Bonnaroo. The place where music fans’ dreams come true. Where all your favorite bands gather in one weekend and play for you and your 99,999 closest friends. The smell of summer bliss floats through the air (among other unnecessary-to-be-mentioned aromas). Freedom has a whole new meaning when you step on the grounds (as does debauchery, but I won’t go there during this story).
It was the summer of 2011. Our last college summer before graduation and grown-up life would slowly begin to rob us of our youth. We. MUST. Go. So me and my college roommate and best pal Kelsey made a pact that Christmas that when tickets to the festival went on sale in January, we would be purchasing them and scratching “attend Bonnaroo” off the bucket list.
I picked up some extra shifts at the restaurant I was working at to rake in the $300 I needed in one weekend. And, alas, a dream was birthed. Kelsey and I were going to the ‘Roo.
Fast forward to this week two years ago. It was Wednesday, the night before the festival started. The eve of the weekend I’d romanticized for years. We packed up the car with all the essentials: coolers full of food & drinks. Tent. Sleeping bags. Frisbees and other games. Lawn chairs. Sun screen. Wet wipes (who wants to pay for a shower!?). Enough water to hydrate a small army (which is ironic considering the way this story will end).
We rendezvoused with a group of friends in Nashville where we would make the rest of the trek to the Bonnaroo farm in Manchester, Tenn., together. We started driving into the night, and I felt the most free I’d ever felt. Windows down. Best friends. Music of all the bands we’d be seeing all weekend blaring. Laughter.
About half way there, we finally reached festival traffic on I-24. Thousands of cars, waiting to get into Manchester. We literally parked on the side of the interstate in a line that seemed like it went on forever. At one point I just rode on top of the car to get some fresh air. There were people throwing frisbees and hula hooping. It was hysterical. For the first hour or so, anyway.
Six hours later we made it. I had just pulled an all-nighter in the car, and at 5:30 a.m., as the sun came up, we pulled into our camping spot and set up. Now, let me paint a picture of what a “camp site” looks like at Bonnaroo. You pull in bumper-to-bumper to other cars, and you camp in the 10 square feet behind your car. So no one leaves until everybody else does. If you have even a hint of claustrophobia, just don’t ever do it. And this was the first year the festival had ever sold out. 100,000 people. Yikes.
Here’s a visual of the entire farm for you:
So the open area in the top of the photo is where the festival happens, and the rest is camp ground. This back corner at the bottom right of the photo — that’s where we were.
Well we slept about 4 hours, got up at like 9 and went exploring. I felt a little woozy but I thought it was probably just grogginess from lack of sleep and I’d shake it off. I tried drinking water all day long to get past it, but I just kept feeling worse and worse. I’m sure the 100 degree heat on top of the 100,000 people didn’t help much.
I remember going to see Best Coast play that night and trying to pretend I didn’t want to pass out the entire time, but I was finally reaching a point of misery. The next day, things just got worse. I couldn’t keep food down. I was dizzy. I had visited the First Aid tent where they told me I was dehydrated (gee thanks guys, couldn’t tell) and needed to keep drinking lots of water.
So into the evening, I was just frustrated. I wasn’t enjoying the shows. I felt awful. I was hot. I was holding my friends back. But the problem was, I was trapped. The only way out was in the car I’d rode in with Kelsey, and it wasn’t going anywhere until this thing shut down in two and a half more days.
Luckily, my sister lived in Knoxville at the time. I had just enough phone battery and cell service to get out a broken-up phone call with her, where she told me if I could wait until the next morning, she would come get me.
Well that sounded great, but I was going to have to get off the farm and into town if she was ever going to find me. I spent the rest of the evening figuring out how to do that. Since we were in the back corner of the camp grounds, we backed up to another farm, where the farmers had set up showers, food and shuttles in to Walmart for people to pay for. I went and talked to the nice man in charge about the shuttles, and he told me it’s $10 round trip. I told him I only needed to get out, not back in. He looked at me like I had three heads.
Whatever. Ten dollars it is. I had to get out of there. I was not going to die in a tent on a farm in Manchester, Tennessee. That, I knew, was not my portion.
So I got what little sleep I could for one more night in that horrendous, hot tent. In the morning I packed up my stuff and walked up the road to the kind farmer I’d met the day before. Kelsey and my now brother-in-law, Logan, walked me up there. So the shuttle arrives, and of course it’s an old beat up pick-up. $10 to hop in the back with the crowd of hippies standing there with me.
I’ll admit this was a terrible experience, and I would have to have a VIP pass and an RV for camping if I was ever going to do it again, but my only regret from the entire thing is that no one took a picture of me in that truck with all those dudes. Kelsey and Logan had a look of “Well, this is goodbye. Wonder if we’ll ever see her again,” on their faces.
I waved goodbye and off we went. Fifteen minutes of “what the heck is my life right now” later, we arrived at Walmart. I kindly told the driver he didn’t need to wait for me, I wouldn’t be coming back, and I walked inside.
There was a Subway inside, and I thought I should probably try to eat something. Fail. Couldn’t get a sandwich down. I still felt awful. Meanwhile, my phone was dying, and I had to find a place to plug it in so my sister could find me when she got there an hour and a half later. So I’m looking around, in somewhat of a panic because my phone is blinking “low battery” at me.
Ah ha! There it was. Out the window, in the part of Walmart before you actually get inside, where the grocery carts, Red Box and those weird claw games are. Those have to be plugged in to something.
Yep, I did it. I still am not sure what I unplugged, but I think it may have been the little horse ride. I plugged my phone in, threw my bag down and sat on it, and waited.
Not let’s remember that I’m ghostly white because I’m so sick, I haven’t showered in three days and I’ve been sleeping outside in June, and my feet look like I’m wearing dirt socks. And as I sat there for over an hour, watching people walk in and out, I thought, “Wow. So this is what homelessness feels like. I’m really doing this.”
The only person that talked to me was a teenager who asked if I would buy her beer. I politely declined.
Finally my sister came, and after stopping to point and laugh at how awful I looked, she was comforting and sweet and drove me all the way back to Nashville where my car was. I am forever indebted to her for that — it was like a seven hour day round-trip for her to go from Knoxville to Manchester to Nashville and then back to Knoxville. Thanks Steph. 🙂
Well I got back to where my car was at a friend’s house, and I took the most glorious shower of my whole life. I finally got some food and gatorade down. I should have stayed the night there, but I was so ready to get to my own bed that I drove myself four hours back to Jonesboro.
I’ve spent the last two years trying to figure out what God was teaching me in that experience, but I’m still not really sure what it was besides that it’s a perfect example of my expectations being completely different from the actual outcome. And it was terrible and I missed all the best bands of the weekend that I’d been looking forward to for months. But something about the story that came out of it and the fact that at least I went, at least I did what I’d dreamed of doing for years even though it was completely different from expected, made it somewhat worth it. Sometimes the risk and the cost doesn’t pay off completely, but the experience makes it valuable in some way anyway.
And those are the things in life you have to learn to laugh off and learn from. I think that trip did a lot in me as I had to swallow my pride and just get out of there.
I learned about handling my failures. Those times that you get ahead of yourself and then circumstances knock you right on your face, and all of a sudden the farmers and the hippies and your big sister have to come to the rescue. And it’s OK.