Behold! With my flip phone, I took a tiny, silly picture of something that was grand and glorious: The Elkhorn County Ribfest, which included several acres of carnival rides, multiple stages, and hundreds of food stalls, and which I thought was the Walworth County Fair (because I was at the Walworth County Fairgrounds, after all) until someone laughed at me for suggesting such a thing – the Walworth County fair, he said, was a really big fair. Thanks to that misunderstanding, I now know that my imagination has an upper limit when it comes to just how big these fairs and fests can be.
I didn’t have any ribs, but I did sit for some time on a haystack, one of several hundred arranged in concentric semi-circles, watching a seven-piece funk band perform request after request of jams that pretty much every English-speaking human being on the planet knows and loves: Wagonwheel, Uptown Funk, Car Wash, My Girl, and a medley of hits from the oeuvres of Aretha Franklin and Earth, Wind & Fire. Dancing music. The kind of stuff that gets the body swinging, bobbing, bouncing, bumping.
I was essentially summoned to the Ribfest, as though it was projecting a magnetic pulse across the corn fields. I had no idea what was happening when it was happening, I was just being pulled along, making random turns, following “west” and “south” signs away from the Milwaukee airport where I had just dropped E off for her flight to Washington DC, a place that doesn’t seem entirely real to me right now, as far off as Brazil or China or Australia, dots around the globe, places I’ve been that cease to exist when I’m not there. We had just spent four days in Door County, Wisconsin, a vacation within a vacaion, and so I needed to adapt to the fact that I was alone again. There is no better way to adapt to new information than to drive. And there is no better way to drive than aimlessly. And there is no better place to be aimless than the midwest. I would have been perfectly happy watching the sun set in a gas station parking lot, so to stumble upon a County Fair-like Ribfest at the end of the rainbow was just pure gravy.
Departing Milwaukee, this was the thought process: Get me the fuck out of these four lane super-highways. Sputnik is not meant to be suspended in midair, he’s meant to be boots on the ground, inches from Earth. Get me away from the monolithic signs, immediate forks, crazy traffic, pollution and noise. Get me away from the cement hellscape and back to the country. I glanced at my atlas long enough to know that due south would lead me to Chicago, so I needed more west than south, which ended up being pretty easy; the sun was low in the sky and the country roads are long and straight.
It took about twelve minutes from the moment I tunneled out of the airport terminal to get completely lost, and almost immediately I felt like I could breathe again. From there, it took about forty-five minutes until the Ribfest magnets had fully yanked me in. No entry fee, plus bathrooms, picnic tables, and people watching - no further info necessary. I was sold.
And Ribfest did not disappoint. The music was just what the doctor ordered. And the people watching was as good as it gets. The humans were lobster-colored and many seemed desperately in need of aloe. They wore lightweight flannel and moseyed about smoking cigarettes and drinking tall cans of Coors. Sundry midriffs were exposed.
I watched the full set of the very last band of the entire weekend, The Eddie Butts Band. I was surrounded by the survivors. Many people looked like they were struggling after four full days of sun, ribs and music, and they were going to get the most out of this last band. Some people just don’t want the party to end. I know the feeling. The carnival rides were about to be taken down and carted away. There seemed to be some kind of collective agreement that nobody was to acknowledge the fact that some of the tents were already getting broken down, packed up into large white trucks. Beer was still flowing. The sky was humongous, pink and orange, and the energy of the crowd was the human embodiment of the sunset, an attempt to make a fleeting moment perfect, an attempt to create an eternity in a moment.
That’s when I noticed that I was alone and it hit me like a cold plunge in an alpine lake, a car accident, a hateful comment. It was sudden, shocking, chilling, scary, is what I’m trying to say.
I’m happy when I’m alone, but I’m still coming to terms with the depth of my solitude, the weirdness of it, and the way it throws people off. “Who are you travelling with?” is a question I get all the time. “Solo,” I say, and sometimes I add, “Something I’m still getting used to.”
At the fair, at first, I felt like an interloper instead of a participant. Being six feet tall and weighing less than one hundred and fifty pounds makes me a freak pretty much everywhere, but in this part of the country it makes me an alien. I thought about getting a beer, but they cost six bucks which was out of the question. I imagined myself fishing a beer can from the garbage, just for something to hold, and laughed at how ridiculous that would be if I got caught. Sitting on that haystack, I danced around the question of dancing, until I was finally ready to confront the bigger question head-on: Am I tweaking out about being alone? Or am I tweaking about not tweaking? Am I going to spend the rest of my life painfully, wildly, alone? And, lastly: Am I not dancing right now because I’m embarrassed about being by myself?
I picked out a few other loners in the crowd. Some of them were, in fact, by themselves, but many were just waiting for lovers who went off to pee or buy another plate of barbeque ribs. I died a little each time a partner found their mate. One bald-headed guy with sunglasses on his head was dancing with a baby, but nobody in the dance area was kicking up dirt by themselves.
Society teaches us that loners are losers. That’s what makes society a society, collective ideas about right and wrong that, by defintion, won’t work for everyone. I enjoy breaking the script. I’m thirty-two years old and I don’t have a home or a conventional career. I don’t know a single soul who has a life that even remotely resembles mine - and I like it that way. But for some reason, the only thing I’m self-conscious about is my ability to be fully content by myself.
On July 11th, I turned thirty-two. E gave me more gifts than I can count - a ceramic pot in macrame, made by her aunt, a chime, my favorite incense, a tank of gas, a dozen meals and treats, spur-of-the-moment tickets to an Agatha Christie play. But the best gift of all was her time, all of it, for four full, wonderful days. In exchange, I gave her all of mine, the Sputnik experience. It was a Pet Milk weekend. Multiple times I had the feeling that I was living the best days of my life.
Confirmed: Sunsets never get old. Confirmed: Distance makes the heart grow fonder. Confirmed: Love without commitments is a whole lot easier. So many of the things that I have enjoyed doing alone for the last several months - driving and blasting country music, going for swims, cooking ramen – are more fun with someone else, in some, but not all ways. I’m also pretty certain that my ongoing experimentation with radical intentionality, slowness, mindfulness, and being in the moment makes me an overall better lover, listener, and human, but I wouldn’t be the one to ask about that.
What I know for sure is this: Time and attention are gifts, and having a companion on Sputnik reinforced the significance of that reality. In four days, I looked at my flip phone twice and sent two text messages. E didn’t touch her smartphone once. Everywhere we went, we asked people what to do for food and entertainment. We ate and napped like royalty.
Eventually I stood up from the haystack. I got over the fact that I was alone again, that E was gone, perhaps for good this time. I felt like a whole lot more than who I’m with or what other people think about it. And suddently, dancing felt urgent. It felt like something that really needed to be done.
So that’s when I became me, a flailing, crazy person among many Ribfest-ers who didn’t know me and never will, but got some sense of what I’m all about, in short: serious boogey-woogey. I danced, reader, and I danced and danced, like there was no tomorrow and no yesterday. I was in my own world, feeling the music and the humidity and the vague whiff of beer-breath of many semi-shocked people all around me. Eventually, I worked up a grapefruit-sized patch of sweat on my chest and it looked and felt like that was where my heart poured out.
Then I drove off through a sea of fireflies, millions of them, and my heart-stain felt cold in the wind. It made me feel, like everything real, alive.