murmurs spread through the campers early on this year, rumblings that this was the biggest turn out ever, numbers like 10,000 people through the gates were repeated over and over. From my haven, nestled near the stages and surrounded by trees, that seemed hard to believe. I dismissed it as hyperbole. But as we made our way out on Monday, and I saw how far the tents, cars and campers stretched, I was stunned.

And there it was.

A feeling of pride swelling up within me, a sense that I had played a part in this. It was that sense of belonging.

My first year at Shambhala, there were maybe 2,000 people in attendance. There were four, maybe five stages, and it was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. In the company of close friends, I ventured out into a world that was unlike anything I had ever known.

Days spent basking in the 35 degree daytime sun, playing in the river, stealing a nap under a tree providing 45 glorious minutes of shade, heading back to camp when the cool air started to blow to make food before it got dark. As dusk came, the excitement began to build. The night was young, electric and completely unpredictable. As I ventured forth into the darkness of the single digit cold air I wore layers, and the paths underfoot seemed to have moved and changed direction since I had walked them just hours earlier.

I lost myself in it, wandering along the beach, dancing for hours on end, running into old friends, making new ones, loving everything life and nature had to offer.

Then the sun broke on the horizon. The mist filled the valley. I realized how tired I was, and knew there were only a few hours before the mercury would speed past 30 again, making sleep impossible.

Now I am here again, for the fifth time in as many years. I smile knowing I have learned a thing or two in that time. My tent is now nestled beside a wall of sun-blocking trees allowing me to sleep whenever I want–one of Shambhala’s greatest luxuries. The food in the coolers is carefully chosen so nothing will spoil, nothing will go to waste. And this time, there were well over 2,000 people already camped when we arrived in the wee hours of Friday morning.

It’s almost like watching a child or younger sibling grow up. When they are younger you’re fascinated by their energy, their uniqueness, their reckless abandon. There’s always a smile on their face and anything is possible. Over time you see an identity emerge. You see them welcome other influences, incorporate them, and forge a whole new approach, a whole new attitude.

My first year at Shambhala it was about all-out partying. It was an event born of the rave culture in the early 90s with a distinct influence of the undeniably unique Kootenay hippie lifestyle. People came from all around and lost themselves entirely in the weekend. It was visceral. It was over the top. It was unbridled.

But that kind of ferocious energy cannot be maintained indefinitely.

As the years wore on and more people came, the appeal and the nature of the festival evolved to reflect that. The Jungle Pit gave way to the Skate Pit, with emcee battles and skate comps by day and live rock and roll by night. The so-called side stages like the Ewok Village and the Fractal Forest became focal points, growing not only in size, but in appeal, in complexity, and in the level of talent that performed there.

It wasn’t just darkness, DJs and drugs anymore, it was a true music festival.

There was a burlesque show, a cornucopia of artisans with specially designed wares on display, and every kind of music you could imagine from jungle to trance, from house to hip hop, from rock and roll to reggae and folk.

Shambhala had redefined itself, had found a new identity, and I was a part of that.

I contributed my energy each and every year to the event. I would return to Calgary uplifted, spreading the word of this wonderful festival in the middle of the picturesque South Kootenays to anyone who would listen. I, like thousands of others, took a certain pride, a sense of ownership over the entire weekend, and wanted to tell as many people about the incomparable experience of Shambhala.

I have no doubt that for those who made 2005 their first trip, the experience was just as visceral and over the top as my first visit five years earlier. My youngest brother, with whom I shared a tent, is proof of this. His eyes wide and his heart racing, he returned home to his friends and spoke of the wonders, the unbelievable experience and told them unequivocally that they must be a part of it next year. He set their imaginations aflame, he excited them, like they will no doubt do to a whole new group of people upon their return from Shambhala 2006.

And that is the true beauty of the festival.

People have often asked me what it is about Shambhala that makes it something I always return to, something I cherish and hold so dear. The answer is simple: it’s me. I have invested so much of myself in the event, I have created so many wonderful memories, shared so many incomparable conversations, and spent so many near perfect days in that valley with those people that every time I return it’s as if I never left.

This year there was a sadness on Monday morning, a sense that a chapter had closed, as it is the last year I will write about Shambhala for the Gauntlet. It wasn’t a sense of loss, as I know I will be back again, it was more a sadness that I won’t be able to share this with as many people when I do return.

There is nothing better than meeting someone for the first time and, over the course of that conversation realizing you have both been to Shambhala. There is a glow unlike anything I have ever known that alights immediately in your eyes. The conversation stops. You both smile knowingly. There are no words to express what you both know, what you both feel, but you understand completely what you are saying to each other.

It’s that sense of belonging, that sense of knowing you played a part. It’s that sense of knowing somewhere, out in the Kootenay you’ve both left a piece of yourself–and you can’t wait to go there again next year to leave a little more.

That’s Shambhala.