We were herded into our cars at 2:00 am, and stayed there for at least an hour and a half; holding hands, praying, reading poetry, using whatever methods we thought of to distract ourselves from the idea it could all be over in a flash. They usually tell you not to get in a car when there’s a tornado, but it was better than being in a tent, or under a tree. Yet we were utilizing our safest option, I thought, and it still might not be good enough.
When a pop-up tent flew into the side of our car, we screamed in unison, sure that it was the beginning of the end. But as we waited, we heard no train-like noises, saw no twisting tops of trees, and the hail never came. For about five minutes though, we knew that if there was to be a tornado, not everyone would survive. We didn’t know the next day’s headline. I laughed though, when I realized there has never been one reading: “Thousands killed while camping at outdoor music festival.” It’s more likely that someone falls off a rooftop at a music festival in a city, than it is for anyone to get seriously hurt or die from camping at a rural one.
And if that isn’t an overwhelming introduction to your first outdoor, multi-day music festival, I don’t know what is. On a last minute whim, I bought tickets from friends, and we carpooled out to the western side of Wisconsin on a Friday morning at the end of July. The first day was exhausting: driving there, waiting in line for the campground, getting in and setting up tents, finding where the bathrooms and water were… By the time we finished, we were like, oh yeah – there’s music to go see. So we all rested and had a beer before catching a school bus shuttle to the festival grounds.
I don’t remember much of the rest of Friday, to be honest. Taking in the layout and sheer number people was again exhausting. Seeing planned as well as unexpected friends was a highlight, but otherwise I think Low (Duluth) was good and I missed most of Tallest Man on Earth (Sweden) while waiting in line for food. Oh and Spoon was in there somewhere. By ten at night I was mentally and physically done for the day, so after The National had to restart their first song, I called it a night.
I rode the shuttle back alone, walked through the long field of a makeshift campground, got in the tent, and cried. I hadn’t had a moment alone all week, between work and other emails, and running errands around town and packing for the weekend. I also had not been camping in years, and never quite in such a primitive situation as this. I’d been less upset over bison walking through a campsite, in some remote national park. For all the hardiness and resourcefulness I pride myself on, I had hit my limit on novelty.
What I didn’t realize is that I had nothing to compare this experience to – and as far as music festivals go, this one was solid. I heard comments that night before bed and again the next day about how the bathrooms were so CLEAN, that the lines were manageable for food, there was water available close enough everywhere, and that there weren’t ads everywhere for corporate sponsors, or stupid attractions and events that had nothing to do with the music. Before going to bed, I thought, tomorrow will be a new day. A good day.
So when we awoke hours later with the fear of God in us, and all survived to the morning, it was a new day indeed. Besides appreciating life itself, the musical acts were unbelievably good: Phil Cook, S. Carey, Haley Boner, Aero Flynn, Givers, Phox, Sylvan Esso, Sufjan Stevens, and Bon Iver. Many Midwestern talents as well as nationally beloved artists made for a day of endless infatuation. The weather cleared and fluffy white clouds floated by without a care. The sky was bluer than the river bordering the grounds. No bugs to be found. An ever flowing breeze, easily caught if not in the middle of a dense crowd. It went from the worst to the best, and with my newfound perspective, I appreciated every moment.
I had worried that going essentially alone (without a partner or best friend of my own), I would end up wandering by myself for two days, hating on all the couples there or something. The only moment, however, I wished I had someone of my own was back in the tent on that first night, overwhelmed and tired. Otherwise I spent the weekend with some of the best people: new friends of friends who endured and supported me through this adventure, danced with me, stood in line with me, held my hand late at night, laughed with me, took naps in the shade together, and guided me safely back home. There were faces I haven’t seen in years, since college, who I got to embrace and share a song with. Gracious family friends, proving that the fun only starts when your kids leave home, who offered us a place to stay. And especially my makeshift date/festival partner, who taught me more in two days than I’ve learned from some friends over my whole life. Sometimes, life really isn’t fair, but spending my weekend with her was a privilege.
The funny thing is that I’m not even the biggest fan of Bon Iver, and I sat alone during that last set, cold and tired. But to finally hear those songs live which have become their own canon in the indie world, was really something. When Justin Vernon said, “I think we’ve all learned something this weekend. I’m not sure what yet, but I know we learned something,” I couldn’t help but identify with it. Plus the 22,000 people who had walked those grounds over the past day or two added a weight to the moment I couldn’t ignore.
I had not been properly indoors for almost two days, but somehow was completely prepared for everything that came my way (except the storm), and in the end, enjoyed myself. So sure, being completely out of my element reminded me of my strengths and weaknesses, but it also pointed out that there’s no one right way to experience anything. It was the first year for everyone, and the first of its kind for me; and it’s okay to do a musical festival the way you want to, not whatever way you’re supposed to. If they run out of merch, make your own. If you’re exhausted, take a break. And if you’re having the time of your life (dancing to Sylvan Esso), please, carry on.