Sometimes at Bonnaroo, when you’re spun on love, chemicals, or dancing past sunrise with ten thousand others, you hear the wolves howl. Someone with sacred knowledge of the word’s inciting effect yelps out “Bonnaroo!” Taking cues like excited Catholics chanting a refrain, those who heard it shout to the stars with a guttural wolf cry: “Bonnaroooooooo!” Upon disseminating knowledge of this sacred fest ritual, the instigating Roo Priest walks on. His pack is now anointed, each member ready to start another spontaneous, elongated howl. “Bonnaroooooo!”
The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, or Roo as it it’s known by most who’ve been, was the first music fest I ever attended. Years back I fell in love with concerts when I was nineteen and looking for something to enjoy in a post high school, North Dakota life. Roo became the culmination of years of music listening, ten hour round trips to Minneapolis for shows, and sharpening my devastating yet always shitty dance moves.
In 2010, my final year of college, the girl I was dating and I decided to do a music festival for summer. We looked at various ones and chose Roo. There was so much appeal: eighty thousand people — an eighth of our state’s population — camping in a Tennessee field over four days with music that runs from noon until six AM. Instead of just wishing for more music at the end of a great concert, you’d actually get it. For eighteen hours a day the show would be continuous and without end. It sounded perfect. So we spent months researching new bands, reading about what to bring, making lists, looking at maps, tricking my mom into buying us all our food. Excitement for the journey is something that can build and be sustained over a long time, and that’s very fun to experience.
Our trip took us away for seven or eight days. It was the first one I’d ever completely planned without my parents’ involvement. The night before we left I wrote this on a different part of the internet:
Monday my special lady friend and I depart North Dakota for Bonnaroo. We’re road tripping the lower USA with no AC, eight blankets, and a lot of dog mints.
Mints in mouth, we pointed my shitty car south and hit start on a Roo playlist containing hundreds of songs. On the way down I talked to McDonald’s workers about The Flaming Lips and listened to the ramblings of a South Dakota rest stop janitor who told me the best way to plant grass at her job. The girl I was with hung around gas station attendants who called her Missy and gossiped about who was doing prison time. We camped in Oklahoma where we hung out with my friend Vampiric Spektor, a psychic spellcaster with no teeth, who timed his fiancee’s miscarriage contractions and accused me of poisoning their chicken McNuggets.
After a couple days of road tripping, we were close. You drive for so long to get to Bonnaroo, then when you think you’re there, ya get put in a fifteen mile line of cars along the interstate:
It was dark when we arrived in line. I saw an old VW van with six coolers strapped to its roof. Cops on motorcycles cruised up and down to direct traffic. Shirtless twenty something dudes drank beer and pissed in the woods as we spent the next eight hours crawling along toward the entrance. This was it. Thousands of road trips with millions of memories would all culminate in passing through a tollbooth gate.
Just prior to the gate we saw an old man on his tractor. He seemed to be protecting his land from the crowd he probably thought to be full of hippies, thieves, and rapists of the elderly. Roadside billboards warned us about spurning ourselves to Hell. Admittedly, Bonnaroo can be a galaxy of depravity for some. As Q might say about the festival: “It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it’s not for the timid.” Over the next four days our desires were to be sated, our bodies ground down more than we ever could’ve imagined.
Before the music starts you’ve spent lots of your energy setting up camp and saying hi to new neighbors. To get to the music you walk through a field of endless tents, always lugging a backpack of water and supplies you probably don’t need. You pass under a painted Bonnaroo arch and see wooden walls sprayed with graffiti that anyone can add to. Beautiful art is mixed with scribbles of names and rants against MTV. Now you’re in Centeroo.
Centeroo, which is a flat, grassy dirtland where the music takes place, is essentially a giant circle. On its edges and through its middle are vendors, walkways, a fountain, and smaller music stages. Closer to the outer graffiti walls are three different tents with sand bottoms where bands play. There’s also a giant open stage called Which. All of these are apart from each other. There’s a massive field beside Centeroo that holds the main stage, What. In What’s field eighty thousand people can sit, stand, and sing together for the festival’s biggest bands. Here’s me on my first day in front of one of the Centeroo tents, looking haggard as fuck:
Within Centeroo a series of boulder sized bobbleheads stare down at the thousands of attendees. These people are mostly young but there’s plenty who’re middle-aged and older. Everyone walks around eating pizza, sipping pricey beers, and chatting with friends. Queues of human traffic seem to be everywhere and forever inescapable.
Hardbodies mix against sights of Caesarean scars proudly bared between the pieces of bikinis. Some girls go topless and paint their breasts. Dreadlocked hippies and college business majors stand in line to get on the Ferris wheel. People keep their heads down in schedules, finding out who’s playing next or where the nearest pissers are. Sometimes a tree will have to do.
The festival sponsors provide free activities, food, services, and recreation, so there’s lots to do beside seeing music. North Dakotans create bad karaoke after standing in line for free ice cream. Girls hula hoop and guys in zebra costumes lay in hammocks while posing for pictures. Golf carts pass by with stacks of ice in tow, swerving around those with no sense of time, place, or direction. People line up for water, others sleep on the ground or wherever shade can be found. You get dirty from all the naps you take in Centeroo, but you get dirty no matter what you do.
It all seems tame those first opening hours, even after seeing a wall painting that argues “Art is Not Cum.” But then the music starts, the sun dies, and everything changes. “Bonnarooooooooo!”
That first night I was introduced to a whole new world I never could’ve understood before. Even after months of research it still held surprises within nearly ever moment. Roo takes on the basic appearance of a carnival, except it feels both distinct and heightened from that. It’s crazier, louder, more joyous and chaotic. At Bonnaroo the carnies are often the attendees. Everything and everyone glows in the dark. The sounds and lights pull people in so many directions, like mosquito zappers tuned to draw music lovers.
You walk from stage to stage among a crowd of thousands, standing under giant tents in the sand, watching twelve or more hours of great music a day. There are all types of bands playing at once, comedians who make deaf interpreters show every way to sign “abortion,” and environmental films depicting seagulls eating used condoms. Everywhere you look is an endless vision of colors and throngs and garbage. People cheer, stand on trash cans for better views, bathe in a fountain that spews brown water, and sit in the dead grass — tired from partying all day. We both did the fest sober, and it was so great.
We danced to bands in crowds composed of tens of thousands. Sang along to songs we knew and more we didn’t. In the darkness hundreds of glowsticks streaked the air like tracer shots in war. Giant inflatables bounced over dozens of light sabers pointed skyward. Stuffed animals impaled on sticks danced above the hot crowds, puppeted by someone just given ecstasy by a friend made seconds before. A man wore a dildo helmet wrapped in Christmas lights. Bass made the ground vibrate. There was noise everywhere, and at all times.
Here’s video I took of The Flaming Lips that’s a good example of how Roo gets at night:
I stood outside a tent late one night listening to Deadmau5 while peeping a buku thin dude with brown teeth and a cardboard sign slung ’round his neck. Scrawled in marker was “FREE LIGHT SHOWS — WOMEN ONLY.” Dude gave a cute girl, his audience of one, a pair of cereal box 3D glasses. He played with colorful, blinking balls, just inches from her face. She stared, transfixed and uninterrupted for over ten minutes. Throughout it all she kept herself turned from the man on stage in a giant mouse head. The rodent had enough lights to penetrate deep space, but she preferred watching colors reflect against this dude’s rotting teeth.
Drugs are everywhere at Bonnaroo. Some people like that girl you could tell were gone, most you didn’t know if they’re just having a good time or completely spun. I imagine that when the howls of “Bonnaroo!” began, some imagined themselves to be part of an actual wolf pack, perhaps riding atop a fried egg through space.
People, both sober and gone, tramp through the night in a confused state. Canadians modify the maple on their flag into a pot leaf. People fly these to mark their camping spots so you can get fucked but still find your way home or land in a welcoming camp until you get better. No need for ruby slippers when your Mecca is everywhere around you.
I never went more than a few minutes without seeing someone pass around a joint or catch sight of smoke wafting deeper in the crowd. Sometimes I’d jump up to catch a breath of cool, clean air. A man approached us in the dark and said he had coke and speed for sale. I’m sure his commissions were high that weekend. If my friend Tmack was out there he’d be that dude’s competition, selling Mydol under the name of ecstasy.
I saw a fat redhead in a bikini laying in muck by the toilets, puking, her vomit sluicing down the stretch marks of her stomach. People ate pills from strangers in front of old men wearing Jazzfest shirts. I heard rumors of heroin needles being found in the honey bucket bathrooms.
The toilets are gross. You check your humanity at the door when using them. I wrote a poem in ode:
Twenty five strangers shit,
in upright plastic coffin,
and all forget to flush
I wrote myself other little poems while there. Here’s one about how gross my body felt:
In Nolan’s toad body,
Hylex trickles through the penis,
making cummy batter.
Hoppers of cricket eggs
hide in tip,
hatch on nerves.
Their chirps a mimic
of shrills of semen
evacuating toad genitals.
Your body becomes disgusting over the days as you accumulate dirt and sweat. Ya start to smell like a can of wet horse meat. “Bonnafunk” is a popular term for this condition. The heat wakes you at eight in the morning, even if you didn’t get back to camp until five. Every morning we walked to a cow trailer that had spigots and sinks on two sides. There we tried to wash with stink shit sulfur water. This was more refreshing than sleep even though it smelled like bathing in an omelet.
The heat wears you down. Hundred degrees and sticky. It’s so humid you sweat all day until the earth cools around seven or eight. But for as hard as it is during the day, the nights are ceaselessly awesome and relatively easy if you’ve paced yourself through the afternoon. But that can be hard to get right.
We napped on the grass during the day just to have the energy to go on. Drank a hundred ounces of water and still felt tired and hot. Headed back to camp before the late nights to eat our decomposing food and slurp down energy drinks. I bought a lemonade for $5 that was gone in three sucks on the straw. It was worth it. Rolling those ice cubes in my mouth saved me from misery as I watched Regina Spektor bang on her piano. Sometimes it got so hot you had to sit for a show instead of stand. Everywhere people lay on dirty blankets and towels, writhing in garbage that littered the ground. Sometimes Bonnaroo looks like the world’s funnest crack house.
Lots of people talk about the friendliness of Bonnaroo. People go around misting each other with water, fanning others down. Security throws water bottles into the crowd that you’re meant to use as coolant on those around ya. Sometimes the friendliness hurts. A girl behind me fanned herself by opening and closing an umbrella, its metal veins jabbing my head to the beat.
Someone will ask what show you’re heading to and wish ya luck. Ask you to take their picture, dance with you, make sure you’re having a good time. I was so hot one day when a woman came up to me with a spray bottle. She asked if I wanted to be squirted, then sprayed my face and wrists at their pulse points. I’ll never forget how nice she was, or how much better my day became due to that.
But as with the rest of the world, not everyone is nice, not everything is good. With all the drugs on hand, with that many people there, crime becomes a natural extension for assholes to embrace.
One night we didn’t get back to the tent until 4:30 in the morning. A few minutes after going to bed a fight started outside. Some guy had been over to our neighbors’ to play beer pong, passed out, and had $700 snatched from his wallet. He came back at five in the morning with a posse who smashed someone’s tail light, igniting a screaming match. This went on for an hour, escalating and becoming more vile. I sat in a chair outside my tent watching them scream as the sun rose. The police showed up on horses, threatening to have their four legged beasts eat those who didn’t comply. It was a great night for people watching. And a bad night for sleep.
The sun woke us at eight on that morning of the fight. The next evening we napped during Stevie Wonder because of fatigue. We set an alarm, but slept through it and missed Jay-Z. After getting up I found out our camera was stolen from my car while we rested. Later on, the girl I was with ended up going back to camp early because someone threatened to smash in her face for stepping on their bag. Another dumped beer on her head during Gwar. I stuck around to get covered in monster semen, witness the slaying of a crack addicted dinosaur, and see an incest baby anally penetrated by The Rape Sword.
People lovingly refer to the grounds of Roo as “The Farm.” I’ve seen many call it their home or the four days a year they suffer through the rest for. Roo is their lifestyle. The embodiment of a communal and radically expressive vibe that should carry through the year with force. But for me it’s a vacation where the amount of fun you have depends on how much you can generate. How much you let yourself be open to. It does feel like a separate world, especially from the one I knew in North Dakota. But it’s mostly just a temporary way to see great music while experiencing as much joy as possible.
That joy comes from the atmosphere, people, music, your friends, the drugs, sucking on tits during Gwar, whatever. Though I personally have seclusive tendencies, lots of people also make friends there and feel it to be a communal experience — everyone attends because they love music and want to have a good time. All the elements for that good time are there, you just have to harness them and not overdo it.
There’s much to love. I think that’s where some of the stronger feelings for “the lifestyle” originate. I don’t care that some people feel this way but it’s different for me. That being said, my first Bonnaroo was somewhat life altering. It wasn’t something that set me on a new path, or changed the way I saw the world. But it was a force which added powerful new dimensions to what was possible in the realm of experiences.
It can, and should, resonate with you long after the festival’s over. Much of my fondness for it came well after attending. Bonnaroo is hard to get through but easy to reminisce on and romanticize. I now spend way too much of the year thinking about going back. Countless hours reading its message board for stories and advice. Too much time looking at photos and footage I shot. I let my mind wander and slip back in time to those four days among pack where everyone screamed “Bonnarooooooo!”
The rest of that summer we reminisced on the crazy, harrowing trip we took. How happy we were that we’d gone and got to do it together. NPR recorded a bunch of the shows and we always streamed some while playing Monopoly. I wore my Roo wristband until it fell apart. I wanted that thing to fuse to my skin. Joked they should start selling a lifetime Roo band that’d be surgically attached. Pay once. Go forever. Wear it forever. Be forced to use a porta the other 361 days a year, have your ears ring at all times, sew cigarettes into your blankets, etc. Full time Roo living.
I tell everyone I can about my experiences there and how they should go. How they’ll probably create memories they’ll carry with them for life. How, despite the challenges, you won’t regret it. So even though it isn’t an extension of some type of way of life for me, I often think about June, how I want to get back to “The Farm.”
Last summer I went back for my second Roo. My ex and sister both came with. We spent eight days away. Sang along to kid’s songs and talked about how South Dakota’s Corn Palace must be infested with rats. Played the license plate game and pointed out poorly designed abortion billboards. I sometimes imagined us to be riding in a crane, using the wrecking ball to knock over every bridge we passed under.
We camped in a park on the way there. Down at the lake a southern hag tried getting her daughter’s boyfriend to suck her hag tits as they swam. Half the people splashing in that lake had cigarettes burning between their lips. If my mother was with she’d chant her anti-smoking motto. “Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette. Smoke that cigarette to death.” Upon completion she’d bare her breasts, asking my ex to suck her hag tits.
We arrived to the farm late at night and consumed another four days of experiences. This Bonnaroo felt different. There were brief moments where it was weird to be there with this girl. We felt mostly okay about being just friends now, but still, Bonnaroo had been a huge bonding experience that first time around. It was hard to disassociate those memories and feelings. We talked these things over and made sure everyone felt good. I kept wanting to ensure my sister was having a memorable first Roo. Powering through the weekend is as much a mental thing as it is physical. You don’t completely forget your outside life while in there, but thankfully the good seems to get most of the focus.
The music wasn’t quite as perfect for our tastes. I felt more tired more often. I had to cake my genitals in baby powder. Some parts were hard and not the best. We walked more than a half hour each way to get to the music from camp. It was hot and we stomped up dust with every step. We camped next to trees and lay in their shade each morning. We blasted AC before loading our backpacks for the day. I spent a morning checking hair for ticks after bathing in the cow troughs.
But even though collectively as an experience it was overwhelming at times, there were many new and incredible moments. Ones I’ll never forget. Our first night there, while exploring the campground, a Santa-esque old man outside the honey buckets hit me with a question. “Have you seen my dog? His name is Opium.”
During a rainstorm that interrupted Buffalo Springfield we sat in sand under a tent. I told ghost stories that incorporated our little hometown and sprinkled the girls with sand to emulate a demonic presence. While waiting for Arcade Fire sky jumpers parachuted down. Thousands of blinking blue lights floated with them, like stars shooting slowly, bringing our sky canvass to life. It’s among the most unforgettable visuals of my life. A couple hours later we sang in the dark with 60,000 others to “Wake Up.”
My sister danced on a table to a bluegrass band. I blissed out watching holograms work violins during Ratatat. Pee-Wee Herman kept showing up with a stick impaled through his asshole.
During Sleigh Bells a man hung upside down up high on the cables of the tent. He threw glowsticks on the dancers and grabbed at impaled, glowing elephants. A guy offered to sell me stem cells. “You just snort them.”
Old folks sat atop their campers watching music. We walked through thousands of people having the time of their lives. Misted each other with water. I sprayed a grandma’s ass as she went by during Mumford and Sons. We got hot. We got dirty. We bathed in the muddy fountain water. When we left we all had severe colds. I loved all of it, even the shitty stuff. I need to go back for my third time. For my hundredth time.
My dad used to have a summer tradition of going to a rodeo weekend in Canada with his friends. He’s been going on and off for three decades. At one point he’d seen bulls buck and ponies race for over twenty years without a miss. I’ve only been to Bonnaroo a few times but I think it might be my Canadian rodeo. Sometimes I’ll go with friends or lovers. Sometimes alone. I’ll probably have to skip a year every now and then. But I hope there’ll never come a time where I don’t want to spend four days on the farm, getting high on stem cells.
Your Bonnaroooooooooooo! Narrator:
I wrote about my third time at Bonnaroo here:
Here’s one day’s example of how y’all found this post. Every day there are new, entertaining search terms:
I bought my 2012 ticket months ago and waste time most every day looking at Roo stuff.
Here’s 2012′s lineup:
If you care, this is more or less a list of everyone I’ve seen at Roo, the bold being my favorite sets:
Kings of Leon
The Flaming Lips performing Dark Side of the Moon featuring Stardeath and White Dwarfs
The Dead Weather
Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers
She & Him
Jeffrey Ross Roasts Bonnaroo
Dan Deacon Ensemble
They Might Be Giants
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros
Tokyo Police Club
Here We Go Magic
My Morning Jacket
Mumford & Sons
Florence + the Machine
Matt & Kim
Freelance Whales (twice!)