Thursday night, the crowds began to form across the street from the entrance to Reggae on the River (ROTR). "Tickets, anyone need tickets?" a man announced with cutoff blue jeans and a tie-dyed shirt. The young pit bull at his side was attached by a green leash and sat patiently sniffing all of the foreign smells from the soon-to-be campers. The scene at this gas station is unlike any other I've encountered. People smoking cigarettes around the gas pumps, openly drinking beers and smoking pot while the California Highway Patrol was positioned just 40 feet away directing traffic.

"Good God man," I said out loud remembering a statement from the movie "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas". Then a pretty girl with blonde hair, a blue tank top and jean shorts walked up to me and offered me 'shrooms. Looking over my right shoulder, I caught a glimpse of the CHP van. Even though it was 30 or 40 feet from me, my feared sense of perception made it feel inches away.

I honestly thought about the purchase for a split second, but then politely said no as I felt my hands getting clammy with the fear of getting caught. But she didn't stop at me, she walked three steps to my left and someone else purchased my bundle of fun. "Maybe next year," I thought to myself and headed off to sleep so I could beat the crowds in the morning for the perfect camping spot.

At 5:45 a.m., the sunshine began to peak its head out over the tree-covered hills. The line of vehicles waiting on Highway 101 to enter probably trailed for 10 miles or so. Sleepy-eyed drivers sat behind the steering wheels of their vehicles, impatient but glad their journey was almost over. Inside the venue, orange vested volunteers made human lines for the cars to drive through. Their attire lit up the un-camped, rocky, river terrain. People wanting to walk into the event had been in line for well over two hours with a mental picture of how their campsite will look when assembled.

Six a.m. is the time when all of the chaos will start. Fifteen minutes 'til the magical venue will come alive with people, their possessions, and a common passion for reggae music.

People that attend Reggae on the River (ROTR) have amused and interested me the last two years I've attended and this year was no exception.

A man who calls himself Pooba was a veteran of ROTR. He has been attending for 20 years. He was probably in his early 40s and had blonde dread locks with beads interwoven within. His dark blue pants had colored smiley faces all over them. The material was similar to that of the blankets you buy while waiting to cross the U.S./Mexican border. He also had no shirt on and a huge grin on his face.

According to Pooba, the best ROTR for him was four years ago when Alpha Blondy played. "It was a screaming show," he said. "He didn't get to come on until 1:30 a.m., and he played until 5 a.m." "It blew everybody's socks off," he added. "The security wanted to go home and Alpha Blondy would not get off of the stage." "It was an incredible evening," Pooba said. I asked him if he remembered three years earlier when Luciano had climbed to the top of the stage lighting tower and sang from way above the stage. He surprised me with his reaction when he said, "Yeah, that was the year I ran around naked." Then he added, "Let me go get the picture." Chuckling to himself with a childlike happiness he returned with a key chain, which contained all of his passes from previous years attached to it. There he was naked with only an oversized access pass covering his private parts. Along with the passes were about seven or eight long, colored, plastic keys. "Each holds the key to happiness, but not just one alone," he said. "All of them together." He was probably the most interesting to interview because he just radiated youth and laughter.

People attending the 2003 Reggae On The River traveled from different ends of the world to experience this 20th anniversary festival. The venue is at French's Camp located in Piercy, Ca. It is a river valley that sits just below the Interstate 101 about 200 miles north of San Francisco, and 75 miles south of Eureka. The Eel River runs along the west side of the valley, soothing hot concertgoers from the temperatures that reach well over 100 degrees.

The lineup this year included many great artists from the past and present. Friday had headliners Ben Harper, Michael Franti & Spearhead and Culture. Saturday the Marley Brothers-Julian, Damian and Stephen, Anthony B, Wayne Wonder and Israel Vibration played. And the last night, Sunday included Jimmy Cliff, Toots & The Maytals, Beres Hammond, Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths and Pato Banton & The Revolutionary Band.

People Productions runs this show and Brook Yetter said their company coordinates 2,000 volunteers, composed of traffic attendants, security and first-aid. Volunteers work the event for a free ticket inside. General admission tickets for this event $145 for all three days of music and camping. The total number of people allowed inside the grounds was 10,000. Parking is not included in that price and ranges from $30 for a car or truck to $100 to $300 for larger vehicles such as buses and motor homes. Yetter explained that the event started out as a benefit to help rebuild the Mateel Community Center that was burned down by an arson fire. He said that it began as a one-day event. "Reggae on the River is purely a Mateel Community Center Benefit," he added.

After all the tents were assembled and our canopies were in place our camp made hot dogs to start our day off right. But later in the day, after two meals of hotdogs and hamburgers, we were already burned out on our meal plan for the weekend. So my tent partner and I headed up to the concert to get some variety in our diet. Along the north wall of the enclosed concert barriers stood food stands and lines galore. People waiting in line ranged from a hippie with a child wrapped to her chest with a colorful cloth to the teenager dressed in a yellow butterfly costume.

    Pot stickers and soybeans.
    Indian bread pizzas and Rasta pasta.
    Fried Twinkies and ice cream.

So many decisions and moderately priced items made eating anything besides dogs and burgers a joyous experience. Yetter said all of these food vendors are operated by non-profit organizations. "A lot of these organizations rely on this money for their annual budgets," he added. The charities include schools, local fire departments and environmental organizations such as Friends of The Eel River.

And the Eel River has lots of friends. The temperatures that weekend made the water a perfect escape from the sweat factor during the afternoon. Children played with high pressure Super Soakers as relaxed adults floated by on different types of rafts. Naked men and women swam in a near-by river pool that was the perfect speed for swimming in place for a little mid-afternoon exercise. Women sunbathed, exposing their hairy armpits and wringing out their damp dreads. And groups of lawn chairs were placed strategically in the water, making beer drinking and pot smoking a neighborly event. About every five or ten minutes, a man or woman would walk by displaying the goods they had for sale. "Ganja food," one woman exclaimed holding a straw woven basket containing rice crispy treats and pot brownies. Another man walked by with a black plastic case and began flashing his colorful glass smoking utensils. Then as if they were all following 50 feet behind each other, a girl walked by with a large nug of marijuana in her hand asking if anyone needed any bud. This could definitely have been a description of a scene from a book by the author Hunter S. Thompson.

"We have top notch security," Brook Yetter from People Productions said as to why the Humboldt Sheriff's Office does not enter the premises. Also that the organizers Carol Bruno and Paul Bassis work closely with federal, county, and local agencies to make sure they are doing everything correctly. Bassis also works directly on the legal ends such as with the California Highway Patrol.

I then got in contact with Public Information Officer Brenda Gainy from the Sheriff's Office. She made a few calls to different officers with the Drug Enforcement Unit and reported back to me. According to Gainy, "It used to be a law enforcement nightmare (ROTR)." She said the primary drugs used are marijuana and hallucinogens such as mushrooms, LSD and newly Ecstasy. Gainy also said the crime rate is usually pretty low with only petty thefts from food stores and the occasional gas drive-off. She added that the reason police officers do not enter the premises is because they stay out for the safety of their officers.

"Ten Thousand people enjoying themselves do not want to see the police enter their party," Gainy said. But she did say that officers would respond to service calls for help if needed. "Without a doubt there is drug use," according to Gainy. She said that it is a tough situation to deal with. It is a question of how best to allocate resources. Other areas of the county have problems with violent drug offences like the beaches up in Eureka. "Reggae on the River is not a violent event," she added.

About 10 miles north of ROTR is Garberville. I contacted Janis Tillery at The Garberville/Redway Chamber of Commerce to find out the impact of ROTR on the community. She seemed like she didn't have time to talk with an occasional sigh in her voice. As she answered my questions for three minutes it appeared that she couldn't wait to get off of the line. She didn't seem to be very resourceful when it came to the economic impact of the festival on the community. But she said to find out the real impact I would need to call each place individually. She did however perk up when she was asked about the overall feeling from ROTR being in the community. "Great feeling, wonderful event," she said, "It brings love and happiness and is great for the community." Just out of curiosity I called back and asked, "How many residents are in Garberville?" "Approximately 1,400," she answered. Well with a community so small I would have thought she could have been more patient with my questions considering she probably didn't have much to do. But I didn't say anything of the sort, instead I said thank you and politely hung up.

I did however chuckle to myself as I sat writing down the small number of residents on my notepad. Still on my mission to find out what impact ROTR has on the local community, I contacted Brian Walker whom is the Store Manager of Sentry Market on Redwood Street in Garberville. According to Walker the event is good for the economy. But it is not a huge impact. "Thursday is the biggest day," he said, "But it isn't gigantic. We lose regular tourists for those two days (Thursday and Friday)."

As I sat on my blanket towards the back of the show away from the huge crowds, I observed a boy that appeared to be in his mid-20s standing behind me to the left. He must have had lots of hair hidden under his massive hat because it almost was as wide as his shoulders. I asked him if he would like to smoke with me and he sat down and enlightened me with his feelings about ROTR. According to Mavis regarding the comparison of last year with this year, "People are more active and outside of their minds. Last year everyone was stuck introverted. I feel this year is a bit more majestic in its mistism," he said. "As the in sighing carnival of soundscapes approach, as Mother Nature's lightning collided with the sounds of drum beats long, ancient, and past being revived as fast lightning and mists of neutral air."

I wonder what Pooba would say to that? He might have agreed on the mistism and given him some of those keys to happiness.

When I was getting ready to leave on Monday morning I walked by the dirty Porta Potties and smelled the sweet aroma of stench rising in the air. After I had passed them I continued to smell the stench and I realized the aroma was not coming from the Porta Potties but from my three-day-old, un-showered body, which brought a smile to my face.


Text & Photos : Kimberly Parker (August 2003)
(Please do not reproduce without permission).

All Rights Reserved. 2003   Reggae Vibes Productions