Polyamory, LSD and red peppers: Shakori Hills Festival returns

By Ellie Heffernan

A priest, a reiki instructor and an old white man performing “a love song to mushrooms” all walk into a field.

This isn’t the opening line to a joke. It’s a non-exhaustive list of people you might encounter at the Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance.

The four-day festival is typically held twice a year in Pittsboro, North Carolina, to raise money for the Shakori Hills Community Arts Center. Up to 9,000 festivalgoers gather to dance and attend sustainability workshops. And to do a bunch of drugs.

Barefoot children traipse around, avoiding rocks as their feet strike the ground. A smattering of multicolored tents, hammocks, tarps and tapestries stand wedged in between countless trees. A teenage boy munches on a raw red bell pepper. He swears this snack enhances LSD hallucinations and prevents bad trips.

By far the loudest of the festivalgoers are the throngs of sweaty, semi-clothed young people. They rub against each other, eyes half-closed, hollering as guitarists rip godly solos from their instruments. The crowds don’t care that it’s pouring rain, as long as the lead singer maintains so much energy that his bare feet bounce hard enough to shake the stage.

Building community

But not every corner of the festival is this noisy. The old man — the one who was previously singing an ode to mushrooms — is now performing a twangy bluegrass tune. Two people by a snack shack sway to the rhythm, seeming mellower than the festivalgoers moshing in front of the guitars.

Trow and Lanelle Ward are a married couple volunteering at the festival in exchange for free tickets. Trow is a military pilot, and Lanelle works at a sushi restaurant. At first glance, their lives seem relatively orthodox.

Lanelle maintains three relationships outside of her marriage. Trow also has multiple partners.

Trow and Lanelle are polyamorous.

Polyamory is a broad term that refers to people engaging in multiple romantic, physical and/or sexual relationships at once. Different people might maintain considerably different numbers of relationships. Polyamorous relationships also vary along a spectrum ranging from purely romantic to purely sexual: Two of Lanelle’s outside relationships are physical, and one is romantic.

A short conversation with the Wards supports the idea that everyone is leading a more exciting life than you’d assume. The couple discuss the power of making decisions by prioritizing your own happiness over society’s expectations. They emphasize the importance of building community — perhaps referring to the practice of polyamory.

‘I want you’

The Wards met in college through a dance competition club for students at the United States Air Force Academy. Trow joined the club to “meet ladies” at the majority-male institution. Luckily for him, his future wife joined, as her college didn’t have a dance competition team.

Lanelle was dating someone at the time, but she says Trow made quite an impression.

“He had this stare that was like, ‘I want you, but I don’t know how to tell you I want you,’” Lanelle says.

It’s clear that Lanelle and Trow have an easygoing give-and-take. When customers come to the snack shack and interrupt the couple’s dancing, Trow attends to business without grumbling. Lanelle handles the easier job of answering questions. When the line grows much longer, they scramble together, laughing as they feverishly scoop strawberry lemonade into cups.

Lanelle has barista experience, so she easily prepares coffee, chai and kombucha. But she doesn’t have anything with kratom in it, much to the dismay of one old man.

Lanelle says Trow is better at being friendly, while she tends to be more assertive and straight-to-the-point. Regardless, it’s clear she wants to go the extra mile for people, treating them to random acts of kindness. For example, she does her best to give away fancy drinks for free. Nobody told her she had to charge for cinnamon sticks, so she ensures every customer knows about her free cinnamon water.

An excuse to cheat?

Being isolated from others during the pandemic was difficult for the couple. Even after college, dancing is still an integral part of their life. Canceled festivals meant no live music, no group dancing and an immense loss of community. It’s been two years since the last Shakori Hills Festival. Trow was also deployed for much of the pandemic.

Lanelle says having multiple relationships with people other than Trow helped her stay afloat during this time. When asked to elaborate, she bristles a smidge, her tone becoming slightly defensive. It’s as if she’s used to being judged or misunderstood when sharing this part of her life.

People unfamiliar with polyamory often assume it’s a thinly veiled form of cheating. They also accuse polyamorous individuals of not truly loving their primary partners. If they did, wouldn’t one person be enough?

Lanelle says polyamory is distinct from cheating, since everyone involved agrees to participate in a relationship with some degree of non-monogamy. Trow uses familial relationships as a metaphor to explain how he can easily love more than one person. If you ask parents which kid they love more, they typically say they love them both. It’s the same for people with multiple partners, Trow says.

Polyamorous couples are often harshly judged by the monogamous. But Lanelle says people who refuse to venture beyond monogamy are missing out: They’re losing the ability to learn better communication skills. She says people in relationships are used to cheating and not talking about it, while people in polyamorous relationships are used to talking about complicated feelings — and not cheating.

Free love

Trow and Lanelle embrace freedom through their relationships and beyond. It’s apparent from their bare feet, Trow’s kilt and the fact that they spend most weekends flying their own plane to other states, including Florida and Colorado. You never would have guessed this is how they spend their time if you had just asked for some kratom and left.

This realization begs you to pay closer attention to as many faces as possible, although you know you’ll never have enough time to hear 9,000 life stories. Still, you reconsider the entire crowd of drunken, moshing, laughing fist-pumpers. They might not all be polyamorous jet-setters, but they likely share a good deal in common with the Wards: They are forming community and charting their own paths.

Shakori Hills festivalgoers are kind enough to offer you a seat at their campfire. They’re thoughtful enough to persistently suggest that you put up your tarp before it starts raining. And when the downpour inevitably begins, they dance with abandon, each body flailing to its own beat. Each body part of the same crowd.

These are the kind of people that return from a two-year hiatus ready to party.

Edited by Mary King