Thursday, June 12 2008
setting: Best Western Hotel, Harriman, Tennessee
Mr. Google had suggested that we stick to interstate highways on our drive to Bonnaroo, which was taking place outside the town of Manchester, Tennessee. But a reader had cautioned me about possible interstate gridlock near Manchester, so I decided we should take I-40 all the way to Cookeville and then take a series of non-interstates from there for the last sixty miles. These roads looked small on the map, but for most of the distance they were actually limited-access four lane highways with 70 mph speed limits. Furthermore, there was very little traffic. In my experience throughout the near-south, parallel superhighways systems are fairly common, and usually it's the non-interstate superhighways that go mostly unused. Somebody's tax dollars at work!
There were a smattering of other Bonnaroo drivers on state route 111 (you could tell by their trippy bumperstickers, and the word Bonnaroo written either in window dust or temporary paint), and each gas station had posted signs telling us that theirs was a great place to pick up festival supplies. Gretchen never thinks about alcohol preparedness, but I do. So we eventually stopped at a Shell station and I bought a 12 pack of Natural Ice in cans. Meanwhile Gretchen ran around back and filled up all our plastic containers from a hose faucet, something all gas stations have (as I learned back when I used to go on long interstate bicycle rides).
And then, just like that, we were inside Manchester town's limit and backed up behind several dozen other vehicles at the place where Route 55 (the road we were on) attempted to join I-24. This was also the entrance for the Bonnaroo festival, though there was still a mile and a half to go. 80,000 people were trying to get in, so there was no way we wouldn't encounter some traffic, but at least we hadn't been backed up on I-24 like most people.
Once we'd stopped on Route 55, we sat there for a fairly long time, at least fifteen minutes. We could see local constabulatory directing traffic, but they didn't have much initial interest in the traffic on our road. So Gretchen turned off the car and made some calls on the cell phone. A group of people came by handing out water, and Gretchen was thinking how nice that was but that we already had water. When she said we were okay, the toothless guy who'd handed a bottle to her suggest she take it anyway "just to read the message." "It's not about Jesus is it?" she demanded, suddenly furious at the possibility of an ideological imposition. Indeed it was. She insisted that the woman coming up behind the toothless man take the bottle back, something she did sheepishly. Not many people are as vehement about their non-Christianity as Gretchen. (I probably would have just taken the bottle without comment.)
Eventually we started rolling, albeit at a speed matched by the various pedestrians walking on the shoulder. When we stopped again in front of the Bean Creek Winery, I saw they were selling wine in plastic bottles (glass is forbidden at Bonnaroo), so I went in to investigate. They had a bottle of "Bonnaroo Red" and a bottle of "Bonnaroo White" and they each cost $17.50. That seemed expensive for a wine lacking name of a French region on its label and nobody was buying any, but at the time it seemed like the sort of exploitation to which I should submit, so I bought a bottle of the white.
Eventually we made it to the security checkpoint and were given a cursory examination. "Do you have any drugs or guns? Can we look in your trunk?" They looked at the crowded trunk and shrugged. Anything could have been in there, but we have the respectability that comes with crowsfeet and patches of grey, so he waved us in. We followed the long, snaking line of vehicles to the part of the field where the cars were just then being parked, and by sheer luck were placed adjacent to "7th Avenue," meaning we wouldn't have to wade through other people's campsites to get to our own. There was a patch of woods nearby, and while Gretchen set up the tent, I went to look for a long stick. We had a white box with an anomalous red "F" on it that we'd used once in the past to mark our location at a music event, and we wanted to use it again to mark our campsite so we'd be able to find it. The woods were unusually rich in poison ivy, and I wasn't wearing any shoes. I managed to leap from one poison-ivy-free location to the next and eventually found a reasonably-lengthed stick.
Back at the car, Gretchen had set up our entire campsite. We'd brought a tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and reading materials. But it was still clear from looking around at the other sites that we were among the least-prepared people here. Others had tarps to connect their tents to their vehicles, making shady places to sit on foldable chairs they'd brought. The two older gay guys directly to our south even had a solar shower, complete with a privacy stall. Some people just can't tolerate the accumulation of personal festival stank. The alternative to personal showers was Bonnaroo-provided showers, though these cost $7/pop, causing Gretchen and me to vow that the only kind of showers we'd be taking would be "whores' baths."
But we'd brought enough supplies to improvise some of the amenities others had brought. Gretchen had the idea of using a bed sheet as a tarp to connect our little tent to the car, and years ago I'd packed the car with enough bungee cords to pull this off.
When we were all done setting up our camp, we sat on the ground under our bed sheet reading our various reading materials, waiting for the festival to begin in earnest. Being on the edge of "7th Avenue," we were in a particularly good spot for people watching. Most of the people at Bonnaroo were college age, and this was the first time in years that I'd had an opportunity to look carefully at a large number of people belonging to this demographic. There were plenty of hippies wearing fashions that have remained unchanged since Woodstock, but a good fraction of the people at Bonnaroo were actually frat boys and sorority sisters. Male fashions haven't changed much among this group, though there seems to be a more pronounced hip-hop influence than there used to be. Lots of guys seem to think they're naked unless six inches of boxer shorts are riding up out of their trousers. Baseball caps, as always, are just as likely to point backwards as forwards. Among the frat boys, teeshirts (if shirts were worn at all) mostly promoted sports teams and brands of beer. Concert teeshirts and tie dyes were the uniform among the hippier elements, although there was a considerable overlap between hippies and fratboys.
As for the young women, most appeared to be wearing swimsuits with some additional layer over the lower parts (and occasionally upper parts) of their bodies. Hippie skirts, concert tee shirts, and sundresses were the norm, but among the sorority sisters a common choice was the extremely-abbreviated pair of blue jeans shorts, inevitably with the button unbuttoned and the fly all the way down, revealing a triangle of whatever fabric the underlying bikini had been made from. When I first saw an example of this today, I thought perhaps it was just one girl being unusually sultry. But then I saw another and then another. It was everywhere, always done exactly the same way. It was a fashion, a trend. But unlike most fashions, it left no room for innovation; it was more like a uniform, a badge of "I really cannot think for myself" conformity. "The rebelliousness of youth" is a cliché, but young people are actually the most conformist demographic in existence. What people mistake as rebelliousness is conformity to peers as opposed to elders.
Everybody else was walking around with beers in their hands (Bud Lite, Coors Light, and Natural Light were the most common brands), so I cracked open a Natural Ice and leaned back against the car. Gretchen took a sip of the Bonnaroo White wine and screwed up her face in disgust. Part of the problem was that it was already warm. We didn't have a cooler.
Bonnaroo was divided into several different layers of security. We'd come through one to get to our campsite, but to get to Centeroo, where the music stages and most of the concessions were, we'd need to go through another. This second security was more meticulous than the first, and the goal here was to keep out alcohol and mysterious containers as well as the usual drugs and weapons. The main reason for keeping out alcohol was to give Bonnaroo a monopoly on its sale near the music stages, where prices had been uniformly fixed at $6/bottle. They also tried to keep out refilled containers of water so as to force purchases of bottled water, which had similarly-inflated prices. Interestingly, there was free good-tasting tap water available in the camping areas, but the free tap water in Centeroo was contaminated with sulfur, something that was too consistent to be accidental.
Part of the reason we'd packed so little food and alcohol was an assurance on the Bonnaroo website that food and beverage prices would be reasonable. But they were actually higher than I've seen at other festivals (such as Grey Fox). In Centeroo this evening, we tried some $3 tofu samosas which were good, although a burrito I ordered at the wrap concession proved very disappointing. How hard is it to fuck up a burrito, and yet fucked-up burritos are vastly more common than good ones.
At this point in the festival, before any of the music, the best thing about Centeroo were the various tents promoting brands by giving away free schwag and services. At the Fuse barn, for example, one could sit down at a Macintosh workstation and check your email. There was also a Garnier Fructis tent where one could wait in line for a hair wash while listening to other festival participants sing karaoke in exchange for lime green draw string bags and other promotional items.
At some point the music began. While Gretchen was napping in our tent, I wandered down into Centeroo and went to the nearest stage, where Nicole Atkins was doing an impressive job of being a rock star. Later Gretchen told me that Atkins had been a total bitch to her at a Avett Brothers event in the Hudson Valley.
After that, I wandered over to another stage where a band named Battles was setting up. Their music ended up being entirely too jam-heavy for me, and I found their self-fawning stage presence off-putting.
Back at the tent, I decided to lay down just for a bit but ended up falling fast asleep, missing out entirely on Lez Zeppelin. But Gretchen was there and had a thoroughly good time, though she had to fend off the drunken advances of another fan, in this case a man.
Gridlock outside Bonnaroo.
View from our camp.
View from our camp towards Centeroo, which featured a ferris wheel.
Sorority chicks wait in line for a computer to do something at the Nokia tent, which instead of schwag offered the chance to perhaps be cast in a Spike Lee film. This was the lamest tent of them all.
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