Just a couple of hours after I show up at The Porcupine Freedom Festival, high in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I have a gun in my hands.
I drove up early on this late-June Friday, toward the end of the week-long celebration, to find a huge private campground bathed in sunshine. When I got there, groggy campers were shuffling to the toilets, and there only a few signs this was not just a festival but an experiment in a different way of life. One was a custom vending machine someone had stationed on a campsite. Inside were Milk Duds, wet wipes, small plastic bags of ammo in various calibers, pregnancy tests, and Zig-Zag rolling papers. If you wanted to, you could pay with Bitcoin, the anonymous, non-government-issued cybercurrency.
PorcFest is an eight-day party for 1,500 people who don’t want the government in their faces. It's a recruiting tool for the Free State Project, an effort to get thousands of libertarians to move to New Hampshire. It's also a kind of model of a radically free society, a place where Republican business owners who hate taxes mix with gutter punks who like doing drugs and cussing out cops.
My first stop this morning was a firearms safety training. Lots of people carry guns at PorcFest, and the instructor was doing his best to make sure they do it safely. As he asked questions, a series of skinny young white guys wearing t-shirts with aggressive messages raised their hands and answered with Boy Scout seriousness. "Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction." "Always treat it as if it's loaded." "Keep your finger off the trigger."
Then Ian Underwood, a soft-spoken former NASA researcher, took the stage to explain the "newbie handgun shoot" he was leading at an offsite shooting range. Underwood runs a New Hampshire farm with his wife and another couple. On the side, he builds and sells guns. He's an evangelist for firearms as self-protection without the need for police—or, if necessary, self-protection from the police. He also sees shooting as a sort of Zen practice.
"You're not thinking about anything but shooting," he told me. "Even though it's noisy, for your mind it's very quieting."
When I told him I'd never shot a gun, Underwood insisted I had to try it. So I signed a form ensuring that neither I nor my next of kin could sue if anything went wrong, feeling just slightly lightheaded.
After a half-hour car caravan to the shooting range with 50 other would-be shooters, Underwood hands me a terrifying black rifle that looks like a military-style AR-15. In fact, it's less badass than it looks, shooting only .22 caliber ammo, but I'm still pretty shaky. Underwood shows me how to load the magazine and take the safety off. When I miss the first target, he makes a couple of suggestions. A minute later, I knock down five targets all in a row. It's at ridiculously close range, but I can't deny that it's quite satisfying.
As I turn to go, Underwood grins at me and says, in a warm sardonic tone, "hopefully this gave you a sense of why you can't be trusted with a gun." His point is that guns are just tools and that I, and everyone, can use them responsibly if we exercise a little common sense. I'm not so sure about that, but his positivity is strangely infectious. Infectious positivity will prove to be a running theme at PorcFest.
Back at the campground, afternoon presentations are in full swing in big white tents on the campground lawn. In the largest space, Lyn Ulbricht is talking about her son Ross, who was recently sentenced to life in prison for running Silk Road, the Dark Web marketplace where drugs and other illicit goods were sold. His goal, she says, was not to be a drug kingpin but to offer people a chance to participate in a truly free market. The place is packed, and a handful of people are standing in the back with me: a couple of young women with eyebrow piercings and lots of skin showing, a guy with a weatherproof phone in one hip holster and a handgun in another, and a man with long hair and what appears to be a sword in a sheath.
Up a hill from the big tents are 72 campsites that host vendors—stands sell everything from ice cream and chili to anarchist comic books and silver. One offers modified storm shelters for people preparing for economic meltdown or zombie apocalypse. The owner tells me there's been "a nonstop parade of people from when we open at nine to when we close for dinner." At another site, someone's set up a car canopy as a sort of pop-up saloon with camping chairs for patrons and liquor bottles on a picnic table in the back.
At the stand for Mountain Foot Farm, there are baked goods for sale and a way to order a grilled trout for the next day's lunch or dinner—just fill out a form and leave the money in a Tupperware container. Owner Curtis Sjolander tells me the whole thing runs on the honor system. Food and money sit out 24 hours a day. He takes inventory and checks the money he's taken in frequently, and it always comes out with in a buck or two, he says.
"You actually trust people here," he says. "There's no question that I don't think I'd do this any place else."
At a nearby site, where the sign reads Free Grafton, no one's selling anything, except the idea of moving to a small New Hampshire town. In some ways, Free Grafton is the epicenter of the Free State Project's plan to colonize the state with libertarians. In Grafton, 50 or 60 of the activists have moved in, and, with the support of some locals, they've won a few Town Meeting votes. The Free Grafton crew says they're just trying to keep the tax burden down, but, to some locals, it looks like a hostile takeover.
Along with all the stands selling food and trinkets, there's one real estate agent, Mark Warden of Porcupine Realty. He was also a state representative for four years. Warden tells me he didn't run again in 2014 because he wanted to focus on his business, 90 percent of which is Free State Project people. They seek him out because he won't look at them funny when they make unusual requests, he said.
"They say, 'Mark, I want to be able to shoot on my own property. I want to live off the grid. I want to grow my own food.'"
I mention the potential hostility to libertarian newcomers, and Warden says he occasionally sees it, particularly in reaction to Free Grafton.
"They're pretty aggressive in some of their tactics," he says. "But that's OK with me because the government's aggressive in its tactics."
I walk back toward the big tents where presentations are going on and run into Frank Manus, a first-time PorcFest attendee who's bursting with excitement.
"I came here almost by accident," he tells me. A friend had told him about the festival, and he thought he'd help her out by sharing travel expenses.
Manus, a slight guy with a black mustache, says he thought at first that he thought he'd help his friend set up camp and then spend the week at a computer programming conference in Boston. But he was entranced by what he heard from the presenters. When I run into him, he's just come from a talk by a guy hoping to establish an autonomous floating city. Manus likes the idea, though the costs involved sound a bit hefty to him. "I'm cheap," he says.
A little later, I run into JP Freeman, who coordinates a New Hampshire chapter of something called Cop Block. The group shows up at arraignment days at the local courts to urge suspects not to be intimidated into taking a plea. They also film the police, watching for illegal actions. Freeman says the response he's seen from activists in New Hampshire is impressive. If he sees police misbehavior, he says "I call on the radio, all the sudden 50 people show up."
He's particularly worried about the militarization of local police departments and the way some cops seem to focus mostly on collecting fines for minor crimes.
"They don't want to concentrate on the big crime because they don't make any money for that," he says.
Here, Freeman's friend Daniel Cuevas chimes in: "I thought they went after the victimless crime because they're pussies," he says. "They don't want to go after the murders and rapists."
If libertarians are ambivalent at best about the police, they still need a way to deal with any crisis situations that arise. At PorcFest this year, that's Tara Powell's job.
"I have that terrible sickness in my soul that I feel responsible for all of my fellow man," Powell says, sitting at the site that serves as headquarters for her rapid-response volunteer crew, the Porc Rangers, smoking a clove cigarette. Mostly, she says, the job is about finding lost kids and lost dogs and dealing with drug-induced freak-outs. Occasionally there's conflict involving people primed to pick fights with authority figures, something she tries to handle with some subtlety.
As I chat with Powell, a large doughy man walks up wearing tight white boxer briefs and holding glitter glue, which he's been drizzling over his chest and arms. Someone's scrawled YUM across the back of his underwear. This is a sign that one of the major events of PorcFest is almost ready to start. In one of the big presentation tents, volunteers are preparing Buzz's Big Gay Dance Party. Powell urges me to get down there, and not to spend too much time acting like a reporter.
"Go do some drugs, have fun," she says. "If you get freaked out, come hang with us."
Before I get to the dance party though, I see a sudden burst of activity at a site that had been empty every time I walked by it all day. It's a bright green tent with a sign reading Ramadan @ PorcFest. Will Coley—bushy beard, baseball cap, Southern accent—is rushing in and out of the tent preparing food on a camp stove. Coley is the founder of Muslims 4 Liberty, which aims to act as a bridge between Muslims and libertarians. He tells me he raised money from Muslims all over the world to serve free meals every night of this year's PorcFest. Coley says the festival's participants are exceptionally open to learning about Islam, probably because it's a group that is used to questioning conventional wisdom about everything.
Once the sun sets, marking the end of the Ramadan fast, six Muslims gather to wash in a campground spigot. In the background, a radio is blasting a libertarian talk show. An ad for a water filtration system is warning about the government putting ammonia in city water supplies. The prayers finish, and the group begins serving a vegetable curry to anyone who wants it. I head down to the party.
Buzz's Big Gay Dance Party is a PorcFest tradition. Since I got to the campground, almost everyone I've spoken with has said I shouldn't miss it. Multiple men have also hastened to tell me that it's not just for gay people, and that they'll be going despite being most definitely straight. The woman behind it is J. Buzz Webb, a libertarian lesbian who initially felt out of place in the largely straight male scene. She organized the first of the parties five years ago and was surprised to see how fast it caught on with the PorcFest crowd.
Well before 10 pm, the party is already going strong—possibly a product of the fact that the campground has quiet hours after midnight, forcing people to get their partying in early. Just inside the tent flap, there's a guy in a sexy-cop costume dancing on a box. There are masks and feather boas and smoke and lights and exposed breasts and insistent dance music. There's a man and woman, both wearing tiny sliver shorts, body paint and nothing else. A middle-aged man in a utility skirt, camouflage shirt pulled up to reveal a significant belly, is being led around on a leash by an equally middle-aged woman. Mark Warden, the realtor and former state rep is dancing wildly, wearing beads, a skirt with a scandalously high slit, and a shirt that says "I may not be Mr. Right, but I'll fuck you until he shows up."
A separate dance for kids is happening in the next tent over. They get their own fog machine, sparkly finger lights, and glow stick bracelets. Parents, some with babies in slings, some holding beers, hop out of the way as kids zoom around the tent.
Outside the tents, there's a bonfire. A man in an American flag cape is vaping next to a bearded guy in a wedding dress. At a picnic table, there are two intense games of chess going. Numerous bowls are being passed among groups around the fire. A man in a pointy hat and fake pink braids tells me "I'm surprised the government hasn't showed up with guns to make us comply."
Outside the tent, I run into Frank Manus, the enthusiastic first-time attendee. His joy at being here seems to have tripled. He can't stop talking about how great the whole event is.
As I make my way back to my tent, I hear intense conversations continuing around the campground. In one space two men are talking about modern slavery.
"For a second, I thought you were talking about MDMA."
"No, Mali, the country."
The next morning, things are winding down. I see more bowls than yesterday being smoked around campfires at individual sites. But political presentations are still going on. At the tent where the dance party took place last night, an admirer of Ayn Rand is walking a handful of listeners through a chapter of her interminable novel, Atlas Shrugged.
In one of the tents, I see Frank Manus one more time. He stayed up too late last night, he says, but he still seems remarkably energized.
"I learned where I fit in, in politics a little better," he announces. He says he's a 'minarchist'—someone who wants a minimal government, not anarchy. "I didn't even know that was a term!"
Manus does not plan to join the Free State Project and move to New Hampshire, but he says he'll try to do more business with people from the liberty movement. And he wants to come back when he has a chance.
"I might do it for a month—or a summer," he says.
I remember something another hyper-enthusiastic attendee told me last night at the bonfire. He'd picked up a snack at the honor-system farm stand, and he was as high on the idea of a trusting community as anything else.
"Now we just have to make PorcFest in the rest of the world," he said.
I'm not quite as enthused about a whole world of guns and drugs and intense faith in the power of free markets. For a week in the woods, though, it sure makes for a good party.
Photos by Livia Gershon