Seventy or so bodies writhe about in a giggling pile of limbs on the carpet. They circle a glowing blue orb, courtesy of Spencer Gifts. Kaleidoscopes and vibrating massage toys are passed around. A hulking figure in a tie-dyed robe and a black mask and hood is directing traffic.
If your parents were at the annual Winterstar festival at Atwood Lake Resort in Delroy a couple of weeks ago, we're sorry to inform you that they were in that pile.
Something possesses the old-timers on the weekend of the festival. Something that only exists when people go deep into the woods, in most cases with a big bag of drugs, but in this instance armed only with the looniness of flower children growing old.
Winterstar, now in its 24th year, is thrown by the Association for Consciousness Exploration, a club started in the '70s when a few hippies from Case Western Reserve University joined arms with some friends from a medieval reenactment club. They held meetings in the snack bar at the Hillel House, comparing notes on magic spells and acid trips. They even managed to get christened a legit college organization and brought '60s acid shaman Timothy Leary to Case to lecture.
As ACE grew, they began holding yearly festivals -- one in the summer in western New York, and this one in the winter, tucked away in the woods south of Canton. Revelers have come from as far as Toronto to participate in the weirdness. They're schoolteachers, EMTs, engineers, and college professors. But this weekend, they become druids, goddesses, and pagans.
The weekend's featured guests include "Ea," an expert in "gay sex magick," and Prem Das, a peyote shaman, who got sick and canceled. The agenda includes lectures on everything from psychedelic drugs to out-of-body travel.
The hippies even brought their own stoner toys, like a headpiece emitting pulses of light and sound. Hospitals use a similar contraption to check for concussions. They found that if you tweak the frequency of the pulses, it causes your brain to produce cartoon-like hallucinations. "The experience is as if somebody created an animated film just for you," says ACE co-founder Jeff Rosenbaum.
Eighteen-year-old Samantha has been dragged to hippie festivals by her parents since she was a kid. But this one is far and above the most out-there. Last year people dressed up as pirates, got drunk, and sang old pirate songs.
"My mom's like, 'Let me know if you find any ['shrooms]," says Samantha.
After a few minutes with the vibrating massagers and kaleidoscopes, a tape- recorded voice commands the group to form a circle holding hands. The ritual symbolizes Leary's theory of consciousness, which begins with infancy and ends with intergalactic mind travel. For the last step, rainbow-tinted glasses are donned, and the hippies dance around strands of white Christmas lights, humming, "Ohhhhhhhhmmmmmm . . ."
All this could be considered normal behavior for people higher than the Mir space station. The bizarre thing is that they haven't even broken out the weed yet.
"You don't need [drugs]," insists Marty Laubach, a sociology professor with shaggy gray hair.
Massage therapist Kim Tharp says she knew she'd found her clique when she was at the group's summer festival. A man walked up to the bonfire, buck naked and wearing moose antlers with marshmallows on the end. "I thought, man, this is the place for me," she says, her costume earrings jangling. "This is a de-stressor."
After the ritual, everyone piles into cars and drives down the hill to the lake. In one of the cabins, a techno DJ mixes beats on a laptop while an old-timer dances his way, eyes closed, into a trance. He tears off his T-shirt, exposing nipple rings and tattoos. Another lady, wearing fake elf ears and purple-striped stockings, plays the accordion.
In the cabin across from the rave, a drumming circle snowballs into an orgasmic rhythm. Pot smoke and giggling waft from under a bedroom door. A guy wearing an Aztec-like headdress does a rain dance around a tray of candles on the plank floor.
"Hey, man, where'd you get that outfit?" asks a guy in a furry Viking helmet and a kilt. "That's wild."
One of the hippies smiles and leans on a wooden cane in the corner, watching his white-haired wife dancing and laughing in her rainbow glasses.
Time flies. Every Winterstar is a reminder of that. In lieu of tomorrow's lecture on psychedelics, there will be a memorial for famed counterculture writer Robert Anton Wilson, who passed away last month.
Timothy Leary's been buried for a decade. He chronicled his slow death from prostate cancer -- and every nitrous oxide hit and weed biscuit he ate on the way there -- on an internet blog. Among his last words, rambled over and over before his heart stopped beating: "Why not?" You can almost hear his voice echoing here.
The drumming drops off suddenly, as if someone unplugged an amp. In the intermission, a woman in a leopard-print dress dials home to her kid. "Everything OK?" she asks nervously into the cell phone. "Did you feed the cats? . . . I'll be home tomorrow afternoon. Bye, I love you."
She hangs up and breathes a sigh of relief. Then she takes out a crystal ball and gazes into it. "Okay, I'm much better now."