24. “Where Would I Be?” by R. Wells, and “Bootleg Barbecue,” by Laurel Brooke.

Where would I be if a box of Crackerjacks were sticking out of my doffed boot, a yellow raincoat were under my butt on the grassy hill, an occasional vehicle passed on a slope of the Blue Ridge Parkway a quarter mile in front of me, people are making their way toward a shed-like stage—one pushing a baby carriage—some people are dancing down in front—others sitting or standing–& Jim Lauderdale & his band are loudly playing?

This question, posed in my journal, has a clear answer: FloydFest. Below are two mementos of the world-renowned socio-musical extravaganza held at the end of July on what was once pastureland. Long hillsides near the Parkway bear permanent structures for bands and dancers, and the edges of the midway sprout annual tents and booths. The first record continues my entry of August 16, 2003, and the second offers Laurel Brook’s report on the twelfth installment of the event:

Fiddle, drums, 3 electric guitars– Breeze gives lift to a blanket that someone flaps onto the grass—Guy has shirt hanging from rear pocket—2 young women sit on straw stools, raise their arms, laugh, & bounce around to the music—(I stop a member of an earlier band & thank her—local group from Stuart, VA.) Breeze ripples a woman’s wide trousers as she stands and dances on her blanket.

Guy inclines his head toward a woman’s—His gray hair bifurcating in braids or at least in woven snakes. (Guy in the Stuart bluegrass band had a guitar strap made of rattlesnake skin.) Bubbles make their way uphill toward me on a gust of cool air. I see there’s a keyboard or one of those country-Western slides. Guy just passed—40-ish, red-blond hair down to the middle of his back, pronounced calf muscles—daughter to his left—about 12—skinny, freckled, w. big round earrings. He smiles, puts his arm on her younger brother.

Ladybug takes a moment to realize there’s no camouflage on a white shirt-sleeve. Sun, moody, casts a shadow again on this page—of my writing hand w. its bulges & outpoking pen-end. Guy in an untucked flowered shirt just walked by sowing bubbles, a cue for another guy to light up a cigarette. Greg & Vicki [the writer’s brother and sister-in-law] are somewhere—at another performance, a booth….maybe here! Sweet pasture smell– Young woman walks uphill yawning, a hoop around her neck, her arms propped up by it—long skirt—center of the image her belly button, double symbol of fertility in her fleshy midriff. Johnny Bubbleman. Guy holds out an empty water bottle & flicks it to the beat. Intermittent, a breeze makes the white tags spin & dance on merchandise in a booth.

G & V napping [as I share a blanket and listen to music.] M-m-m…scent of food & smoke–Counterculture “flavor” to the people–“I am not pesticide resistant” T-shirt. One lady serving food had hair under right arm and I supposed under the left. She was value-added w. earrings, tattoo, & rings. People still ambling out of the seating area after a concert—Shelled peanut just fell on this page courtesy of Greg—I tossed it back. Oh—it was a message—to take a photo of Vicki asleep on his hip.

Nose-ring, coonskin, probably same-gender couples, tie-dyed shirts, no shirts, as if in a parade to the disk-jockey interval music. Nipples implied [by one blouse]. Tents line the fairway–“Touch the Earth” next to “Shorts-Pants-Tops-Hats-Belts-Bags-Hacks-Hemp” next to “Hand-woven Hammocks.” Wish you could be here to experience Baka Beyond—their music is a fusion of Gaelic & Africa—5 countries in Africa & Europe—I made my asterisk strokes [on the page] to the beat. Parade of children—to rainforest music—In costumes—w. parents—a Sweet Tent just flipped near me—Some kids on stilts—hatted–(flute music & drums)–masks, wings, slippers—the stilt-people walking in dignified slow rhythms to the music—the stilts, hidden except for the distal ends by pantaloons or skirts, rippling in the breeze, touch the grass soundlessly.

The 2013 festival, July 25-28, brought rain on one or two days, and the only arks were the shuttle-buses. Among the vendors was Laurel Brooke, sixteen years old. How many FloydFesters would realize that someone making their barbecue sandwich plays the violin in the Roanoke Symphony Youth Orchestra? As a child Laurel spent some years at Rivendell (Chapter 1). 

I work at a barbecue stand on the weekends. What started out as a summer job for this sixteen year old, soon turned into a regular part-time thing. Hired by the owner, Jon Beegle, I soon learned to make satisfactory sandwiches for the hungry. The company name “Bootleg BBQ” comes from the home cooked beverages once consumed by the owner’s family at friendly cookouts. Those days are no more and so, armed with secret pork and sauce recipes, “Bootleg BBQ” was born.

We have a small food-truck-like establishment that is basically a smoker and kitchen on wheels, parked permanently until a great need arises. It’s located on South Locust Street right across from the funeral home. Nicknamed “The Shack,” its 8′ X 20′ dimensions hold everything you could want for your sandwich-making needs. It holds a freezer, fridge, and two large sinks on one side with stainless steel countertops, and three warming compartments on the other. They hold baby-back ribs, baked beans, chicken (pulled and quartered), brisket, and our best seller, Atomic Buffalo Turds or ABTs (jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese, wrapped in bacon and smoked on low heat). A magnetic strip set up above a sink holds all of our utensils. The roof is red and definitely stands out in a crowd. The whole stand was custom built in a car garage in Floyd.

The Shack. Sketch by Hannah Brooke.

    The Shack, by Hannah Brooke.

FloydFest. That one word sends flashes of memories through my mind. Snippets of music from the various stages set up around us, the smell of pulled pork and the sight of mud, and the feel of hundreds of people full of adrenaline. I was a vendor for this year’s festival and it being my first time, nothing could have prepared me for the craziness, the ear-shattering volume, the crowds of folks rushing to the next performance, and the seemingly never-ending line of hungry customers waiting for their food.

When I stepped off of my shuttle I was immediately greeted with the smell and sight of mud. The walkways look like some form of wrestling went on and the sides had become the main path for traffic. The darker the mud the deeper, while the lighter the slipperier. There was a rumor that somebody had wrestled with a fake crocodile for a couple hours in a large puddle. I unfortunately missed that spectacle. As I made my way up through the treacherous mud there were vendors on my right side selling everything from leather boots to dream-catchers. Past them you get to the food vendors, and the smells there are numerous: sweet, tangy, smoky (from us), and under it all the earthy, slightly fishy smell of mud. When you walk towards the camping areas the sour/skunk smell of a particular seven-leafed plant is particularly easy to pick out. Walk past the food vendors and you hit a big open field with folks selling merchandise on either side with the main stage front and center in the distance.

I had the 5-to-9 shift, although some nights I needed to work later due to the overwhelming line of pork-loving people. I would serve food the first hour then switch over to minding the sauce table. The first day was chaotic to say the least. We had set up five tables total in order to not have everybody bottled up and slowing business. Under our canopy we had three more, which held the food while the other two were holding sauces, napkins, and cutlery.

We have four different house sauces and one of my jobs was to explain what they tasted like. Our red sauce, Red Moon Rising, is sweet, tomato-based and the most popular, while our Floyd Firewater runs a close second. True to its name it’s a watery hot sauce that will set your mouth on fire. The Hooch is next in terms of spiciness. This mustard-based sauce gives a surprising kick at the finish. Our Alabama White Lightning is mayo and vinegar based. Sweet and tangy, its flavor is best when served on chicken. Folks have many different ways of trying sauces, from tasting a little of each on a spoon, to taking our word for it. One gentlemen put a little of every sauce on each finger to lick off.

One thing I learned at the festival is that barbecue is a very serious thing to some folks. When asked if they want coleslaw on their sandwich, there followed a moment of deep contemplative silence. Some would ask to see the slaw with hopes that it would help them decide. Sometimes I couldn’t help but think, It’s a simple Yes or No question! In retrospect it is an important decision in a way. Coleslaw could make or break a sandwich, if it’s a big deal to you. With our name we are the butt of many customer jokes. I had one guy ask me if we got our name because we have bootleg in our food. I told him “If we did do you think I would tell you?” That made him laugh and then ask if I was a bootlegger.

The second day it rained so we moved all the tables underneath the tent and moved our service into The Shack. Mud was everywhere and pretty soon the floor inside looked like it had been painted brown. Mopping that was fun. We were right next to the Speakeasy Vaudeville Revue, which had some sort of show going on at all times. I had a lot of fun listening to the affairs going on there while I scurried around. Behind us was the Flower of Life stage. They had yoga in the morning and throughout the day, and silent disco and live DJs at night. I tried out the silent disco one night. They give you a pair of headphones and the DJ on stage plays directly to the headphones. It’s funny seeing everyone dance to nothing.

It was a lot of fun getting off from a hard day’s work to rock out for a little bit. As to the rest of the music…many different bands were heard but not seen. From rock to folk to reggae I heard several snippets as I walked. I actually went and watched one band and that was it. I love music but I couldn’t stay still in one spot for long, preferring to amble and observe the swaying in a crowd of (not so sober) fans.

In my free-time wanderings I people watched or succumbed to the tempting smells of grub. During the course of the event I had an amazing array of different food from Thai noodles to French crêpes. I also wanted to have chocolate covered bacon but by the time I got to that booth they were sold out! I had a really tasty lamb-burger from a Greek stand. When they asked if I wanted cheese on it, I replied Yes and was slightly disgusted when he squirted it on. I also gave in to the temptation of the “Wild Bill’s Olde Fashioned Soda Pop” offer. Buy a fifteen-dollar mug—get free soda the rest of the day. I had way too much soda that day which goes to show what happens when you’re offered “free” stuff. There was this really delicious peach popsicle, made with real fruit and perfect for the hot day. I walked around with some friends and we ended up at this hammock vendor. They had four set up for customers to try, and we did so for a good hour.

I met lots of new people from my work and wanderings, but a few particularly stand out.

Meeting a young man from France who asked me to play finger billiards with him. We played a game, I lost, and we went on our way. I thought I had accidentally left my phone at our table so I went back and learned his name was Nikolas. Talking to a volunteer from Richmond while waiting for a shuttle at midnight and having a long conversation about the Festival with someone from Maine, here for the first time with a friend that had come to eight festivals altogether. Sitting on the floor in the back of a bus because there were no more seats. There was one other guy standing in the aisle for the windy ride who knew I was going to work; he said something to the whole bus about it. “Everybody buy barbecue from her! She’s going for work while we get to have fun!”

We served up thousands of sandwiches and hundreds of ABTs. I refilled the sauce bottles too many times to count. As the festival drew to a close I left with the feeling that next year I would be ready. Next year I would brave the camping out. Next year, I would know the answer to one of the complex, philosophical questions of the barbecue universe… “Do you want slaw with that?”