What do professors do for fun? "Are you going to take any holidays this summer?" asks a colleague in the elevator. "Yes, we are going camping this weekend," I respond.
In the middle of July, my husband and I get ready for the annual, two-hour trek to the South Country Fair in Fort Macleod. Our goal: three days of folk festival fun and camping on the banks of the Old Man River. We used to drag our old 1970s Bonair tent trailer to the fair; now we cruise down the highway in our small motorhome - perfect for four people. We pick the same spot to set up camp every year -- close to the banks of the river and a five minute walk from the fair grounds.
Fair headquarters used to be an old army tent. Now, the HQ is a log structure that displays programs, CDs and t-shirts on picnic tables. Meandering through the campground, we encounter tarot card readers enclosed in tie-dye tents, poetry readings by grungy hippies younger than their circa 1960 campers, and teenagers selling beaded jewelry and hemp chokers. We narrowly miss getting sprayed by a water truck sprinkling the wide swaths of prairie to keep down the dust.
It only takes a few songs by the first band Friday night to stir the blood of the dancers. Boys, girls, children and women in wraparound batik skirts and bare feet do a folk hop in front of the stage. A six year old in a fluorescent bathing suit, an expectant mother with a toddler, and nubile teens and suntanned goddesses form a cohesive whirling dervish that sways and undulates to songs about social justice. "You have in god we trust on your money, but school children aren’t allowed to pray in school" croons the Welsh guitar man with biting humor. After the first few sets, we stroll back to the campsite, a little sunburnt and thirsty, to roast a few smokies and refresh our drinks. Festival friends from previous years stop by, a French woman and her children from Vancouver Island, a waiter from the Kooteneys, and a couple from Chestermere Lake.
A hot morning sun the next day sends a multi-aged throng to the river for relief. Along with the children, we throw on sandals, scale the eight-meter river bank, and body surf with hundreds of other neo-Woodstockians down the fast moving Old Man. In the afternoon, we meander through the Artisan tents, where one can choose from Celtic
artwork, bright sarongs and dresses, and bongo drums. Participants wanting more than a garment or hemp hat as a festival momento can get a temporary henna tatoo at the Mehndi Artistry tent, or saunter across the way to a tatoo tour bus where they can make a more permanent body art decision.
The first year we came to the South Country, we stood in rain one night at a tiny modified Boler, and waited while two hippie chicks assembled our bean burritos and watery coffee. Yum! Both were delicious. Nowadays, there are wider culinary options, from fruit juice slush to mile high indian tacos, designer coffees, the ubiquitous mini-donuts, and all kinds of meat on a bun with fries or poutine.
The Fair’s diverse crowd includes minivan couples who arrive with children in car seats, dreadlock teens in refurbished schoolbuses, and fifty and sixty somethings who sit cross-legged on woven blankets. The friendly family atmosphere enables adults to indulge in the odd concealed beer and turns a somewhat blind eye to other kinds of partying, as long as patrons are well behaved and respect the rights of others to have a good time. Swarms of children run around to tents and activities set up just for them, from an Earth ball, face painting, puppet shows, to the clowns. Kids can make crafts, walk the labyrinth and splash each other with water from the ancient pump.
In the early evening, the ground in front of the main stage becomes a multicolored tapestry as people stake out claims with dozens of blankets, quilts and old sleeping bags. Can you dance in leather pants o’ lady with a tambourine? The sun goes down and more people are up dancing than clapping and hooting from lawn chairs. Weekend acts can range from a bad boy fiddler from Cape Breton, a Swiss songwriter, to a Japanese drum group from Winnipeg. Crowd favorite, Fred Eaglesmith, shares the stage with musicians from Taber, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver.
A brief evening rainstorm does nothing to dampen the spirits of the festival die-hards. Tarps, raincoats and unbrellas form a sea of protection against pelting raindrops as the bands play on. The dustbowl dance pit becomes a mudbath, fraught with multicolored flashes as barefoot young dancers wave their glowstick treasures attached to every limb. This Fair is not subject to the eleven o’clock curfew of many city fairs - music lovers often indulge well into the morning. Late night revelers meander back to their sites along a moonlit path strung with fairy lights.
Our first visit to South Country Fair was ten years ago. Now we make the annual trek with our own children, several great friends and their children, and anyone we know who wants to tag along. For three glorious summer days, our family joins hundreds of Canadian and international souls, liberated from 21st century cares and concerns, to enjoy groovy outdoor music and wholesome camaraderie on the southern Alberta flatlands.