Autumn Magically Rolls in at Crested Butte’s Vinotok

Vinotok is its own beast with a bold personality and a loyal following. It is a celebration, a passing, a time to forgive, a chance to bond, and above all, a lovefest of the rhythms of nature and the bounty and mysteries it provides.

My legs are spent and I’m exhausted. Still, I clutch a Great Divide Denver Pale Ale and take a sip. After a day on the 401, the beer tastes like gold and the early evening sun that warms my face feels like a blessing. I think after I inhale—yes, inhale—my burger, I’ll put back one more beer, and then head back to camp.

Never have I been so wrong.

Sitting on Brick Oven Pizza’s patio, I’m surprised when men and woman dressed as medieval characters march down Elk Street. Some wear flower wreaths, while others carry banners, flags, and torches. Drums, flutes, and tambourines are played, and arms and faces are painted in vibrant colors. However, no one compares to the shirtless Green Man, who is surrounded by an entourage and who puffs his chest, holding his hands up high. I catch my breath when they stop in front of the restaurant, pass through its gates, and begin to sing.

I must look aghast because my friend, a Crested Butte local, laughs. “Did I forget to tell you it’s Vinotok?”

I nod, not quite registering what she’s said. To me, Vinotok sounds like the name of a fictional planet or a man-made avenger gone wrong.

The crowd quiets around us as the medieval-like people introduce themselves through song. They are maidens, harvest lads, a man named Sir Hapless, the Earth Dragon, a very pregnant Harvest Mother, and of course, the Green Man. Together, they are the Vinotok Mumming Troupe, a group of dedicated Crested Butte locals who seek to set the magical mood for Vinotok, Crested Butte’s uniquely imaginative, week-long harvest festival.

Once they leave, parading down the street and performing a step-hop-style of dance, antlers, feathers, leaf headdresses, and loincloths abounding, my friend takes a long, slow sip of beer as she prepares to dive into the festival’s details. Vinotok, as I would learn, is a long standing Crested Butte tradition and allegedly the inspiration for Burning Man. The event begins a week before the Autumn equinox and culminates with a massive procession and bonfire. In its 31st year, it is part film festival, part medieval gathering, and largely folk theatre. The festivities include rabid partying, fire blowing, and ultimately the burning of the Grump. Vinotok is its own beast with a bold personality and a loyal following. It is a celebration, a passing, a time to forgive, a chance to bond, and above all, a lovefest of the rhythms of nature and the bounty and mysteries it provides.

Vinotok honors the transition from summer to fall and eventually winter. Through wreath making, storytelling, and the crowing of the Green Man, it is a time for this small town to forget the woes of yesterday, to bond together as a community, to let go of grievances, and to celebrate this wild place in which we live. Above all, Vinotok is a celebration of the abundance of harvest, a time meant for us to give thanks through song, dance, and feasts.

I laugh because suddenly, the guy walking around with deer antlers affixed to his head earlier that day makes more sense.

“So, what’s next?” I ask eagerly, anxious to become part of this wild festival.

“The trial,”

“The trial?” I’m confused. What could a trial have to do with harvest and community and forgiveness? My brows furrow as a waitress places my burger in front of me.

My friend gestures at it. “Finish up and I’ll show you.”

We head down Elk Street as the sun sets. Night is upon us, as is, what seems to be, the entire town of Crested Butte. Hundreds of people swarm the street, and ahead of me is a cloth draped, insect-looking monster towering above the crowd. In the dark, torches blaze and the chanting begins.

“Burn the Grump! Burn the Grump!” the crowd shouts in unison.

They mean the creature—the scapegoat for all of our worries—and it stands trial on the final night of Vinotok. For the weeks prior, boxes were placed throughout town into which everyone placed their written grievances. Those boxes were then tucked within the Grump before it headed to trial. Even I had a chance to slip a few in, though I won’t admit to what they were. Essentially, The Grump represents everything bad you want to let go of, and it must die.

Poor Grump never had a chance, and I feel a brief moment of pity as the crowd and those carrying the towering beast march farther down Elk to a pre-erected bonfire. The Grump is placed on top of it, the logs are lit, and the crowd goes wild as the Grump and all of our grievances go up in flames. The maidens dance in the burning light, and finally, autumn begins.

The whole evening seems archaic to me—the drinking, the costumes, the accusations, and finally, the burning. There’s an intensity in the air unlike anything I’ve ever seen, as though the Grump were a real monster that threatened villages and stole children from their beds. Perhaps, giving a name and a form to those issues that sadden or anger us makes for the surreal chanting and the intense desire to watch the Grump burn. But, as people walk away, I notice everyone grinning, and the feeling of being cleansed and ready to begin a new year becomes infectious. I feel my own smile widen and my body lighten. I picture the words I wrote on that slip of paper, which are now ash, and none of those grievances bother me, as though they’ve been stripped away.

I stare at the smoldering logs and the remains of the Grump and realize there is indeed magic in Vinotok. Crested Butte’s community is strong and imaginative and together, the citizens of this small mountain town create their own special type of wizardry. Fall is officially here with winter around the corner, and almost instantly, I find I’m ready for a deep breath, a break from the endless activities of summer, and a chance to reconnect with friends and family but mostly, with myself.

Vinotok 2016 begins on September 18th and culminates on September 24th with the burning of the Gump.
Check this video to learn more on this amazing and unique festival.

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About our extraordinary writer: Lindsay Diamond is a novelist and freelance writer living in the mountains of central Colorado. Visit writerlindsaydiamond.wordpress.com to learn more.

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Photo credit: travelcrestedbutte.com