The Bandit Town Labor Day Campout, Sept. 3-5, 2016
Bandit Town should come with a warning. Something to this effect: If you’re restless, enter at your own risk. Because if you have even the tiniest bit of yearning stirring in your gut, this place will ruin you forever (in the most achingly beautiful way). It might also save your life. Figuring out which it’s gonna be is the tough part. Here’s how a long weekend spent camping at an Old West outpost in North Fork has me all shook up and more restless than ever.
My first encounter with Bandit Town happened nine months before I made my way up to North Fork for the annual Labor Day Campout this past weekend. I can’t remember how I stumbled across it initially, but needless to say it was somewhere on social media. And I’m pretty sure some sort of voodoo magic was involved, because it stayed on my mind constantly until I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to get up there.
My friend/fellow wanderer/constant road trip companion, Veronica, drove up from Los Angeles to go to the campout with me… neither of us was quite sure what we were getting ourselves into, but we were both hoping for a little outlaw adventure! It wasn’t until we were on the road, me driving us north on Highway 41 (a route I’ve taken I don’t know how many times) with the wind in our hair, that I realized I’d never given much thought to North Fork or what goes on there, despite growing up in the Central Valley, and living here once again. And now North Fork, a community billed as being in the exact center of California, and within it Bandit Town, an Old West biker hangout repurposed into an event space, were at the center of my thoughts.
Veronica and I arrived like two kids on the first day of school: dressed in our ripped and frayed, but not-trying-to-hard outfits, and nervous as hell. But excited, too. We walked up to the gates of Bandit Town, the infamous saloon from many a dreamy Instagram picture dead ahead..and then everything goes black. Like in a movie.
I am still trying to process the events of the next 48 hours. Most of the memories haven’t yet been plucked from the swirling cloud in my head and inspected. And some are, perhaps, too sentimental to share at all. By way of explanation for the magic that is Bandit Town, all I can offer is this string of maybes. Maybe it was the booze. Maybe it was the bands. Maybe it was the bikers and the boys (Oooh, the boys!). Or maybe it was the dancing. Or the simple fact that I felt free enough in that space to dance without worrying what people thought. Maybe it was that everyone danced. Or maybe it was that you could talk to strangers and they talked back. And when you walked around the property — past the old barn, down to the “bog,” up to the old church or around the corral where the horses are kept — people said “Hello” and “Good Morning,” salutations lost outside the gates. Maybe it was the simple pleasure of sitting under a tree in the middle of the day and reading. Or knowing that the laziness of the day was bound to give way to the rowdiness of the night. Maybe it was that everyone mixed, mostly on the old deck outside the saloon, and usually accompanied by beer and cigarettes. Or maybe it was the tattoos done on site. Or that most people there had no more room on their bodies for another tattoo. Or maybe it was the 1970s van enthusiasts. Or the rumble of the Harley engines in the morning. Or that the country music was loud one minute and tender another. Or maybe it was that I found myself loving country music at all. Or maybe it was that it all felt like another time and place altogether. A Disneyland for country folk, outlaws, and curious adventurers.
If life at Bandit Town is easy, life after is tough. Not a take two aspirin and sleep it off kind of tough, but a borderline existential crisis kind of tough. And I’m still not sure whether I’ve been saved or ruined by my experience. I’m still sorting that out, along with all the memories. But one thing is for sure…
The outlaw spirit got into me, and now it wants out.