Chickenfest is canceled.
It’s three in the afternoon Saturday and I’m at a friend of a friend’s house. Before it even got off the ground, the yearly underground romp in the woods has been busted or called off, depending who you talk to. This group is sitting on couches and lawn chairs in their yard, drinking beer and throwing a Frisbee. A piece of printer paper hangs above a brown, furry pelt and not-so-boldly proclaims this Kangaroofest.
Back at my house, there’s another substitute for the fallen Chickenfest: A neighbor’s parking lot-style driveway is packed with cars, music and people.
My phone beeps with a text message. I look out my window and see the party next door has dissipated instantly.
Chickenfest, a secretive University of Maine tradition going back one or two decades – again, depending who you ask – is back on. It’s a sojourn into the woods where anywhere from hundreds to thousands of people trek out for music, cookouts, fire, camping and intoxication. Who exactly chooses the spot, draws up the directions, sends the text messages? It’s tough to tell. It’s taken me four years of college to actually experience Chickenfest.
This year, the fest started deep in the Maine wilderness an hour and a half from Orono and was forced to relocate to a spot 30-ish minutes away. The drive takes a friend and I down winding roads farther and farther from civilization. When the route turns to dirt, we stop the car and listen for a minute, trying to discern party sounds from the cacophony of crickets and frogs. My friend was raised near a city and has never seen the stars this bright; we’re nowhere near anything – no houses, no electricity, no traffic.
What sounds like a scream cuts into the night. It’s followed by a trace of music. We’re almost there. We get to a parade of parked cars and start walking. We try counting the seemingly endless vehicles at first and are smart to stop; a full count would number well over 100.
After a 15 minute walk in the dark, wondering what to expect from the evening, we’re at Chickenfest. A handful of big fires dot the main gathering area. Several RVs accompany tons of tents. A few dogs amble happily around. Hundreds of people dance in a pulsing mass while local bands and DJs jam on a sizable stage. The music, powered by a gas generator, will continue until sun-up.
I have two beers – a can in pocket and a bottle in hand. This may not be in the spirit of the event, but I want to remember the night – as a senior, it’s my first and potentially last Chickenfest. Accordingly, a stranger toasts my beer and says, “Happy chicken.”
A growing group gathers atop a camper, standing and dancing between two kayaks on racks. As I wander deeper into the swaying crowd of glowsticks and dreadlocks, beards and Birkenstocks, the gargantuan size dawns on me – this is a party only a forest could contain.
Walking around all evening, I see friends at various levels of lucidity; some have been here since early afternoon, and some are in better shape than others.
An enormous grill is cooking food around the back of the stage. These guys not only hauled the apparatus out here, but bought 250 pounds of chicken to throw on it. They charge $1 a piece. I’m starving, and whether it’s the timeliness or the taste, it’s some of the best chicken I’ve ever had.
Dancing in front of the stage, an intense heat hits my back: A couch is on fire. A couple guys are taking turns sitting on it nonchalantly. The couch erupts into a blaze and suddenly, whatever it’s made of – could be polyester, could be dynamite – causes the couch to combust and vaporize. Someone in a yellow chicken suit runs around the inferno to high fives, cheers and a Chickenfest chant. This is anarchy.
By 2 a.m., it’s impossible to take a step without stepping on crinkled beer cans and kicking strewn bottles. We walk by three police cars on the way to our car – they’ve located Chickenfest for the second time in a day, but the event has escalated to a size where the only manageable law enforcement is rudimentary ID checks and sobriety tests. We fold down the car seats and catch a few uncomfortable hours of shut-eye to drive home just before dawn.