Lost History: The Desert Rocks Music Festival in Moab, Utah
On Memorial Day Weekend 2011, I was in Moab, Utah. After a brief economic slowdown in 2008 – 2010, everything in Grand County
was booming again. Organized and ad hoc activities tend to peak on
Memorial Day, making it the busiest time of year. On that weekend,
20,000 vehicles per day passed through Moab on US Highway 191. Campgrounds were full and all the usual tourist spots were packed. For me, it was time to get out of Downtown Moab and see something new and different.
That new thing was my attendance at the 2011 Desert Rocks Music Festival, celebrating its seventh anniversary at Area BFE. Located thirteen miles south of Moab, on Highway 191, Area BFE is a 320-acre off-road recreational area. For that long weekend, it transformed into a camping and partying venue, featuring live music on three outdoor stages. Although I was decades older than the average-attendee, it sounded like fun to me.
Since the Desert Rocks Festival ran around the clock for three days, Saturday afternoon seemed like a good time to visit. That way, I could scope out the event and plan my return for the headliner acts that night. At the trailer that served as a check-in point for performers and press, I showed my “Moablive.com” business card and obtained a press pass for that day and night. I promised to write a blog article about the event. In this article, I shall keep my promise to the promoters of Desert Rocks 2011, then known as DesertRocks.org.
The venue consisted of a natural amphitheater, which sloped down toward two main stages. Around the upper rim of the amphitheater, there was room for concertgoers to relax on blankets, while the more ardent fans could stand a few yards from the main stage. Food trucks and vendors completed the large circle, with easy access to tie-dyed clothing, organic food and coffee for a dollar. Beyond the music venue were art installations and many campers, who had pitched tents among the boulders and throughout the pinion and juniper forests.
When my friend, Jim Farrell and I arrived, there was a young woman playing solo acoustic guitar and singing. She was playing from a third stage, which was uphill and closer to the main entrance. With gentle amplification and her sweet voice wafting through the air, I was pleased to hear a message of peace and love all around me. The whole festival looked and sounded like my kind of place.
At that time, Jim Farrell owned the Moab Rim Campark. Without overreacting, Jim commented that one of the picnic tables at the venue had been “lifted” from his RV Park and brought to the festival grounds. As we mused on who had absconded with the bench and transported it thirteen miles to Area BFE, we experienced another surprise.
Without warning, a young woman emerged from a clothing vendor booth. Her hair was up, her makeup was fresh and she was smiling at us. She wore a chiffon skirt and a handmade necklace. Beyond that, she was topless. Jim Farrell, who is one of the pillars of Moab society, was speechless. As a photojournalist, I asked if I could take her picture. “Of course”, she replied. After smiling for a couple of snapshots, the young woman disappeared back from where she came.
Jim and I decided it was time for lunch. Almost immediately, we found Justin Dietrick, preparing organic soups, sandwiches and wraps in his RV, which he had converted into a mobile kitchen. His business went by the name, “Yonder Mountain Sandwiches”, or YOMOS, which seemed wholly appropriate for this location, in the middle of nowhere. The organic wraps we selected were perfect. We ate nearby, on the previously stolen picnic bench, enjoying our lunch.
It was a hot afternoon, So Jim and I decided to retreat to the air-conditioned confines of our respective abodes. In my case, that meant taking a nap in my travel trailer and spiritually preparing to return to Desert Rocks after sundown. After a nap, a shower and donning some fresh clothes, I quaffed a glass of wine and then headed down the highway to Area BFE.
Upon arrival, I flashed my Desert Rocks wristband and received directions to a secondary parking lot, half a mile down a dirt road. The darkness and lack of traffic directions created disorientation among the throng of drivers. Ultimately, consciousness returned and we all managed to park in rows, so as not to block ingress and egress to the festival. Even though most of us were stumbling around in the dark, people were friendly and helped each other find the music venue, which glowed in the distance, over a hill.
Growing up in Southern California in the 1960s, I did not attend the San Francisco “Summer of Love”, Monterey Pop or Woodstock, whatever that was. Here I was, in my sixties, attending my first music festival. Around me in the parking area were people who had driven or even hitchhiked to attend Desert Rocks. Two young women, who had hitchhiked for days, had utilized a cardboard sign that read, “Desert.Rocks”. That sign inspired me to purchase the internet name, “www.desert.rocks”.
Although I could not get a good picture of any fire-spinners, they seemed to be standing on every large boulder. Holding double-ended torches, five or six feet long, they were content to stand and offer spinning flames as a backdrop to the entire festival. No one paid them to stand for hours on end, spinning their fire. It was just what they had come to do.
Inside the venue, there were art installations in yurts, teepees and many other shelters. There was no additional admission charge to go inside and see strobe lights bouncing off pans of colored oil or an artificial celestial scene projected on the inside of a yurt. For those who had consumed magic mushrooms or other hallucinogenic compounds, it probably appeared quite normal. I decided to go feel the music.
After a group performed rockabilly classics on the second stage, everyone’s attention turned to the main stage. This is where my story gets strange. With no printed lineup of bands available, I do not remember who the headline band was. Soon, they took the stage and performed a great rock & roll set that lasted for over an hour. The lead guitarist looked like Yeshua, but with enough curly hair for three people. He sang and played his heart out, as did his three bandmates. As the crowd packed in close to the stage, the band entranced its fans with that performance. The whole concert was great. Looking back, six years later, I have no idea who that band was. Maybe someone can send an email with the band’s name. I would love to give them credit.
Although the festival would go on all night, it was time for me to rest on clean sheets and a comfortable bed, back at my RV. By the next morning, a dust storm covered all of Grand County, including Area BFE. Having spent some time Behind the Rocks, covering the 24-Hours of Moab Bicycle Race, I knew the festivalgoers would have sand in their hair and grit between their teeth. I left the final day of Desert Rocks 2011 to the young people. Instead, I went down to the Colorado River to watch the spring flood, as it cut into the toxic Moab Pile.
While preparing to write this article, I researched Desert Rocks 2012… and beyond. Because Desert Rocks had outgrown Area BFE, the promoters moved the 2012 festival fifty miles north, to Green River, Utah. There, at Jenkstar Ranch, the promotional team planned a “consciousness festival”. As with the past Desert Rocks Festivals, there would be visual artists, art installations, a poetry slam, health-food vendors and performance art, all in a three-dimensional time-space reality (3DTSR).
Although I did not attend, quotes from Desert Rocks 2012 include the following: Party’s over, dude—but it’s for the best. Once one of Utah’s biggest outdoor-camping party events, Desert Rocks Festival is now a celebration of consciousness. “It means so much to me that I’m not just throwing a party in the desert anymore,” festival founder John Ripley Corkery said. “I’m [now] putting on an event that can help people change how they live. I was a little depressed that we’re not back in Moab, but once we lined everything up, all of a sudden it started to have very serious meaning. I feel like there was some higher purpose for us to move to Green River,” Corkery said.
After the 2012 Desert Rocks event, Austen Diamond, columnist for the Salt Lake City Weekly said, “Desert Rocks might be one of the best experiences that I probably won't ever do again. Drum circles, hula-hoops and hippies everywhere. Nearby Green River Beach was the only way to avoid the beginning of an all-consuming dust storm at the festival, which was nearly empty by noon. We had a comfortable view from the car as we try to salvage our camp from being destroyed. We then drank lots of tequila in other cars.”
Diamond went on to say, “A collective, 1,000-person group hug knelt in the dirt before the main stage to ‘send energy into the universe’ at the ‘Consciousness Ceremony’ Friday night. Led by Desert Rocks festival founder John Corkery and executive producer Ron Johnson, the crowd began a low, resonant hum - similar to ‘om’ -, which rose in volume and pitch to a massive orgy of animal howls. That essentially sums up the eighth-annual festival: setting a decent intention, which then turned primal.”
City Weekly copy editor Kolbie Stonehocker had a memorable time. “Whenever someone found out it was my first-ever music festival, they’d say, ‘Whoa, Desert Rocks is a hell of a festival to be your first.’ Were they ever right! I will never forget you, Desert Rocks,” Stonehocker wrote. “I brought home enough sand in my clothes and hair to remember you forever.”
What no one expected was a three-day dust storm so strong that it shredded the campground. Most musicians could not risk ruining their equipment, so music was at a premium. Water supplies in the campground ran dry, with no further replenishment. The only refuge for many attendees was to sit in their cars or leave altogether. In any event, it was the last and final Desert Rocks Festival. If you search the internet for "http://desertrocks.org", it leads to a "403 Forbidden" error message.