Bonnaroo: Summer of the Dead 2004
Rachel J. Carter
Expressive 2010 Winner
Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow
Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-2001
"Here is my dilemma-Primus and Ween in the same time slot, man. Now, that is one righteous dilemma," slurred a middle-aged man with "LIBERTY" tattooed across his bare protruding belly into my open car window. He is wandering barefoot along the 10-mile standstill of cars snaking through the Tennessee swampland trying to sell his "e-pills"; he is also open to trade-ins. He tells us he traded seven "e-pills" for a $200 Bonnaroo admittance bracelet at the local Wal-Mart. He is looking for hash, pharmaceuticals, and headies in exchange for his remaining "e-pill" stash. As he pulls his ratty deadlock head from my car window he gets distracted by the stars and he starts spinning and yelling for everyone to get out and "check out the cosmos." Crazy hippies start pouring out of cars and dancing in the middle of the street. My friend, Luke, turns up Jimi Hendrix on the radio and, similar to Richard Grant's observation in his book American Nomads, "the girls make a lot of sinuous, serpentine hand and arm movements, the kind that leave cool tracer lines when you're on acid, and the boys do a lot of head-bobbing and elbow-waggling, with occasional hopping twirls and tai chi moves" (218). Bonnaroo: Summer of the Dead 2004 has begun.
Ninety thousand hippies warm the head-drenched fields of Manchester, Tennessee, for Bonnaroo, a Bluegrass festival, for four days every June. People pack into Volkswagen buses with Grateful Dead banners waving, spray painted beater cars with teepees strapped to the roof and, in our case, an overcrowded Kia Optima from a car rental business in Georgia to spend the week camping and going to “sweet” shows.
My traveling companions were my three best friends from home, Luke, Gundy, and Chris. Luke is twenty-three, hilarious, and sweet. I had been his closest female friend for years, until he met Shelley, his then-girlfriend, now his wife. Gundy, my best friend, is the only person who never expects apologies or excuses and who has seen every horrible aspect of my personality and loves me despite. It was Gundy's charm alone that convinced my parents to let their oldest child travel across the country with three guys to a drugged-out hippie fest. Chris is my age and my love. I have always been drawn to his beautiful genius and his troubled, brooding tendencies. We all knew that Bonnaroo would be one of our last opportunities to be together, as Chris and I were going to college in the fall and Gundy was preparing to serve an LDS mission. As I look back on this experience, I realize that I was torn between my fear of letting go and my need for constant change. I was terrified that I would never find the loyalty and love I had with these wonderful people, but I knew that it was time to go out on my own and find my identity.
On that burning July morning, I found myself transported into a world of blatant drug use, wild music, and “freedom” that was completely foreign to my sheltered LDS existence. As I walked from booth to booth in the open market, I was puzzled by the hundreds of colored glass “straws” that littered every table. When I attempted to ask the hippie peddler what they were, Gundy clapped his hand over my mouth, pulled me aside, and laughingly explained to me that they were pipes used for smoking marijuana. I was so enthralled with watching people smoke marijuana for the first time that a strung-out twenty year-old man at the Damien Rice concert asked why I kept staring at him. I told him I’d never known anyone who did drugs; he told me he didn’t know anyone who didn’t.
The shows were breathtaking, thousands of people twirling and rocking, laughing and hugging, everyone sharing and loving each other and the music experience. I was surrounded by people who had dreadlocks in their nose hair and kept trying to force marijuana pipes into my mouth. Eddie Blue, an avid Stringcheese Incident fan asked me several times if I had tried the “silver-laced chocolate covered mushrooms” he had created in Hawaii only weeks before. He assured me that it would be the purest high that I’d ever experience, all the while dancing crazily and occasionally rolling on the grass in hysterical laughter. I couldn’t help but smile as I watched a nude older couple doing sun salutations in the midst of thousands of people and an older man wandering shamelessly while the back flap of his tie-dyed long johns waved in the breeze.
Halfway through the Stringcheese concert, I quit watching others and allowed the rich droopy smells, psychedelic music, and bright colors swirl around me like the patchwork skirt of a beautiful girl gently dancing bare-breasted in the small opening in front of me. She embodied all glory and perfection. I watched her, mesmerized by her freedom, and I wondered for a brief moment what it would be to feel like her and the thousands of others rising and falling with the same glazed, distant look in their eyes. It was similar to Grant’s experience at Rainbow Gathering:
I feel a stab of jealousy for Medicine Wing and Hawk Feather. I gave up LSD many years ago, but I know how this must sound to them, and how it feels when a group of dancing, tripping people peak on the music at the same time. I can see the mind-blown, bliss-drenched expressions on their faces. (218)
I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to experience that freedom of mind. I knew that I would never fully understand these beautiful, magical people, their music, or their way of life.
The next morning I awoke from a heavy sleep to the sound of light rain on our tent and voices shouting for more shampoo. The men camping next to us had constructed a giant slip-n-slide from tarps and using rain as their water source and shampoo to make it slimy. It was hilarious watching old men and women playing like children, giggling and screaming, as they hurled their bodies down the tarps. I watched and participated in the festivities until it was time for the Bob Dylan concert. It was raining pretty steadily, but it was a relief from the woolen blanket air that had smothered us days prior.
As I stood listening to Bob Dylan sing in the pouring rain, I was overcome with sadness. I was staring at this literary god, listening to his voice that was never good to begin with, singing lyrics that will never be as good as they were, and for the first time realizing mortality. I felt all alone in a sea of thousands. I was noticing for the first time the children all around. I choked on hot anger as I watched a mother breast-feeding her infant in the shad of a giant tree while trying desperately to sell acid. I couldn’t understand why anyone would expose their children to this life of filth, cheap drugs, and strangers. I glanced around at the old Deadheads. I noticed the emptiness and the far-off look in their eyes as they seeped into the mud infested with cigarette butts. I noticed their sad, old bodies, but above all I noticed they were alone. As I look back, the words of Bobby McGregor from the Robert James Waller novel, Border Music, seem to ring true: “Older and alone, part of some other world that was dying and wouldn’t come again. Good ol’ boys, listening to the fading sound of distant trains, like passengers left at the station” (236). These lonely souls had spent their entire lives traveling from concert to concert searching for that last perfect show, only to become lost in their mortal shell.
I was up to me knees in mud and my rain-drenched dress was clinging to my shivering body. I was tired and freezing. I was sick of loud, crazy music and people passing out in my lap. I was sick of smelling marijuana and cigarettes in my hair. I was sick of sleeping in a tent with guys who kept asking to touch my bra and having to wake them every time I needed to pee. I was sick of listening to Luke complain to Shelley every night about how much he missed her. I was sick of children being born to dirty mothers on bad acid trips, and I was sick of Bonnaroo. I didn’t care that I was leaving before the Grateful Dead show, because what is Grateful Dead without Jerry Garcia anyway?
We headed back to camp only to find our sleeping bags and clothes floating in the bottom of our tent. As I changed into my soaking wet pajamas in ankle-deep water, I could feel my face reddening in frustration. I was absolutely miserable and I wanted to go home. I pouted as I walked back to our car with every intention of ignoring my friends and going right to sleep. When I reached our small Kia Optima, I found Luke, Gundy, and Chris making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and laughing about how horrible Bonnaroo had turned out.
I remember looking at their smiling faces knowing that everything was perfect for the last time. We all knew that Luke loved Shelley and would marry her eventually, that Gundy would be leaving for Mexico in a few months for two years, and that Chris would be going to Utah State—400 miles away from Southern Utah University where I would be attending in the fall. There was finality in that night, I could sense the change and understood that nothing would be the same again. I was no longer mad or sick of Bonnaroo. I realized that I was able to spend time with people I love that are now gone. I was exposed to a life so different from my own that had opened my mind to many different ways of thinking. I experienced something in that place that changed how I viewed the outside world and my place within it.
Nothing was ever the same after that mud-filled, stuffy night in the backwoods of Tennessee. As I unpacked pictures of my friends, all alone in my apartment here in Cedar City, I thought back to Bonnaroo, and I sympathized with Joyce Johnson in Door Wide Open when she writes to Jack Kerouac, “It’s always hard for me to get used to people suddenly being absent. There’s something sad and disconcerting about the eternal stability of furniture and objects when someone’s gone” (162). I often find myself staring at the pictures of my friends that cover the walls of a room they will never see and longing for those comfortable nights of endless laughter. I am now surrounded by a bevy of people who don’t need my friendship, and the loneliness is great. And yet, in my struggle of starting over, I realize that the perfect moments experienced at Bonnaroo with those dearest to me can be found even in this sleepy windy city with people I’ve met and come to love. I am hopeful that if I continue to love, I will grow and eventually find what I am looking for here.
Dylan, Bob. Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-2001. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.
Grant, Richard. American Nomads. New York: Grove Press, 2003.
Kerouac, Jack and Joyce Johnson. Door Wide Open. New York: Penguin Group, 2000.
Waller, Robert James. Border Music. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1995.