Back on Memorial Day weekend I had the opportunity to work at the Strawberry Bluegrass Festival for the Fatty Egg roll people and gain admittance to the music festival and exposure to a unique event. Thanks to Corey for giving me the lead on the job, to Tom for letting me join his crew and all the folks at the festival for showing me a good time.
The festival has been taking place twice a year (spring and fall) for 31 years at Camp Mather, CA. This park is owned by the city of San Francisco and is located on the western boundary of Yosemite National Park. Situated at about 6000 feet above sea level, the weather was a bit cooler than it had been down in Yosemite Valley. As festival regulars said, the spring festival was known for poor weather and deterring new strawberry goers. This year proved to be on par with their advice.
I woke up on Friday to a fog laden forest outside. The moisture, clouds and cold would stick around until Sunday afternoon. Snow, sleet and rain drenched the festival for most of the weekend. This only added to the discomfort of the low temperatures. However, the strawberry spirit was hard to dampen. I was glad to be working around the pizza ovens since they were some of the only heat sources around. No campfires are allowed in the camp.
As mentioned, Camp Mather is located on the western boundary of Yosemite National Park. Meadows, forests, trails and lakes abound around the camp. One can set off from the camp and explore the surrounding scenery. One morning I took off on some trails and ran up to a lookout point where Hetch Hetchy reservoir was visible. A couple were also atop the point. They thought I was dressed light for the snowy weather but the shorts and jacket were more than enough for my run. They offered some extras from their “caloric glut” but again I was moving along quick enough to not need food. I ran back through the cool air as snow and sleet came down.
The festival performers were good and included: Trampled by Turtles, Joan Osbourne, Robert Earl Keen, Alison Kraus and Union Station, Fishbowl Ensemble, Angel Snow and many others. However, what makes the festival so special is the music and activities off the main stage. Hog Ranch radio broadcasts music for the festival weekend and puts on camp performers each morning for the Breakfast Club show. One can perform here or enjoy music with breakfast. The real fun is the late night jams throughout camp after the stage shows end. Around every corner one can find diverse jams happening. Folks carry around their instruments through the campsites, some wheeling stand up basses and cellos on carts, looking for the next epic jam. The jam the stood out the most took place on the front porch of the California Honeydrops cabin. The Honeydrops play a mix of soulful, jazzy tunes with stand up bass, horns, percussion and a number of instruments and soulful vocals from the lead man. The band along with several others on melodica, saxophone, fiddles, banjo and flute held a small gatherings attention well into the night.The musicianship of the random camp jammers was phenomenal. The banjo man, a strawberry staple, led a very amazing version of Charlie Brown. At first it didn’t seem to have much steam but soon the whole porch and party was into it and it took off. The banjo man can be seen and heard every night, all night, all around the camp playing a diverse selection of songs on his banjo and jamming with everyone.
On the last night of the festival an annual wiffle ball game and log tug of war took place. The wiffle ball games have been happening for the last three years and were started by Tom with the Fatty Egg Roll People. The teams are always Santa Cruz vs. Oakdale. The rivalry is heated and the trash talk is more adept than the ball playing. I hit a home run on my first at bat but this was not enough to take Santa Cruz to a win. The tug of war consists of each contender standing on a 12 in. diameter log and playing tug of war. There is a lot balance and strategy instead of strength involved in this competition. The wars took place well into the late hours of the night or early hours of the morning.
I was unaware of the festival until now but was taken by the experience. I could tell the Strawberry Bluegrass Festival is a tradition for many of the people in attendance. There was also talk of previous “strawberries” and if one was going to attend in the fall or “is this your first strawberrry?” followed by something like, this is a magical place, welcome, enjoy. I will.