I want to like Bonnaroo. I REALLY want to like it. Even today as I'm reading an article about a family preparing for opening day this evening, I drool slightly at the thought of Bruce Springstein, Bon Iver, Wilco, Snoop Dog, Band of Horses, Neko Case, and Merle Haggard among others playing the same festival over the course of the next four days.
Even the description sounds good: "A four-day, multi-stage camping festival held on a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tennessee." I like camping. Check. I love music. Check. Tennessee is pretty. Check.
It's just that it's not exactly what the inexperienced Bonnarooian (or anyone, for that matter) would expect. No amount of reading over "Being Here" or "Helpful Tips" articles will fully prepare you. I know. I speak from experience.
June 2007 my friend Sarah and I set off to be free-spirited, happy camper, hippie concertgoers for a long weekend. We loaded up with all the essentials: tent, sleeping bags, food, chairs, clothes, knee high mud boots, PLENTY of sunscreen, concert schedules, baby wipes (because it costs at least $10 to take a shower in a dirty stall, IF you can get in...no joke) and a plethora of other goodies. We made our way across Missouri and through Tennessee, planning what shows we would watch when, and listening to our favorite acts that we would soon see in person.
We made it to Manchester and got into the miles-long, creeping lines of cars headed toward the entrance. No problem, we expected this. We inched along, tuned into Bonnaroo radio, and anticipated what to do once we got camp set up that night. Three hours later we made it to the checkpoint, got our car searched, got wristbanded, and herded in the direction of a camping area. We were still cool, though getting tired and hungry at this point.
Everything we'd read before heading out said to plan on having room to park your car, and approximately the length and width of another car behind your vehicle to set up your stuff. It also said that it was permissable to leave and return in your vehicle once during the weekend. No prob, we thought.
I had assumed that there would be some type of "alleyway" system set up between cars, so that in the event of emergency, you could leave. I assumed wrong, and my slightly claustrophobic self started to FREAK!
We followed the other cars into the field where we would camp, and got directed to the actual spot by volunteers. As cars came to a stop people literally FLEW out of their cars. We didn't quite grasp what they were doing until it was too late. They were staking claim, and before we knew it our "car-sized camping area" became an area barely big enough for our tent directly behind the bumper of my car. We literally had to ask those around us to move some of their crap so that we would have a square big enough for our 4- man tent. We were two rows in, and suddenly realized that there was going to be no way for us to move our car until everyone started leaving four days later. Everywhere we looked, for literally a mile in any direction was a sea of cars, tents, and people. Hmmm....
We set up and headed in the direction of Centeroo, or the area where all the shows happen. We walked a circle, getting our barings about where everything would take place in the next few days and watched a few of the opening acts that evening. One of my favorite things was the Silent Disco. There was a DJ and everyone inside was wearing wireless headphones, dancing to the same music, with club lights flashing. We couldn't hear the music from the outside, but it was pretty great and kind of surreal watching a bunch of people dancing to the same beat that we couldn't hear. Little did we know that this would be a metaphor four our weekend.
We got back to our site at about 9pm. We stopped at a line of one of many Port-a-Potties near our site. These are literally 20 or so stalls in length, and there are probably hundreds of these stations throughout the festival. Already many were surprisingly full and gross, after only four or five hours. We wondered what they would look like two days in, in 90 degree heat. Nonetheless, we powered through that, and brushed our teeth at one of the many communal troughs. We could do this, no prob.
That night we stayed up and talked a bit. We noticed that our neighbors were getting louder and louder, but that's to be expected as everyone was pretty excited about being there. We tried to go to bed at about 11pm, as we'd heard that we would be awake by 8am or so when the temperature started to rise. I read for a bit, put my earplugs in, tried to read some more. The neighbors got louder and louder. They'd been drinking whiskey since our arrival at 7:00pm and I'd hoped that the effects would kick in soon so we could all get some rest. Just then I heard, through my earplugs mind you, one of the guy's say very slurrily "Dude, this stuff is about to knock me out. I think it's time for the smack." For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about...Google it. I sat up, looked at Sarah, she looked back at me, both of us slightly in shock. We knew that there would undoubtedly be drugs there despite all the car checks and stuff; but naiive, clean girls that we are, were still a bit shocked. Before long, our neighbors had started an illegal fire and I was imagining them setting a whole row of tents and cars ablaze in their severely altered state. To the right we had some kids completely out of their minds on who knows what, all of us packed in like refugees, and fire. My claustrophobia started to kick in big time, Sarah's too, and we peeked out to see if there was any way of moving our car to another spot. None. There were two campsites between the nose of my car and a gravel road, which was at the top of a pretty significant incline. People were either asleep or still watching shows, and there was no way of getting through without having at least two groups move their cars and all of their stuff.
Trying not to panic, I attempted to sleep. I dozed off, only to be awakened by our neighbors having an in depth discussion on the pros of DATE RAPE. Literally. I started to wake Sarah up to tell her that we were WALKING ourselves out of this crazy mess when one of the drunken/stoned fools from next door FELL ON TOP OF ME. I was laying in my cot, he fell on the outside of our tent, and I found myself with a complete stranger LAYING ON ME with only A THIN PIECE OF TENT IN BETWEEN US!! He apologized overly profusely (through the wall of the tent), in the way that only a drunken and stoned idiot can, and I remained awake for the next four hours to protect myself and my sleeping tent mate from certain death.
Somewhere around 4am, our neighbors (if you can even call them that at this point) passed out all over their site, and I eventually drifted off.
At 6am I woke up to Sarah shaking my cot. "Cara! CARA!! We've got to get out of here. SERIOUSLY." Apparently she had awakened to someone loudly revisiting all of the beverage they had drank the night before...right by her head on the other side of the tent wall. Some how I had slept through that one.
We stumbled outside as the sun was slightly above the horizon to all kinds of carnage. People passed out in chairs, people sleeping on top of their cars. Wrappers, bottles, cans, cold hot dogs, strewn about like casualties. Miraculously, though, the car nearest the road, and all of their camping equipment was gone. Apparently their night had been much like ours, and they had bailed because they could. Sarah and I didn't even have to speak. We began breaking down the tent, and throwing stuff into the back of the car as if it were an Olympic sport. When we were packed up we made our way to the campsite standing between us and sweet freedom. Inside a mosquito netted shade tent to the left was a 20 something, passed out on his back, shirtless, with a chest covered in yellow American cheese slices. Not. Even. Kidding.
Trying to ignore this we gently roused the tent between us and the road. We offered to help them move all their stuff if we could somehow just get enough space to drive to the road. Luckily they agreed. When that path opened up we hopped in my car, gunned it up the hill, and after two attempts on the grass slick with morning dew (and likely some Jim Beam) we made it to the road and didn't look back. We drove into town, grabbed some breakfast, and tried to find a hotel room anywhere in town, planning on using day parking for the shows. There were none. No hotel rooms in the area. We discussed for a while, and eventually ended up squeezing our hands out of the wrist bracelets that we'd exchanged for our tickets, and sold them to some scalper on the side of the road for $75 apiece.
Yes. I am a Bonnaroo quitter.
It still bums me out that it all happened that way, but at the time we could not imagine going back in there, and possibly getting stuck again, for three more days.
Don't get me wrong. I LOVE music, and I know I would have loved the shows. This was not one of my finer moments, but I can't say that I would honestly change our ultimate decision if faced with the same situation again. Call me a pansy, but by fully plumbed bathroom and stoner-free bed had never looked as good as they did when we got home that night.
For all of you making your way this year, I wish you good weather, good music, good neighbors and if need be, sell your firstborn for a campsite next to the road.
(photo courtesy kloppster)