Gone to Bonnaroo

Bonnaroo. You just don’t even know until you go.

Having never been to a large camping-style music festival, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into when the email came in saying I’d been chosen to go to Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, all expenses paid. All I knew at the time was that it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I would do almost anything to get there.

Good thing, because the opportunity came (just five days prior to leaving) to be a volunteer for Grow and Share, a local Raleigh nonprofit that fights hunger through promotion of gardening and community building. I would be giving away vegetable seeds and talking to concertgoers about starting their own gardens for four days, five hours a day. It sounded easy enough. All I was worried about was “work” getting in the way of seeing my favorite bands.

I decided on the second day that I would never come to Bonnaroo again as a general patron. Working the event as a volunteer (or a “vendor” as our bracelets indicated) was the only way I survived those five days.

Now, I realize that Bonnaroo is no 1969 Woodstock. I don’t envy the Boomers’ experience of the first outdoor music festival at all. It was far more chaotic, less sanitary, less organized, and there were just too many people—500,000, compared to the 100,000 at Bonnaroo. Heck, Sullivan County even declared a state of emergency!

Nontheless, Bonnaroo was still a major test of endurance, patience, and survival, which brings me to the eight reasons working at Bonnaroo is the only way to go.

  1. Free entry. General admission tickets cost between $200-250, so this is a great deal in and of itself. Even if you weren’t sure if it was worth that much, you can’t regret it if you got in for free! Plus, I know quite a few poor and/or unemployed students & grads that wouldn’t be able to go otherwise!
  2. Free transportation to Manchester, TN. This may not be a given, but since I was volunteering for a nonprofit, they picked up the tab. All 1084 miles of it. I met some people who flew in from Texas and California, and people who road tripped from as far as Canada, New York City, and South Florida. I’m glad I didn’t have to worry about one more expense!
  3. Free showers. I know, you’re starting to wonder if all the benefits are monetary. (No, there’s more). Even common amenities, such as bathing, are expensive. General patrons paid $7 per crappy shower. We vendors were privileged enough to wait an hour in line to bathe in conditions worse than a college dorm with rotten egg-smelling water for free. I was even lucky enough to get three showers over six days!
  4. Secret watering holes. The clean water situation is one that still has quite a few kinks in it. There were only three filtered water stations at all of Bonnaroo and one of those was unavailable to general patrons between approximately midnight and noon. Bad news for patrons. Good news for vendors who have unlimited access to all watering stations at all times. During peak hours (which was almost all of the time), the lines for water were hours long and the water only dribbled out of the faucet. Unless you brought enough factory-sealed bottles of water to last you the entire day—and night—you were shit out of luck.
  5. Electricity. We Gen Yers are really attached to our cell phones, pocket sized digital cameras, and flip cams. How else would I check in on Foursquare at each tent, tweet pictures of the shows, or use the official Bonaroo iPhone app without it? I was honestly seriously worried about my batteries dying too often and not having time to wait in line at the Fuse barn to recharge. Much to my surprise, all vendors have power strips! I charged up as frequently as I needed whenever I wanted. AWESOME.
  6. Luxurious air-conditioned shuttles between our campsite and festival grounds (aka Centeroo). When you’re walking around and working in the 97 degree sun for more than 12 hours a day, the last thing you want to do is walk over a mile in the mud back to your campsite (patrons had to walk much further). I walked home only once, at 6 a.m., and only because the shuttles stopped running between 3 a.m. and 9 a.m. anyways. Not only that, but if it weren’t for the overcrowded Odwalla & Wheat Thins tents, the five-minute shuttle ride would have been the only air conditioning we experienced all day.
  7. Unlimited shade. Crucial. Soooo soooo crucial to survival. Sure, there are a lot of big trees and, of course, the music tents to sit under for a little relief from the harsh sun, but with 100,000 people looking for shade, you’d be hard pressed to find a spot big enough to lay down. And then the sun moves and you realize upon waking up from your nap that the shade has moved as well and you now have a horrific sunburn. I even saw people standing in the shade from lamp poles and crouching behind other people. But me? I had a tent I could go to for shade whenever I wanted to. Sometimes I ended up working longer than I was supposed to simply because I didn’t want to leave my safe haven of shade. I took quite a few naps on the grass under our tent. Home sweet home…
  8. Base camp. Bonnaroo is huge (video from helicopter). Lots of space. Lots of people. And since they’re all dirty and wearing bathing suits, bandannas or hats, everyone sort of looks the same. Our vendor tent was base camp for the six of us (volunteers). We always knew that we could go back to base camp to find at least one person manning the booth. When some of us decided to split up and go to different shows we just said, “Ok, meet you at the tent after the show.” Just like home – almost.

Large-scale music festivals are bound to be challenging, physically and mentally. But there’s a reason 100,000 people keep coming back to Bonnaroo each year. It’s the same reason 500,000 hippies showed up at the first Woodstock back in 1969. While I obviously wasn’t at Woodstock, I’m taking liberties here to say that both Boomers and current-day Gen Yers descended upon a land that became our entire world for much the same reason: “3 Days of Peace & Music” that makes all the trouble worth it.

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