It was Sunday, August 7, the third afternoon of the inaugural Vertex Festival in Buena Vista. Inside the festival grounds, a blow-up couch adorned with bikini-clad ladies floated around a pond, bumping into oversized inflatable swans, unicorns and dragons. In the middle of the water was an island where about one hundred people were dancing to a live DJ. Another hundred people were spread along the beach, basking in the sun.
A camping music festival has enough of a summer-camp vibe as it is, but with no acts taking any of the three stages until late afternoon each day, the “organized fun” wrapped into the Vertex offerings takes it to summer-camp level 1000.
“The surrounding area is part of the engagement,” says Don Strasburg, president of AEG Live Rocky Mountains, a co-producer of Vertex along with Madison House. “Rafting and hiking are natural experiences when you go to these places, and we want people to experience that. We want people to engage in the local community, and maybe they go, ‘Wow, I wanna go back to Buena Vista again. I didn’t realize how amazing this is.’”
Shuttle buses ran through the weekend to take attendees into town or to a nearby disc-golf course. Periphery experiences within the festival grounds included Stargazers Field, complete with an observatory and telescopes, a hammock forest, the ongoing beach party, and yoga and stretch sessions. For the more extreme thrill-seekers there was a five-hour ghost-town hike each day heading up the Continental Divide, and a rafting trip down the Arkansas River.
Waiting on the school bus-turned-shuttle that delivers guests to the put-in for the rafting trip, Vertex attendees started up small talk beyond the typical porta-potty waiting-line chatter. Strangers introduced themselves and compared notes on the previous night’s musical acts and the other performances they were looking forward to. Invitations were tossed around for meeting up in the separate neighborhoods of the camping village later in the weekend.
Of course, group bonding is easier when death is involved. Comparing notes on musical acts is one thing. Being prepared to pull someone out of rapids by their life vest is another. Aboard the school bus, River Runners rafting guide Tyler Rumburg gave a rundown of the proper emergency procedures should anyone decide to “take a swim” – either willingly or unwillingly.
Rumburg, who attended the Vertex festival in between shifts on the river, said Chaffee County is his favorite place in Colorado.
“While you are here, you have an opportunity to see everything. All of these are 14,000-foot mountains. All of these canyons are amazing,” says Rumburg. “I hope that people who come to visit this concert, they realize where they are.”
While a rainy Friday may have dampened the festival grounds, it enhanced the rafting experience. The trip was originally announced as class two and three rapids, but thanks to an overnight river rise of 300 cubic feet per second, Vertex attendees paddled through class threes and fours throughout the weekend.
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The river offers straight-on views of the collegiate mountains from perspectives you can’t get from the shoreline or the highway. Hawks fly overhead, and the rapids splash along boulders. It offered quite a contrast to the lights and noise and crowds of the festival a couple of miles away.
Vertex attendee Terri Ravenscroft and her three girlfriends said they were excited about the music, but the chance to raft the Arkansas River sealed the deal. According to AEG’s Strasburg, Vertex attendees came from all over the country to experience the combination of music and colorful Colorado.
Indeed, it was clear the surrounding habitat called to festival-goers, especially during the daytime down hours. The most delinquent the crowd got was sneaking through a bent fence to sit along Cottonwood Creek, the namesake of Cottonwood Meadows, the private ranch that served as the Vertex venue.
Strasburg says that as at any first-year festival, traditions will form that the organizers couldn’t have predicted. By the looks of it, next year may need a cairn-making-by-the-river workshop. Looking into the future, Strasburg says, he will continue to preserve the intimate feel of the inaugural year.
“That’s always the goal, to create something that people want as their own,” says Strasburg. “No matter what happens, I can guarantee we would never grow anything to where it wasn't super-special for everybody that was there.”