Whether bringing glow sticks or mountain bikes, festival attendees can flood a small town, creating pure crazy or pure magic. 

Rural destinations are becoming hotspots for events as people seek unique experiences. It’s up to organizers to set the tone.

“We’ve gone to lots of major music festivals and kind of burned out on those,” said Jeremy Rawle, the founder and CEO of Fort Desolation, a brand that curates high-quality goods and unique experiences for travelers. 

One of those events is Fort Desolation Fest, a music and adventure travel event he launched last year in Torrey, Utah, a town with a population of 282. 

“It’s just beautiful red rock cliffs, and it’s right at the entryway to one of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks, Capitol Reef,” he said. His vision for Fort Desolation Fest was a boutique festival with limited capacity and a premium feel. “We were looking to find an amazing location that is somewhat remote and where part of the journey is getting there,’ said Rawle. 

A camper arriving early at the Fort Desolation Festival. (Photo by Jess Leonard)

Over many a glass of whiskey, he first proved his intentions and capability to Gary Bagley, owner of The Cougar Ridge Resort, where Fort Desolation Fest takes place. Next, he invited local stakeholders to a one-night dress rehearsal. “We wanted the local community down there — Torrey and Wayne County —to be on our side and feel like this was an event that benefits the community,” said Rawle. 

The mini-event was a success and demonstrated the care and respect he and his team were taking. “They loved it, and it all just came together magically,” said Rawle. 

The full, three-day festival in summer 2021 also went well. 

“I met great people that I’ve been connected with over the last year, and we’re going to meet up again there,” said Joe Russo. He’s been listening to the Fort Desolation Spotify playlist ever since and getting enthused for the 2022 performances. 

“We deliberately don’t start music at noon or one. We wait until 5 o’clock. That gives everyone an opportunity to go out and seek their own adventure during the day,” said Rawle. The rural setting offers fly fishing, rock climbing, hiking, and more. At night, the location in an official dark skies zone creates an incredible landscape of stars overhead. 

It’s easy to see why many people are returning…and bringing friends. As a planner, Rawle said he’s glad he went for it amidst the challenges of getting all the necessary equipment brought into rural Torrey, sourcing enough labor, and managing Covid-19 precautions. 

But now, he and his team know they can deliver the event, and they’re in full prep mode for August 12-14, when they’ll host musical artists like Amos Lee and Elle King. “It’s going to be an amazing thing to see for just a couple thousand people,” said Rawle.

Like last year, Russo plans to get into town early, hit up the local coffee shop, and of course, fill up his gas tank. “I try to really experience that local feel and also give back. The worst thing you want is for a small community to feel like you trashed the place and there were no (local) sales,” he said. 

With Fort Desolation Fest, he felt the crowd was very mindful and supportive of the town. “This is really an intimate experience that’s right outside of a national park, and you don’t have that a lot,” he said. 

There seems to be a certain reverence that accompanies people in these unique locales, like the Midwest town of Rothbury, Michigan, which has a population of 402. There, organizers are getting ready for Electric Forest, a coveted music experience celebrating its 10th anniversary this June after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. 

The festival’s community organizer, Carrie Lombardi, said Rothbury “feels in many ways like our second home.” Electric Forest takes place annually at the Double JJ Resort, where early site walks had people concerned about a large stand of trees at the center. But founder Jeremy Stein “created a festival that made the forest, which we now call the Sherwood Forest, the heart of the festival,” said Lombardi. 

Today, there are multiple stages, breathtaking art exhibits and installations, and an engaging workshop series. “It’s an opportunity to reimagine a world that you want and to build it together. It’s really quite special,” said Lombardi. 

While it may last only a weekend, “The root of Electric Forest ethos is to give back and to create those ripples not just during the festival but 365 days a year,” said Lombardi. Direct neighbors receive free tickets and income for land rental, a portion of each ticket sale goes back into the local community, and Electric Forest provides support for capital projects, like road improvements and enhanced cell phone service.

In addition, “we’ve contributed over $140,000 to music programs in Rothbury and the surrounding communities,” said Lombardi. The local marching band even performs at the festival each year. 

All these perks help mitigate the realities of inviting your closest 40,000 friends to a giant sleepover. For instance, traffic can be extremely challenging. However, the festival team has worked carefully to stagger arrival times and minimize the length of traffic backups and road closures as much as possible. 

DJ at the Electric Forest Festival. (Source: Electric Forest)

There’s also an increase in noise during the goings-on, but neighbor Cyndi Winterstein said, “There are so few residential people and the main stage is back here in the forest.” Winterstein is one of the few, with only a line of trees between her and the stage. But she “enjoys the heck out of it” each year, inviting family to visit and join the fun. 

Her grandson has celebrated his birthday in tandem since he was a baby, thinking the whole event was for him. The festival team has often arrived with cake, and on his 15th birthday, they drove him around the grounds and let him stand on the stage. “It’s important that we as the festival organizers walk that walk because we expect our forest family to. We all walk it together,” said Lombardi.

Caroline Tremblay is a freelance writer and assists in the news coverage of Radically Rural, a two-day summit on key rural issues, September 21-22, in Keene, New Hampshire.

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