It was the summer of ’69. I wore beads and bell-bottoms, oozed love and peace with a pasted-on smile, and chanted, “Far out…Groovy” at every opportunity. My boyfriend George was “jazzed” about an “outta sight” concert called The Woodstock Festival. “Let’s split this scene and go! It’ll be unreal! We can’t miss it!”
I hid my anxiety about leaving the comforts of home. “Far out,” I smiled.
So George persuaded his buddy, Ray to be our driver. We packed camping gear, canned food, and, most important, our stockpile of grass, hash, and LSD. I secretly stashed two large jugs of wine, in case I’d need to mellow out from a bum voyage. Ray discovered my booze and called me a “juicer.”
Embarrassed, I crawled into the back of a rusty car and pushed aside empty pop cans and cigarette packages. We headed south across the border to find the farm that was being leased for the much talked about Woodstock Festival. Hoping to ensure a camping spot, we left a couple of days early.
Ray was heavily freckled with brilliant red hair that sprouted in haphazard, knotted curlicues. He shouted in a continuous volley of machine-gun blasts, gasping briefly for air between exclamations. I wondered if he was a “speed freak.”
I cowered in the back seat, watching in horror as he kept swerving from lane to lane.
“Ray, watch out!” shouted George. I hurtled against the door as Ray lurched back into our lane to avoid colliding with a truck. The trip south was as harrowing as a prolonged ride on a rickety roller coaster. We finally arrived on Wednesday, August 13. Even though we were two days early, people were already arriving in droves.
Fighting through a labyrinth of parked cars, we finally found a congested camp site several fields away from where the stage had been set up. We parked, jammed our tent between several others and shook hands with friendly neighbors from various parts of the United States. More carloads arrived, hemming us in. I wondered how we were going to get out of there.
Recall of the first night is sketchy due to my ongoing ingestion of brain-damaging substances. A hippie from Mississippi huddled on the other side of a campfire. Flickering shadows danced across his bearded face. With cascades of long, shoulder-length hair, he looked like Rip Van Winkle. The sleeves of his fringed, suede jacket dangled precariously close to the flames as he leaned to pass me a fat, pungent joint. I was mesmerized by his southern drawl as he locked eyes with mine and condemned the Vietnam War. Tongue-tied, I was relieved when Ray jumped in to dominate the conversation.
Hundreds hunched around campfires to chatter and chuckle, play guitars, get high and excitedly anticipate the concert. Too bashful to join the boisterous conversations, I opened my first jug of wine, took a deep swallow, and passed it around our circle. Most of the trippers declined, leaving more for me. Ease and comfort replaced my awkwardness. Happy banter flowed through me like magic. So I seized my second jug.
The only cure for the inevitable hangover was to keep drinking. Finally, on Friday afternoon, the three of us left our campsite to merge with a huge crowd making its way toward a broad valley, surrounded on three sides by expansive hills of rich, emerald-green grass. Deep in the valley, the stage and massive speakers had been erected. Settling for a tiny patch of hillside disappointingly distant from the stage, we spread our blanket and stared down into an immense gathering of humanity.
After a delay of several hours, Richie Havens finally started the show. The massive audience stood to cheer and whoop. His gravelly voice sang “Freedom” as he slapped the strings of his guitar. He appeared as tiny as the microdot acid I had swallowed to enhance my experience of the music. A sea of people, arms and legs entwined in a tapestry of colors, undulated all around, engulfing me. When the swarm of bodies became one giant amoeba, I retreated into a single, green blade of grass...wandering in a forest of towering green blades, pushing my way through an endless cornfield with no way out... lost, timeless, disconnected…shrinking, tumbling smaller and smaller...NO...reaching out to the faraway beacon of music to save me...clutching at the grass, holding on for dear life, a floating balloon at the end of a long tether…
Finally, a soothing, drifting, airborne feather of a female voice lifted me out of the darkness, lowered me onto a raft drifting down a gurgling stream. An angel was singing a lullaby. Joan Baez was my angel, singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” As I floated along, the sounds of water morphed into wetness on my skin. It was raining. Drizzle to downpour to deluge. The effects of the acid continued to wear off. I was drenched and tormented by back pain.
The first round of performances ended. Soggy spectators trooped back to flooded tents. My air mattress was floating in a puddle and when I lifted my backpack to rummage for a change of clothes, the contents dripped. Any hopes of finding comfort for my aching back had been washed away by the torrents.
The velvety fields of grass were transformed overnight into a wasteland of mud and garbage. It was impossible to get a turn in the inadequate supply of outdoor toilets, so I stumbled, sopping and splattered with mud, to find a private bush. Dressed in a filthy, one-piece orange, yellow, and red floral jumpsuit with “elephant” pants and huge side pockets, I conspicuously picked my way across a marshy patch, zigzagging through discarded piles of trash.
“Hey friend, got a light?” boomed a baritone voice at my feet. I jolted backward, nearly tripping over a body hidden by waist-high reeds and litter. He hoisted himself to a squat. A fat joint protruded from the side of his grinning mouth. He was stark naked.
Shocked, I rummaged in my pocket, lit my Zippo with a shaky hand, and pretended not to notice his pendulous penis. Craning my neck to stare at the overcast sky, I blathered about the inclement weather. “Hang loose, friend,” he chuckled.
Scurrying off, I took a furtive look at my surroundings. Everyone but me was nude. A group of revelers laughed and screamed as they waded in a pond and splashed one another with muddy water. I found a bush and yanked at the back zipper of my one-piece outfit until it fell into a puddle at my ankles. Relieving myself, I zipped up and hurried back to my tent.
The rain wouldn’t let up, driving down sideways in wind driven sheets. Hungry, thirsty, and miserable, I desperately collected rainwater in a pot. We couldn’t escape the spider web of parked cars to drive to the local town and purchase supplies.
As soon as we saw an escape route through the jam of cars, George and I convinced Ray to forego the rest of the performances and head back to Toronto. Rain pelted continuously. Ray was even more agitated on the return trip. He hunched over the steering wheel, squinted to see the road through the torrents, yammered about the disappointment of having to leave early, and zigzagged precariously along the slippery highway. I prayed for mercy.
Three blocks away from home, I welcomed a view of familiar Toronto streets through the swishing windshield wipers. My relief was short-lived. Ray sailed through a stop sign and we were T-boned. Sudden grinding metal and shattering glass assaulted my ears. I catapulted forward. Ray’s car was badly dented, but nobody was injured. What a miracle! There were no seat belts or airbags back then. After dealing with the police, we limped home.
George and I stayed in touch for another fifteen years, but eventually our lives diverged. In 2009, I tracked him down on Facebook and phoned him to reminisce. We hadn’t spoken in twenty-five years. He had the same gentle voice and we laughed at mutual, but substantially impaired memories of adventures so long ago. My apologies for crazy behavior back in the day were met with chuckles.
“Hey. Neither of us was playing with a full deck,” he quipped.