“Man, I don’t ever want to go home. I just want to eat, drink, sleep and ride.”
I’m not the one testifying — that would be the 40-year-old recreant standing next to me in front of the crackling bonfire, foamy brew in hand — but I can appreciate the sentiment. It’s the kind of live-while-you-can élan that the Southern Illinois Fat Tire Festival (FTF) is known for inspiring, and even though this is my first time at the sleep-away camp for adventure junkies, I guess you could say I get it.
Judging from my wife’s raised eyebrow and thinking-about-it expression, she gets it, too. She did crush her first-ever off-road ride earlier in the day on a demo Specialized Era Expert Carbon 29. The FTF does things like that to people, things like turning dyed-in-the-wool runners into eager multi-sporters, or enticing mild-mannered parents to chug Bud Light at 9:30 on a Sunday morning (more on this later).
It’s all part of the epic appeal of the three-day event, which has been adjusting attitudes for 11 years, first in Carbondale and now at Camp Ondessonk in Ozark, Ill., where it has been held for the past three years.
We’d been invited by Bike Surgeon of Shiloh, Ill., host of the event, and had driven down from St. Louis (about three hours) to meet some friends who are FTF regulars. Having checked in and gotten our T-shirts and stadium cups — “Don’t lose that cup. It’ll get you free drinks all weekend.” — we head to our campsite, which consists of five stilted treehouses set amid autumn-tinged forest, facing Lake Echon.
The festival’s schedule is loaded with activities, as hardcore or laidback as you like, sort of a choose-your-own-adventure deal. There are multiple daily bike rides (gravel and trail, from beginner to advanced), plus hiking, archery, boating, arts and crafts, and lots of general messing around. Kids aren’t just welcome, they’re encouraged, and the atmosphere is vibrant and friendly.
After unloading our gear, we return to expo central, grab a couple of free Ski sodas and check out the vendor area, which has racks of demo bikes and tons of gear, as well as handmade jewelry, samples of Hammer Nutrition fuels and drinks, and Red Eye Moonshine. Yee haw!
We’d heard that food at the festival was outstanding, and dinner does not disappoint: grilled local brats and burgers with all the fixings. As the kids slowly drift to bed, the Urban Chestnut begins to flow and we all migrate down to the Camp O Grotto to watch the Blackfoot Gypsies shred the stage there. Imagine a frantic, punk-Americana version of the Rolling Stones playing to a crowd seated under the rock overhang of a 50-foot bluff, and you get the picture.
On Saturday, we wake early to a cool, crisp sunrise and walk off the cobwebs from the night before, then hit the dining hall for some chow. The breakfast buffet is killer (eggs, biscuits and gravy, fresh fruit). While there, we also pack a fat sack lunch for the action-packed day ahead.
We start with an 8-mile mountain bike ride with about 10 others, from teenagers to middle aged, led by one of Bike Surgeon’s gurus. The singletrack is greasy in spots due to recent rains, resulting in some spills, but my wife and I emerge unscathed. One of our friends who’d gone on the 15-mile technical ride isn’t so lucky and returns with trail-rash on his arm and leg. Nothing new, really, for a guy known affectionately as “Captain Crash.”
Camp Ondessonk’s 983 acres are adjacent to the Shawnee National Forest, and the scenery is nothing short of spectacular. We join a guided hike of the backwoods and tromp through thick hickory and oak forest, encountering huge sandstone ridges and canyons, lush bottomland, hidden caves and former Native American sites.
Dinner is a barbecue explosion of pulled pork, sausage and beans, sweet potato salad, and greens, after which we mingle around the kegs and wind up winning some nice swag. (I get a pair of Specialized riding gloves, and my wife gets a CamelBak insulated water bottle.)
That night is the Fat Tire Fest Challenge, a high point of the weekend. It’s a lot like a summer camp athletics contest if Red Bull planned it. That’s not a joke. The challenge is actually sponsored by the wing-giving energy drink and — along with music, lights, video and play-by-play from the Red Bull fire truck and DJ — it includes a tug-o-war, keg pull, mini-bike races and the high-flying Huffy toss. Don’t try this at home, kids.
By all rights, we should be sleeping late on Sunday morning. Instead we find ourselves back at the dining hall at 8:30 a.m., fueling up for the O-Face Adventure Race. It’s a new addition to the festival lineup, a tag-team event that mashes together many of the weekend’s activities in five stages — climbing, mountain biking, archery, kayaking and the above-mentioned beer chugging. It’s a furious ending to a fast, fun weekend.
“Do we have to go home,” asks my wife on the way back from the O-Face awards ceremony and luncheon. “I just want it to last a little while longer. And I want that Specialized carbon 29er.”
Uh oh, looks like another convert.
Registration for the 2015 Southern Illinois Fat Tire Festival is now open. The event, scheduled for October 23-25, promises all the excitement of past years for the price of $195 per person.
New this year is the one-day Fat Tire Campfire at Klondike, which will include demos, rides, and hikes, along the top-rated trails of Augusta and Weldon Spring, Mo. Scheduled for August 15, it will cost $30.
Sign up for both events at bikesurgeon.com/ftf.
Author: Brad Kovach is the editor of Terrain magazine
Image: Courtesy of Cardin Photography & Motion