When my husband-to-be proposed matrimony six years ago, he did so on bended knee, backed by a group of world-famous bluegrass pickers. David and I were at the annual Rocky Grass traditional music festival in Lyons, Colo. Back then we spent every summer weekend on the festival circuit. We still do, in fact. But there's been a big change since then: his name is Emmett, aged 2.
Attending music festivals with your kids in tow demands a major shift in priorities. Music is still the obvious draw, but it tends to become more of a backdrop to the family getaway than the front-and-center attraction it once was. It's a bit more work and requires some creativity, but bringing the kids is certainly worth the trouble. As in many endeavors, flexibility is the key and patience is the tune.
For example, if your favorite band happens to play the main stage while your infant needs a nap or your toddler wants to play in the mud, you may find yourself listening to the music from your campsite. While David and I enjoy the sounds and occasional backstage camaraderie as much ever, our son is more interested in jumping up and down in our big family-style circus tent.
Naturally, we still celebrate our wedding anniversaries at festivals and most of our summer recreation budget is devoted to attending bluegrass festivals. But our routines have changed and our trips require some extra planning and packing.
As we have discovered from our experiences and by comparing notes with other parents, traveling light is no longer really an option. Depending on the ages of their children, festival-goers who are also parents find that their packing lists now include mandatory items that were once not even considered: strollers, diaper bags and wet-wipes for infants; plastic buckets and sand shovels for toddlers, hula-hoops, light sticks and who-knows-what-else for the older kids. Car-top luggage racks for securing these treasures signal their nuclear-family status to the rest of the crowd.
Buying a vehicle pass is also pretty much a necessity. Though festival shuttles are environmentally friendly and convenient, they simply can't accommodate the tricycles, wagons, balloons, playpens, diaper bags and other domestic flotsam needed to keep a travelling family from going dysfunctional.
Still, savvy parents can develop effective strategies for keeping their loads (and their children) manageable. They limit the toy stash to a few all-time favorites. They employ nature's bounty to keep the kids entertained: pine cones become railroad cars and sticks become the tracks; juniper berries tossed in the air pass for fireworks. In our camp, books like Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny simulate the bedtime routine for our son.
When your own child-care energy runs low, professionals are often nearby - ready and willing to come to the rescue. Most festivals have a kids tent that offers arts and crafts activities. The entertainment roster usually includes musicians who specialize in sing-a-longs. Jugglers, magicians and face painting artists are regulars at many festivals.
While backstage at a festival not long ago chatting with some musicians I've followed for years, I noticed that the topics of our conversations had changed. Now that we were all parents, we talked as much about teething and "binkies" as we once had about concert tours and new albums.
This new common ground brought me closer to these stars than any of our previous backstage banter. I no longer feel like a star-struck fan. We are peers now, all of us in the audience watching our children occupy center stage. A few of the performers might have even admired me - for camping in the rain and mud and wind, while their families slept between clean, white hotel sheets.
But for all the work and energy it takes, and all the tantrums and sleepless nights that parents endure, going to a festival with children is certainly worth the trouble. Sharing great music in the outdoors with your kids is a priceless gift. It will bring all of you closer together, and the memories will echo throughout your lives.
Just when Karin L. Becker is near to perfecting the craft of camping with a toddler, she will start all over next year with a new baby. She lives in Durango, Colo., where she teaches writing at Fort Lewis College.