By the time I got to Woodstock, Route 17B in the Catskills was clogged, the Friday night concert was almost over and the fences surrounding the rolling field on Max Yasgur’s farm were already down.
A couple of weeks earlier, on my 19th birthday, my friend Glen and I stopped by Walter Dyer Leather on Charles Street in Boston to get our tickets for the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, aka “3 Days of Peace & Music.” But we opted against the Friday folksingers and each shelled out $14 for the Saturday and Sunday tickets and the promise of appearances by Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and other rockers.
Glen borrowed his mother’s Plymouth Valiant and at midday on Aug. 15, we packed what we deemed were necessities: sleeping bags, a jug of water, a hibachi and a cooler filled with sandwiches, hotdogs, hamburgers and sodas. We were still fledgling hippies and it wasn’t until about three hours later that we realized we’d forgotten our stash of marijuana at home (which is likely why I remember the details). It was also around then that the highway congestion started, built up, and finally, somewhere on Route 17B, brought us to a standstill. It was nighttime. We pulled to the side of the road, grabbed a bite and slept sitting up in the Valiant.
We awoke early on Aug. 16, climbed to the roof and saw there were as many cars in the middle and sides of the road behind us as there were in front. And we had no idea where we were.
“The concert site’s a couple of miles up the road,” a lying Samaritan told us. We decided to walk there, set up camp, relax a while, then come back for the food. We never got to that last part.
Carrying the sleeping bags and water, we winded our way through stranded cars and vans, following and being followed by other concertgoers. A couple of hours passed, but we plodded on, striking up conversations with strangers for a hundred yards at a time, gladly accepting offers of peanut butter sandwiches and lemonade from friendly locals watching the parade go by.
Another hour and who knows how many miles went by. Everyone was turning to the right, into the woods, along a dirt road. We hiked up a slow, steady incline. Over a rise was a gaping natural bowl carved into the earth, with a huge stage at the bottom. The bowl was filled with people - sitting, standing, laying down, walking, swaying. We were dizzy, exhausted. We had to sit down, but we didn’t. We dove into the fray, energized by the swirling sight.
Unable to find anyone to take our tickets, we moved forward a few hundred feet and staked out our patch of territory - centerstage and about two-thirds of the way back. We sat down and laid out our sleeping bags, said hello to our neighbors, then began people watching. More of them tumbled in and sat behind us, then behind them, and them.
About an hour later one of us remembered the food ... way back in the car ... wherever that was. Ah well, there was food and drink at the concert site, there was money in our pockets, we would be fine.
The music started maybe a half-hour later, with a Boston-based band, Quill. Country Joe McDonald followed with a solo acoustic set. A new band called Santana tore the place apart. That drum solo! John Sebastian sang and played without the Lovin’ Spoonful.
Because we were far back, the performers looked like specks. But the sound was crystalline. Every word was clear, every note was in balance with the singers. It was time to relax, enjoy the music and the canned tuna fish, uncooked spaghetti and red wine offered by people all around us.
When an act came on that we didn’t know - The Keef Hartley Band, The Incredible String Band - Glen and I took turns walking around, seeing couples making love in sleeping bags, people smoking dope, lean-tos going up, naked wandering hippies, long lines at the hamburger stands and the Port-O-Sans. The challenge was to remember colors and shapes near our sleeping bags so we could find our way back.
The music continued through the warm night. I grooved on Mountain, slept through the Grateful Dead, part of the Creedence set, and most of Janis Joplin’s, but was wide awake for The Who and Jefferson Airplane. A magical evening blended into a dreamy Aug. 17 morning, a breakfast of cold hotdogs provided by our generous neighbors, some time in those Port-O-San lines, and a few more hours of open-air sleep.
Sunday afternoon: More walking around, settling down to hear Joe Cocker & the Grease Band around 2, watching ominous clouds roll in during their cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” then getting wetter than I’ve ever been when not taking a shower. And getting so muddy, a shower was in order. A couple of hours later, when the music started again, now with The Fish joining Country Joe - the only performer to play twice - the warm weather turned cool; when the sun went down, it got cold and everyone was still wet ... and there was no place dry to sit.
Ten Years After was into the second song of their set - “Good Morning Little School Girl” - when Glen and I said, almost simultaneously, “Let’s go.” We wouldn’t get to see Hendrix or Sha Na Na, dammit, but that was OK.
We grabbed the water jug, left the muddy sleeping bags, headed back to Route 17B, thumbed, and were picked by a jam-packed car that brought us to the Valiant, which had a stench of spoiled food coming from the trunk. But we climbed in, dozed sitting up, drove home in the morning and slept through the day and night.
At Woodstock, no one, from promoters to security to performers to the audience, was prepared for what was going to happen. Since there weren’t any rules, no rules could be broken. People chipped in to help people. The hungry were fed; the injured were aided. There was music! The ragged little community worked. We were all “free” for a few days.
Fifty years have gone by. Was Woodstock a life-changing event? Not for me, not at the time. I had a blast there, but two days later I went back to work, two weeks later back to college. It took a few years to realize that nothing like it would happen again. Has it been mythologized? Absolutely. Would I do it again? No. But it sure makes for a wonderful memory. To partially quote Charles Dickens, “it was the best of times”
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.