Finding Neverland

Evening falls and the good times roll at Nelson Ledges, party heaven.

Nelson Ledges
Evan Kelley loved Nelson Ledges as a kid, so he bought the place. - Jared  Klaus
Evan Kelley loved Nelson Ledges as a kid, so he bought the place.
"It's the last party of the year," yells Tessa, a slender 21-year-old with flowing blond hair, who dances dreamily on the moonlit beach. She twirls her fading glow sticks like helicopter blades, as wild howls echo from deep in the woods.

This is Heavy Fest, one of many weekend festivals at Nelson Ledges, a private park and campground tucked into the rolling farmland of Portage County. The Halloween-metal band Mushroomhead played earlier in the night, but now the music comes from car stereos and boomboxes, the throbbing purr from a hundred subwoofers.

The woods are a maze of mini-parties, each with its own soundtrack, its own guest list, its own menu of mind-bending desserts. Hundreds of fires roar and curl. Under the canopy of this old-growth forest, 1,500 people -- most in their late teens and early twenties -- have gathered to dance, trip, and stay up all night. At 2:30 in the morning, they're just getting going.

Hippies, metal kids, ravers, and country boys come from all over Northeast Ohio and beyond to party at the Ledges, 240 acres of Hobbitland cradled around a deep, spring-fed quarry lake. The atmosphere is spookily euphoric, like a high school lock-in overtaken by anarchy. You expect to find a secret room where parents and the town sheriff sit bound and gagged.

Maybe it's the drugs, but everybody's smiling, willing to share a spot by the fire and a toke from the pipe. Welcome to party heaven.

The beauty of the Ledges happened by accident. In the 1950s, the area was a quarry mined for quartz and sand. According to legend, a digger bit into a natural spring, and a lake formed within days -- almost 30 acres, with an island in the middle. Desert-colored cliffs and shelves tower above the water and glow anciently beneath its surface.

During the day, the park is filled with families -- swimming, hiking, playing basketball, or just being. "Hold my cigarettes," says an apple-shaped woman to her husband, before stepping off a 15-foot cliff. Her splash reaches back up the cliff. Behind her, kids line up to pull cannonballs and jackknives.

The occasional joint is passed, along with cans of Pabst and Bud. A couple floating on a raft may or may not be having sex. "Yes, I'm already gone," sings Don Henley from a car stereo. The late afternoon sun shines hot, and everybody's happy.

The old hippies talk about a vision -- that of Evan Kelley, who has owned the place since 1997. Like so many here, he fell in love with the Ledges when he was a teenager. Back then, in the '80s, the parties were even wilder, more lawless, and plagued by fires, drownings, and Hell's Angels.

The park changed ownership in 1995, but its new tenants tanked within months. So Kelley convinced his parents to mortgage their house and scoop up the property -- 110 acres for around $450,000.

He began hosting music festivals on weekends, with bands like Ekoostik Hookah and the Dark Star Orchestra, creating more of a venue atmosphere than a powder keg of drunks and fireworks.

"This place had to be cleaned up in order to make the sheriff happy and persuade more families to come back," says Kelley. He claims to have a policy of zero tolerance for drugs, but that's easier said than done. "Drugs and alcohol are always a big problem," he says. "We just try to keep everything cool and be respectful of each other."

Sun gives way to moon. Glow sticks snap into luminosity -- pink, blue, green, purple. Pieces of wood transform into piles. Fires pop and snarl to life.

"Doses needed!" yells Crabs, a round, jolly hippie with dime-gauge earrings. Crabs, 20, comes to the Ledges for every festival of the summer, whether it's hippie jam bands or throat-ripping metal. He holds a lighter to his fingertip to show a small square of blotter acid and pops it on his tongue. He's taken four hits and some 'shrooms since he got here last night, yet he's surprisingly lucid.

Ask anybody here, and they'll tell you what they're on, what they're selling, or what they're looking for. "Scorpion" ecstasy rolls are going around. Campsite 109's got the "classic white-fluff" LSD, Crabs says. And, he might add, some seriously high-grade pot. "The whitest shit I've ever seen," he says, referring to the THC crystals on the buds.

Crabs inhales from a blown-glass pipe. "Hey, Heather, come hit this," he says to a girl dancing gypsy-like behind the fire, her arms and body mimicking the flowing ascent of flames. As Heather steps into the light of Crabs' Bic, her pupils are the size of coat buttons, her eyelids opening and closing in sensual slow motion, as if she's being given a full body massage.

At another site, a girl with long blond dreadlocks sits cross-legged, weighing out 'shrooms and pot on a digital scale under a fluorescent light.

Down on the beach, some guy fills his mouth with swigs of lamp oil and exhales plumes of fire, warming onlookers. A tall, messy-haired kid in a hoodie wanders from campsite to campsite with a didgeridoo turned beer-bong. Crabs bongs half an ice-tea jug filled with Jack-and-Coke and blows it like a dying whale. An old hippie, sitting over briefcases filled with swirling glass pipes and bongs for sale, talks about his days on tour with the Dead and Phish.

"It's such a karmatic feel," says Chris, 22, his glasses reflecting the orange and yellow streamers from the roaring fire. Behind him, the twinkling sky glows a dark navy blue. The 4 a.m. air is cold and heavy with dew. Fall is coming. "This place just touches me."

Kelley sits in the shade of the welcome booth, strumming a guitar. He lives in a cinder-block building at the front gate with his wife, Kristina, and their daughters, 3-year-old Alia and 10-year-old Jessica.

If this ain't the American dream, then he sure doesn't know what is. Even after all his years at the Ledges, he still struggles for words to describe its . . . vibe.

"What this place does is bring out feelings in people," he says. "They're good feelings, they're rejoiceful feelings, and sometimes they're spiritual feelings . . . That chemistry and that vibe are as strong as they're ever gonna be. We did it. We made it."

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