(Our Denver-based contributor Gonzo was fortunate enough to be at the 2022 edition of Fire In the Mountains, which took place in the shadow of the glorious Teton Range in Wyoming. Today we present the first of his reports about the festival.)
I stepped out of the car and gently shut the door. Raising my arms over my head and interlocking my fingers, palms facing skyward, I stretched my body as if I’d never stood up on my own two feet before. Sitting on my ass for over 7 hours in a Subaru Outback through desolate landscapes and wide-open highways with barely another soul in sight for miles does tend to drain you after a while. And looking around now, it was almost fair to wonder if we’d driven through a portal to another dimension.
That otherworldly dimension, for our purposes, was known as Fire in the Mountains, a deeply unique festival experience that was just about to kick off its first occurrence in three years. Set deep within the Wyoming wilderness just outside of Grand Teton National Park, this gathering of metalheads, artists, hippies, weirdos, psychonauts, and anyone in between had gained a lot of buzz throughout the US festival circuit. Some called past incarnations of it “loose as goose shit,” while others described it simply as the best weekend they’d ever experienced in their lives. High praise for a festival that attracts just over a thousand people each year in a setting that requires you to pack in your own water.
Now that we’d arrived, the anticipation that had been building since 2020 was palpable, like a thunderstorm slowly looming over the mountaintops in the distance. More cars were slowly beginning to pull in, sporting license plates from as far as Canada, Ohio, Florida, California, Minnesota, and more. It was clear this was a destination for many. It was time to set up camp and let this experience take us wherever it would lead us.
Pro-tip: Setting up a tent in a windstorm is not an advisable activity under any circumstances. Before we could even plant a stake in the ground, the wind gusts nearly blew our canopy setup into the fucking void. Or, at least, into some poor bastard’s tent. If it hadn’t been for a pair of neighbors who came to our rescue (who quickly became our friends), I can only imagine how much more frustrating the entire process would’ve been. The wind was howling unrelentingly, and we’d soon discover that this was a daily occurrence on every afternoon in western Wyoming.
Fortunately, the festival grounds offered a welcome respite. Excited but road-weary festivalgoers were already queued up long before the gates were scheduled to open. Once inside, we took a curious look at what was going to be where we’d spend most of the next 48 hours. Merch was instantly on sale, as was beer and wine. Artists from all over the place were selling their crafts. Food trucks were on site. Later, we’d discover the festival’s most lethal libation – a boozy slushie that the vendors proudly referred to as “sloshies” – but we’ll get into those details soon enough. Those are stories that likely merit their own post.
I took a quick look around at my surroundings inside the festival area. There were only two stages at FITM, both of which were situated no farther than about 50 yards apart. That meant there was no way anyone would miss any performance because it would’ve been impossible to have any overlapping set times. With Friday being the opening night, the organizers chose to ease everyone in with a setlist of acoustic-only performances on the Buffalo Stage – the smaller counterpart to the Teton Stage. Among the scheduled performances were the dark cello sorcery of Helen Money, the somber serenity of Yob’s Mike Scheidt, and the inimitable Steve Von Till.
Helen Money got things started. I had seen her perform once before, several years ago, and I remember being transfixed. The things this incredible woman does to a cello have to be seen to be believed. I don’t think there’s anyone else who does anything quite like what she does, and her set brought everyone to the front of the stage in a state of wonder.
West Virginia black metal act Nechochwen came next, playing a one-time-only acoustic set with a missing member – the brother of Nechochwen himself. Regardless of being a man short, the set was still just as glorious as I’d hoped. I’m a huge fan of their newest album, Kanawha Black, and if you haven’t heard it yet, do yourself a favor and take it for a spin.
I had no idea what to expect out of the next set, which featured a guy by the name of Sean Parry. Rumors were that he had a band with him called Sacred Knot, but nobody seemed to know who any of them were, including me. But any festival that’s worth its salt will undoubtedly surprise you at some point. One minute you’ll be wondering who the hell you’re about to watch, and by the end of the set, you’re in line to buy their merch.
Parry’s crew, as it turned out, was a perfect fit for the evening. Powered mostly by his massive vocals and a stompy percussion section, the band regaled and entertained an unsuspecting (but very receptive) crowd. They reminded me of Wardruna at times. The highlight of their set began when Parry pulled out two animal skulls and started bashing them together while bellowing a rowdy version of a traditional Celtic folk song. I remember turning to my friend and saying something like, “this is William Wallace metal.” Never mind the fact that the boys in Knot were all Welsh.
With the bar sufficiently raised after just a couple of hours in, Fire in the Mountains was already turning into something special. Twilight was lingering now. The sun was starting to slowly vanish behind the mountainous backdrop, and the clouds were reminding everyone that the festival’s namesake wasn’t just an empty expression.
“This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” YOB mastermind Mike Scheidt noted as he strolled onto the Buffalo Stage, casting a gaze skyward. Gently and effortlessly, Scheidt picked up his guitar and started belting out some absolutely mesmerizing acoustic material. Some songs I didn’t recognize, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m a bad stoner-metalhead for that. (I suspect this was because I haven’t heard much of his solo stuff from his 2012 album.) But his acoustic rendition of YOB’s “Marrow” made my night. And from the looks I was seeing around me at the time, I wasn’t alone there. Scheidt is a master performer, a true artist, and a pretty fucking amazing human being overall.
Before I start ranting about the stupefying performance put on by Steve Von Till that closed out day 1 of this festival, it’s worth mentioning that this is the point in the evening where our aforementioned “sloshies” become relevant again. They were simply too easy to drink. Imagine a satisfying Slurpee from 7-11 on a day where the temperature feels like 2 degrees warmer than the surface of the sun, and add a metric fuck-ton of gin or vodka mixed in. Refreshing, but you’re taking your own life in your hands if you drink more than two.
My group and I quickly came to this terrible realization after drinking three of them.
One of us had disappeared for a while, and when he reemerged out of whatever ether he’d slipped away into, he had no memory of how many he’d had. All he could tell us is he met some new friends, and he was now incapable of standing up straight. He bobbed back and forth like a buoy, mumbling incoherently while desperately clutching the offending libation.
“No!” he said. “I may be fucked, but…” he trailed off, looking behind the stage and into the magnificent sunset. “Oh wow, that’s nice.”
Von Till took the stage and first addressed the elephant in the room, modestly saying something like, “I’ll try to compete with this sunset, but I don’t know if that’s even possible.” I love his music, but he was right. In our sloshie-induced state, the sky looked like a wildfire, but it would’ve been the same regardless of BAC levels. Brilliant hues of orange and red and yellow were splashed across the darkening blue sky, creating a breathtaking mosaic. Von Till’s somber folk almost seemed too dramatic for the entire scene. The entire experience was already beginning to feel like a hypnotic fever dream; a utopian parallel universe in which people are brought together by a confluence of positive energy, creativity, and community.
It had only been a few hours, but, as Mike Scheidt would later quip during YOB’s legendary set on Sunday, “This is the kind of world I want to live in.”
I couldn’t have agreed more. Night one of this festival had already delivered so much more than I ever imagined it would. New friends had already been made, the music had already been flawless, and the setting couldn’t have been better. Even if this festival would drink itself dry in another two days, nothing else mattered. This was Fire in the Mountains, and I could already tell that an unforgettable experience was waiting in the days to follow.