Camp Like a Rock Star

Or at least near one, in our harrowing survival guide to sleeping outdoors at a mass music festival


June 2005

By Steve Knopper

It's late. I'm exhausted, smelly, and hungry, and somewhere out there in the dark is the tent I've become separated from, perhaps hopelessly. The situation sounds dire, but this is not one of those wilderness-survival tales in which men endure for weeks by erecting pine-frond shelters and scavenging for dung beetles. For one thing, there's a fajita stand 100 yards away. Also, it's about 85 degrees out, so the need for shelter isn't exactly a matter of life and death.

Yet for me, this is kind of a big deal. I've never camped before, and I'm now wandering among 90,000 heavily perspiring Phish fans in a sprawling central Tennessee field, trying to locate the tent I'm temporarily calling home. I'd pitched the little REI rental earlier today at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, a 4-day early-summer extravaganza featuring Dave Matthews, the Dead, Trey Anastasio, 77 other music acts, and multitudes of fans. I'd carefully plotted my whereabouts using a complex triangulation scheme involving trash cans and balloons. I may not know GPS from R.E.M., but really, I'd thought as I headed off to see the punk-rock heroine Patti Smith, this camping thing really isn't so tough.

Now that I've spent nearly an hour wandering blearily past the same landmarks-a white minivan, a couple lying topless on a pair of towels, and that fajita stand-I'm not feeling quite so cocky. A man in a tie-dyed T-shirt senses my desperation and offers to help, but after I tell him the one-man yellow tent is "somewhere near these cans" and "in line with that string of balloons," he becomes exasperated, bums a lengthy call on my cell phone, and then creeps back into a shantytown of thousands of new tents spread over 700 acres. Finally, I boldly decide to bushwhack. I walk 100 yards beyond where I'm sure the tent should be, and . . . eureka! I find it near a different, but identical, set of garbage cans and balloons. The puny yellow tent is suddenly the most luxurious home I've ever had.

I'm here as a kind of reality-TV-show-type experiment: What happens when you drop a non-performance-fabric-clad, hot-shower-addicted, tent-phobic, preternaturally grumpy music writer into the nation's biggest music festival campground for two nights? Will he survive? Will he crack? Will he glean crafty camping secrets to help friends survive their first multiday fest--the kind only a complete novice could discover?

Bonnaroo 2004 was a particularly ideal choice for this little experiment: Organizers announced that for the first time, they'd create a backpackers-only area, so people who carried in their own gear could avoid camping cheek-to-exhaust pipe. The festival even provided a shuttle from the Nashville airport (though I passed on that in favor of a rental car, because I wasn't staying for the whole event). I envisioned thousands of kindred spirits sharing trail mix and singing Johnny Cash tunes around open campfires as performers strummed their guitars softly in the background. Bonnaroo is renowned for this sort of thing: It's a peaceful, easygoing haven for hippies of all generations to bond and sway--like a modern-day Woodstock, only with less nudity and far pricier fajitas. However, my idea of a great concert experience is to drive to a parking lot, wait in a short security line, and return home a few hours later, ears ringing, to a warm bed.

Still, I tried to show up with a good attitude. My plan was to quickly set up the tent the night before the music started, get a solid eight, then wake up early and check out the yoga classes and other new-agey delights of Bonnaroo. But by the time I got to within 5 miles of the parking area, I realized roughly 89,500 music fans had exactly the same idea-and had all gotten in line in front of me. It took-no exaggeration-7 hours to go those last 5 miles.

That was the first searing frustration. The second came at 7 a.m., after I had schlepped my stuff the half-mile into the backpacking area. As I began to wrestle up the tent, I found myself staring at the grill of an extremely large vehicle. What happened to the communal camping area? It seems a Bonnaroo parking employee had mistakenly allowed a few cars inside the camping-only area early the first day, and it was as if Moses had parted the Red Sea to a parade of cream-colored Winnebagos. My neighbors had a canopy, folding chairs, a barbecue rig, and jugs of water. Tent City looked more like cruise night at Wal-Mart.

I tried to sleep, but within an hour the sun was blazing mercilessly in a cloudless sky. It was 95 outside, 110 in the tent. I found neighbors who looked equally hot and depressed, and struck up a conversation with Adam and Aaron Katz of New York City, who, like me, had followed the camping-only instructions on the Bonnaroo website; they'd packed up a dozen cans of tuna and a mid-sized tent, and taken the airport shuttle. "It'd be nice to have one of these setups-with some shade," Adam said, motioning dismissively towards the fuel-injected Hiltons and Four Seasonses of Bonnaroo's Tent City.

Napping was out of the question, so with scratchy eyes and a sweaty neck, I wandered the festival in a daze, quietly scowling. Lunch was similarly challenging. I'd bought a small camping stove for the trip, and packed my bags full of macaroni-and-cheese packets and freeze-dried vegetable chili. But airlines won't let passengers bring fuel canisters of any kind, and the ride in the dark to the festival wasn't exactly lined with Sam's Clubs. Bonnaroo's overpriced general store had nothing to fire up a stove. Conveniently, however, the festival grounds were littered with ATMs to ensure that all of us could overpay for items like chicken burritos and veggie-fried rice.

And then the music began. I viewed this as a decidedly mixed blessing. I'm a fan of 2-minute Ramonest-style songs, and believe most of the jam bands that play festivals like this are in desperate need of an editor. As a former music critic in Boulder, CO, I can't how many times I've glared at Deadheads doing those twirly dances throughout the 37-minute songs at these concerts. One time, a fan at a Red Rocks show actually told my friends and me: "Everybody's nice to each other here except you guys!" A few minutes later, her boyfriend was evicted for fighting.

Fortunately, Bonnaroo made a point of expanding its lineup beyond the usual String Cheese Incidents and Phish spin-offs. I was particularly excited about Bob Dylan, Wilco, the southern rockers Kings of Leon, and the hip-hop mash-up experiments of Danger Mouse. Patti Smith's encore of "Gloria" was exactly the electrical jolt I needed to survive that first hot, sleepless afternoon. And Dylan cheered me up immeasurably that night-even throwing in my favorite song, "Blind Willie McTell," in a new reading with spooky improvised phrasings.

Newly enthused, I started to appreciate the small city of Bonnaroo for its weird and cheerful characters. A guy selling cigarettes advertised his wares by wrapping Marlboro and Camel box lids in his long ponytails. A heavyset security woman who was far too controlling and pushy got her comeuppance when a man with beer containers attached to his waist like a holster jumped a barrier and ran whooping into a no-beer area. Many in the crowd carried spray bottles, and generously shared with anyone who gave the universal, arms-spread-out "I need water right now!" sign. And while I'm not the type to strike up "this totally rules!" conversations with strangers before rock concerts, the Bonnaroo ambience finally clicked just as darkness descended. I spent a solid half-hour talking to a guy in a Denver Nuggets T-shirt who was happy to gush about my hometown NBA team.

After Dylan's set, overcome with the Bonnaroo spirit of "Peace and Love, Dude!" and "Mean People Suck!," I responded with brotherly affection to a curly-haired stranger who walked by and asked, "Nuggets?" I stopped and, in an inviting tone, responded, "Denver Nuggets?" The curly dude shook his head, muttered something under his breath, and kept walking. Later I found out he meant "nuggets," as in "phat nuggets," as in "a certain type of mid-priced marijuana."

So in addition to being hapless, it turns out, I'm square.

So square that on the first night I planned to skip Dave Matthews' much-anticipated set in order to catch up on sleep I lost in the endless traffic jam. Matthews is a golden god here, but I have started countless fights in Colorado by contending he's just a funk-lite singer whose drummer can't stay on top of the beat. My plan was to fall asleep before Matthews took the stage--I can sleep through almost anything--but by the time I finally locate my tent, the entire population of Tent City is making a noisy exodus to the stage. Fortunately, it's soon as peaceful as the remote Rockies. Matthews is blaring in the distance, but this time I'm prepared, with earplugs. I nab 8 hours of sleep.

After that, everything's different. I wake up refreshed and cool, and rise with the sun, the way you see people do in photos in magazines like this one. Everybody else is sleeping off a long night of Matthews (and, you know, ibuprofen), but I grab my soap and hit the showers. Yesterday I'd waited 30 minutes for a rinse, but nobody's in line behind me at 7 a.m., and somebody has actually cleaned the stalls to start the day.

The music isn't set to begin for another few hours, so I wander to a large shade tree on the far side of the festival grounds, buy a $5 smoothie and sip peacefully and doze at will. One of the day's first acts, the great L.A. rockers Los Lobos, stretches out its set into long songs, including plenty of Jerry Garcia-style guitar solos, but they're so good and my mood is so peaceful that it doesn't bother me at all. Kings of Leon's swampy sound recalls a less bluesy Allman Brothers. I can feel my eyelids relaxing as I watch scruffy guys flub yet another round of Hacky Sack.

Then it rains. Hard. I brought rain gear, but it's way on the other side of the festival grounds, in the tent. So I just stand there, water running down my face, and letting sand collect beneath my feet. It feels . . . cleansing.

Within a few hours, the sun comes out and it's time to pack up, haul everything back to the rental car, and drive to the airport. I crank NOFX' punk-rock classic "Kill all the White Man" to congratulate myself for surviving and, about halfway to the airport on I-24, realize I'm smiling. It's not the smile of the converted--an I-just-dropped-acid-and-listened-to-Jerry-play-Dark-Star kind of grin--but it's a Bonnaroo smile all the same. And the backpackers-only section really does make sense--if they truly ban the cars in '05,l and keep the tent-pitching and navigating and camp-cooking parts of the bargain that you, as a reader of this magazine, have undoubtedly perfected.

Still, it's nice to be back in civilization, even in the form of a two-hour flight delay at Nashville International Airport. It's air-conditioned, there are plenty of padded chairs, and I can buy a turkey sandwich without having to dodge Hacky Sacks and renegade holstered beer drinkers. Will I camp at Bonnaroo in 2005? Will I camp again, ever? Probably not. It's just too hot and uncomfortable. I'm still the type who needs a shower every morning or I can't stand to be in the same room with myself. But I have learned this: Underneath the Dave Matthews worship and twirlie dancing and 90,000-to-a-herd mentality, Bonnaroo is a true community in the '60s sense. Everybody really is nice , despite having to camp close enough to smell one another's feet. You can walk up to strangers and say weird things to them without worrying about politeness or decorum. For the first time, I think of those mud-covered, pup-tent-sleeping masses in the Woodstock movie as people who'd figured something out about life, rather than as baby boomers who grew up, turned into yuppies and started buying Eric Clapton's old guitars for $1.5 million.

So my wife is a little disturbed when I return home covered in dreadlocks and patchouli oil, but I play some String Cheese and give her some phat nuggets. She calms right down.