Stephanie and I went to Manchester, Tennessee, to see the second annual Bonnaroo Festival. It was a hell of a roadtrip, despite continuing car troubles and deadly heat.
Read from the beginning below, or jump to each day:
Stephanie and I went to Manchester, Tennessee, to see the second annual Bonnaroo Festival. It was a hell of a roadtrip, despite continuing car troubles and deadly heat.
Read from the beginning below, or jump to each day:
We left Minneapolis at 8am, which would’ve been pretty good timing had the drive to Nashville been 750 miles, a number I had in my head and didn’t bother to recheck. It’s actually 900 miles, but we discovered that a while later, which was for the best.
The drive was uneventful through most of the midwest. In Illinois, I was passing somebody doing 80 or so when I looked in the mirror to see a trooper riding my ass. I quickly moved into the right lane, looking shamed. He turned on his siren and sped by, giving me a dirty look. In all my years of speeding, that’s the closest I’ve come to a ticket on the interstate. Of course there was that time with the Minneapolis cop, but they’re easy. You just ask them out to coffee.
We survived the bleak nothingness of southern Illinois and stopped quickly in Metropolis so Stephanie could see Superman. We arrived just in time for some kind of bizarre religious Superman festival; the main street was blocked off and there were vendors selling state-fair food and cheap designer knockoff schlock. A couple hundred old people were crammed in a tent listening to gospel music. It gave us the willies, so we got the hell out of there and crossed the border into Kentucky.
In Paducah, we cruised the long strip of chain restaurants, looking for a place at which I could dine without serious after-effects. After a few tries, I discovered that TGI Friday’s had a gardenburger, and that was good enough for me. We shoved food in our mouths as fast as we could, trying not to choke while giggling over the employees’ goofy accents.
I took over driving in the dark, which I hate. I have trouble seeing, and after I braked for a port-a-potty on the side of the road, wondering if it was a state trooper, I knew it was going to be bad. Stephanie wouldn’t stop laughing at me. We arrived in Nashville around 11pm, sat in a monster traffic jam, then finally got through to our hotel in Murfreesboro, about 30 miles south of town. It was situated directly between downtown and the festival site. I’m smart like that.
As I stumbled out of the car, the front desk lady came to hold the door open and yelled, ‘REDHEAD!!!!’ I laughed. She told me about the time years ago when she dyed her hair red, and got so many marriage proposals she had to dye it back.
God, don’t I feel that pain.
Friday morning, we headed up to Nashville, as the shows we wanted to see didn’t start until later. Stephanie had never experienced the joys of the South, so I aimed to show her the highlights. We started at Bongo Java. She witnessed the miracle of the Nun Bun, and I bought coffee and some souvenir underwear, because it’s what I do. The coffee boy freaked when I pulled out my wallet. He said, ‘Can I take a picture of that?’ and pulled out his camera phone. I held it up for him, and he told me about his Hello Kitty fandom. I said, ‘Well then…’ and put my keys on the counter so he could see my Hello Kitty sushi chef keyring. Then I showed him my cellphone. He looked like he was going to pass out. He dug in his pocked and produced a little Hello Kitty, which he placed lovingly on the counter. It was a moment.
We drove over to see the Parthenon. Stephanie was unimpressed. As a sports fan, she was way more excited by the Coliseum (I even learned there’s a sports team there called the Titans, and apparently they play a game known locally as ‘football’), which was crawling with country music fans in town for the CMA festival. We drove around for a while trying to find a parking spot amongst the crowd of cowboy-hat-tube-top-wearing fans. The nice thing about Nashville is that all the funny touristy stuff is confined to a few blocks along Broadway, from Ryman Auditorium (the original Grand Ole Opry) to the… well, Hard Rock Cafe. Whatever.
Anyway, we wandered. I pointed out the Batman building. We went into the offensive souvenir shop where half the merchandise comes emblazoned with a confederate flag. We stopped into Hatch Show Print, because I’m obsessed (my upcoming portfolio is a tribute). We marveled at the fashion we saw:
‘Was that a one or two-piece hot-pink bodysuit?’
‘How does he transport that giant beer gut on those spindly legs?’
‘What’s the connection between NASCAR and country?’
We stopped to get our photo taken with Elvis, and to talk to some country music fans on the street, who told us about the festival events, and the loads of free crap to be had. We decided to check it out.
They had a bunch of tents set up, selling state-fair food (again!), and crappy beer. There was a tent with Sharpie markers, one for eBay, and a cooking tent sponsored by Mrs. Dash. No, I’m not joking. There was even a karaoke stage, on which bemused fans in various degrees of patriotic decoration were belting their hearts out to today’s greatest country. It was… interesting. We went to the Charlie Daniels museum instead. And then, we were just in time for the opening of the world-famous Wildhorse Saloon. If you’re not me, you probably don’t recall that it’s the place I learned to line-dance.
I was feeling nostalgic, so I ordered fried pickles even though Stephanie wouldn’t touch them. I ate a few, then had a ‘cowboy’ caesar salad. As she pointed out, I was eating the same thing I eat at Luce: caesar salad and a diet Coke. I told her to shut up, since it was the only thing on the menu I could eat.
This would become a theme.
We headed to Katy K’s Ranch Dressing. I can’t say enough good things about her custom western wear, so I won’t. You just have to see it. She noticed the kitty shoes I’d bought from her last spring. I bought a tshirt with her logo. She gave us directions to Bonnaroo. I wanted to hug her goodbye, but I restrained myself.
So we drove the 70 miles to Manchester. The main exit was closed, so we had to go three miles past it and turn around at the next exit, as instructed by about a hundred state troopers. There were cars lining the freeway for those entire three miles, and they didn’t seem to be moving. People were hanging out of their cars and wandering around on the side of the road. We decided to stop at the gas station to pee and get snacks and water.
We got on the entrance ramp and sat parked there for half an hour. I got out and talked to the passing folks. One boy with rhinestone sunglasses told me he was parked about a mile and a half up the road, and it had taken him three hours to get to that point. We turned off the air, opened all the windows and sunroof, and settled in. I watched the temperature creep from 92 to 101.
We crept down the three miles of I-24 and reached the Manchester exit after almost 4 hours. We were thrilled to almost be there. We were drenched, had to go to the bathroom, and were running out of water. We had watched people walking down the highway twice the speed we were driving. We watched them climbing into the woods and peeing, and seriously regretted being girls.
At the exit, the friendly troopers told us we were entering total chaos. There were 90,000 people there, way more than they expected. There wasn’t enough room for all the campers, so people were just parking anywhere. It was a mess. They were amused. We were not. We realized that the traffic backup didn’t end at the exit, and that we had farther to go, but no idea just how far.
A total of nine hours after leaving the gas station, we were parked at Bonnaroo. They were correct about chaos. We drove through rocks and grass and mud and found a parking spot amongst the campers. We weren’t camping and were supposed to be parked in a separate area so we could leave later, but they had abandoned any order. I asked three different people in STAFF tshirts and was told they had no idea how I was leaving, since all the exits were blocked by cars trying to get in. My favorite response was, ‘I heard there was another exit around here, but I’m not sure. It’ll probably be cleared up by 8am.’
We tried to remember where we parked in the dark, and walked a mile or so into the festival. The main camping area was full of vendors. They had some tshirts and such, but mostly it was glass pipes and ganja brownies and mushroom truffles and inventive mixed drinks. It would’ve been really funny, had we not sat in the car for 9 hours without water, having to pee. Knowing we would have to face the dreaded music-festival port-a-potties. Shiver.
It was a life-changing event for me. I tried about six bathrooms before finding one that seemed tolerable. I climbed in with Kleenex and seat covers. Since it was dark, the stalls were pitch black; she held the door open partway while I peed and watched the folks outside buying weed. As we traded off, passing hand wipes, a girl came barrelling out of the next stall, stoned and freaking out. And the Dead weren’t even playing that night!
Finally, we were in. We watched Dave Matthews. Or she did, and I watched the people. I have never seen so many people stoned at one time, and I’ve been to many shows. And in keeping with her request/threat, I remained completely unaltered. The entire time.
After the show, we did manage to find our way back to the car. I told Stephanie I was going to get us out of there, no matter what. I had a plan that mostly involved brute force, and it worked.
Chico is not an offroad vehicle, and even a Jeep would’ve been hard-pressed in that environment. We made it out to the road, and another trooper stopped us. He said, ‘You know you’ve got something dragging up here?’ Apparently a piece underneath the bumper had dropped down. He said it didn’t look like it would cause any damage, so we headed back to the hotel for the night.
Saturday morning, I got up way too early, as usual. I drove over to Starbucks, got gas, stopped at CVS to pick up the razor I had forgotten to bring (got forbid one be hairy at a hippie-overrun music festival), fruit, and duct tape. The girl at CVS told me she was from Manchester, and that this was the best-organized event to date. I almost fell over. I brought Stephanie back breakfast, and set to work duct-taping my vehicle. A big piece of plastic under the front of the engine had broken off and was hanging down. I taped the shit out of it and we were off.
We got to Bonnaroo at 10:30, well before the shows started. We had no trouble getting into day parking, as all the campers had finally settled. I wish I could adequately represent what the camping looked like: huge open fields full of tents, as far as one could see. It was pretty awesome. And a complete mess. People were walking down the road to bathe in the dirty creek. The whole place already smelled like garbage. We, however, were clean.
I strapped on the Camelbak and we waded through the sea of contraband to the entrance. We spend some time wandering around Centeroo and figuring out where all the stages were, as they all had immensely useless names such as What Stage, Which State, That Tent, This Tent, etc. We checked out the food, and I was thrilled: there were a few full-on vegetarian booths, and even a vegan one. It figured with the audience, but sometimes I’m surprised. I bought a pretzel and we went to grab spots close to the stage in That Tent for Kings of Leon, the original reason I wanted to go to the festival in the first place.
The show was so great. I loved it. We were up close enough to see everything, and they rocked hard in that Tennessee way. They had crazy hillbilly hair and the tightest jeans ever seen on human beings. During the show, which was under a big tent, it started pouring outside, and everybody cheered and ran out into the rain.
After the show, we wandered around and saw some other bands. Gomez was awesome live. There was a huge crowd listening on the lawn. We saw most of that show, then I went to hear Rachael Yamagata in a little tent hidden in the back. I fell in love. She’ll be here in Minneapolis this month in a tiny little room at the Quest, and I will be there.
We saw Del McCoury and My Morning Jacket, and spent some time laying in the sun listening to whatever band was nearby. I ate a hummus wrap and immediately felt sick because of the heat. It was better to not eat at all, and drink water whenever necessary, but not too much, as we had a very good reason: avoiding the port-a-potties again. Word was getting around about how bad they were already, and there was no way I’d go willingly. So we devised a carefully-executed technique we termed ‘controlled dehydration’: drink enough to stay conscious, but not enough to have to pee. And it worked!
As it got later, we decided to head out before the Grateful Dead. The idea of hanging around for that was just depressing. So we got back to the car easily, just as it got really dark and the wind picked up. Tents were billowing, and garbage was flying everywhere. Within ten minutes of leaving, the downpour began. We were so glad to not be at the festival for that.
It took us too long to get to the hotel in the rain. I showered the sweat and fifteen layers of sunscreen off me. The sunscreen seemed to be doing no good at all. The news on TV said that two people had already died at Bonnaroo due to multiple drugs and heat and dehydration. We drove back up to Nashville for dinner, as Stephanie was insistent about eating at Wildhorse again. I worried about getting in due to the CMA festivities, but figured we’d find something else if the club was closed.
We found the exact same parking spot as the day before, and cheered. As I started off down the street and looked back over my shoulder, and noticed something I didn’t want to see: the front tire was flat. I had one of those split-second gaps in reasoning that really makes me question how I think sometimes: I thought, ‘Eh, leave it for later.’ I almost walked away. But then I snapped back to reality, and I was pissed.
We were parked on a downward slope, so I pulled up the parking brake hard, ripped all the tools out of the trunk, and set to work. See, I’ve changed flats on this car so many times that I could qualify for the Saab racing pit crew. Not that that makes me any calmer about it when it happens; in fact, each time it gets worse.
I was parked close enough to the curb that getting the tire iron in to loosen the nuts was highly inconvenient. It took forever to crank up the jack. At least they didn’t use a torque wrench the last time around, so I didn’t have to jump on it to loosen them. As usual, I got the nuts out and then couldn’t get the tire off the hub. It likes to rust in place. I jacked it up further, yanked on it some more, then planted my ass on the curb, put my feet on the tire and kicked it over and over, cursing loudly the whole time.
At that moment, I heard women talking behind me. A couple of ladies had meandered up the hill and taken up a spot on the ledge behind us as my audience. They were lamenting to themselves, then to us, the fact that no men were coming by to help. They tried to flag one down, but he rushed off with a painfully lame excuse. And part of me was pissed that nobody offered to help, especially in a place like the south. On the other hand, I’d probably have refused it unless I couldn’t have done it myself.
So I continued kicking and yanking and swearing (a little more quietly, considering the southern belles nearby), and they expounded on their theory about why no men were there to help. They said it was to do with the fact that they were all off at war dying. Therefore, nobody to help me change my tire.
I finally got the tire off, then put it all put back together, tossed everything as hard as I could into the trunk, and we headed off to dinner. Me with completely black hands.
As expected, Wildhorse turned us away. They were having a CMA party with the stars of NBC daytime TV. Yeah, we seriously regretted missing that. We headed to a restaurant nearby and I had… caesar salad and diet Coke, after scrubbing my hands in the bathroom for 10 minutes straight. We drove back to the hotel at a much slower speed on the infamous red donut tire, but you know. At least we were alive. All the men, they were dead.
I woke up Sunday terrified that I would find no one in the wilds of Tennessee who would sell me a new tire on a Sunday. I paged through the phonebook, calling tire repair numbers randomly. A sleepy-sounding guy answered, and I asked him if they were open today to fix a flat. He asked, ‘On a semi?’ I said no. He said, ‘Call Wal-Mart,’ and hung up.
It took me about two seconds to abandon my principles, and go to a company I’ve refused to patronize for quite a long time. Yes, I suck.
They had the tire fixed within 20 minutes. I’ve never, ever had the luck to blow a tire and have it be repairable, so I was shocked. I paid $7.14 in cash, and we were on the road by 9:30am. We got coffee, then headed to Jack Daniels. I was hoping Goose would be there to give us a tour. He was working, but had just taken a group out and wouldn’t be back for a couple hours. We didn’t have the time to wait, so we checked out the visitor’s center, did some souvenir shopping in Lynchburg, and then headed back to Manchester.
On the way back into the festival, we saw cars leaving covered in mud. Not just smeared with it, but like balls of mud had been flung at them. The day parking was terrible, and it took us a while to find a spot where we could turn without danger of getting stuck. As I backed into a spot, a girl was standing across the way pointing and grimacing at the front of my car. I nodded, because I knew… Chico was falling apart again.
The duct tape had come loose, and the entire piece was folded forward and attached only by a bolt in the center. I tried cracking the plastic, and it wouldn’t let go. I yanked on it, I twisted it, I stomped on it. I pinned one end to the ground and bounced on the other. I’m sure it was a great show. Finally, I twisted it enough that it snapped. I left it on the ground next to the car, and we went back into the festival. Did I mention my car sucks? It does.
My Camelbak was really heavy, so I dumped out half the water. It was easy to find water anywhere inside, so I didn’t need it, and the straps were hurting my sunburn. It was overcast, but still in the upper 90s and unbearably humid. We got to the gates and people were wading ankle-deep in mud to get in. We had to pick our way very slowly along the edges to avoid drowning.
It took a good 15 minutes to cross the muddy expanse between the main stage and Centeroo. You would find a safe little dryish island in the middle of the mess and have to stand there, planning the next part of the route. People were barefoot and covered in mud, but I was hoping to avoid that. The staff drove ATVs, which would go rushing by, splashing muddy water all over the place. About half the grounds were wet, so people were clustered in all the dry spots. It was a mess.
We wanted to see moe, but that would have required wading again, so we just listened. We heard some of Burning Spear, Marc Ribot, Marc Broussard, Taj Mahal, and Cracker as we walked around. I got a falafel sammich and met some awesome people from Louisiana who talked about their camping nightmare, and how they were prepared to run as fast as possible after the last show that night. We weren’t even waiting around for that, we were leaving after Maroon 5. None of that 9 hour shit again, thank you.
Stephanie went off in search of water, and quickly discovered the vendors were out. I regretted emptying any of it out of my pack. We managed to find pop, and went to hang out for a while, listening to the Bad Plus and waiting for Guster to begin. I laid on the ground and listened to these southern girls talking about how they couldn’t wait to get married so they wouldn’t have to support their own lazy asses anymore. I wanted to smack them, but it would’ve hurt my sunburn.
We got up to pack into a tent for Guster. A cute boy complimented my dirty kitty shoes and offered me his pipe; I declined. I hope Stephanie appreciates my restraint. Guster was OK live, but not great. The crowd was really fun, though. The second the show was over, I pushed my way near the front, as instructed by my sister, who was desperate to see Maroon 5 up close and personal. We congratulated ourselves on being maybe 20 feet from the stage before the rumors started circulating: they had cancelled. The singer had blown out his voice. I felt really bad for her.
We headed out, and I told her she was definitely going to get dinner at the hick dance club, as if that would make up for it. We stopped at the hotel so she could shower. I went for coffee, and found a lone guitarist with three teenage fans playing at Starbucks. In between songs, he worked the crowd. He asked the kids if they were friends of his sister, and they said yeah, they were in her church group. A couple of them taught Sunday school. Now, ain’t that the cutest thing?
We went back to Wildhorse and the bouncer let us in free. We ate and watched the line-dancing lessons; even though I had done them before, I just wasn’t up for a dance called ‘the Rebel Strut’. Shiver. They danced to a song called ‘Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy’. It was great.
We rushed back to the hotel without the huge donut-tire hindrance, and crashed hard.
I was awakened at 5:30am, which was bad because then I spent the morning pacing, waiting for Stephanie to get ready. We were on the road just in time for rush hour traffic in Nashville. The troopers were pulling over all the single-drivers in the HOV lane, and there were a ton of them. We escaped Tennessee, then Kentucky, then reached the hated wasteland of Illinois. It wasn’t actually that bad for me, because Stephanie took over driving and I zoned out. I putzed with the CDs, I cleaned the car, I didn’t sleep, but I pretended to in hopes I could even convince myself. On my shifts, I averaged between 80-85, and kept bumping up my time estimates; I had planned on getting home by midnight at the earliest. We managed to hardly stop at all, and were back in Minnesota by 9:30pm.
I stopped to drop her off at the parents’ house, and intended to run back out the door and home. But there was my mom, shoving food in my hands again. I can’t get away! I ended up coming home with protein chips, oranges, and a banana. Just in case I got hungry on the 10 miles to my house, I guess.