By Lad Tobin
My decision to pitch my tent in the most remote campsite at Berkfest was carefully calculated: as the oldest camper at the whole festival, I was worried that I would stand out as, well, the oldest camper at the whole festival. I was worried, too, that I’d stand out as the only person attending this three-day, Woodstock-like event all by himself. (Berkfest hadn’t passed a single question on my wife’s litmus test for music events: “Will everyone else be twenty years old? Will there be any seating or is this one of those things where you have to stand up and jump around the whole time? Will there be any real bathrooms or just port-a-potties?”) So, feeling conspicuously out of place, I had decided to lug my stuff into the woods as far away as possible from the sunny meadow that was now quickly filling up with Phishheads and white Rastas.
There was another reason besides my age that I wanted to lay low: I was not at all confident that I’d be able to get my tent pitched since it was fresh off the shelf at REI and I’d only had time for one stressful practice run in my backyard. The last thing I needed was a bunch of twenty-year-olds gawking at me while I sweated over—and swore at—the enigmatic relationship between tent pole A, grommet B, and side flap CC. So it was with huge relief and a little pathetic pride that I had managed in just forty-five minutes to construct something that approximated the look of a proper tent (even if I did still have two unused poles left in the fluorescent blue nylon bag). And so without another tent or camper within twenty yards, I headed off happily to find the music, checking in my pocket every twenty seconds or so to make sure that I still had the elaborately detailed, minute-by-minute chart I had compiled of what groups I planned to see for how long on what stages. First up on the Big Meadow Stage: Fuzz & the Gratuitous Sextet.
I managed to see eleven different bands that first day by scurrying back and forth, nonstop, between the different stages. Immersed in the driving, percussive music—slowly progressing from shuffling to the beat to hopping around to, finally, full-out jumping up and down—I felt mercifully freed from the self consciousness that too often weighs me down. In fact, I felt exactly the way I hoped I’d feel when I talked myself into coming to the festival.
Of course, there were still a few moments when my all-too-familiar self-consciousness surfaced. The most excruciating moment happened in the middle of the blazing-heat of Medeski, Martin & Wood’s afternoon set: a twenty-something couple asked if they could sit with me for a while on my blanket in the shade of my huge beach umbrella (turns out I had brought a lot more stuff than most people bring to a rock festival). In return, the young man asked, “Want a hit of our weed?” and handed me a small, symmetrical metal cylinder and a Bic Lighter. Unacquainted with this particular delivery system (I’d grown up with hookahs and hash pipes that made it clear which end was which), I just took a guess, popped one end into my mouth, and sucked a burning bud of marijuana right into my mouth.
Looked horrified and sympathetic, the young man reached over, gently removed the pipe and lighter from my hand, and said, “Whoa, sorry, dude. My bad. Here, let me help you with that.” He then repacked the pipe, turned it around before handing me the right end, and held the Bic up for me to lean into (hey, who says that gallantry is dead?). Once the effect of the drug kicked in, I was able to get beyond the absurdity of it all and to really begin to enjoy myself. It didn’t hurt that the music we were listening to—MM&W were followed by Robert Randolph & His Family Band’s gospel–inflected R&B—kept building and building to one joyous crescendo after another. The feeling was exhilarating.
Unfortunately, it was also short-lived: when I returned that night to the now pitch-black camping area, I discovered in horror that I could not find my tent. The signposts I had carefully noted when I arrived—the rainbow flag hanging from a branch at the point in the path where I was to turn right, the row of evergreens where I was supposed to turn back to the left, the bright orange tent about twenty yards before I would get to mine—were now completely buried by darkness or by other tents and flags. In fact, as far as I could see, every inch of previously open space was now filled with thousands of college-aged kids and their gear. As I calculated the long odds of ever finding my little, blue nylon tent in this huge and ever-growing city of identical-looking, blue, nylon tents, I sank in despair.
For forty-five frantic minutes, I tried to re-trace my original steps from the parking lot, tried not to completely panic, tried to imagine what I’d do and where I’d sleep if I never found my tent, tried unsuccessfully to not act as if this were the grimmest part of a Grimm Fairy Tale. Suddenly, I spotted it, surrounded by three other tents and just a few yards away from several card tables and blankets where some people seemed to be setting up a makeshift vending area. Exhausted, relieved, and covered in sweat, I hustled into my tent and, mercifully, fell asleep.
Only a couple of hours later I was awakened by cries from the next-door neighbors: apparently those card tables were the epicenter of the festival’s unofficial “marketplace” and at 2:00 a.m., the vendors were opening for business:
“Weed! Some tasty buds. Get yer weed.”
“Mushrooms! I’ve got mushrooms.”
“Jell-O shots. Just a dollar each.”
“Ganja cookies here. Fresh baked!”
“I got nitrous oxide balloons right here. Two bucks a hit!”
Stumbling out of my tent, I was suddenly face to face with long lines of customers seemingly looking for just about anything to smoke, swallow, or suck. Two things were immediately clear to me: first, all those warnings on the festival’s website—“Due to heightened security concerns, all patrons and their possessions are subject to search”—that had convinced me to bring nothing stronger than red wine, had had apparently no effect on my fellow festival-goers. Second, as surprised I was to see these kids, they seemed even more alarmed to see me. I suppose if I were a teenager who had just arrived at a rock festival with a bunch of friends, had hiked deep into the woods, had pitched a tent, and upon settling down with a beer or a bong, had glanced over to see a guy step out of the tent next door who looked like an undercover cop or, even worse, like someone’s dad, I’d be spooked, too.
I just knew that it would be a bad idea for me to spend that whole night in the middle of the marketplace, but I also knew there was no way I could take apart and then re-assemble my tent in the middle of the night and middle of the crowd. It was then that I remembered that the instructions claimed it was possible, once you de-staked the tent, to carry it by the pole in the top. So after quickly stuffing as much of my stuff as I could into my stuffsack, I picked up everything else, along with the A-frame tent, and began wending my way back towards the meadow through the maze of card tables, tents, tarps, and incredulous-looking teenagers.
For someone trying so hard to be inconspicuous, making myself into a walking tent was a pretty conspicuous thing to do. It’s not as if I thought I was successfully blending in, doing one of those “carrying the woods to camouflage my numbers” things from Macbeth. In fact, at the time, all I could think was “Yes, of course, I look like a total idiot now and there is almost nothing I’d less rather be doing than carrying this tent and searching for a new campsite at 2:00 a.m.”—except, that is, for remaining in the middle of the now bustling-with-business marketplace where I was certain I’d never fall back asleep.
After twenty minutes of frantic wandering around in the crowded dark, I came across a sign with an arrow: “Family Camping Area: Just Ahead.” Though I was on my own, I decided that if you took “family camping” as a figure of speech meaning “Not Looking to Get Hooked Up with Heroin or a Random Partner,” I qualified. Apparently, though, the young hippie couple who woke up to discover that I was their new neighbor, were not so sure: every time one of their tie-dyed wearing toddlers wandered even a step or two in my direction, the mother called him right back (“Come here, Garcia” or “Berkeley, stay over here with us”) in a tone that suggested they were in immediate danger of getting snatched up by Fagan or Aqualung.
What I wanted to tell her was that it wasn’t that long ago when my wife and I were the hip, young alternative parents with our own little tie-dyed kids; that I had seen Dylan and Janis Joplin and Sly Stone live and that, in fact, I was younger than Dylan and Janis Joplin and Sly Stone; that just because I wasn’t as young as I used to be didn’t mean that I wasn’t still cool. But I knew none of that would have made any difference to her (did anyone even use the word “cool,” anymore?). For a second, I thought of just packing it in and heading back home to my age-appropriate life.
But then I remembered how exhilarated I had felt the night before while I was jumping around to the beat during Galactic’s infectious, funk-fueled set. Some of that good feeling was undoubtedly the effect of all that afternoon weed-smoking, but it was more than that. It was the discovery—or the rediscovery—of a pocket in time in which I wasn’t thinking about sciatic back pain, an overdue home repair, a dreary work task, or any of the other reminders and demands of late middle age.
And so with my elaborately detailed, minute-by-minute chart still in my pocket, I hustled off to get a good spot at the Hillside stage for the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. After all, unlike Berkeley and Garcia, who were now enthusiastically returning my friendly wave, I had no time to lose.
LAD TOBIN has published personal essays in The Sun, The Rumpus, Utne Reader, and Fourth Genre and two books of narrative nonfiction about teaching narrative nonfiction: Writing Relationships and Reading Student Writing: Confessions, Meditations, and Rants. He has recently completed a collection of essays about his surprising mid-life rediscovery of his teenage hobbies, memories, and attitudes. He lives in Kittery Point, Maine, and teaches at Boston College. Connect with him on Facebook (lad.tobin) or twitter (@ladtobin).