Enter the Portal: A Savannahian Heads South

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A photo essay on the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival by local photographer Matthew Demarko

After camping amid the property’s palm tree groves, festivalgoers make the pilgrimage into the festival, a journey as exciting as any red carpet. With its swirling circular talisman, the symbol and mantra of the festival has become “Enter the Portal.” Once you take the leap of faith, there’s one commandment, inscribed across the names of the 3 main stages: “Be” “Here” “Now.” Your presence isn’t just a present to others, but more importantly, a present to yourself. 
Every morning opened with an offering of yoga classes to greet the day, a time to center the mind before the long day of music ahead. These classes were so popular they commonly spilled outside the Yogachobee tent (what else could it possibly be called?), and other acro yoga and meditation classes were held throughout the weekend to keep everyone grounded.
Would it even be Florida without a beach? Aquachobee (sensing a pattern yet?) truly sets Okee apart from almost any other festival. During my visit, the youngest member of a vacationing family scampered up and down the sand announcing to all who would listen (i.e., everybody) that it was her birthday. When I asked her father why he’d brought her along, he replied “I bring her to festivals so that she can see the potential for happiness every single day.”
Dominick, a wandering sage, opened up his hands as he passed the thick lines heading into the festival offering hundreds of polished crystals to anyone who wanted one. He told me he wanted to give them out so that the recipients could in turn pass them on to others. “It’s more about a feeling than anything else.”
At Okeechobee, the cotton-candy sunsets help to draw even the closest of friendships together. “Okeechobee is our home away from home,” said Claudia and Arlene, pictured here. “It was the first music festival for both of us back in 2016, and we’ve gone every year since. Something about the sky and energy here really makes it feel like a world of its own.”
Even before the main party, many festival goers have worn out their feet dancing and traversing the campgrounds and villages. Luckily, just like Savannah, pedicabs are available to ferry people between shows quickly and easily. At Okee, though, the pedicabs are just as decorated as the festivalgoers who hail them. Some are decorated as pirate ships, others as giant fish. Many are covered in string lights, and every driver blasts his or her own playlists of music to keep the party going. 
Inside the main stage you’ve reached the heart of the portal. This year, top billed acts such as Arcade Fire, Bassnectar, Halsey, Snoop Dogg, and Leon Bridges graced the centerpiece of the festival, each with their own signature display of lights, sights and sounds. More than 70 artists total played at Okee 2018, not counting the countless secret sets, campsite pop-up concerts, and late night DJs. 
There may be no more emblematic image of the festival’s power than Wayne Coyne holding up giant hands projecting lasers from his palms directly into the crowd. If you love live music, you love Okeechobee.

Just because the main acts are over doesn’t mean the party stops. At Jungle 51, a secluded extension of the portal positioned deep in the trees, DJs spun till 5 a.m. Somehow, this stage was equipped with even more lasers than the main arena. When you finally decide it’s time to call it quits, you’ll have one of many lights—in the canopy or illuminating a nearby jacket—to guide you home.