Have You Seen Molly: A Field Guide to Bonnaroo
By E. Max Bonem, Esq.
It’s that enchanting time of year again where hippies, hipsters, bros, deadheads, school teachers, students, fathers, daughters, and people from every imaginable walk of life descend upon the tiny town of Manchester, Tennessee (population 10,201) to partake in the music festival right of passage known as Bonnaroo (in which the city population expands to close to 100,000). In the ten years since Bonnaroo was first produced on a large farm an hour south of neighboring Nashville, which the company that organizes the festival has since purchased exclusively for the yearly festival, Bonnaroo has turned into a counter-culture event unlike anything seen on this side of Atlantic.
Originally inspired by the likes of Glastonbury and Coachella, Bonnaroo has assumed it’s right at the top of the festival summit, attracting such eclectic acts as Jay-Z, Radiohead, Kings of Leon, Stevie Wonder, The Allman Brothers, Bassnectar, GWAR, The Black Keys, Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, Nas, among thousands of others, which is impressive all in itself given that the festival was originally created to fulfill the fantasies of every Phish and Dave Matthews Band fan from here to infinity (oh and Les Claypool plays every year, whether he’s invited or just shows up out of habit is still unknown).
Although I experienced Lollapalooza the summer prior to my first Bonnaroo in 2008, I consider the Tennessee freak fest to be my first real dive into what can happen when you immerse yourself into the spirit of a music festival. Much like fellow music festivals not in large cities, Bonnaroo turns into a medium-sized city for the duration of the festival each week, a society where morals are loosened, laws are bent, and every drug imaginable is at your fingers tips (first timer note – random dudes will show up at your tent asking if you’re interested in acquiring any of the following things, among many others: hash, pot, acid, MDMA, shrooms, and ecstacy). Your friends will say yes to things you’d never thought possible and you’ll achieve levels of filth that Pigpen from The Peanuts gang would scoff at. It’s quite enjoyable.
Sadly, I will not be there next weekend to cheers the Tennessee humidity for my third time and encounter more painted breasts than most men can imagine. As a tribute, I’ve decided to offer my two cents on some do’s and don’ts for any Bonnaroo newbs, most of which will be completely ignored by 90% of the people in attendance. SO buckle up, grab yourself a light, and put on your favorite 20+ minute long Trey Anastasio solo bootleg because it’s time to get Bonaschoo’d (I feel like there’s a pun in there somewhere, but it could be a stretch).
Get There Early
Until 2010, there was exactly one way in and one way out of the festival grounds, until they opened up a second entrance, however, it’s still the biggest traffic jam I’ve ever encountered. Pulling up to the midday highway traffic on the Thursday of Bonnaroo is what I imagine trying to get into the holy land must’ve been like in olden times: there are people bartering from vehicle to vehicle, impromptu drum circles form in the road, and it’s hotter than can be imagined. That is, if you don’t plan out your strategy for attack.
Our first Bonnaroo voyage involved our team sitting in traffic for more than five hours, which was followed by a less than feeble attempt to set up our campsite while pounding beers quicker than we could pop open the tabs (This all led to one of the most righteous hangovers of my life on Friday morning, a tale which is now legendary amongst those who were present). Bonnaroo round two, however, was executed much more smoothly.
After finishing my last college exam ever and the process of packing up my life in Athens, Ohio, Miles Dwertman and I packed up two large vehicles and hauled ass back to Cincinnati where we then unloaded my entire college existence into my parents’ basement. There we were met by our fellow Bonnaroo attendee Johnny. We then unpacked his vehicle and repacked everything into my car, which had just been used to schlep all of my belongings from college home. We then drove to Nashville, arriving around 2 am Thursday morning. After two hours or so of awful sleep, we got back into our chariot and made our way to Manchester, where we encountered impressive traffic as the sun came up. Just remember, there are 80,000+ people trying to get into the same place as you, some coming from as far away as Seattle, Arizona, or freakin’ England, and everyone wants to get their camp site set up as quickly as possible. Round two had us completely set up and settled before 10am, which then led to us drinking for the subsequent eight hours until shows started around 6pm. Did I mention I skipped my college graduation for this? Ah to be young and intoxicated in the Tennessee sun…
When we set sail for our first Bonnaroo trip, I had moved out of my sophomore year college dorm less than a day before hand and, let’s just say, let preparations full behind. Between myself and two dear friends, we took a few boxes of granola bars, some dry cereal, a kielbasa, hundreds of bottles of water, and a shit ton of alcohol (quick note – don’t take in ANY glass. Seriously. They “inspect” every car upon entry and, although it’s not as if they literally search your belongings, if you have a few glass handles of Jose Cuervo just rolling around in the backseat, the security staff is going to confiscate it (and then drink it themselves)). We were not prepared. Luckily, we went with two girls who were moderately more astute with their prep work (i.e. they brought a camping stove, which ended up running out of fuel and which led to one of the most troubling experiences that us three males will ever encounter: eating a cold foot of sausage straight out of the packaging), we ended up buying a lot of food within the festival, which although pretty good for the most part can get rather pricey quickly. On that note, make sure you cash for all of your, ahem, expenditures. There are ATMs within the grounds, but the withdraw fees are outrageous and they have a habit of running out. Remember this is more than three days worth of supplies that you need and, believe me, you’re going to need all of the nutritional pick me ups that you can muster to stay positive, clear headed, and attached to reality.
Bonnaroo is legendarily hot and humid in mid-June and when I say “hot,” I’m talking being woken up by 90+ degree heat by 7am and feeling flies fluttering above you in your tent that’s dripping your condensed sweat from the ceiling. It can be terrible frankly and one way to combat this is by staying as hydrated as possible. Drink water. You’ll undoubtedly be drinking a variety of other things as well, but make sure you are POUNDING water whenever you can. Once it get’s to be 4 or 5pm and all of the good shows start getting to be back to back to back to back, you aren’t going to want to spend time seeking out water. Also, Bonnaroo is truly alive at night, from the hours of about 11pm-2am, which also happens to be when it’s coolest (and when The Flaming Lips are undoubtedly doing something preposterous before 50,000 zonked out festival attendees). On top of the hydration part, get your self some sunscreen. You’re not going to want to be wearing clothing and, although most people are religated to at least strapping on a loin cloth, there are areas of your body that don’t normally get much outdoor exposure that are going to get punished by the southern sun. Sun poisoning is a terrible thing to experience (and such a bummer, man), not to mention blisters and heat stroke. Get yourself a really neat hat or some herbal gel that the “shaman” you’re camping next to gave you for “external use” only and use it like it’s going out of style (or going to spoil quickly and cause your entire tent to helucinate (literally, it’ll be so strong that the tent itself will helucinate)).
Bonnaroo is where hygiene goes to die. Do people shower? Yes. Is it worth it? No. Is it expensive? YES. Just don’t do it people, you’re out in the wild at a fuckin’ music festival. Wear the rattiest clothes you’ve got and pack an extra stick of Old Spice because you’re entire being will slowly start to spoil and decay under the Manchester skies. By the end of the weekend, you’ll be finding dirt in places you didn’t know dirt could go (and beyond). You’ll make that first gas station stop outside of Nashville and attempt to thrust your entire body under the head of the sink once you’ve seen yourself in the mirror for the first time since that last peaceful bathroom session you had on your way down. Everything you bring with you will be encrusted in mud and your very soul will feel filthier than you could have possible imagined possible, but that could be for a variety of reasons. Also, speaking of your personal belongings getting dirty…
Don’t Bring Anything Stupid
Do not bring ANYTHING that you fear losing/being stolen/being destroyed/having mother nature vomit on. Nice cameras, new clothes, that new fedora you were so excited to show off in all of your festival photos that you plan on putting on Facebook once you’ve regained consciousness/cognitive ability. Don’t bring anything that needs charging (although there are stations to charge cell phones) or anything that won’t do well being in the sun/coming into contact with water. I can not express this enough: Bonnaroo is one of the purest and most utterly in-the-moment things one can do in their lives and, although you’re going to want to take a bagillion photos and text people and all that balderdash, DON’T. Just be there. Leave your camera in your car and take some fun photos of the camping area (which turns into an 80+ acre metropolis all on it’s own). Also, understand that while Bonnaroo is not a normal, law-abiding environment, security will not hesitate to confiscate things that “attendees aren’t supposed to have.” If you have any special treats that you’re planning on taking into the actual festival grounds, make sure they’re hidden. Every person that goes into the grounds is searched and if they ask to open your purse and spot a few loose joints, well, guess who no longer has their group’s doobies which were to be sparked at the exact moment when whatever current incarnation of Ben Harper is playing that year starts playing “Burn One Down.” Just don’t be stupid and you’ll have an incredible time. Be an ass and less fortunate things will occur. If there was ever a time for karma to be alive and well in this world, it’s at Bonnaroo.
Be Ready to Experience
Above all else, be ready to experience fun on overdrive. Bonnaroo is so many things and will possess a special place in your heart after your first experience there and just make sure that you allow yourself to really experience all of the crazy, wild, and often times confusing moments that make up the festival each year. The single greatest concert experience of my life was at Bonnaro (My Morning Jacket’s 2008 Friday Midnight show that went from 1200 to 430 am. I could do a whole post solely on this show, but I’ll just leave you with this tidbit: they closed their 30+ song set with Motely Crue’s “Home Sweet Home” and were accompanied by Zach Galifianakis, who was wearing a little orphan Annie dress while carrying a mostly empty bottle of what I would have to assume was Jack Daniels (we were in Tennessee after all)) and there are moments that occur every year, whether it’s a reunion show or Jack White popping up to play dulcimer with some unknown, or Aziz Ansari asking you to hold his challis while he takes a dump, that you’ll remember forever. Go fucking nuts, do everything crazy you’ve ever wanted to do, and make sure to have stories that match up to attendees’ from previous years because who knows when you’ll get a second chance to go (unless you’re Les Claypool, he’ll be there again next year).