10 Observations from Escape to the Lake 2016

Ten Observations About ETTL 2016.

A few weeks ago our family attended our third Escape to the Lake (ETTL). What is ETTL? We all laugh about that question because it’s actually kind of hard to describe. Is it a conference? Is it a camp? Is it a retreat? Is it for artists or fans? Kids, families, or singles? Is it for young people or old people? Is it a religious thing? Is it church? Is it a workshop? It’s really a little bit of all that. And though she wasn’t talking about ETTL, from the words of a Jess Ray song, “And it may be too good to be understood, but it’s not too good to be true.

Technically speaking, it’s a several-day gathering of musicians and music appreciators who come together to play/hear music and to enjoy each other’s company. But really, in a word, it’s community (Christopher Williams). A community that exists around the shared desire for more beauty and truth in our music. More honesty and hope. A community that believes that life is more than utility, and excellent art matters. Really matters. It’s what makes life worth living.

Part of what it means to be made in the image of God is to ascribe value to creativity and to desire beauty for beauty’s sake. (Seems like something Roy Salmond would say). And for those of us who have cultivated a taste for music with more depth, nuance and complexity than the radio or the church has to offer, ETTL is an oasis.

Having been home for a month now, we’re looking back with nostalgia. Here are some highlights and observations…

  1. You’ve got to trust Dave. We didn’t know a good number of the musicians on the bill this year. Driving to camp, we were wondering if we’d like the music as much this time as we have in the past—and weren’t disappointed. Joel Ansett, Adrian Mathenia, Taylor Leonhardt, Mike Farris, and other new-to-us musicians blew us away—proving yet again—Dave’s taste in music will not disappoint. Also, speaking of Dave Trout, you know you’ve turned around your parents to supporting your unorthodox career choice when your mom stands up in a public forum and compares you non-ironically to Jesus…and then also says, “Now I know what Peter’s mom felt like.” Well done, Dave. Of all the obstacles yet to tackle, you can cross “parents don’t get why I do what I do” off the list.
  2. Artists and listeners, living together. There aren’t many environments where you’ll find artists and fans hanging out, sharing meals, playing games, and watching their kids frolic together. ETTL strikes a balance of having artists who are well known and loved by their tribes but aren’t necessarily “famous,” so there’s a unique dynamic available like nowhere else.
  3. ETTL is about capacity. It’s a word I kept coming back to as I walked across the grassy commons on those four sticky August days. I kept having an overwhelming feeling there’s something different and lifegiving here. It felt more like what church should feel like than any church I’d attended. The artists and the families that come to ETTL have a capacity for life and love that only comes from recognizing the value of creativity and beauty. There’s capacity for spending time creating and appreciating art—knowing that, in the eyes of society, it might be extravagant and wasteful (Sara Groves), but it’s actually necessary and vital. A capacity to sit and listen, to really hear somebody and know them. To embrace hurt and loss and tragedy. To learn its lessons and allow them to flow through to others, carried by a melody. Pain wallows out a hole in a person, and the deeper the hole, the more healing and hope can fill it up like a reservoir, and it can be drawn upon by another thirsty, tired soul.
  4. Nick Flora is the ETTL mascot. Soulful singer/songwriter, comedian, entertainer, pop culture expert, with name-tune-skills that don’t hold a candle to the enthusiasm with which he plays the game. And I’m not just saying this because he entertained my children with songs about poop and cows (but he did). At one point, in a span of about 10 minutes on stage, he went from impromptu Trump impression to a Journey cover to a beautiful original about a drunken sailor called Lost at Sea. But seriously, the artistic world is a better place with Nick Flora in it, and the guy is Mr. ETTL.
  5. The rest of the cast…While we’re casting artists, I think Tim Coons is the Mayor – not sure why, he just has mayorly qualities about him (the beard, the kindness, the glasses), Chris and Jenna are like the court jesters, entertaining our kids and being generally friendly and funny (but who then get serious and play amazing music), Adam Whipple is the resident philosopher. Sara Groves is the queen, and is there anybody cooler than Peace Ike? I mean the drumming, the beatboxing, the snapping, the overalls. Can we make Peace Ike action figures? I’d buy one.
  6. Our kids are getting good role models. My eldest daughter asks to listen to Jess Ray, Joy Ike, or Sara Groves when she wants to hear music. How much better is that than idolizing some of the pop artists who are on the scene today? As she watched the YouTube video of Ray’s Runaway and sang along, I thought, She just may never go gaga over a boy band because she already has an appreciation for good music. And that made me really happy.
  7. The ghetto? We had one of those “how did we get here moments” when we found ourselves part the crowd all singing “talkin bout the ghetto!” at the top of our lungs. The ETTL community is diverse in many ways, but it’s probably safe to say that not many of us have intimate knowledge of what it’s like living in the ghetto. Yet, for reasons I still don’t quite understand, Mike Farris had us singing “talking about the ghetto” in unison for a good 10 minutes and somehow it wasn’t patronizing or ironic but actually deliriously fun and somehow seemed meaningful.
  8. The food. Okay, the food wasn’t as gourmet as the music. It is a family “camp” so let’s keep our expectations realistic. But, it was pretty good, AND…prepared for us, there’s plenty of it, and somebody else did all the clean up (bless their souls). Those things alone are priceless when you’re used to negotiating mealtime 3 times a day for a family of six (nobody told me parenting was like running a crappy restaurant. I don’t want to run a crappy a restaurant. Make it stop.). But, more importantly, we all had the pleasure of sharing meals together around big tables with plenty of good conversation.
  9. Is the goal of ETTL to make it unnecessary?  More of a question here than an assertion. When I moved to Denver, Colorado in 2000, I had the sense I’d found something special that was undiscovered. Mountains, city life, amazing weather, great vibe. By the time we moved away in 2010, it felt fully discovered, and now everyone and their cousin is moving there—it feels crowded and overrun by extra fit, independent, highly educated hipsters who’ve driven up real estate costs (not that we wouldn’t still love to live there, but this is how we comfort ourselves that we don’t). ETTL’s still got that niche feeling, but part of our goal is to bring awareness to this music. There’s an implicit (sometimes explicit) sense that you’ve found music that’s “better” than what’s on the radio and at church, and more people need to know about it. But if that actually worked and more people liked it like we like it, there’d be no more hanging out with artists at ETTL—the whole thing would be too big and popular. Fortunately or unfortunately, we probably don’t have to worry about the masses taking over, because liking music with more depth, nuance and complexity takes a sort of taste-acquiring process, like fine wine. The percentage of UTR and ETTL fans with some musical background or training is likely pretty high (research project?), but that’s a whole separate topic. Just a question to ponder.
  10. This one is yours. What observation or highlight did ETTL 2016 hold for you?

Much love to the people of our special place,

Josh and Heidi Wheeler


So glad our friends the Sauers got to go this year. Who knew we’d find someone at church who were as big of geeks about this kind of music as we were?



  1. My number 10: The reunion aspect and the new additions. This was our 3rd year to attend, and though the venue changed, a good number of familiar faces returned to join us. It was good to catch up with them and see how much, in some cases, their children had grown. In other cases it was how the returning community encouraged each other and shared their stories. The other part was meeting the newcomers and enjoying their opportunities to hear how this unique experience has changed their perspectives into these creative people they came to share life with. Truly we are looking forward to the next one.

    • Great one! I look forward to seeing the “old” families and sharing the delight with the “new” families, too. Until next year….. 🙂