Photos and words by Mitchell Aaron Gross
Off 29 Palms Rd in the Yucca Valley lies the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, the new home of Serenity Gathering. The entrance consisted of a dirt road off 29 Palms and marked with a sign slightly larger than a pizza box from Costco and extremely friendly staff members who greeted me with hugs. At this point the medicated gummy bears I had earlier began to set in and things got a little fuzzy. I checked in for media and immediately got back into my car and cracked beer as I pulled into the campground. After successfully lighting a joint in the wind, I began setting up my tent when I was approached by a gorgeous human with dreadlocks who identified herself as “Sam from Big Sur”. She was currently “traveling”. I was offered tequila and help “pitching my tent” (comedic pause). At this point it’s important to mentioned the logistics of how I got to a beautiful campground and found myself stoned drinking a beer in the presence of such a beautiful creature.
How to Get There
Joshua Tree Retreat Center is located in the Yucca Valley, relatively accessible from Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix. GPS the address given to you and you will have no issues finding it.
Where to Stay
That completely depends on what you’re bringing. Let’s be frank, if you want to go Serenity Gathering and stay in a nearby hotel you’re more than likely not in the demographic that this appeals to. One thing of note is that there are free and paid showers. The difference is in the wait, I waited on Saturday morning for half an hour to shower in a semi communal shower with the nicest guy in the world with dreads who gave me a complete rundown on Envision Festival in Costa Rica. Also of note, Serenity Gathering has lots of room to camp and you are allowed to bring RV’s as well.
After successfully setting up camp and meeting with friends we went to see Sticky Buds, a DJ from British Columbia, at small stage about a quarter mile from the main camping area. There a small crowd was getting down. At one point as I was walking through the crowd to my friends a guy nonchalantly offered me a little something special. Following the “D.A.R.E.” motto of “drugs are really expensive” I gladly obliged and thanked him with a hug without second thought to what I had just done. This alone speaks volumes about the crowd which leads me to attempting to describe the audience this event might appeal to.
The crowd was most definitely worth mentioning. It was something between Desert Hearts, Lightning In a Bottle with a touch of High Sierra Music and Arts Festival thrown in for good measure. LSD seemed to be the drug of choice and psilocybian mushrooms were everywhere. Regardless of who I met, it seemed as if each person I was nicer than the next. To the point that walking between stages took longer because of all the friends I had made.
The following morning I awoke to the sun absolutely cooking me alive in my tent. I reckoned it must along the same lines as how a lobster feels as I poured myself a bourbon and helped my friends set up our shade structure and enjoyed freshly lit doobie. At that point, I decided it was time to explore and donned a Hawaiian shirt, hat, and sunglasses and walked the grounds. Here were a few initial observations…
At the entire event I was hassled about going backstage once. The entire feeling of Serenity Gathering was that this space was a place to be communally shared and enjoyed.
Food options significantly superseded what my expectations were for the event. A myriad of options ranging from raw organic vegan meals to a 12 hour slow cooked carnitas breakfast burrito that left my mustache looking like evidence of cannibalism instead of delicious pork. The other fantastic observation I made later that week was that you could usually find a food vendor open until 2-3 AM.
Things to Do
They had sound healing….about a hundred yards from the main stage. To their credit the sound healing was usually not during artists sets but when it did overlap the outcome with momentously hysterical. They had guided yoga and acroyoga throughout the day and I truly wish I had participated in it since I regularly incorporate yoga into my lifestyle. There were various vendors and craft booths surrounding the main stage. In many ways it was quite enjoyable to be able to participate in a tactilely engaging experience without missing a minute of live music.
As I walked the main area I noticed groups of people sitting in the shade beading, drawing, or just talking. Not being sure if the renegade craft areas was facilitated by the event or not might have been one of the greatest parts of Serenity Gathering. Everyone that attended the event wanted the same thing, complete autonomy of consciousness and body, good music to dance to, and a group of like minded others to connect and share a genuine human connection with. Really, that is the thing one should be doing at this festival, having a genuine connection with a stranger and opening up about things that would normally be taboo.
What Makes The Festival Different
As the week wore on everyone began to wear out, by Saturday afternoon I was sitting in the press lounge, which consisted of fresh drinking water, a shade structure, a computer to dump footage, chairs, and a place to charge our gear. We shared the space with Ron John, the traveling tea expert who supplied us with freshly brewed herbal tea, shade and stimulating conversation for the entire weekend. He even helped me through rough patch in a mushroom trip where my stomach was upset and I was getting a “negative energy” according to him.
As I sat with the other media people from Euphoric Styles we debated the merits, and pitfalls of this festival along with what made this festival any different and this is what we concluded.
Part of what made this experience special was the openness and amiable nature of the participants. It was concluded that this was due to the surplus of psychedelics and lack of “party drugs” compared to other events. Another standout from the weekend was how nice and friendly the entire crew and staff was. Security never felt overbearing, I wasn’t gulping down whiskey gingers before I entered because I wasn’t able to bring alcohol in (since alcohol was not provided at the event). Finally, I can’t talk about the lineup enough. I was familiar with one artist at the event but my faith in the organizers was correct and I could always find music with a vibe that I was into. I’ll come away from the weekend being a fan of Nahko and The Medicine People, Lafa Taylor, and EVeryman. Mind you, I had never listened to any of these artists before and would probably have reacted differently had I not been introduced to them in a different environment.
Overall here is what you need to know if you intend to go next year:
- Bring at least 5 gallons of water per person
- Bring lots of layers and dress comfortable since you’ll be outside for 3 days straight
- Read our other articles on festival squad regarding what’s needed for a camping festival
- Don’t be afraid to come alone, you’ll have just as good of time and leave with friends
- Don’t do research on the lineup, just go and be open to experiencing the universe
In retrospect I’m beyond grateful I was able to cover this event and would probably want to attend next year. The experience truly felt like a complete vacation from reality and society and I can’t help but rate this as a 8.5/10. My only complaints were lack of shade and dust. Even the porta potties were kept immaculate by festival standards.