Woodstock Forgotten

SUBHEAD: How I went to Woodstock, missed the music and ended up at the Delaware Water Gap.

[Author's note: This is a photo essay of which I took none of the pictures. I tried, with some success, to recreate my experience (or nonexperience) of Woodstock by browsing the internet for images.]

By Juan Wilson on 15 August 2009 in Island Breath - 

Image above: The original 1969 "White Lake" poster for Woodstock From http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/iTNny7QjFn1fGiNqLU1yxg

It was back in 1969, after the first moon landing (see Ea O Ka Aina: The Moonshot - Part I), and New York was hot and sticky. It was the dog days of August in the steaming Lower Eastside of New York City. No wind, no rain. No work, no school. Borrring.

I was twenty-four and living at 620 East Sixth Street between Avenues B and C. My building faced five rubble filled lots and another tenement building like mine. A couple I'd seen in the neighborhood lived there. They had a nice VW bus that hadn't been stolen. They had some way to get out of the city and seemed to have someplace to go on weekends.

Image above: Six stories high Lower Eastside NYC tenements side by side.From http://www.essential-architecture.com/TYPE/TYPE-14.htm

It was Friday noon and not a time to be in the sun, but I was sitting on the stoop. It's forty years back, and I don't remember any names now, but the VW owner came over to me and said something like, "Hey you planning to go to Woodstock?"

Well I had, but it was too much money, and I had no car, and it was out in the middle of nowhere. I'll call the guy Brad... So VW Brad said "So you wanna go with Nancy and me. We're goin." Koool. Brad said he was leaving in a couple of hours and could take a couple more people.

I'd seen the concert posters, but had no idea of what to expect. I did know I better bring along something. I ran up the four flights to my apartment and rummaged around for a paper bag to carry some food in and grabbed an extra shirt. I had a few dollars, but had no camping gear. I'd shop for what I needed along the way. What the hell.

I tried calling a girl or two I knew, but they apparently were not in town. Probably at mom and dad's cooling it. My buddy Ralph I knew was out on the Island. I guessed I'd be be going alone.

After some bodega shopping I returned to Brad's tenement and he and Nancy were loading up. With them were two younger guys, maybe 18 or 19. They were guys from our block. A black guy, Ray, and a mixed latino kid, Eddie. They each had a drum. Ray had a small ashiko shaped drum and Ray had a set of bongos. Beyond that they were traveling light.

Brad and Nancy were prepared for more contingencies than us three. They had water, a flashlight and changes of clothes and probably even toiletries hidden is some VW compartment. It was 2:00pm and we were "Goin' up the County".

Image above: A 1961 VW Bus much like the one we rode in to Woodstock.From http://www.just-vw.co.uk/camper1.html

Traffic over to Jersey by the Holland Tunnel wasn't bad. We got onto Route 17 (See the Sopranos intro for atmospherics), and headed north. WINS news radio said something about the New York State Thruway being shut down between exits on either side of the Bethel, New York, festival site. Things were getting exciting.

Brad had been smart and taken a less obvious way to get there. Before we got onto 17B heading west to the festival things were bogging down. It had been hours on the road and as the afternoon drew late we were in bumper to bumper traffic. Lots of cars had overheated along the sides of the road.

Image above: Scene at Happy Avenue on Friday afternoon two miles from Woodstock.From http://www.peacefence.com/happyavevwbugwoodstockfestival69.htm

As dusk came we were not moving anymore. It was obvious that we were going to have to ditch the van and walk in if we wanted to see the concert. With some difficulty Brad did a u-turn and found a place on the side of the road that was level to park. We got out with our meager gear and headed into the darkness and the epicenter.

We passed thicker traffic every step of the way. The jam was spreading horizontally, off the road. It was getting dense. As we got to within a couple of miles from the site people were setting up camps between parked cars. We realized that eventually the cars would end and there would be nothing in front of us but people - toe-to-toe. We were still more than a mile away. We couldn't hear any music.

So we stopped - then we bailed. We headed back to the bus. It took a while to find it, and then more time to get it back on the road and heading east.

It was close to nine and we had pulled back from the epicenter a few miles. We decided to look for a place off 17B to camp. We turned south a short distance and lucked out. We were on a country lane, and in a break along the treeline, we saw there was a pond.

Image above: A waxing crescent moon of a pond like the night on August 15th 1969. From http://www.dl-digital.com/NHAC/2003-009-neal-moon.htm

We parked near the south side of the lake and found a path that led clockwise around the pond. The path rose as we walked and led to a grove of maples on a small bluff above the water. We put down our things and began looking for fire wood. As it got darker we saw other fires around the pond.

By then Ray and Eddie had their drums out and and were working up a rhythm. The drums really carried across the water. Soon somebody approached our fire with a flute. I began using a couple of sticks for percussion. Things were getting good. We broke out the remaining food we had and mellowed out. Weed was burned. The music we played that night was the only music we heard at Woodstock.

Image above: Nudity at ponds around Bethel, New York, was not unusual on August 16, 1969.From http://life.qoop.com/images/196290

The next morning there were a lot more people around our pond. Some of them were naked and in the water. It was Saturday, the first full day of the festival and more people were on the way to the epicenter. We wondered if things were going to get too cozy by the next dusk.

We were going to be low on food and after not too long the weather didn't look so good. Brad and Nancy conferred and offered Ray and Eddie and I a possible plan of action. Bailing out again. We had pulled back to around five miles from Woodstock. Brad suggested we pull back another seventy.

The idea was we would visit friends of theirs in New Jersey. They lived on an old farm, along the river, near the Delaware Water Gap. In fact that farm was the retreat Brad and Nancy had from the steamy old Lower Eastside. There would be food and a place to stretch out.

We headed east on Route 17 until we got to 209 South. This way ran parallel to the Delaware River all the way down to the farm.

Image above: Red barn near the Delaware River Gap like the one we hung around August 16, 1969. From http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/7-4KZc5l9yuNhp5XXNxLhQ

We got down to Brad's friends place in the late morning. It was off the main drag near the river. A space between the old peeling farmhouse and a big red barn had some cool shade and lawn. We had lemonade and potato salad with some sandwiches and heard the buzz of insects over the grass.

I remember after lunch going into the darkness of the barn. The heavy worn boards. Smell of hay and previous hoofed tenants.

There was a thick wooden-board stair up to the second floor hayloft. Up there it was all cleared out.

There were signs Brad's friend used the place as a studio to play music with someone. The wide loft door was open looking out over the scene of the farmhouse yard. Perfect.

What did we miss at Woodstock. Perhaps a lot... but we found another universe. We certainly were not seeking to live in an overcrowded refuge camp.

As it was, we were heading back to the Third World reality of the Lower Eastside.

Image above: After the rain on the last day of the Woodstock festival. From http://life.qoop.com/images/839460

The lesson I learned from Woodstock was that I didn't not have be at the epicenter, in the mosh pit, close to the celebrities, to have a good time. The old red barn was where it was at.

See also:
New York Times: Gail Collins - To be old in Woodstock 8/14/09


Unknown said...

Very cool story, Juan!

Jku said...

That's a lesson I still have to learn, being in Wyoming. But a very true lesson that rings in my heart.

I'm only 19 years old, but I feel like those are times that I could have lived in.. that I could have gotten into and lived in the moment and enjoyed myself. I'm not saying that the way things are now are bad at all- I accept them and live in them.. Not like I have much of a choice, right? But what I'm more or less saying is that I just feel like times when things moved a little more slowly (Like a VW bus!) Were times that I could have lived in more easily.

But I'll cope and I'll survive in this modern world. :)

I guess someday the good ol' days will be now and I'll look back and wonder where my youth went and why I didn't do what I didn't do and did what I did do.. So I guess I've got to just enjoy life and do what feels good for a while. ^^ Of course I'll have to keep a small amount of responsibility.

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