AS I SEE IT: Mourning the Loss of My JITH Traditions

Editor’s note: Here in the Ohio Valley, the third weekend in July has meant an annual pilgrimage to Jamboree In The Hills for a lot of local country music fans. But for the first time in over 40 years, Jamboree In The Hills will not be held in 2019. If you’re one of the folks longing for your yearly JITH fix, Weelunk has you covered. Today is our last walk down memory lane, sharing tales of  “ghosts of Jambos past” in our Jambo Reboot series.

I’ve had a long-standing love affair with traditions. As the clock strikes midnight and welcomes the New Year, you will find me holding in my hand two gold coins given to me by my late friend Sandra, who believed that doing so brought her good fortune for the next 12 months.

On April 1, I hang my hummingbird feeder from the front porch awning and await the first visit from my flitting feathered friends. On the anniversary of my Mom’s death, I release a single white paper lantern into the night sky and hope it finds its way to her. The Thanksgiving turkey is served from my great-grandma’s platter, and the following day, our Christmas tree makes its annual appearance in the living room.

But for the past 16 years, the third weekend in July was a special tradition all its own for my family, and if you’re a Jamboree In The Hills fan, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Coolers were packed with favorite snacks and sandwiches. In our family, that meant Mexican Corn Dip (served exclusively with lime-dusted tortilla chips!), ham and cheese on potato buns and freshly cubed watermelon. The food cooler was a separate entity from the extra-large beer cooler, which was stocked to overflowing with Coors and Miller Lite. (My husband and I are a family divided when it comes to our choice of brew.)

Our SUV, aka “Doug’s Drunk Bus,” was packed to the gills with our gear — two camo-patterned easy-up canopies for shading the freckled and fair-skinned among us. (And by that, I mean ME.) Both coolers heavy with ice. A variety of chair options guaranteed to appeal to any backside needing to take a load off. A large tote bag filled with sunscreen, rain ponchos, trash bags, Baggies to stash phones in when the inevitable rains came, ibuprofen, Band-Aids, lip balm — an expanded Jambo version of my everyday “mom purse.” And finally, a large utility wagon to haul the aforementioned cargo up the hill to our traditional spot just above the Red “D.”

My husband, the captain of “Doug’s Drunk Bus” and longtime law enforcement officer, has always been adamantly opposed to impaired driving. Therefore he embraced his duty to get those of us who liked a little country music with our beer safely back and forth from the venue each day. We always had a carful of people anxious to take advantage of his designated driver status. Bless his heart for always being our chauffeur, safety officer and voice of reason!

The car itself would be decorated with window paint — sayings like “Headed for the Hills!” and “See You at Camp McCroskey” left few folks wondering about our destination. Friends, family and coworkers all knew where to find our canopies and could be counted on to stop by, snap open their folding chairs and share a cold one with us.

Ellen and her husband Doug holding down the fort at Camp McCroskey.

Despite the huge crowd, we would always somehow manage to set up right next to Bill and Tammy from Erie, Pennsylvania — to us, they were known as the Mayor and First Lady of Jamboree because of their warm and friendly nature. (Not to mention their willingness to share their vodka-soaked Gummy Bears and Swedish Fish!) They were the first of many strangers who would become our Jamboree family over the years. The pair greatly enjoyed sitting next to the walkway and using their squirt bottles to drench distracted passersby trudging up the hill for a pitstop at the Porta-Jons.

In addition to new friends, Jamboree gave me the gift of memories — so many fun memories. Some of them are not suitable for general audiences, but there are a couple of stories I’ve deemed fit to share here.

I have to admit that I was a bit late to the party when it came to discovering the joys of Jambo, not attending my first one until I was older than some. But after my first experience, I was completely sold on the entire event.

In 2003, I arrived in the Hills for the very first time with a group of my best girlfriends. We hadn’t been in the venue long when we came upon a young man passed out cold beside his cooler. Being a “Jambo virgin,” I was initially concerned for his wellbeing, and we stopped long enough for me to poke him gingerly with the toe of my flip-flop. He grunted and rolled away from us, obviously still among the living.

Ellen’s friends Michelle, Pam and Mary showing her the ropes at her very first Jambo in 2003.

Being quite some distance from our own coolers and running low on the beers we were sipping as we strolled, we decided to take a quick peek at the contents of this guy’s Coleman Xtreme. Jackpot!! It was full of Coors Light! Surely he would never miss a few cans out of his massive stash. He was oblivious to the sound of us churning through the contents of his cooler, so we helped ourselves and continued on our walkabout. About a half-hour later, we had circled the venue and found ourselves back near the slumbering man, who was now snoring softly. What the hell … we decided to help ourselves to another round. By the time we made our way back a third time, he was sitting upright, looking a bit confused about where he was and what time of day it might be.

“Hey!” my friend Michelle called to the man. “We saw a group of girls here twice trying to steal beer from your cooler!” The rest of us snickered at her rather twisted version of the story. “But we chased them away!” she declared. The poor man hopped up from the grass and high-fived us all for “keeping watch” over his cooler. Then he exclaimed, “Here, you all deserve a beer for your trouble!” and he handed us yet another round from his stockpile. We toasted our new friend and eventually confessed that we were the beer bandits. But in true Jamboree spirit, he just laughed and slapped his knees at our revelation.

During a fast-approaching storm one year, we didn’t have time to run for the car as the clouds closed in. My husband lowered our canopy, and a group of us huddled beneath it, holding onto the framing to keep it planted in place. Thunder roared as the rain pelted the nylon over our heads. The wind picked up, and we struggled to keep the canopy from blowing away like Auntie Em’s farmhouse in that infamous Kansas tornado.

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Suddenly, a huge bolt of lightning pierced the black sky, and the next thing I knew, Doug was lying on the ground beside me, dazed and rubbing his head. “He’s been hit by lightning!” I shrieked, thinking I was about to become a young widow. But it turns out that he was only struck by the metal leg of a nearby canopy that had become a flying missile in the windstorm. Our daughter’s friend Brittney, a registered nurse, calmly bandaged Doug’s head with first-aid supplies from my “mom purse” without spilling so much as a drop of her beer. Then, as usually happens after the stormy spells of Jambo and life in general, the sun returned to the sky, the dark clouds floated off in the breeze, and we all rocked on.

A sweet and touching memory involves my beloved late mother-in-law, Freda. Like Doug and me, most all of us McCroskeys are also major Jamboree fans, and Freda loved seeing us enjoy ourselves there every year. In 2015, about a dozen family members had our four-day passes ready to go, and some of us were already camping onsite. A few days before the festival, Freda was admitted to a rehab facility close to the venue, so we stopped to visit her every day on our way over.

Although she was ill, Freda was not expected to pass away at that time; however, it turned out that she and God had other plans. She told us that weekend that she was ready to leave this Earth behind, but none of us believed that day was imminent. Freda also made it abundantly clear that she did not want any of us to miss a minute of our Jamboree escapades on her account. We argued with her that she was more important and that we’d be glad to skip the festival and stay with her. She told us that was absolutely not necessary and insisted that we be on our way.

Sunday night, Doug and I had just arrived home and were unpacking the car when we got the call that she was gone. Freda had gotten her final wish — she timed it so that none of her family missed a single act of JITH. She died exactly the way she lived — on her own terms and thinking of her kids before herself.

The opening ceremony each day was always a favorite part of Jamboree In The Hills for me. There was something incredibly moving about seeing hundreds of fun-loving rednecks stop cold in their tracks and grow serious for a moment, removing their ball caps and patriotically placing a hand over their hearts at the first note of the National Anthem. The very sight often caused a tear or two to roll down my cheek. And I especially loved the Sunday shows — they opened with the singing of “Amazing Grace” after the National Anthem and the JITH theme songs, and it never ceased to raise goosebumps on the back of my neck.

Vendor food was another big part of our Jamboree tradition. I looked forward to savoring a Styrofoam tray of bourbon chicken, followed by an elephant ear at some point during the weekend. Another favorite indulgence was a corn dog for me and a giant turkey leg for Doug — these were our traditions.

And snacks weren’t our only recurring rituals. Each year we hung a banner bearing photos of every JITH we’d attended on the side of our canopy. It was a great conversation-starter with our neighbors, as people would stop by to see if a photo of them from the prior year had made the cut.

So many traditions — dancing with my adult daughter in the rain that always fell at least once each year. Being entertained by the gyrating security guard who later became a viral video sensation. Watching the fireworks with my grown son who was as enthralled by them as a man as he was when he was a boy. All were treasured traditions of days gone by.

Jamboree was a family reunion of sorts for Ellen and her kids, Travis and Rachael.

One of my final Jamboree memories is of riding a mechanical bull near the main entrance as we left the venue on Sunday evening. Despite Doug’s warning about throwing out my aging back, I fell behind him as we exited, and my daughter threw a fiver at the bull operator to give Mamaw a quick spin. I never laughed so hard in my life as I did for that very brief second — literally, one second — that I remained seated on Old Toro. A word of caution: a menopausal woman should not drink beer and ride a bull unless she is wearing Depends. Don’t ask me how I know.

Each and every Jamboree fan out there has his or her own stories like these — thousands of memories and traditions honed to sweet perfection over the course of many hot July days and nights.

But alas — in 2019 there will be no JITH rituals for any of us. The 16-year-long annual celebration of my redneck roots has suffered an untimely and heartbreaking demise. Upon hearing this news, I felt like a kid who has been informed by the class bully that Santa and the tooth fairy were nothing more than figments of their parents’ imaginations. I could not believe my ears. What?? No custom coolers? No Redneck Run? No more Camp McCroskey??

My heart sank at the thought of such loss, and I wondered what other gathering could ever entice multiple generations of my family to a single shared event with the same enthusiasm. The answer is none. There will never be another such festival that will attract the same terrific crowd.

Yes, there are a couple of alternative options in the works, but for those of us who have spent so many mid-July weekends in Morristown, there can never be a replacement. The atmosphere at Jamboree In The Hills was one-of-a-kind and will never be duplicated elsewhere.

There are also rumors that Live Nation may bring the festival back in a different location and/or change the rules to prohibit or limit the long-standing BYOB tradition. Even if the festival does return from “hiatus” in 2020 with new rules, many folks feel that the magic spell of our favorite festival has been broken and will never be the same. Especially if we’re forbidden to bring our own beer in a traditional custom cooler. You just don’t mess with tradition.

Writer’s note: Despite my personal disappointment over the loss of JITH, I refuse to let the whims of big business spoil my summer fun. All of us who were formerly Jambo fans should treasure our memories but look to the future with anticipation. Navigating change is difficult for everyone, but sometimes we’re pleasantly surprised to find something even better on the other side of it. My family will be starting a new tradition by spending a week at the beach together this year instead of attending a music festival. I hope your tribe is also planning to start a new summer ritual by supporting one of the other country music concerts, taking a special vacation or figuratively “flipping the bird” at corporate greed in some other fashion.  “What appears to be the end is really a new beginning.” — Unknown

• A lifelong Wheeling resident, Ellen Brafford McCroskey is a proud graduate of Wheeling Park High School and the former Wheeling Jesuit College. By day, she works for an international law firm; by night, (and often on her lunch breaks and weekends) she enjoys moonlighting as a part-time writer. Please note that the views expressed in her writing are solely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, including her full-time employer. Through her writing, Ellen aims to enlighten others on causes close to her heart, particularly addiction, recovery and equal rights. She and her husband Doug reside in Warwood with their clowder of rescued cats, each of whom is a direct consequence of his job as the Ohio County Dog Warden. Their family includes four adult children, their spouses and several grandkids.