I can’t stand surprises. Valarie likes them. so every once in a while I like to plan a day without telling her. On Monday, I told her to pack a day bag and be ready to leave early Tuesday morning. I was planning to drive up to Bethel NY, to the site of the original Woodstock festival in August on 1969. The plan was to leave before 10 and get up there around noon.
I went out around 8 to put gas in the car and SURPRISE!
I told you I hate surprises.
After muttering and cursing my fates, I headed over to the local tire shop where they told me that I needed a new tire.
“The tire is three weeks old. I ain’t buying a new tire.”
“Ok, we fix.”
When I get back to the house, Valarie has a frown bigger than mine.
“My phone is completely frozen. It’s dead. I can’t go anywhere without one.”
I started to protest for a minute, but the simple fact remains, in 2014, you can’t be without a cell phone. Certainly not if you have 2 teenaged boys. Despite my attemtpts to go back and visit the spirit of 1969, we went and got a new phone.
We left at 11. Did I mention that I hate surprises?
The trip up north was pretty smooth, despite Val’s frustration with her new phone. Along the way, she would ask questions about our destination.
“Are we going to Albany? No.”
“Are we going to Monticello? Passing through it.”
Every once in a while, we would pass a billboard for the Bethel Center for the Arts, at which point I would start a ruse.
“Can you find something on the radio? Can you get my phone out of my bag?”
After the third time, she figured out my ploy. “We keep passing roadsigns, don’t we?”
We got to Bethel shortly after 1pm. The museum and the site are tucked away in the middle of nowhere. If you weren’t looking for it, chances are you wouldn’t know it was there. When I was younger, I had a friend that had a summer house further up that road, (17B). I must have gone there 30 times and I never knew that we passed it on the way.
I think about the pictures I have seen; the road jammed, no movement at all, cars double-parked on both sides of the road, and endless stream of people walking to the site. For a moment, my skin ripples with anticipation.
The first week of July in the Catskills may be the most beautiful time of the year. Everything is lush and green and in full bloom. It’s easy to wash away the tensions of the world driving up to a place like this.
We have lunch at the cafe first. We haven’t eaten since the morning. We sit outside and admire the surroundings. An older gentlmen with his grey hair pulled back into a loose pony-tail walks by with a woman. Val says, “I bet he was there.” I give her a skeptical look.
A minute later we hear him say, “I got up here on Saturday morning. We walked all night.” Valarie smiles, smugly.
The museum is really well done. It’s small, but it’s laid out really well. You walk in a large circle, moving from room to room, passing through a history of the 60’s and first-person accounts from people who were there. Along the way, there are dozens of interactive kiosks display short films and documentaries from various people associated with the festival.
I particularly like the background history of the festival. In short, they took the name from the artist community that existed in Woodstock NY, then home to Bob Dylan and the Band. The original festival was to be held in Walkill, NY, a small hamlet in Orange County, just north of NYC. A few weeks before the festival, the town cancelled the permit because they didn’t think they could handle the influx of 50,000 kids.
The organizers then found a farmer in Bethel NY, named Max Yasgur, who was willing to rent his field for the weekend. The rest, as they say, is history.
The museum culminates with a 20 minute film showing highlights from the festival. You’ve already seen most of it in the documentary, but it was cool to see it like this. About halfway though, the high-priestess, Grace Slick, stoned out of her gourd in that shimmering white outfit comes on the screen. I shift in my seat like an anxious schoolboy.
Valarie looks over at me. “You like Grace, huh?”
“Grace slept with Jim” I reply. She nods and smiles.
The movie ends, of course, with Hendrix playing the Star-Spangled-Banner. The defining moment of the festival, and maybe the entire 60’s. August of 69 is one of the most turbulent is the history of this country. The Manson murders occur during the first week. The death toll in Vietnam during that month is one of the worst of the entire war. And on Monday morning, August 18th at 9am, Jimi Hendrix plays the national anthem to a sparse crowd of die-hards. The 60’s are almost over. I get chills just thinking about it.
After the tour is over, you are of course directed to the gift shop.
I get it. I have no problem with it. I love capitalism. But in this place, I was hoping for a little more. Maybe a nice hat for my brother. A handmade necklace for his girlfriend. Maybe some cool sandals or some-such trinket.
Nothing. Aside from the usual photo-books, it was a roomful of crap. Over-priced generic tee-shirts made in China. Lava lamps and ugly candles. This was the only disappointing part of the trip. I texted my brother a photo of a $70 dollar hoodie.
“I hope you don’t like it, you ain’t getting it.”
Valarie bought the cowboy hat, which looks great on her, but has nothing to do with Woodstock, and I settled for a bunch of magnets and key-chains. Made in Taiwan. The 60’s are indeed over.
We ran into 5 women who had been at the festival at teenagers. They had re-acquainted on Facebook, and rather than take a trip to some tourist trap, they met up at Woodstock, 45 years later. They all said they had a great time, but I wondered silently if maybe time had distorted the memories.
We headed outside to the site. Along the way, we ditched the path, and our footware, and walked barefoot through the think carpet of grass. The sky was perfect. There is a sign atop the bowl that served as the ampitheater. Truthfully, it looked to small too hold 400,000 people. I tried to imagine myself in that sea of humanity, but my germaphobia and my OCD wouldn’t allow the memory to come through.
Too many people, too much mud, not enough bathrooms. I shuddered again, not the good kind. I wondered if I had been 18 in 69, would I have made the trek with my friends? By the time, I was 15, I was already taking the bus from the Port Autority up to the Red Apple rest to spend the weekends camping in the surrounding woods, but this was something entirely different.
I never liked festivals. Just too many people. I went to Lallapalooza in 92. 10 bands, arts fairs, etc. It was a great day, but I couldn’t wait to get home and shower. I don’t think I could have lastest through the mud and the rain and chicks with dirty feet, but then again, I wasn’t really part of the 60’s.
I pose the question to Valarie, but I already know the answer. “Of course I would.”
Before we head home, we make our way down to the monument to take a few photos before we leave. There is a girl sitting on one of the stone benches. She’s crying. I try not to disturb her, but I can’t help but wonder about the source of her tears. I imagine that her mother had recently passed. She had met her father shortly before the festival and they went there together, and she was the by-product of their love.
I’m sure the truth is that she’s crying because her goofy boyfriend just cheated on her, but I like my story better.
After taking in the last view of the country-side, then we head back to civilization. In two plus hours, I am cricling my block, looking for parking as my un-employed neighbors drink beer on their stoop and run through the fire hydrant. My block is littered with debris from their impromptu party. I park two blocks away and mutter as we make our way back to the house.
Maybe it’s time, I say to myself.
In the morning, the landlady rings the bell. She informs me that she needs to raise my rent a ridiculous amount.
“Can’t do it,” says I. “I’m broke.”
She protests. Water bills, taxes, etc…
No problem, I say. I’ll look for a new place. Gimme a few weeks.
It is time.
I wonder if they need a half-assed writer for the local Bethel newspaper.
Anyone have an apartment for rent?