CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jesse Lewis describes it as "a paradigm shift" in his life.
The shift came in the summer of 2010, when he began helping to clean up the huge mess left behind after the amps go quiet at Bonnaroo and other big festivals.
A buddy offered him a job that summer on a crew working for Clean Vibes, a business that encourages recycling and promotes "responsible waste management" at festivals and other outdoor events.
"I always thought the military was going to be my ticket to traveling the world and meeting people," the 25-year-old Charleston native says.
Instead, in the past three years, he has bounced from festival to festival -- almost 20 in all. They range from Bonnaroo, a four-day tidal wave of music that washes over a 700-acre Tennessee farm, to the Outside Lands and High Sierra festivals in Northern California.
"It was sort of my ticket to leave West Virginia and see what was out there," Lewis says.
For much of his young life, he thought the military would get him out of Dodge. He even studied military science and took Japanese while at Marshall University because that might help him get into an elite military unit, he says. "For special forces, you have to know a foreign language."
The military is a career path he has not altogether abandoned, even if his one shot at the idea of a special-forces career ended rather unceremoniously.
Maybe it was just a shy kid's dream of becoming a warrior, but the urge had been with him forever. While at Herbert Hoover High School, an Air Force colonel directed his attention to "SOCOM Hell Week," a reality show on the Web, shot in San Diego. The show taped young men trying to earn a recommendation toward special forces training, but who were not in the active military.
Lewis gave it a try.
"It was an interesting trip," Lewis says. He lasted until day three of the intense, often sleepless, five-day workout, which featured close-quarter combat training and any dozing off broken by simulated explosions and dunks in the cold ocean. (See videos at http://gamevideos.1up.com/video/id/9787/ and http://gamevideos.1up.com/video/id/9788/.) "You have to watch me go through the Navy SEAL basic training -- it's pretty funny."
His dreams persisted through an Army ROTC stint at Marshall University, where he was on the Ranger Challenge team. Its members might have to haul 70-pound rucksacks on 10-kilometer marches in the Huntington hills or break down and piece together an M-16, training to compete against other university ROTC units.
Then along came the Clean Vibes gig. It loosened up his worldview as he began to festival-hop with cleanup crews.
"The experience of a nomadic music festival life really appealed to me. I think, in a way, those kids taught me to unwind and sort of question my whole approach to life," he says.
Not to mention put him in the midst of a mountain of garbage.
Take Bonnaroo, a major peace, love and music consciousness-raising session which leaves behind a torrent of trash. Clean Vibes' mission is to underscore that you need to walk the talk if you're going to talk about leading a "green" life.
"It's crazy how wasteful people are at these festivals. It's such a green crowd, but when you go to the festival, it's not green at all. It looks like a day's waste from New York."