Wish you were here
I was wrong. Not entirely wrong but, by and large, my opinionated perspective was disproven even though it was formed by first-hand experience. Having driven busloads of many seemingly brainless, rowdy young twenty-somethings during spring break for a decade, I witnessed the rudeness, destruction, puking and subsequent clean-up of these hordes.
This is what I expected, only worse, from the Whatever USA chosen ones taking over our entire historic district and new Big Mine Ice Rink and with unlimited access to free, bottomless beer. It certainly didn’t bode well in my mind, especially considering the clandestine town council meetings and rushed approval of turning our beloved town over to a big corporation, coupled with the unfolding inequity of wristband distribution. When the big event finally arrived last weekend, I guiltily picked up my media pass, knowing many, many of my community homies would not be allowed into the gated private party on Elk Avenue, which was now dubbed Whatever USA and would soon be populated by wildly partying strangers. Although the proof of local residency for the wristbands was definitely a blundered travesty, the rest of my assumptions never manifested. It’s worth repeating, if only for absolution… I was wrong.
From the moment the big blue buses arrived on the mountain, the debarking chosen ones had a different feel from the spring-breakers. They were thrilled and awed, not at all entitled, and still in disbelief that they had somehow boarded a chartered jet and wound up in a mountain town paradise for a once-in-a-lifetime party experience.
When the parade started up Elk Avenue on Friday evening and each blue curtain segment was whisked back to reveal another aspect of their created town, the anticipation escalated and the leading group of Whatevers and happy locals in costumes squealed and screamed like little kids at a circus.
Hired actors, dancers, jugglers, stilt walkers, and fire eaters were decked out in colorful and extravagant costumes. Blue peacocks and glitter-winged women welcomed the entourage while jesters and clowns beckoned and mimed, psychedelic rhinoceroses held steadfast to the blue pavement, a garden of boomboxes begged to be hoisted onto shoulders, an air safari of blow-up animals and space aliens flew through the cloudless blue sky to be carried along with the advancing revelers. A limbo bar had to be navigated and the final curtain gave way to a massive stage where Lil Jon was spinning his music magic to the absolute delight of the dancing sea of fans.
It was fantastical street theatre at its innovative best, it was Yellow Submarine meets King of Hearts, and it invited the crowd to create their own story. There was free schwag at every turn and yes, a Bud Light in every hand. The atmosphere was jovial and the best part of it was that the crowd was truly appreciative and utterly respectful.
Earlier, I had asked a couple of the Whatevers how they were chosen as the lucky ones to be awarded a ticket to fly. The two young men had bellied up for noshing at django’s, having been in airports all day from New Orleans before boarding the chartered Whatever jet from Denver to Gunnison.
“I didn’t bring my girlfriend and she’s really pissed at me right now,” one guy shrugged without much remorse. “I brought my best buddy,” he, and his pal, grinned, clinking their Bud Lights in a celebratory toast. He landed his seat on the plane by answering a few questions at a bar where the Bud Light contestant seekers were set up for ten-second video interviews. Caught off-guard when asked which celebrity he’d like to go out with, the N’ Orleaner answered Drew Brees, the quarterback for the NFL Saints. Bingo. Right answer.
As the sun set on Whateverville’s first night, I saw its inhabitants head into the participating restaurants where they got a sampling of how delectable Crested Butte’s eateries are. There were more Elk Avenue concerts and DJs, volleyball, hot tubbing and photo ops on every block. Since the winners’ blue wristbands were microchipped, they could be scanned at photo stations set up in the street, where smiling faces were snapped and uploaded directly to their Facebook pages. Wandering photographers, many of them our usual local camera-bearers, were paid to meander through the party, scan the chips and upload the memories. At 9:45 p.m., my Whatever USA phone app buzzed to tell me to head to the ice rink for a dance party. I had no idea I was going to my first Rave.
Racks and racks of black coats with patterned stripes of LED ribbon lights were given out to everyone in the chilly skating rink. Inside, enormous video screens were linked end to end around the entire rink perimeter, narrow panels of downward screens above the stage and Imax-sized stage screens were added. Hundreds of laser lights, spot lights and front-stage smoke tubes were set to flash and roam the crowd, who danced under mirrored disco globes and a shower of blue confetti.
As the music thumped at over 100 decibels and the bass vibrated every bone and cell in the pulsating crowd, all the LEDs in their coats started to change colors in unison, triggered by a hidden technician somewhere. The dance floor became a rhythmic cosmos of thousands of tiny lights. It was the most surreal experience since my late 1960s pop festivals of peace, love and understanding.
I instantly realized that even though I used to snicker at Ravers and their canned music, I had missed my calling as one. I fell in love with Alesso, the Swedish DJ and electronic music producer, not only his mixes but his entire visual show—mind-blowing bizarre images, a body peacefully floating through an asteroid-filled space, quick-paced scenes that were practically subliminal, and lyrics flashing in synchronized flickers. Alesso was the Houdini of full-immersion music, permeating every perceptional sense. We danced until the music stopped at 1 a.m. and I dragged my exhausted body up the alley and home.
Saturday dawned sunny and warm, the streets had been immaculately cleaned of all the molted feathers, beer bottles and trash, and downtown Whatever was already buzzing with beach parties, street events, buskers, band class, drag race preparations, pasted-on mustachioed beer drinkers, cupcake tastings and—bacon appreciation at Soupçon.
I bolted for Chef Jason Vernon’s interpretation of America’s favorite. Bacon with crepes, duck bacon, and chocolate-covered bacon, my personal favorite. In a food coma swoon, my Whatever app again alerted me, get to the main gate for Vanilla Ice Cream. An ice cream truck ceremoniously passed under the metal framed entrance, followed by cheers and jumping fans as rapper and actor Vanilla Ice passed out cones on his way to the stage for an electrified performance, debunking another erroneous notion I had, which was that I hate rap. I was jumping up and down, stabbing my fist in the air with the best of them because Vanilla Ice rocked it.
Late afternoon brought the Norwegian duo Nico and Vinz and their band to the stage with their upbeat mix of pop reggae and soul. Nico announced proudly to the crowd, “We home right now…” and looking around at the joy, it seemed the Whatevers felt like they had found community.
One couple from South Dakota told me the whole ordeal blew their minds. “It feels like we’ve been here for more than one day. Oh yes, we’ll be back because we love snowboarding. We love this town.”
First-timers to Crested Butte from Cleveland were impressed at the Whatever concept and the difficulty in creating such a complex event but their conclusion was, “Sure I’ll be back because I know there’s world-class skiing and once you get a taste you wanna come back. I hear there are amazing bowls and awesome downhill. I’ve heard there are smaller lift lines compared to other ski areas.”
It’s 10 p.m. and the ultimate funkified shindig was about to happen in the ice rink, as my Whatever app flashed. As a KBUT Soul Train enthusiast, I fished out the shiny lamé pants, disco platforms, and white boa, put my silver tinsel wig-hat on my head, sparkled up the lips and tromped my bad self off to the disco ball, where KC and the Sunshine Band exploded into a high-stepping, arm-flailing groove for a couple of hours. I wasn’t sure why a geezer from a 1970s disco band would thrill the young audience but they went wild and had the moves and the costumes to boot. KC yelled, “Not bad for 63 years old, right?!” and then knocked everyone’s socks off with his tight band, dancing girls and all the hits we loved.
Outside, the carousel was endlessly circling, the tall Ferris wheel was giving an unbeatable view over the town and Pharaoh’s Fury was swinging, screaming riders higher and higher. There were free hot dogs, and best of all chocolate-drizzled hot waffles.
As I sat down on a rock wall with a dear friend and a bag of kettle corn and watched the night come to a close, a young winner from Las Vegas plopped himself down so close to me, as though he were trying to absorb the last of some Buttianess. He looked at me like one would look at an old friend and said, “I don’t want to leave.” Asked if he meant because of all the free schwag and party, he said, “No, I love it here. The party was amazing, but this place is so special. Thanks for letting us come.” He stood up, reached down and gave me a hug, as so many other Whatevers had done with the same sincere appreciation and words: “Thank you for letting us come to your town.”
I was impressed that although these people came from every different corner of the U.S., they all seemed to have the same sense of community, an understanding of just how special our town is, without the glitz, without the concerts, without the free Bud, without Whatever. In the end, it wasn’t a big corporation that made this event spectacular. It was the individuals who made it real.