A longtime friend of mine who is actually more of a brother to me was talking about a drum circle they do up in the mountains on Sunday nights when the weather is warm enough. I brought up my favorite restaurant up in those same mountains and how they played live music Sunday nights during the summer, and we decided to go to both.
We drove up during the magic hour, around 5 in the evening when the sun hits the hills just right and makes everything glow golden. We started off with dinner at the River View Restaurant up in Three Rivers where we both enjoyed a Paul Bunyan Cheeseburger (a burger with blue cheese) with bacon, seasoned fries and a side of ranch. The music was louder than we expected but they took breaks often to give patrons a chance to talk amongst themselves. We caught up on each other’s lives and had a great time listening to the blues style music in between listening to the river flow. As the name suggested we were right by the river and we watched with wonder and admiration as even in the dry summer it continued to flow. As the sun set you could see the shadows of the branches of the trees that were nestled along the river in the water and it was such a beautiful and poetic sight that we sat in comfortable silence enjoying the evening.
Once the sun was down and the bill was paid we left to go to the drum circle which was only a couple miles or so down the road. Mystery loomed around the building as we walked up. There were a few trees in front which made everything darker and I turned on my flashlight to make sure I wouldn’t trip on anything on the way to the door. The funny thing about this building is it’s one of the many buildings I miss or never think about as many times as I’ve been up there. It was so inconspicuous that during the day behind the few trees that give it some privacy I’ve never given it a second thought.
This being my first time at the drum circle I wasn’t sure what to expect. We went through the door which was actually a false wall, already opened to receive it’s guests with a picture of Betty Boop in a martini glass painted on it.
As we walked in I quickly noticed the room was an art gallery with pictures painted on more false walls that were all opened to the back of the building revealing the garden beyond. All the doors had something painted on them, most portrait-like paintings of faces I didn’t recognize. The floor was a light color wood laid down in narrow pieces. I look to my right where there is wall to wall mirrors from floor to ceiling and I quickly realize this place is also used as a dance studio. As we walk through the building to the courtyard I realize how amazing this place is.
There is a wood lookout tower with a cement pond that expands underneath covered in lily pads. We walked right through the doors and looked up the stairs. My friend tells me how we can go up there later if we like and I stare up at the steep stairs with trepidation remembering that I have a horrible fear of heights.
Beyond that is a long patio that leads down to a sloped walkway leading down to the drum circle. The walkway to the bottom of the circle is dirt with rock lining the edges, keeping the slope in tack. As we go lower the rock walkways turn into walls for people to sit and down at the bottom are all the drummers along with a few other strange instruments I’ve never seen before. We sit a row up from the inner circle as we aren’t very experienced musicians and our maracas are borrowed from the venue, to be returned when we are done playing.
They have already been drumming when we arrived but now they were all warmed up and really getting into it. There were candles and incense in the middle of the circle, something to give us light in this sacred space. The people in the inner circle weren’t wearing shoes, one of the few rules when you enter the circle. My friend explains that this is treated as a sacred space, he won’t even kill the large black widow we see later in the evening in fear of disrespecting the owners and disrupting the sacred space. I think of a monk monastery and wonder why this place is treated as holy ground. Is it religious or simply a byproduct of the hippie beliefs that clearly dominated this area?
Either way I felt surprisingly comfortable and no one ever made me feel out of place. Even with my jeans and cowboy boots I didn’t feel alienated from the flower children dancing around the small flames in dresses, barefoot as if they were paying tribute to the flames and the night.
They danced with such freedom that I wasn’t sure if it was the influence of some drug or drink or something deeper driving them to express themselves without inhibitions but as I watched them dance I was immensely intrigued. I tried to keep rhythm with my maracas but after a while gave up, too distracted by the dancers. Their dancing was so strange yet so appropriate with the exotic drums beating rapidly. Strange movements I’ve never seen before, I couldn’t tell if they practiced it or if it was completely organic at the moment but I couldn’t help but notice one boy who was obviously Native American dancing wild and eccentrically as his ancestors did and people who still haven’t forgotten their heritage still do.
I later found out from my friend that he was always this way, slightly wild and connected to nature and whatever energy the earth gives off when he finds himself in the wilderness. But that he went to live at a reservation for a year and came back even more free to connect with nature and the world around him. Throughout the night I was witness to his uninhibited actions and admired that no matter what people may think he did what he felt in the moment. Nothing was brash, violent or inappropriate. He didn’t hurt or insult anymore, he simply chose to be his truest self.
Two women danced later, the first one taking off her shoes to dance in the circle, taking small steps and raising her arms in short movements. The other later put down her drum and belly danced around the fire, kneeling before she began to homage to whatever they were celebrating. My friend told me it wasn’t anything in particular and probably meant something different to everyone, just that we are here in nature, celebrating life.
The dance moves became more of an expression of something much deeper and there was something primal about them as if it was something we’ve forgotten with all our busy schedules and distractions. It wasn’t sexual, and it wasn’t influenced by any rigid structure or rules that you would find in any hip-hop, ballet or another genre of modern or classical dance. The dancing, which was not always on the beat with the drums didn’t look bad, and I wouldn’t consider them bad dancers, but have taken classes as a teenager I wondered if this is what I would’ve looked like had I not been taught a different way to dance. These dancers didn’t seem to be putting on a show or performance. However, they somehow made everything look perfect at that moment.
It was incredibly relaxing sitting on the stone wall listening to the drums beat while everyone played what felt right to them, all working together to make amazing music that reminded me of how jazz musicians just sit down and play. It was similar in the way that it was all at the moment, no one talked about what to play next. A few would just start playing and the rest would jump in. The music lasted as long as they wanted it to, no three-minute limit, no one saying when it was over. Eventually a few would stop and a few more would linger on a bit longer until the last note was played.
Sitting there and gently participating with my little maraca, it was like I was remembering something I’d forgotten although I couldn’t yet tell what that was. But something about the evening felt so natural and I wondered if it was because I didn’t have a pressure to perform or even to make small talk if I didn’t want to. We were all there to enjoy the evening and the great music and I let the beat of the drums wash over me as I felt my muscles relaxing.
After several songs my friend and I put our maracas down and headed towards the tower. He said the view is incredible and if I felt up to it, it’s worth the climb. I’m terrified of heights and after some self-talk and encouragement from my friend, I slowly made the climb up, pausing only a few times as my anxiety attack grabbed hold and I froze. Encouraging me the whole way and reminding me that I didn’t have to climb the tower I was three steps away when I finally just decided to commit and I took the last three steps and pulled myself through the hole in the floor.
Finally I was at the top and crawled over and knelt in the corner farthest from the hole where the ladder was built. Breathing for a couple minutes while shaking I finally brought myself to my feet and was rewarded with the most beautiful sight of a very bright moon rising up over the mountains. I looked around and could see the details of the mountains beyond as the moon beamed a majestic light on all the trees, rocks and houses. A white owl flew right by us, its feathers glowing in the moonlight and I felt like Harry Potter when he experienced magic for the first time.
We stood up there for maybe a half an hour or more, enjoying the enchanting view and swapping ghost stories with a local. Finally we climbed down and I can say it was at least easier going down. Still shaking a bit and making sure to breathe I took my time but got to the bottom much quicker than I climbed up. We went back to the drum circle for another song or two and took a short hike down to the river, thinking that my friend’s friends might still be down by the river.
It was dark but thanks to technology we had our flashlights on our phones and easily made the half-mile hike to an opening where the river was still as glass and you could hear the small waterfall just 20 feet away. His friends weren’t there but we stayed anyway.
The river was low due to the summer and we stood on massive rocks smoothed over from where the water runs high in the winter. The rocks and white birch tree trunks glowed white in the moonlight and it felt as if I entered a different world where anything could happen. When we looked closer at the water we could even see the stars reflected as they flickered away and back again as the water moved imperceptibly to the human eye in the dark. We stood for about 10 minutes or so and talked about how incredibly beautiful this night was and that we should do this again then headed back to the circle.
We hung out for a moment more, enjoying a bit more music until we headed home 15 minutes before the drum circle was due to stop, thanks to a 10 pm noise ordinance. We talked and reflected on the amazing night we just had driving through the calm darkness in the hills back to our homes in the valley.