Photos provided by the awesome 2014 Media Team at Summer Meltdown Music Festival
The highway winds through dense Cascadian forest. Nahko and Medicine for the People, the weekend’s opening headliner blares on the stereo. We are cruising to the 2014 Summer Meltdown Music Festival for four days of music and positivity. Just as the dramatic glaciated peak of Mt. Whitehorse comes into view, the forest terminates in a mile wide swath of destruction.
At 10:37 a.m. on March 22, 2014, a massive landslide claimed a portion of the rural community of Oso, WA including the lives of 43 residents, resulting in the deadliest single landslide incident in United States history. The Governor declared a state of emergency and President Obama surveyed the damage from a helicopter. An extensive rescue and recovery effort ensued in conjunction with a deluge of community support.
We turn the music down and slowly drive past heavy machinery sorting through wreckage. It’s a sobering preamble for four days of festivities.
“I think that for a lot of people coming out here – it’s a moment to take a breath and a moment to reflect and to feel alive and celebrate that. And I think that’s the most important role we have been able to hold after the slide,” Lia Holland, one of Meltdown’s organizers tells me. We sit under tall douglas fir trees amongst a kaleidoscope of festival-goers wishing one another a “happy Meltdown.”
I asked Lia about the challenges Meltdown’s organizational staff faced after the incident. “It’s hard as a celebratory event to have a presence during a time of mourning,” she said. “For the first few days we weren’t really thinking about the event since the tragedy was so personal and close to home for everyone.”
But members of the community began approaching the festival organizers to ensure that Summer Meltdown would still take place. “We had to start talking about the festival before any of us were truly ready,” Lia told me. But the organizers knew what the event meant for the valley. “They were asking us to do the same thing we’ve always done, but now it had more meaning.”
One individual in particular, Meltdown’s Producer Josh Clauson, has come to understand this new meaning. When I get the chance to speak with him, he tells me “we have a renewed understanding of what Summer Meltdown means to this community. We are going to help rebuild this region, and we are excited to spark new development, and bring more good folks to the Darrington area. We are all vital community members, and our efforts here are to create a positive place that fosters a sense of community and our connection to nature.”
Josh is a native of this valley. His children’s school bus stop was in the slide’s direct path. In 1999, Josh and his fellow bandmates from Flowmotion, organized the very first Summer Meltdown Music Festival. It took place on San Juan Island before moving to its current home at the Whitehorse Amphitheater in Darrington five years later.
Since then, Meltdown has come to be known as “where the music meets the mountains.” The Cascades loom over the amphitheater. On hot summer days, festival goers bask along the banks of the Stillaguamish River, which borders the back of the grounds.
“Paradise,” is how Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin describes it. “We are surrounded by mountains, clear running rivers, vast forests, and a quality of life that is cherished by its inhabitants.”
Despite the idyllic rural scenery, both Darrington and Oso, once strongholds for Pacific Northwest timber, have fallen on difficult times in recent decades. Beyond the obvious human tragedy, the slide augmented the communities’ already austere economic realities.
Rankin, who received the 2015 Phoenix Award for “Outstanding Contributions to Disaster Recovery by a Public Official” at the White House in May, sees events like Meltdown as “an asset” toward the valley’s process of recovery and growth. “They provide opportunity for local folks to interact with new people and ideas, participate, get jobs, and just go and enjoy the event, as well as introduce other folks to what our area has to offer.”
The festival organizers have worked hard to create direct positive impacts for their home. They hired local staff, supported fundraisers, and donated a share of the festival’s proceeds to the recovery efforts. They also donated scores of festival tickets to Oso First Responders and their families.
One night I meet a local EMT who was on scene the day of the slide. She recounts the staccato of rotors and the stench of ruin that tragic day, as Lord Huron plays on stage and neon lights illuminate the dancing throng. “Meltdown’s a reminder that life goes on. We need to continue to care for one another and work to move on and heal,” she tells me.
As we all look forward to Meltdown’s 16th year this August 6-10, we will reflect on what was lost, and celebrate what we have. That, is good medicine for the people.