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Town Park’s Mayor Reigns with Kindness
by Charlotte Bell

Congeniality. Camaraderie. Community. If you had to condense the Town Park camping experience into three words, these three would probably fit best. For a week or more in mid-June, this wooded plot that normally accommodates 200 campers swells to a population of 1,200 friendly Festivarians, all connected by their love of acoustic music. You see them everywhere—smiling faces padding along the labyrinthine path that snakes through this temporary tent city. The feeling of camaraderie is undeniable. Within days people you’d never seen before have become friends.

The Town Park Campground is a festival in its own right. Not exactly a wilderness experience, the campground is more like a densely populated village with distinct neighborhoods of its own. There are established extended family campsites like Camp Billy, Wishbone and Camp Run-Amok, and there are sites more nuclear in nature that end up ballooning into new extended families over the years. Such a congenial community hardly needs a strong-armed authority to keep folks in line. It does, however, enjoy shepherding by an altruistic Festivarian named “Telluride Tom,” its appointed mayor.

“Everybody loves Telluride Tom,” says Michael Hornick, builder and owner of Shanti Guitars and one of the founders of Camp Billy. “He’s always paying attention to the other person. All he ever does is do things for people. I think that’s how he got into the position he’s in.” An unofficial volunteer for Planet Bluegrass, Telluride Tom considers it his responsibility as mayor to make sure folks throughout the campground have whatever they need to make their Festival experience go more smoothly. He roams the campground, reconnecting with friends he’s known for years and meeting new campers, helping them in whatever ways he can.

Telluride Tom first came to the Festival in 1980. Early on, like other Festivarians, he camped in the town’s vacant lots. As these lots began to turn into condominiums a few years later, Telluride Tom and his growing community of friends moved into the Town Park. He’s camped there ever since. Tom was officially appointed mayor of Town Park in 2000. In an informal backstage ceremony, Emmylou Harris presented him with a plaque and a lifetime camping pass so that he may continue his reign as mayor of Town Park for as long as he wishes. “I don’t think his feet are touching the ground yet from that,” says Hornick.

Tom pitches his tent at Camp Run-Amok, one of the three big camps that join together each year for three venerable pre-Festival campground traditions. On the Wednesday evening before the Festival begins, Camp Billy (so named for one of its late founding fathers who Hornick calls “a truly psychedelicized soul”) hosts a potluck dinner at its massive campsite. In 1988 Camp Billy, which boasts 75 to 100 residents, teamed with Camp Run-Amok and Wishbone campsites to begin this tradition. A spread of monumental stature, the potluck brings together Festivarians of all stripes to dine on sublime campground creations. Following the feast is the ever-popular Free Box Fashion Show, a gala event featuring vintage fashions from Telluride’s free box across from the post office. Then after dark, there’s Carissa Chappellet’s slide show, projected onto the side of the new shower house. Her slides document great moments on stage, along with Festivarian faces and campground personalities.

Even if you do not have a campground pass, Town Park is open to all Festivarians on Wednesday evening. Checking out these venerable campground traditions is a wonderful way to spend the eve of the Festival. There’s plenty of pickin’ going on throughout the campground too. While Telluride’s nippy nights present a challenge to campground pickers, several campsites have come up with elegant solutions. The MASH tent, another of the traditional community sites, installs a big propane heater in its jam area to help keep fingers toasty. Jam-hopping on Wednesday evening is a great way to whet your appetite for the main stage music to come.

Telluride Tom considers it part of his mayoral duty to keep campground traditions alive. For example, when some of the MASH tent crew couldn’t make it to the Festival a few years ago, Tom made sure their pre-Festival tradition continued uninterrupted. “They always put on rum balls on Wednesday afternoon,” he says. “I decided that we couldn’t let that tradition die. I organized people to bring all the necessary ingredients to pitch in and put it all together.“

Hornick says that Telluride Tom doesn’t “rule” the campground. Rather, he says, Tom’s presence is “magnificently noted. He’s one of those people that does all kinds of good things very quietly. He’s so humble. That’s what’s so cool about him receiving the accolades he has and being designated as mayor.”

Charlotte Bell is a yoga teacher, freelance writer, oboist and Festivarian since 1983. She is currently writing a book titled Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life that will be published by Rodmell Press in 2007.

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