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Lantern Festival at the Pocono Raceway: A Beautiful Way to Relax

This is my third time attending the Lantern Fest, and as I pull my silver Hyundai into the entrance of the Pocono Raceway, flaggers lead us dancing to the music in their heads to park on the wet grass. My already inebriated friend screams out the window, “You’re job looks boring but I’m glad you’re having fun doing it!” I shake my head at her and smile; these people probably think we are crazy. I throw my car into park and immediately shove my hat on my head and put on my smokers mittens, the white blending well with my green jacket.  We gather our belongings; blankets, beach chairs, and purses and sling them over our shoulders in the chilly mid-afternoon. The Lantern Fest, a light festival that comes to Pennsylvania once in the summer and once in the fall, has landed itself in the Pocono Raceway for its fourth year running.

Fifteen thousand people are supposed to attend the event this year, so I made sure to get there as early as possible to skip the inevitable lines. Unfortunately for Lantern Fest, they canceled the event a week prior to the reschedule, so that number went down drastically from the looks of it. Kate and I barely waited in line for anything. When I went with my now ex-boyfriend the two times before, people were still strolling in to the raceway well after dark, and the lines to get any drinks or even a hot pretzel was pure hell. That is why Kate is here with me tonight, holding the ticket that has his name in the top left corner, crinkled and sad like I was feeling.

“So what are we supposed to be doing here,” asks Kate. We walk around the wet grounds to find a fire pit surrounded by dry pebbles; two camping chairs facing the stage already. I wanted to make sure we skipped having to sit around screaming children with little to no patience when it came to relaxing. “Basically, we sit with a bunch of random people and make friends with them, listen to live music and contests throughout the night, eat whatever the vendors offer and drink as much alcohol as we want. Then, when it finally gets dark out we roast smores by the fire and soon after thousands of people light eco-friendly lanterns, and it’s one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see.”

Kate, a pretty blonde woman who was lucky enough to find a sitter for tonight, pulls a water bottle full of white wine out of her cream-colored backpack. “Well let’s get started now then.” She chugs half the bottle valiantly, then hands it to me so I can do the same. I suppose it’s an adult’s rite of passage to do anything ever, like grocery shopping after a glass or two of good cabernet. As far as Kate and I were concerned, being inebriated always gave our adventures an extra dose of magic and fun. We stand in the fast-moving line to get our supplies for the night: a box of matches, sticks for roasting our marsh mellows, smores ingredients and, of course, our paper lanterns.

After we dump our belongings at the site we choose, Kate and I buy souvenir coffee mugs that say ‘Lantern Fest Since 2014’ for fifteen dollars, and walk around to check out the vendors. Food, beverages, blankets, sweaters and home improvement stands are surrounding the fire pits, boxing us all in as though we were cattle. To entertain the kids they blew up a huge bouncy slide at least seven men tall, screaming yellow like the children would scream when they slid down it. We buy drinks; mine is a cheap tequila and cranberry and goes down like it’s just the latter. We decided to get pulled pork French fries right away, which were delicious and crispy if a little bit salty from the smoked meat. I spot island noodles and run over to check the price. “It’s only $8, I’m getting my pasta on,” I say. At this point, we’re pretty chilly, but when the man hands me the hot box of noodles and steamed broccoli, it takes the chill right out of my hands. I drown them in soy sauce and begrudgingly share with Kate.  The Pocono weather is approximately 52 degrees and it’s only 4:30, we weren’t looking forward to it going lower.

We meander our way back to the fire pit, at least we think that’s where we’re headed. Kate and I get hopelessly lost searching for my small pink beach chair in the sea of people and tents. I start to panic a little but then we turn around and find our gear right where we left it. I wrap myself in my blanket I’ve had since fourth grade to keep the biting cold out, and we meet our new group of friends for the night. The couple joining us tells us, a young Hispanic man and white woman, that it’s their third year here too, and that they were glad they brought out their winter gear to fight the cold. They’ve brought extra smores supplies as well, which is a good thing because ours ended up getting crushed by the end of the night. We hear the announcers voice booming on the stage, performing a contest with some of the festers, a ‘Lady and the Tramp’ fruit roll-up contest. The winner gets a prize after the first couple kiss, of course. Kate really wants me to go up and do it with her because she thinks we could win, but I was nowhere near drunk enough to make out with my best friend in front of thousands of strangers. It was a definitive “absolutely not” for me, much to her dismay.

Kate and I are here to relax from our hectic schedules, reading our books and playing Uno, we shiver and drink wine to feel some fire in our throats. We light our fire, finally, around 7:30. Well our Spanish friend lights the fire, saying he’s gone camping once or twice. I don’t know why but I find his statement hilarious, probably due to the amount of alcohol I’ve ingested at this point. We all inch closer to it to warm up, me inching a little too close and semi-melting the sole of one of my grey moccasins. Our new friends give us our very own pack of honey graham crackers, and we listen to the crackling of the fire while the last of the contests wrap up. Tonight is beautiful even through the chill, and I am having a lot of fun even without him here. I’m thankful Kate went with me.

A live band takes the stage, banging their drums and singing old rock songs while we all talk over the music about relationships and occupations, our pets and educations. Once the band plays their last set, the announcer tells everyone to start getting their lanterns ready for lift off. Kate and I use our green and purple sharpies that were given to us to write sentimental notes before we begin to light them. “I am not alone, I am loved,” I write.  Getting these things in the air is a two woman job, as they are half the size of our 5’3 bodies, and we get Kate’s into the sky before mine. Hundreds of lanterns are already lighting up the darkness and floating off into the distance, like dancing stars in the night sky. “Wow, it really is stunning. Thank you so much for bringing me to this,” said Kate as she watches more and more join the first lanterns.

I am on the struggle bus trying to light my own, asking my fellow comrades to help me hold it up and light the cardboard on fire. Instead of doing what I planned, the wind ripped one side from my hand and burned the paper, making my lantern useless. Even though I couldn’t get my message into the sky, I still felt what I wrote, and I was glad that my best friend at least got to see hers march off with the army of lanterns ahead of it. After all, I do this event every year it comes into town. I’ll have my chance next year to get mine up with the others, perhaps with a new honey to help keep me warm by the fire.

I am an undergraduate student, writer, server and bar tender who loves to attend events and festivals, etc.
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