LANCASTER, N.H.—There is a specter haunting New Hampshire—the specter of libertarianism—and every year it holds a huge party in the middle of the woods where people carry guns, smoke weed, prepare for the collapse of society, and trade Bitcoin for beer.
Since 2001, libertarians have been trickling into New Hampshire as part of the Free State Project. The aim is to turn the Granite State into the freest, least-regulated place in the nation. There are around 1,500 Free Staters in New Hampshire now, and most of them congregate every year at the Porcupine Freedom Festival, a weeklong party where just about anything goes.
The movement has confused some in New Hampshire who weren’t aware they were living in an authoritarian police state, and has alarmed Democrats who love the government. Democratic state Rep. Cynthia Chase once called the Free Staters the "single biggest threat the state is facing."
I travelled to the 11th annual Porcfest, as it’s known by attendees, to see this domestic threat for myself. The festival is located at a private campground a mile or so outside the town of Lancaster, up in northern New Hampshire among the White Mountains.
In the midst of this verdant scenery, more than 1,000 hardcore libertarians gather every year to live out their idea of a society free from overbearing government.
It was in this lawless zone that I met two terrifying right-wing extremists: Caitlin and Elizabeth Edwards-Appell, 25 and 26, respectively, a gay couple who were in fact adorable and who had gotten married in the main field at Porcfest. The two were celebrating their honeymoon among their Free State compatriots.
Most libertarians can identify the moment they lost faith in the mainstream, and Elizabeth was no different. She said she became a libertarian because "Sarah Palin literally made me cry."
Caitlin and Elizabeth were watching the 2008 vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Palin when Palin blamed the economic collapse on Wall Street greed and corruption. This was simply too much for Elizabeth’s tender free market beliefs.
Caitlin, who said she was a bit of a socialist at the time, was more dismayed that Biden and Sarah Palin essentially had the same position on gay marriage. "Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage," Biden said. Four years later and back on the campaign trail, Biden would miraculously evolve several days ahead of Obama and declare himself "absolutely comfortable" with gay marriage.
In the meantime, though, Caitlin and Elizabeth had started researching third parties and stumbled across the Free State Project. The Edwards-Appells moved to New Hampshire in 2011 from New York.
"In New York, you feel like you have no input in the political system," Elizabeth said. "Here you can actually do something."
Elizabeth is now running for state representative as a Democrat. If successful, she will join about 20 Free Staters who have been elected to public office. Her race was wide open until the Democratic Party found out she was a Free Stater and fielded a primary opponent against her.
I arrived at Porcfest on Sunday and walked through "Agora Valley," a row of vendors that sell everything from AR-15 parts to GMO-free produce to chiropractic work.
It is also the largest alternative currency space in the United States. The crypto-currency Bitcoin is accepted nearly everywhere. Precious metals are widely used. I saw a man buy into a poker game with a piece of silver.
The one exception to this free market utopia is booze. Alcohol sales were banned a few years ago after the campground discovered that nine year olds were being used as a liquor delivery service.
At Klassy Glass, a purveyor of artisanal glassware and "water pipes," the proprietor showed me the special run of pipes the company had made with the Porcfest logo and New Hampshire’s famous motto, "Live free or die," emblazoned on them.
I was admiring some of these pieces when I noticed the guy behind the counter had a Browning Hi Power pistol tucked into a holster in the front of his pants.
Handguns are perhaps the most popular accessories at Porcfest, behind pen-sized vaporizers that can be used to smoke nicotine or hash oil. The official Porcfest program has a whole page on firearm etiquette. "Don’t mix mind-altering substances and firearms," it reads. "You should not carry when you are drinking, toking, or otherwise impaired."
Porcfest might be the only place you can find someone with a shotgun slung over his shoulder, flowers sticking out of the barrel, and anti-war buttons pinned on his chest.
For a first-timer at Porcfest, walking through crowds of armed anarchists and clouds of marijuana smoke is like sneaking into an R-rated movie when you’re a kid—a world only hinted at is suddenly right before your eyes.
As keynote speaker and libertarian activist Nick Gillespie would tell the crowd later in the week, "You’re a demonstration project for what it’s like to live in a way that’s less uptight."
The demographics of Porcfest, like the libertarian movement in general, skew white and male. One attendee described it as "kind of a sausage philosophy." However, there were a good number of women and more than a handful of minorities.
What was more impressive was the distance people travelled to get to Porcfest. I met attendees from the Netherlands, from Austria, and several from Canada. One young man from London heard of Porcfest through an anarcho-capitalist group on the gaming platform Steam.
Many Porcfesters described themselves as anarcho-capitalists, others as voluntarists or agorists. The shades of distinction between the terms are too subtle to spend time explaining, but the gist is all transactions should be voluntary and coercion of any sort, whether by individuals or government, should be forbidden.
Let’s put it this way: 2012 Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson spoke at Porcfest last year and got heckled and booed for endorsing the Fair Tax. ("No tax is fair!")
Although individualism is one of the most fervently held beliefs at Porcfest, the one word that popped up in nearly all of my interviews was "community." For people who’ve been coming to Porcfest for years, it’s like a family reunion.
Pete Eyre, a muscle-bound, bearded anarchist who works with the police accountability group Cop Block, told me he comes to Porcfest every year because he enjoys "trying to assemble with people I care about and having synergistic relationships."
Outside of the main pavilion at Porcfest, I ran into a man named Gan (no last name given) from Massachusetts. Gan, 39, wore billowy pants, his head shaved except for a patch in the back. He spent most of his time juggling and balancing various objects such as swords, staffs, and hula hoops.
It was Gan’s first Porcfest. He said he was into sustainable farming and looking for a place with other liberty-minded people he could learn from.
Studies have shown that, geographically speaking, America is more politically divided than ever, with people massing in like-minded communities. But while there are plenty of libertarians in the United States, they’ve never really had a place to call their own.
So the idea of the Free State Project is clever in an inelegant sort of way. Find a sparsely populated state and move a bunch of people there. Seize the levers of bureaucracy through simple electoral math. Turn the machine against itself.
New Hampshire’s lack of state sales tax and state income tax, not to mention its motto, makes it an ideal candidate. So far, nearly 16,000 people have signed the FSP’s pledge to move to New Hampshire. The goal is to collect 20,000 signatures, which Free Staters call "triggering the move."
The FSP is also a humorous form of geopolitical trolling. One of the places the Free Staters have targeted is Grafton, a small town of about 1,100 with no zoning laws. The influx of political malcontents—about 40 or 50, some of whom now sit on the planning board—led one citizen to stand up in a town hall meeting and declare: "You’re not going to move here and shove freedom down MY throat!" In Keene, bands of Free Staters have taken to filling up expired parking meters before the city can issue tickets and leaving notes behind that read, "We saved you from the king’s tariff."
This year, a local libertarian blogger named Chris Cantwell was banned from Porcfest for advocating killing cops, among other incidents.
"The answer, at some point, is to kill government agents," Cantwell wrote in response to a request by the police chief for funding to purchase a Bearcat armored vehicle. "Any level of force necessary for anyone to stop any government agent from furthering said coercion is morally justifiable."
The Free State Project board expelled Cantwell from FSP-sponsored events, saying his views "exceed the right of self-defense." After all, the porcupine was chosen as the symbol for the FSP because it only uses its quills in self-defense.
"Cantwell, he likes to stir stuff up, and that’s not the vibe we’re trying to put out there," Porcfest organizer Christine Butler, 49, told me.
On Wednesday the rain started dumping. The crowd around the nightly bonfire was passing around bottles and pipes. A drum circle was in full force.
I was standing in a group with former Michigan GOP chairman Saul Anuzis and two of his sons when I met a kid named "Bob." Bob was wearing a corduroy jacket and a black t-shirt that said "Legalize Everything." He didn’t look older than 20.
"Do you smoke?" Bob asked, pulling a pack of Marlboro Reds from his jacket. "For sale. I’ve got Parliaments, too."
"What else do you have?"
"If it’s a vice, I’ve got it," Bob said.
I liked Bob’s style.
"Hey, have you seen Jeff Berwick?" he asked. Berwick is a prominent libertarian, or "celebritarian," as they’re called around the movement.
"No, but have you asked the Alex Jones videographer over there?" someone asked.
This caused Bob to launch into a stream-of-consciousness impression of Infowars mogul Alex Jones:
"BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA, WE’RE COMING FOR YOU. GMO FLOURIDE JEWS TOOK DOWN THE TOWERS. KIM KARDASHIAN’S BULLET-PROOF BREASTS. I HAD THE SECRET DOCUMENTS TO PROVE IT ALL UNTIL THE CIA BROKE INTO MY HOUSE AND STOLE THEM. THEY WANT TO KILL ME. THEY WANT TO PUT ME IN A FEMA CAMP AND CASTRATE ME, BUT THEY CAN’T CUT THROUGH THESE BALLS OF PURE AMERICAN STEEL. WE WILL WIN. THE SPIRIT OF 1776 WILL WIN."
It went on like this for a while, with Bob screaming at the top of his lungs. Anuzis was standing there with a polite smile. I wandered off with Bob to go find Berwick. The quest had something to do with nootropics, exotic chemical cocktails that are supposed to boost cognitive abilities.
You know: brain drugs.
The party scene is big at Porcfest, but there’s plenty of good, clean fun to be had, if that’s more your speed. There are pool parties, movie nights for kids ("Babe" and "My Neighbor Totoro," for example), dance lessons, karaoke, a stand-up comedy show, and a goth dance party. Board games such as "Settlers of Catan" are popular. There was also a Shabbat dinner, a Sunday morning Christian worship service, and a Muslim call to prayer.
Friday is the centerpiece of Porcfest. The day started with a shooting trip, where newbies got the opportunity to fire fully automatic rifles, and ended with Buzz’s Big Gay Dance Party.
Buzz Webb has hosted the dance party for the past several years. Webb, 47, has close-cropped blond hair and works as a construction contractor. She spent most of the week building a 10-foot-stripper pole and other accoutrements for the party.
"I mostly do it because, when I first came to Porcfest, I didn’t know any other gay people, I didn’t see any other gay people," she said. "After the first couple of days, I started second-guessing whether it had been a good idea to come."
Webb created a Facebook event for the dance party, figuring she would put out a boombox and a keg. But one of the Porcfest organizers saw it and invited everyone at the festival. More than 200 people showed up.
"It was the most flawless day," she said. "It was beautiful."
Since then the party has become an institution. It was jarring to see a guy who only hours earlier had a large rifle slung over his shoulder suddenly wearing sparkly pink underwear and shaking his ass like nobody’s business. The stripper pole was getting a lot of action. There was a guy in a nun costume, another wearing one of those creepy horsehead masks. I saw a reporter covering Porcfest who had gone native, dancing shirtless and shiny with sweat. Even the country bros unbuttoned a button or two on their flannel shirts and got in the spirit.
Outside, a huge crowd was gathered around the bonfire, and smaller groups were scattered through the field, ricocheting off each other like rogue atomic particles. Standing there, I realized it was one of the best parties I’d ever been to. It’s easy to sneer at the fringe, until you realize they’re having a better time than you.
Such good times are not easy to find. This year, 84 people were arrested, a security guard was critically injured, and one person died at the Ultra Music Festival in Miami. At the Rainbow Gathering in Utah, the annual get-together for the hippie fringe, things also got a little out of hand:
On Monday, Heber City police arrested a woman known by the Rainbows as "Hitler," who is accused of stabbing a man at the gathering’s encampment. Authorities are also investigating the death of a 39-year-old New Hampshire woman who was found lying outside at the camp last week. Over the weekend, law enforcement agents said they were called in to respond to a drug overdose at the camp, and to reports that a group of "Rainbows" crashed a wedding on their way to the gathering. "They just went into the reception and started taking the food," Wasatch County Manager Mike Davis told the Salt Lake Tribune. "They weren’t trying to blend in."
At Porcfest, 1,500 heavily armed libertarians, tea partiers, anarchists, secessionists, and doomsday preppers got together in the woods for a week with a large amount of alcohol, illicit substances, and children, and no major incidents were reported. I did not see a fight, or even a hullaballoo. A couple of kids were separated and reunited with their parents. A topless woman was asked to put a shirt on after several complaints and complied, despite the statist encroachment on her individualism. One guy couldn’t handle his hallucinogens and got stuck in the bathroom repeating over and over, "I am a god. I am logic. I am a perfect machine. I am forever." The volunteer security eventually got him back to his tent. The peace was kept.
I plan on going back to Porcfest next year—if they’ll have me back after the publication of this article—not because I’m an anarcho-capitalist, but because I made a bunch of friends and had a blast. I also want to learn how to do more D.I.Y. projects.
You know. Just in case.