By O’Hara Shipe
Roughly 130 miles north of Anchorage, at the corner of the Parks Highway and Susitna River Road, a plywood sign is nailed to two felled tree trunks. The letters ‘TCBG’ and an arrow pointing to the right are scribbled cryptically on the makeshift sign. The paved road quickly dissipates and is replaced by a pothole-filled dirt road scarcely wide enough for two cars to pass each other unscathed. About the time you begin to wonder if you somehow took a wrong turn, another plywood sign emerges and directs you further into wilderness. Tall trees line both sides of the road that becomes rockier with every mile journeyed. Several minutes later, a single-lane bridge emerges to shuttle cars across a small stream in what is increasingly beginning to feel like an Odyssean voyage. Right as you begin to hum the words to Disney’s ‘Just Around the Riverbend’, you’re greeted by two pedestrians wearing top hats and flannel.
“Is this your first time at Trapper Creek?” one asks jovially.
The question seems more rhetorical than genuine given your wide-eyed expression that is equal parts terrified and enthralled. After flipping through a neatly organized binder complete with plastic sheet covers the mysterious greeter slaps a blue band around your wrist and sends you on your way.
“Just remember, no glow sticks! We’re too cool for that! Plus, its harmful to the dogs running around. Go ahead and continue around the loop until you find a place to park. Oh, and make sure you stay in first gear and go really slow,” she says with a grin as she points to an endless stream of people sauntering down the bumpy dirt lane.
This violent, but intriguing assault to your senses is one of the most unique music festivals in the world. Featuring five days of music, camping and one-of-a-kind networking in the woods, the Trapper Creek Bluegrass Festival was born in 2006 after the passing of its Mat-Su predecessor—the Hunter Creek Bluegrass Festival.
“When [landowner] Bill Foster passed away in 2005, [Ken Terry and Jim Fissori] decided to retire. I ended up getting approached about using my land to host the festival by a guy named Paul Kilborn. They did the festival and lost all their money,” chuckles Justin Boot as he takes a drag of his cigarette. “Of course, I had the bright idea of running it again that fall to make back the money, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Sporting a black top hat adorned with an oversized tarot card, a bushy shoulder-length beard and a friendly grin, Boot is the quietly charismatic one-man-band behind the Trapper Creek Bluegrass Festival. But the 44-year-old from Kansas never dreamed of hosting an annual event of this magnitude when he first purchased forty acres of land in Trapper Creek.
“My dream was to raise bison, but it hasn’t happened yet—they kept running away,” laughs Boot.
A DIY-er at heart, Boot funds his $50,000 a year festival by making do with what’s around him. His shelter is one of five lean-tos that he has scattered across the property and his food is caught in the stream or hunted on-site.
“I shift houses as the seasons change because each place has different amenities and there’s plenty of food around. Sometimes I get lucky and can hunt a moose,” says Boot.
Of course, living a modest life doesn’t mean Boot is rolling in some secret stash of money. When he put on the 2017 festival, he had a measly $10 left in his bank account. In fact, he rarely ends up in the black but his passion for music outweighs the financial consequences of putting the festival on, so Boot just hopes to break even each year.
“I am definitely not doing this for the money,” Boot says emphatically. “I refuse not to pay the musicians and I have worked really hard to turn this festival into what it is today.”
As anyone who has ever attended the festival will attest, it is best described as an escape from the real world where everyone, even the dogs, get along.
“It’s like everyone has the same fucking idea and its so cool! Like, you get to be you when you’re here and it almost feels like getting a giant hug. I may have to go off and go be Boogie Butterfly in a moment but yeah, I just love this place,” explains Tesia White as she twirls the iridescent fairy wings affixed to her back. An instant later she’s gleefully skipping into the woods.
White’s free-spiritedness is indicative of the overall vibe of the festival that brings together hippies, hipsters, corporate workers, blue collar workers and even families with young children. But its not just the attendees that are diverse. The musical lineup features everything from punk to metal and accordion players to the undefinable. Ironically, the only think that seems to be missing is the bluegrass the festival is named after.
“I think the only bluegrass I’ve heard is the stuff I just played,” jokes California-native Noaa Rienecker after entertaining his campmates with a rendition of “Life is Excellent” by Bobby Joe Ebola and The Children Macnuggits.
Although the festival’s name is a misnomer, it still managed to attract Nashville-based country musician Pat Reedy who first met Boot at the Muddy Roots Festival in Cookeville, Tennessee. A spitfire of a performer, Reedy was intrigued by the promise of a festival in the woods that rejected what he calls the “sterile corporate presence” of large festivals like Burning Man and Bonnaroo.
“This is working class people making shit happen and they are here for each other and the music. It’s not like they came here for drugs or whatever. Like people do in Bonnaroo or any other bullshit like that. These are real salt of the earth people,” explains Reedy.
When asked if the festival was everything, he thought it would be, Reedy laughs before replying, “it takes things to another level.” For a travelling musician who is used to running water at gigs, the lack of modern amenities and unorthodox sleeping arrangements was undoubtedly shocking.
“You have people camping out of their cars. Sometimes people are nice enough to let strangers stay in their RVs. There are also a ton tents set up. People kind of just form their own little communities all over the place,” says first time volunteer David Aguilar.
As the saying goes, you can’t have good without the bad and Trapper Creek is no exception. Despite its overall feeling of euphoria and Boot’s best attempts to keep everyone safe, accidents do happen. At this year’s festival one woman sustained a self-inflicted stab wound and had to be rushed to the hospital. Others had to be stopped by security before they wondered off the property and into the wilderness.
The safety concerns were something the Mat-Su Borough has cracked down on and Boot is now feeling the increased financial strain.
“They changed the rules and now I have to have EMTs on staff and full-time security, which isn’t cheap, but I guess it’s a necessary evil to make sure this place stays the way it is,” says Boot with a shrug.
With an increasing number of people traveling to the festival, Boot has also had to expand the festival’s property line by excavating a giant field of trees. The task was such a large undertaking that Boot was still in the middle of pulling up roots when the first festival attendees arrived this year.
“I think I’ll probably start things a little earlier next year. You know, I’m trying to get better at this each year,” explains Boot.
Boot may be his harshest critic. To festival goers, he is the kind of legend that fuels campfire stories beginning with the phrase, “and then this one time Boot…” He’s also the person many credit with creating a sense of wellness in their lives.
“We’re going through our photos of last night and I just think that last night we were out here and we were present. Honestly, it breaks my heart to return back to civilization. Like, I don’t know if I’m ready for it,” says two-time attendee Raina Rooney.
Rooney’s feelings aren’t lost on Boot who recognizes that what his property provides is much more than an annual music festival.
“It’s like what my friend Jake the Snake said. I’m selling a little chunk of freedom,” says Boot.
Tickets for next year’s festival will be going on sale soon. To be alerted when they do, follow the festival’s Facebook page @bootsbisonranch.