There is only one way to Hinterland Music Festival from Des Moines to St. Charles, Interstate 35. On a particularly rosy Friday evening, I merged into the pilgrimage south. The traffic reminded me of drives as a child from Pasadena to Manhattan Beach. It felt entirely unlikely, cars stacked and swaying, between the rolling hills of Iowa. The dark green of the traffic dividers manufactured a mirage betwen my car and those in the opposite direction, moving and all at once, still.
Vibrations turned to murmurs that turned into muffled anthems as we crept closer to the grounds. I was handed a parking pass from a dancing middle aged man, ushered into a spot on the downside of a hill by a laughing woman, and given a thumbs up by a teenage boy. The excitement was palpable; and not unlike the Friday night football games native to these attendees.
But football games come with a strict dress code: school colors. Without extreme weather to dictate choices, festival goers were left to their own sartorial devices. Lack of blowing dust or downpours didn’t stop the frequent appearance of bandanas and rain boots. Mild, mid summer Iowa required artistic interpretation.
There were those who came prepared and those who thought it was Coachella. Preparation looked like sandals, some sort of hat, and a new breed of inflatable chair that seemed to populate the entire side of the hill facing the stage. Some looks included well behaved children or card games. Other looks that might have felt earnest closer to Venice Beach seemed rightfully out of place. Suede does not mix with dirt. Rompers do not mix with portable bathrooms. Fake flower crowns do not mix with really anything.
I trekked in my leather sneakers and vintage dress, somewhere between prepared and looking for an excuse to dress up, making my way into the heart of Hinterland.
The whole arrangement was set up like a bowl, food trucks and info tents on the rim, grassy hills for seating, and the stage at the very bottom. I positioned myself close to stage left, tucked away from the eager, stage-hugging masses.
As foreign to Iowa as a music festival seemed, I couldn’t help but wonder how foreign the landscape was to visiting musicians. There were some instruments that blended perfectly with the honey colored backdrop of nothing but hills, like folky guitars or tambourines. But my favorite were the ones that felt deeply out of place, like electric pianos or extremely expressive backup vocalists.
The main act took the stage, just as the sky was shifting into its resting blue, and I leaned back in my chair. Lyrics about places these people would never see, lives they would never know, seeped into the audience. I always forget the ways that music overwhelms our differences until I'm immersed in it. The trees hid behind the fading light, the traffic slowed to a low hum, and the night could have been at the helm of any stage, anywhere. But we were here, in an area lying beyond what is visible or known, a hinterland.