I didn’t realize I belong to a tribe until being initiated into its annual rites at the Live Oak Festival over Father’s Day weekend.
Just about everyone I admire on the Central Coast has experienced Live Oak. This was my first. I found where my people flock, amassed in a dusty, oaken glen near Cachuma Lake for a Stonehengian celebration of the summer solstice.
Centuries from now, the ancient digs of camp Live Oak might lead some to conclude momentous religious ceremonies occurred there during the longest days of the year. In some ways they do.
Evidence will include the crude phone-charging station fashioned to wood poles, the well-trod paths from the living areas to the “Main Stage” and “Stage Too” outpost a quarter mile away, and the toilets.
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Dozens of blue-plastic huts — like Easter Island stone totems precisely measured equidistantly throughout camp — might be judged celestial edifices channeling cosmic energy for a four-day bacchanalian ritual of music and dance, conceived to wring the last rays of sunlight from the most reluctant of dying days.
Live Oak is typically hot and arid, I’m told — thus the festival slogan: “Peace Love Dirt.”
Peopled by every age and ilk of pilgrim from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties and beyond, they come for music, the sacrament of solstice, the camaraderie and comfort of tribe.
I sound like some modern-day Captain Cook expounding the virtues of a newly discovered civilization every local has known about for years — the annual fundraiser for KCBX Public Radio in San Luis Obispo.
“Don’t be a poser,” said my pal Dewd MacDougal, “like some new guy who moves in and discovers an ‘amazing’ surf spot. He deserves stink eye because locals have surfed it for decades.”
Yes, it was new to me, and I relished it like a dog on a bone.
Especially my personal rite of passage into the realization that I belong to a tribe, bound by friendship, familiarity and the certainty — developed through decades of knowing individual tribespeople — that we share core values, beliefs and experiences. I couldn’t walk 20 feet without running into someone I hadn’t seen in decades, others just days before.
There were former county Supervisor David Blakely and wife Naomi at the camp of festival elders. Turko Semmes and Greg McMillan were also present. Among Live Oak’s founders, Semmes and clan of perhaps 50 construction tradespeople conceived and built the main stage in the early days.
Now retired, Semmes and workmates Charlie Kleeman and others return year after year to rebuild the stage. Their annual pilgrimage, like ancient Druids to Stonehenge, is a spiritual high point, perhaps even surpassing Thanksgiving and Christmas in ancestral significance.
Live Oak children, many now in their mid-20s, proudly proclaim their unimmaculate conceptions at camp.
A master of the mythology is New Times music columnist Glen Starkey and wife Anna, hanging in camp with their posse, sharing hysterical local lore.
There was my old friend Wally Barnick, performing a wonderfully melancholy, final concert with the legendary Cache Valley Drifters, with whom I spent many Friday afternoons in the late 1970s at The Spindle in the Network mall in San Luis Obispo.
There was Jim Scoolis, aka “Burning James,” leader of the Funky Flames, retired principal at Monarch Grove Elementary in Los Osos, where both my kids went to school. Who’d have predicted that “Mr. Scoolis” would lead an increasingly significant Central Coast crowd favorite?
Live Oak tribespeople are accomplished, civilized, world-traveled, intelligent, everyday Central Coast folk, brought together by the common bond of music, fellowship and — while never overtly talked about — a deeply shared world view.
We didn’t discuss the pope’s climate change encyclical, historic Supreme Court decisions, Donald Trump and the ever-expanding clown show — as interesting as those subjects are and as often we talk about them at home.
We didn’t feel like it. It was given we’re aligned on that, confirmed by the simple act of being together. The music is what mattered at Live Oak, the apex expression of a community temporarily transcending daily politics.
Interestingly, I didn’t run into any of my conservative friends at Live Oak. I didn’t expect to, perhaps because my notion of their tribe didn’t allow me to imagine anyone from it being interested in community of this kind, or any.
That’s my prejudice. It’s surely wrong. And for it I’m ashamed.
In fact, I think conservative tribespeople might just love Live Oak on the longest, most hopeful days of the year.
It’s a setting of peace, a place to explore new ways forward — together, as one tribe.