Thursday, June 12, 2003
Photo by: Randy Tunnell
Call me a killjoy, but I find it hard to say "Modern Nomad Festival" with a straight face. It''s like "anarchists'' convention"--oxymoronic to the max, obviation through labeling. What self-respecting nomad would be caught dead at an organized gathering? And what''s with the "modern" bit? I won''t even go into the logo-emblazoned tee-shirts and hoodies for sale at last weekend''s Modern Nomad Festival in Big Sur--who could wear such a thing without wincing? Hey, I''m a modern nomad, hear me roar!
It took me a good five or six hours Saturday, stretched out on an old sleeping bag on the lawn at the Henry Miller Library, listening and watching as the festival unfolded around me, to slowly let go of the protective coat of irony, the anxious grasping at timetables, the internal demon gatekeepers that control how I move through life, and just...let it be (cue windchimes).
The wine helped, even though it was Two-Buck Chuck at three bucks a glass.
Anyone who hasn''t yet experienced the magic of the Henry Miller Library lawn needs to haul ass down there pronto. (Wait, not pronto--slow down, take it easy, don''t fall into the trap). That small circle of green grass surrounded by its magisterial circle of towering redwoods lies at the center of some sort of universal creative energy vortex. Just lie there for a couple hours. You''ll understand, Grasshopper.
Paul Jacob felt the vibe so strongly on a visit last year that he decided to hold his first annual weekend gathering there this past Friday through Sunday: Modern Nomad Festival 2003, three days of music, poetry, workshops and convivial community-building devoted to the ethos of life as a constant journey, an ethos the energetic 27-year-old Jacob promotes with unselfconscious optimism.
Jacob and his partner Lindsay Bentz, 24, are the team behind Places (formerly Modern Nomad), a glossy four-color, anti-travel travel magazine produced from their home office in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
The magazine, launched in the weeks following 9-11, is billed as an art magazine "by and for" twenty- and thirty-something cultural creatives. In its pages one finds no advertorials about the Ten Best Ski Resorts, or paeans to the latest Caribbean island; in fact, its articles aren''t about destinations at all, so much as the thoughts and experiences of the writers who''ve been there.
"We don''t do travel writing," Jacob says, explaining that he''s trying to create a literary forum for a "sense of place in writing," the kind of writing that comes from spending months somewhere rather than zipping in and out on a three-day junket. The magazine publishes articles, essays and photographs primarily from young, unknown writers and artists who buy into Jacob''s credo of hitting the road and keeping open to whatever may come.
Those were the people who showed up last weekend at the Henry Miller Library--not in the hundreds, as Jacob had predicted, but in the dozens. They dribbled in Friday night and stayed until the closing toast Sunday morning; the bulk of the planned activities took place all day Saturday, beginning with an 11am travel writing workshop run by Jacob and Neeli Cherkovski, Jacob''s mentor. Cherkovski is a poet and essayist, and the author of biographies of the Beat-era writers Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Charles Bukowski (his friends), and is writer-in-residence at San Francisco''s New College of California.
When I wandered onto the lawn at about 12:30, a dozen or so people were sitting in folding chairs grouped closely around the stage, which was curiously and somewhat incongruously decorated like a living room. Cherkovski, a portly man in his late fifties, with wildly tousled gray hair, was offering his thoughts on how to live free. "Always be ''traveling,'' even when you''re stationary," he advised, adding proudly, "I didn''t have a real job until I was 52."
Strange tip from a teacher? Not for this crowd, some of whom have quit their jobs and taken to the road, inspired by the Modern Nomad message.
Obviously, that''s easier to do when you''re 20. And if not then, pointed out Hazen Komraus, a post-adolescent clad in cargo pants and a blue bandanna, when? "I want to travel while I can still climb mountains," said Komraus, who has spent the last few years wandering around the US. If only, he mused, people were born old, and then grew younger until, finally, they retired at, say, age 20 or so, when they could really enjoy their freedom.
"I''m trying to get it together to leave the country next year," he confided. His destination? Not the wilds of Asia or Africa, or even the cafes of Europe--the common destinations of the young American traveler--but the British Virgin Islands. Weird. "It''s the best part of the Caribbean," he insisted, before politely excusing himself so he could get back to his reading--an old paperback edition of Nabokov''s Ada.
People showed up at the festival for all kinds of reasons. One young woman, who declined to give her name, has been riding Greyhound back and forth across the country for a couple years. Peter Riley and his friend Jorn Piesnack ("Like Bjorn, but without the ''b''," explains Piesnack, adding that he carries the B around in his pocket) were driving up the coast from San Luis Obispo when they heard about the festival from a monk at the New Camaldoli Monastery. "The brothers are cool," says Riley, who has spent the last two years filming people for a video project called America''s Nuts (yeah, he snagged me, but I predict that my terse and self-conscious interview won''t make the cut.)
Beth Stanton, a massage therapist from Modesto, was driving through Big Sur in February when she read about the festival in Coast Weekly ("Modern Nomads Head for Big Sur," 2/27). During the travel writing workshop, she lashed out at people who define others by their jobs. "People ask me, What do you do? I don''t like to answer, so I say, ''I have fun.'' I don''t think you should be defined by how you make your money."
Like others at this festival, Stanton has a book in the making--notes and journal entries from a trip to Europe that she''s been trying to compile for more than two years now. She came to the festival primarily for the Saturday morning workshop, but missed more than half of it when she locked her keys in the trunk of her car and had to wait for a locksmith to drive down from Carmel. "It cost me $200," she mourns. (What''s a nomad doing with a car, anyway?)
Matthew Abrams also has a book in him, but his immediate goal is to write for Jacob. That''s why he flew in all the way from DC for the festival. "The point is to be a traveler even when you''re not traveling," he says. "It''s about traveling as a lifestyle. Being open. To always be on the journey."
As the day wore on, many scheduled activities went by the wayside. The 2pm workshop never happened. The 6pm start-time for the music became 7pm, and then 7:30. But no one stressed out, particularly not Jacob.
When Cherkovski, the biggest name of the day, didn''t show for his 6:30 poetry reading, Jacob explained that the man was "overwhelmed" by the emotional intensity of being back in Big Sur, and had retired to his motel room to write.
Any other festival organizer would have blown a gasket, but Jacob just smiled and nodded his head: A Modern Nomad has to listen to the muse where and when it strikes.
For more information, visit www.modernnomadmagazine.com.