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Camping Under Cosmic

Confession time: I’ve been going to Cosmic Cantina during this, my senior year, as much as I did when I was a naïve, 15-pound-lighter freshman.

I don’t know if it’s an urge to relive the sense of wondrous innocence and exploration and collectivity of experience that so defined my freshman year—a weird desire to mark my Duke experience with a reassuring symmetry. Maybe it’s a defiant refusal to believe I only have one semester left before graduation. More likely, it’s my discovery of their tofu burrito, what I believe is the establishment’s vegan magnum opus. Whatever they marinate their tofu in is a treasure. But if there is one thing that definitively draws me into this late-night eatery with consistency, it’s the music park below.

Crazy Camp Music Park is a strange space—one that, unlike my freshman year, presents a unique sense of place. To get inside the venue, you enter an opening next to the graffiti’d staircase, through curtains made of sleeping bags—that staple that breathed life into me during cold, sleepless nights in K-ville, and through two feet of snow in Pisgah National Forest, the destination of my Project Wild March trip. See what I mean about symmetry?

The feel is organic. The floor is a mosaic of stone and the furnishings all wood in the raw (tree rings and bark browns intact). And what stuff the room houses: rectangular swings that hang from the ceiling with thick rope, artfully crooked panels that house a guitar each, a bench that looks borrowed from the throngs of East Campus, long teeter-totters that throttle their users skyward with surprising force and speed—such that I consciously applied the rules of torque I learned from my mediocre stint in physics to survive the ride. The vast majority of furniture is constructed from the same tree, the bartender tells me, a fallen tree donated from a ranch in Hillsborough. And yes, when I say bartender, I mean it—there’s a bar, with a limited but welcoming selection of beer, wine and tequila.

The space is one where musicians of all skill levels and genres can come together and jam without stress or stereotype, to the backdrop of a fun theme-park setting. You’re welcome to bring your own instruments, and some musical tools are provided: guitars, drums, recording equipment, even the occasional pan flute. The guitars come with a special bridge that keep them in tune; the drums are housed behind a clear plastic wall that reminds me of both a spaceship and the Plexiglas at the Louvre that (anticlimactically) guards the Mona Lisa; the pan flute occasionally makes an appearance on the side counter. There’s a large red yurt surrounded by Christmas lights that contains tree stump seats and stools for both musicians and audience members. And for those worried about aural health, there’s a wineglass with earplugs atop the bar. All music recorded is posted to the park’s website.

The place was opened last year by Cosmos Lyles, the heavenly-named owner of Cosmic Cantina. Fun fact: he’s a Duke alum who majored in physics and engineering of all things (maybe that just explains the teeter-totters?). I visited Crazy Camp Music Park around its opening last year, post-Shooters, and it was an empty room of pure potential. Sure, the music equipment was still there, but the wooden furniture, the bar—that all came later, week by week, as the place closed during the workweek for renovation. I was put on a texting listserv that advertised its hours and, after the bar opening, offered the occasional free drink. On one visit, I sang a piece about meningitis while a friend shared a story about her pet bunny rabbit. They are recorded on the website.

Now, the listserv is gone, replaced by regular 10 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday hours. There’s a board in the corner where you can sign up for jam sessions. Fewer free drinks are offered, but you might get a discount if the music you play gets a stranger to dance. The place still feels new, in a state of flux, and continues to be renovated weekly.

The bartender tells me that Lyles’ vision for Crazy Camp Music Park was a place where everyone would feel famous. As I sit on a rectangular swing happily munching a tofu-filled masterpiece, I don’t know if I quite feel famous. But I do feel like I’m in some way bridging the gap between the naiveté of freshman year and the transience of senior spring, as graduation lurches its scary head closer and closer. Over an appreciation for music, marinated tofu and semi-dangerous teeter-totters, my former and current selves bond. Thanks to this space, this collective of music and late-night food and experience, I approach Cosmic with the same wonder I did when I was a freshman. As I swing, burrito in hand, it’s a comforting thought.

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