Arts festivals, food festivals, music festivals, heritage festivals, historical festivals, bike and balloon festivals -- by the middle of July, even serious summer celebrants can come down with a bad case of festival fatigue. Residents of mountain resort towns are particularly prone to the syndrome, as hordes of flatlanders invade their scenic environment looking to toss greenbacks at a good time and trash -- maybe -- in the general direction of a dumpster.
Telluride, with a jazz festival, bluegrass festival, wine festival, film festival, blues-and-brews festival, even a mushroom festival (all world-renowned, by the way) could be ground zero for festival fatigue. Eleven years ago, when the venerable bluegrass festival was followed a month later by a major rock festival and both so tied up the town that residents were prisoners in their own front yards and needed a permit to run errands for a week, one local decided he'd had enough.
Dennis Wrestler wrote what he calls a "tongue-in-cheek" letter to the city manager of Telluride requesting a permit for a festival-free weekend the following summer. Much to his surprise, he was soon contacted by the director of the Council for the Arts and Special Events, who took his request seriously. So Wrestler wound up with a non-permit for a non-festival in 1991. Nothing else could be scheduled in town that weekend.
To his even greater surprise, the locals of Telluride really got into having their town to themselves for a whole weekend. Wrestler hung a blank banner across Main Street, and people parked their lawn chairs under it. T-shirts bearing the official Nothing Festival motto -- "Leave Me Alone" -- were big sellers at $15 apiece for anyone with a sense of humor, $20 for those without. A bit of colored yarn around the wrist became the official pass to the non-festival, which was unstaffed by unofficial members of the Insecurity Staff. (Just about everybody's qualified.)
What started as a goof is still going, with July 13-15 designated as the dates for this year's Telluride Nothing Festival. The national media has been intrigued by the non-event; last year, it was even featured on festivals.com's World's Wackiest Festivals page. The real support for the unfestival, however, comes from the locals, who eagerly await the release of the unschedule and the latest T-shirt design.
Although some business types worry that the go-away attitude seems a little anti-visitor, others say their customers come to Telluride specifically for the Nothing Festival. They like being able to walk around without being part of a mob scene, to just explore, shop and enjoy the ambience of the little town tucked up a box canyon in the Uncompahgre National Forest. Turns out that the Nothing Festival is a pretty good weekend for business, according to Wrestler, himself a retailer.
"Don't get me wrong: The Bluegrass Festival is really organized; it's a great event, and people really have a great time," says Wrestler. "But some of the people who come here for events think the whole town is just a stage for the festival and don't stop to think that people actually live here."
With Telluride teetering on the brink of explosive resort growth, with little economic base other than tourism, the tug between chasing the buck and enjoying the area's unique quality of life gets stronger every year. Some newcomers to the town don't quite understand the humor behind the Nothing Festival, but longtimers such as Wrestler see the magnitude of change since the early 1970s, when "half of Main Street was boarded up."
The old answer of encouraging more growth to bring in more money doesn't seem to be working like it used to for formerly sleepy mountain towns, however. Last year the Nothing Festival was dedicated for the first time ever to the fight to save the valley floor from development, with the traditional "Leave Me Alone" banner flying above a human chain of concerned residents.
With such serious undertones, the Nothing Festival may be in danger of losing its fine and frivolous edge. And that would be a tragic example of Nothing lost, nothing gained.