The Wild Goose Festival is in North Carolina, this year at Van Hoy Farms, in Iredell County, just off Interstate 77, an hour north of Charlotte. This was the first year at this location, and word has it the festival will be held there next year as well. All the years I’ve attended before this year have been at the camp grounds in Hot Springs, in the Smoky Mountains, at the intersection of the French Broad River and the Appalachian Trail, just over the Tennessee border. The festival was first held in Shakori Hills, and was there a couple years. For most of the festival regulars (myself included) the Goose is strongly associated with Hot Springs. Part of that is the river, which runs along the length of the camp grounds, and part of it was the woods that covered most of place, excepting the modest stage area; between the shade and a place to dip your toes into the water, it made it easy to stay cool during the hot summer days. Additionally, in the mountains the phone and internet service tends to be spotty – for many people, this gave the added feeling of isolation from the world at large. You got to the festival and suddenly you were cut off from social media and all the other distractions that come with living in the age of hyper-connectivity. It helped cultivate a feeling of togetherness at the festival which, I think, was a powerful part of its appeal.
Word around the campfire this year was the festival organizers had to scramble to find a venue for the festival after the Hot Springs town council decided to stop hosting festivals last autumn. The Van Hoy campgrounds were once home to a major fiddle competition, which apparently drew crowds in the tens of thousands back in the 1970’s. At this point its a little run down. The auditorium was a bright spot: it’s large and has a permanent cover. It was easy to keep one’s distance from others (as one might during the age of COVID). It was built in a kind of horseshoe shape, a large stage at the far end, with simple wooden benches and a dirt floor. Concrete walkways led down to a central area in the middle where the festival had built a smaller stage roughly in middle, facing slightly to the left.
The downside of the auditorium was the obvious need for updates, in particular for better accessibility. The path leading down to it is steep, crumbling asphalt. I remember watching a man on a little scooter – not a road scooter, but one of those little ones people use for ordinary mobility – making his way down that path, and I was just waiting for him to topple over. The ADA entrance to the auditorium was around the back, and required taking a long, winding, hilly dirt road.
There was a lot of field space, much of it occupied by RVs and campers and such. Indeed, the RV crowd seemed dominant this year in a way they had not previously. Indeed, there were a handful of permanent mobile home residents on the grounds. My traveling partner had friends staying in a pop-up camper, so we put our tents over by them, at the top of a horseshoe shaped bunch of RVs (again with the horseshoe shape!) called “The Coral.” The advantage was that I had some new friends, who gladly offered their electrical outlets (so my phone stayed charged), and they had plenty of water to share as well. Also, they were a very nice bunch of folks. I suppose that’s kind of par for the course at the Goose – I don’t know if its possible to be aggressively friendly, but if it is, it’s a pervasive attitude at the festival – but still, it was nice to stay next to people I at least sort-of knew and were friendly and easy going.
The downside of camping at the Coral was that my tent had no shade, and therefore was unbearably hot during daytime hours. It wasn’t a problem really, except maybe Friday afternoon when I was definitely ready for a nap and didn’t have anywhere to do so. There were several good areas with tree shade farther back in the campgrounds, behind the stage. Before I left on Sunday, I came through a clearing all the way at the back of the grounds where a bunch of folks had camped. It felt like a hideout almost. Reminded me of the far back of the grounds at Hot Springs. The first few years of coming to the festival we would camp all the way in the back, next to the river (my friend Tom was a big fan of camping next to the river). Practically speaking, this meant a lot of walking back and forth through the woods – the Hot Springs campgrounds were maybe a couple or three hundred feet across, with a hard boundary on one side in the form of an active train track and the river on the other. Nearly the entire place was wooded. It’s a very beautiful place.
Van Hoy farms, by contrast, seemed like a sprawling set of fields and pathways, with the auditorium in the middle. Some wooded bits offering tree cover, but much of it just open space. This meant it was considerably hotter during the day, and sunscreen was necessity multiple times a day. In some ways it was nice having the festival itself in a centralized location – you didn’t need to do as much walking to get from one talk to another. But without the river and the tree cover it was hot. You know, July in North Carolina. Hot and humid. Bearable, certainly. But seriously hot.
Besides the particulars of the location, its placement in the state of North Carolina was itself an issue. The Goose prides itself on being inclusive, but the prevalence of RVs points to a lack of diversity this year. Rev. William Barber – who’s social justice centered sermons are what brought me to the Goose in the first place – put it all in context during his Thursday night speech. He explained that, when the festival organizers invited him to speak, he asked them if they were aware of Iredell County history. Back in 1963, he told the crowd that opening night, civil rights activists came down to Statesville, the largest town in the county, and had acid thrown on them. It was an act of courage for Rev. Barber to come to that stage, because he still feared the stubborn racism of the folks of Iredell County. This is one of the great problems of being in the South, I suppose. Many places in the South have been deeply resistant to the kind of activism cultivated at the Goose, especially where it involves advancing the rights of black people. Being a northerner, its something I often forget, but the presence of racism in the South, even now, is a powerful thing.
One of the longstanding debates at the Goose has been how to bring more non-white people to the festival. I thought that, by being close to the interstate highway, and not way up in the mountains, perhaps the Van Hoy farms location would be more welcoming to people of color. Turns out I may have been wrong. One of the more interesting conversations I had that weekend was about how, if the Goose’s organizers really want to take on social justice, they need to find a different location. Maybe outside of North Carolina, although that’s doubtful, as the organizers apparently all live in the state. Perhaps at an HBCU (historically black college or university)? Personally I think that would be great, although it feel quite different. I could definitely get into attending the festival’s conference style daytime sessions in air conditioned seminar rooms and staying perhaps in a dormitory with other attendees. It might kill the festival’s “back to nature” vibe, though.
In any event, I suppose I’ll head back to Van Hoy next year. But I do hope the festival continues to debate the possibilities of different locations. A couple of times I heard mention of the potential of “goslings” – offshoots of the festival in various locations. But I also think a new friend put it very well when they referred to the annual festival as a “pilgrimage.” Wherever it might be, there’s a kind of magic to being at the Goose. I know that sounds silly, but there is! It’s what makes the whole conversation about where to have it so difficult. Change in any direction will mean bringing one set of folks closer while moving away from others, and I think most Goosers would agree that the festival’s magic depends upon its diversity.