Strangers, mud and the best of music festivals

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS This August 1969 photo shows Richie Havens as he performs during Woodstock in Bethel, New York. The photo is one of hundreds made by photographer Mark Goff who, at the time, worked for an underground newspaper in Milwaukee.

My first thought, generally, when watching all the Woodstock documentaries — and I've been watching all of them, and reading all the think pieces — is, "Welp, this is nothing an air tanker and 63,000 gallons of Purell wouldn't have solved."

I wasn't there, so I have no reason to feel nostalgic for hit-or-miss audio and 927-minute jams, and instead can focus on what was truly noteworthy about the event: the mud.

The mud! About 600 acres of it, and 500,000 concertgoers — or eleventy million, counting everyone who says they went — pretty much just wallowing in it. And let's not kid ourselves that it was only mud.

This week, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this culture-changing, three-day event outside Bethel, New York, I'm going to admit the second thought I generally have when watching Woodstock documentaries: Ew.


I really love music, especially the music of that era, but gross. I try to imagine myself there and the image always devolves into me as public health scold, delivering stern lectures and pamphlets about STIs and staying hydrated.

Music festivals, it turns out, are for the mellow of heart, the laid-back, the go-with-the-flow (and apparently unfazed by pathogen-vector-host interface), the chill. Not me, in other words.

I see pictures of Coachella or Bonnaroo or Glastonbury and immediately think about how the ground at events like those always seems to be unpleasantly squishy. Even if it hasn't rained. Why is the ground so squishy, and will I eventually need to douse the shoes I'm wearing in holy water? Or burn them?

Also, I really worry about the parts in people's hair. They get extremely sunburned, and I wonder whether it would be too weird if I went around with a glob of Coppertone on an extended index finger and offered to run it along the tops of people's heads. I mean, that wouldn't be too weird, right?

Then I panic about the sodium content of the Larabar I just ate, frantically pawing for the wrapper to check whether I might drop dead from dehydration at any second, and then spend several quality minutes pondering the ubiquity of hula hoops.

It might be different at the Gathering of the Juggalos or that one heavy metal festival in, I think, Norway or Denmark where murders have occurred, but in my experience at hippie-leaning festivals, the presence of hula hoops is a given and I don't understand the association.

All of which is to say, things get squirrelly and unhinged when I and lots of other people are jammed into one place.

Despite recurrent bouts of misanthropy, I generally can summon at least semi-warm feelings about my fellow woman and man. Just, you know ... over there. I will stand right here and my fellow man and woman can stand over there and we all can congratulate ourselves on another day of "no man is an island, send not to know for whom the bell tolls" bonhomie.

Music festivals, or any big summer gathering, really, do not allow this, though. Forget my 18-inch radius of intimate space, let alone the 3-foot radius of personal. I once had a woman I didn't know, during a My Morning Jacket set at the Langerado Music Festival, stand about 6 inches from me for several minutes and mention repeatedly that I smelled like California (we were in Florida). I sniffed tentatively at my shirt. Um, thanks?

Another time, at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, a man standing next to me — a stranger, I might add — offered me a bite of his baked sweet potato and I took one! Who even am I??

I'll tell you who I am: someone who in those moments recognizes the futility of struggling against the tide and ultimately just gives in and floats toward the horizon on it. When most of us are there for the music — to be carried away by it, to be transformed by it — there is not a lot to be gained by getting too bent out of shape over germy, weird strangers breathing on me.

Those moments are yellow bricks separated from the linear road of my normal life, placed in a field with thousands of my closest friends-for-now, with worries about boiling my clothes in Lysol an item for tomorrow's agenda.

Unless it's muddy, in which case get me out of there, there's not enough bleach in the world. Sorry, Woodstock.

Email Rachel Sauer at

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