One man’s journey through the Electric Forest

Sean M. Carey

In 1955, Cowboy Wally planted a grove of White Pine Trees, pinus strobus, on the grounds of the Double JJ Ranch in Rothbury, Michigan.

Fast forward to 62 years later, me and 40,000 or so “psychonauts” traveled to Sherwood Forest, now dubbed the “Electric Forest” for just eight days out of every year.  Electric Forest is a music-fest-camping-experience that has been running for about a decade now.  

Rather than discuss the bands and music, I’ll try to convey the experience.  

The grounds are flanked on the North and South ends by giant “palooza” type stages. The South Stage was a dry sandy post-apocalyptic amphetami-topia projecting mostly EDM at ear-piercing volumes in the searing sun, while thousands of nearly nude patrons bounced to the music.  Traveling deeper into the forest, the trees cooled the grounds and the next stage was on an open grassy knoll where bands with guitars and horns sent out calming waves of endless noodling.

The North stage was more of the same. There was a circus tent, where I watched a pseudo-yogi try to hold a crow pose while house music blasted away at 200 db’s. There was a mock airplane hangar where 1940’s-esque “cigarette girls” doted on patrons in front of an old-timey main street with a “real” barber shop and milkshake stand.  

In the center of all of this were Wally’s trees, all grown up now and 100 feet tall.  The White Pines made up the Sherwood Forest, a through-the-looking-glass wonderland of recycled art installations, laser light shows and fairies on stilts weaving in and out of the maze of tree trunks and twenty-four-seven fog machine haze. This is where you go in Electric Forest… this is why you go to electric forest.

Deeper into the woods, I came upon the “psychedelic chapel,” a church in the woods decorated with a scene from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain. I watched a man wed his hat, and several hours later the church was taken over by a gender-bending burlesque show put on by a troupe of gypsy clowns. My traveling companion and I wandered through the forest all night.  

Sections of the woods were lit in different colors and areas were cultivated as little pockets of mock movie sets. An upright piano sat around old couches and bookshelves where people laid around and read.  The façade of a “wild west” saloon complete with swinging saloon doors, appeared out of the fog.  

Several hours into the evening, I became intentionally lost. We saw our way out of the forest, but couldn’t get ourselves to leave. We ambled to a tiny stage where a pretend-classic-television-children’s-entertainer played pop songs on a ukulele, while forest dwellers sat cross legged like kindergartners.

The clock tower, with glyphs instead of numbers, spinning erratically served its purpose as a reminder that time at Electric Forest is in flux.  

Everything, in fact, is in flux.  

The forest becomes a hazy, meandering, body temperature, fairy land with pockets and amorphous blobs of consciousness.  Why do people go?  Is it escapism or conspicuous communal consumption? Or was I a lab rat in some sort of a spiritual existential experiment?  Writers loathe rhetorical questions, but in this case, I truly don’t have the answer.  You have to experience it for yourself.

I’ll leave you with the salutation that I heard over and over at EF.  Happy Forest!