I owe someone on Facebook a thank you.
Though I often stick my nose up at social media and the internet for its superficial importance in our culture and the lack of human-to-human connection it breeds (pick up the phone, people. Better yet, SEE each other!), sometimes it’s a really phenomenal thing.
Someone had posted a video teaser of something called the RiSE Festival that showed up in my Facebook feed. I wish I could tell you who this random Facebook friend was, but the truth is, I can’t remember. I’d never heard of the event. All I knew was that it was a first-of-its-kind, inspired by traditional lantern festivals in Asia, that would be taking place in the Mojave Desert later in the year. The website had very little information on it at the time.
I remember watching the video, which was nothing more than some beautifully shot video of fiery lanterns floating to the sky, a happy girl running through a wall of happy people, and some other happy people looking up with glowing faces and inspired expressions. It was perfectly set to a song that was uplifting and drew me in. I was like a dog who captured a scent and I needed to follow it.
I didn’t really understand what the event even was — I just knew I needed to go.
Because every dream needs a voice. That was the tagline for the festival. I had dreams that needed a voice, so if that’s what they were offering, okay, sure. Sign me up!
The next morning, I watched again. Yes, yes, yes. I need to be there. I checked my calendar. It looked like it might conflict with some other potential travel plans, but plans can always change, so I sent an email to a few friends. A couple replied, “what is this? looks cool!”, one said “maybe, depending on what else is going on,” and a couple never responded.
Still not really sure what it was or who I would go with, I purchased 2 VIP tickets. It was still months away and I’d figure the rest out later…
Jump to: a month before the festival
The tickets had arrived in the mail, beautifully packaged and designed. I was impressed. Whoever was behind this knew what they were doing in terms of setting an image. It looked classy, clean, and organized, though I still didn’t really know what I had signed up for — part of me questioned whether it was actually a new kind of music festival or some bizarre new age-y thing that would be filled with a bunch of potheads and yogis channeling their gurus.
For all I knew, it would be Woodstock meets Spiritual Retreat meets Ayahuasca healing ritual. And that terrified me. I was just going for the lanterns. For years, I had fantasized about attending one of the traditional light festivals in Indonesia or Thailand that I’d seen photos of… again, thank you Internet.
But this was taking place just a 5-hour drive from my home in Los Angeles.
I started doing some research — the lanterns sent up to the sky were each supposed to represent a hope, a dream, a new leaf, or a forgotten wish that would come together to form something beautiful. Was that literal or figurative or both?
Whatever RiSE was, I’d soon find out…
October 17, 2014: Road trip to Las Vegas
After five hours on the road, we saw another kind of light illuminating the sky. The Las Vegas Strip was upon us.
The festival was the next night — at the Jean Dry Lakebed in the Mojave Desert — so my friend and I figured one crazy night in Vegas would be a fun kickoff to the weekend. Nothing to report here, kids. What happens in Vegas…
October 18, 2014: The next day we woke up to rain. RAIN! How were the lanterns (which float much like how hot air balloons fly, using fire and some kind of air pressure phenomenon) supposed to work if it was raining?! The organizers sent out a mass email assuring everyone that the festival was on as planned and that the weather should and would clear up by the evening. They also gave step-by-step instructions for how to light the lanterns.
“This is kind of complicated,” I said to my friend. “We’re here studying the instructions, but do you really think all 10,000 people going will pay attention to this? It could be a disaster.” I was imagining just one lantern catching on fire, then another and another and we’d all be stuck in the desert in a massive fire.
The organizers were right about the weather. It was a glorious afternoon and we left for the festival early to make sure we could get there, get on the shuttle, and settle in. I had pre-ordered our food too so it would be as seamless as possible. Or so I thought.
To make a very long story as short as possible… The email from the organizers had said the shuttles would be departing from Gold Strike Hotel and Casino in Jean at 4:15 p.m, with the final shuttle departing at 5:45 pm. They recommended getting there early, so we planned on that. We left the hotel at 3:15 p.m. — more than enough time to get there and be what we thought would be one of the first in line.
We obviously weren’t the only ones who had such a thought.
We took the I-15 and a few miles from the exit to Gold Strike, the traffic build up began. We sat. And sat. And sat. And sat. And sat some more. There was no one directing traffic. We weren’t moving. At least there was a gorgeous rainbow to look at, suggesting that we hold on, and hang in.
We thought about driving on and taking the exit past and turning back around, but not knowing if it was any better on the other side of the highway, we stayed. We checked twitter. People were literally ditching their cars on the side of the road and walking, or getting out of their cars, leaving the driver behind and hitting the pavement, clearly to get in line for what would inevitably be an absurd line for the shuttle.
At 5:45, I sent an email to the organizers, as I’m sure did many others, equally concerned that the last shuttle was to be departing and we were still not even at the off-ramp, much less in the shuttle line. We tweeted and instagrammed with others who were equally concerned and downright outraged.
If I had been with anyone else other than one of my most mellow, go-with-the-flow girlfriends, I might have been forced or coerced to bail. But we stuck it out. Much to my surprise, the organizers emailed back — they were aware of the situation and the shuttles would run until everyone got there.
By 6:30 p.m. we had finally parked. Yes, you read that right. Nearly THREE HOURS later. There was a severe shortage of staff directing traffic and moving things along. My friend and I saw the line of people waiting for the shuttle and again considered bailing. I went up to one person who was about halfway through the line and asked how long it took her to get to that part of the line.
We did the math. If we got in line now, it could be another TWO HOURS before we got to the shuttle! We’d surely be missing the live music from Joshua James which was scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m.
My hopes and dreams and wishes being sent off into the stratosphere or wherever were quickly becoming obsolete and unimportant. We’ll just light a damn candle and make a wish back at the hotel. This is an obnoxious waste of time, I thought. My friend was in agreement. “I think maybe we should just go,” she said.
And then the vixen in me came out.
“Just follow me for a second,” I said. “I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do, but go with it, okay?”
I had no plan. I just started walking to the shuttles, acting like I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, bypassing the line.
“The line starts back there!” a couple people shouted to us. One got really aggressive, so I played dumb. “Oh, we’re just trying to find the will call and get our tickets. Is there a will call somewhere?”
A security guard stopped us. I repeated my line.
“There’s a tent to pick up tickets over there,” he pointed to a little white tent on the far end of the parking lot. I shook my head to acknowledge him, and as if the universe heard me about to accept defeat and give up, the next round of people were being let through to the shuttles. The security guard was no where to be found. My friend and I were now enveloped in the crowd.
We gave each other a look, and knew exactly what to do. We walked right along with them. When the line came to a pause, we struck up a fake conversation with each other, which we hoped the others around us would hear… I’m not sure how we lost them! They were right in front of us and now I don’t see them. Yep, the oldest trick in the book.
I apologize to anyone who we cut in line — we fully acknowledge that it was probably not the “right” thing to do. But let me tell you — when we arrived and accessed the situation, we were grateful we got there when we did and genuinely felt heartsick for all those still waiting.
When the shuttles dropped us off, we walked down a long candlelit path to the festival grounds. The energy was palpable and exhilarating. We were starting to forget all the hassles, when more were in store… Despite VIP tickets, no one was checking locations, lanterns were hard to come by, the yoga mats that came with the ticket were disappearing by the second, and there was no staff to be found to ask about any of it. We were overwhelmed and stopped by the outhouses to relieve ourselves for a minute. Tissues were out, waterless soap was out, paper towels gone.
We managed to find an empty torch close to the VIP section we were supposed to be in, went to a different section to score two lanterns (it was supposed to be two per person, but anyway…) and finally sat down to take it all in.
A staff person appeared like a beacon of hope. We asked about the food we’d pre-ordered and pre-paid. He brought it. The order was wrong. Without going into any more of the what-went-wrong details — it’s safe to say that basically every part of the event to this point was a massive and unequivocal organizational failure with exception to how beautifully designed the actual tickets themselves were — let’s talk about what went RIGHT.
We hadn’t missed the lantern release… it was about that time and we had a quick shift in energy from frustration to focus. We were here for a reason, and though we didn’t have time to write our intentions, hopes and dreams on the lanterns, we had talked about them all, at length. And we were clear about what we were sending out there.
If you are the light, you cast away the darkness.
There were close to 10,000 people there at this point, and 20,000 lanterns would be released over the next hour. The live music was ending and the countdown to the release was on… The moment that the first round of lanterns were set free was without question one of the most moving, spectacular moments I’ve ever witnessed in my life. It felt like a burst of joy in the center of my chest.
There’s something magical about that much positivity in one place, that much hope, that much light. We had tears of inexplicable emotion streaming down our faces.
The lanterns floated ever so gently and the higher they got, the closer they got, dancing in patterns through the sky like a starling murmuration — you know, when birds seem to dance in perfect harmony and choreography through the sky.
Whoever chose the music for the lantern release got that part right, too, from Birdy to Coldplay; it was perfect.
What happened next what the kind of thing that can only be experienced to know. There was a oneness I’ve never felt and can barely describe. It seemed like for those moments, time was sort of standing still. There was no negativity, no hate, no place I needed or wanted to be other than right there, right then. Nothing else mattered than being present and feeling the depths of emotion behind the intentions; surrounded by light, an illuminated Milky Way of “stars” floating about, dancing in unison, spreading hope.
This is an experience that is whatever you make it. I’m the first person to poo poo new age-y, airy fairy gimmicks. I’m a skeptic until I can see the proof most of the time. The thing I feared most — that the RiSE Festival would be a sham or some form of contrived spirituality — was nowhere to be found. The genuine human connection felt that night was so much more than hopes and dreams, rainbows and butterflies; it was about letting go.
It was an exercise in pouring your heart into something and giving… and then watching it fly away. It was also about openness, sharing, and togetherness — the lanterns have to be lit and sent off by at least two people; one alone cannot do it. Take that for a metaphor — people need people. When our torch dimmed and the second lantern wouldn’t light, a couple next to us shared their light with us. There were those there to mourn, to dream, to turn over a new leaf, to walk away a little lighter. My friend and I did that.
No video can do it justice, but here’s a taste:
Since we had so many frustrations and lines and waits on the way there, we chose to leave before the fireworks began. We were on the first shuttle back to Gold Strike and saw the fireworks as we were leaving.
Rumor has it that others were stuck there until the wee hours of the morning and some had to walk the few miles back as shuttles were cut off at 11 p.m. I can’t speak to that, as that information is solely from social media reports we found the next day, while searching for others’ videos and photos.
Prior to the event, the RiSE Festival made a point of saying they were environmentally conscious. The “Leave No Trace” policy guaranteed that nearly all of the lanterns would be retrieved once grounded—not to mention that each was 100 percent biodegradable. Carbon offsets were also be purchased for every vehicle involved in the cleanup. But news reports the following day had otherwise to say about all that. Since we didn’t witness it personally, we can’t say what’s fact there either.
What IS fact is that we know the organizers learned from it all, and the next one will be executed much better. It can only GO up, in more ways than the obvious. And I, for one, would gladly give them that chance.
In the the end, none of the frustrations mattered. I was left with nothing but gratitude for the experience. It was exactly the connection and uplifting energy I needed at a time when I was questioning more than I care to admit and feeling down about a variety of things in my life that just weren’t working out. It was a night that made me remember how special and lucky we are to be alive, that the human spirit is good, and that there are some really decent, kind, wonderful people in the world. It’s so easy to forget. I let go of a lot that night. And quite honestly, that feeling has endured longer than I thought it would.
So, thank you, random Facebook friend, whomever you are for posting that video. Because of you, I had one of the most memorable and special nights of my life. It was by far one of the highlights (if not THE highlight) of 2014.
Again, though no video can perfectly capture the emotion and energy those of us who were there experienced, here’s another beautiful attempt to capture the magic, courtesy of RiSE.