"We got any locals here?” one of the Widows asks to scattered whoops of recognition. “Thank you for coming out from under your rock.”
Two hits on a snare drum and a brass crash. The joke is that nobody is from here, because we are on the edge of nowhere, but, sure as snake’s teeth, the right kind of folks will settle just about anywhere, and that includes the boulder-strewn peaks and cactus-studded gullies surrounding In-Ko-Pah’s Desert View Tower. Joining them for the fourth year now are 526 outsiders converging over two stages and 14 bands playing from early afternoon ’til bar close. Except there is no bar, just the Anza-Borrego Desert fracturing into infinity 3000 feet below and a 90-year-old roadside attraction built on a highway that was abandoned for an interstate decades ago. Regardless, motorists still wend their way off the 8 and down a dead-end stretch of Old Highway 80 to climb the historic monument (all “65 easy steps”), buy trinkets from the gift shop, and maybe meet a local or two.
Today, we are greeted by several locals, including a girthy rattler that, a few bands later, comes out from under his rock to go for a spin by the dance floor. Tower owner Ben Schultz appears with a snake snare and a five-gallon bucket to wrangle the buzzing menace as out-of-towners snap photos. The Strawberry Moons have just finished a haunted doo-wop rendition of “White Rabbit” with guest guitarist Pat Beers of the Schizophonics, and the mood is borderline enchanted.
Ben later presents my girlfriend with a pouch of “rattlesnake eggs” from the gift shop that shake violently when you open the flap, betraying a rascally glee fit for the cover of an Archie McPhee catalog. He’s got the snake in a bucket by the entrance and springs the gimmick on visitors as they arrive, disclaiming, “Sorry, us old folks are terribly jealous of you young people,” as he demonstrates the prank’s washer-and-rubber-band mechanism.
Someone plays Erik Satie’s “Jazzopédie” on the Tower’s piano while the Mattson 2 weave jam and jazz tapestries outside on a rounded makeshift stage. Cameron, who lives down the interstate in Boulevard and tends to the gift shop on Fridays, has caught plenty of snakes on his property: “You don’t see the speckled rattlers that often. Mostly it’s diamondbacks around here, a few reds, a few sidewinders. Rattlesnakes overall are pretty docile.”
So, too, is the crowd. The average age hovers between 4 and 40 years old. Most of the adults are drinking, yet none appear drunk. It’s all pretty docile as the sun sets over the outback “High Jinks” that has been dubbed over the years — either out of endearment or endurance — Wind-Ko-Pah. But the fest goes frenzied when Phoenix punk-and-horns sextet Playboy Manbaby howls “You Can Be a Fascist, Too” and later, Birdy Bardot and her backing band from the Redwoods collective spill smoky psychedelic soul tunes looking cool and enraptured and belonging here among the moonlit granite.
Archons end the night with cranked-up doom metal. The five-string bassist wears a shirt reading: “Sleep,” which many have already resorted to while the rest remain on tailgates and tired feet, gyrating to meatgrinder guitar and caveman drums. A few beers and breezy conversations later, I collapse into my tent. A light wind stirs between chollas spines and tent fabric, and for a moment I’m reminded of the snake on the dance floor, who, for better or worse, just had to come out from under his rock.