Visiting the original site of Woodstock in Bethel, New York is a mecca of sorts for any rock music fan.
The Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, held Aug. 15-18, 1969, was held on a dairy farm owned by Max Yasgur, and has been since thought of as the event that defined a generation.
The Woodstock festival was attended by estimates of more than 500,000 and was, for the most part, an entirely peaceful affair.
Not to mention, all the usual suspects were there – Janis Joplin, The Band, CCR, Jefferson Airplane, Ten Years After, Joan Baez, Ravi Shankar, Richie Havens, Country Joe & The Fish, Santana, Canned Heat, The Grateful Dead, The Who, Joe Cocker, Sly & The Family Stone, CSNY, Jimi Hendrix – and the event was photographed by one-time Rolling Stone photographer, Baron Wolman.
Today, the original site of Woodstock features a museum, gift shop, amphitheater, and a conservatory for arts and education. However, when I took off for Bethel one early June morning in 2011, it was entirely on a whim, and I had no idea what to expect.
Visiting the Original Site of Woodstock in Bethel, New York
I was sitting in my university’s Electricity and Electronics class; daydreaming about being free of the tight constraints of the drab classroom walls. The professor was chattering on about topics that I neither understood nor cared to understand.
To pass the time, I thought about another class in which we were learning about popular music in the late 1960’s; a topic that I had already become fascinated with years earlier. I thought about fleeing Toronto. I thought about flowing skirts and flowers. I thought about peace, love and LSD.
After class I decided to grab breakfast with my classmate, Rebecca. En route, I mentioned how amazing it would be to visit the site of Woodstock in Bethel, New York. Her question, “Do you wanna go…right now?” was met with my very enthusiastic, “Yes!” Never underestimate the power of a boring university class.
I’ve always been obsessed with hippie culture, and having been born in 1991, I missed much of the peace, love, and rock n’ roll era. In my high-school days, I took my fascination to the small-town extreme of physically stopping knife fights with my own voice of reason, making sure there was a peace sign on my body at all times (which eventually resulted in a very permanent John Lennon inspired tattoo), fiercely advocating for my left-wing political views, and listening to a lot of Jefferson Airplane.
The stage area at Woodstock.
We stuffed her tiny white Chevy Aveo hatchback with all the essentials: a tent for overnight camping, blankets, music, clothes, books, and once we got over the American border; a whole pre-cooked chicken and $1-a-pop steak knives. Against Me! was blaring on the radio and we were off.
We drove through upstate New York unbridled and ready for adventure. We took in every sight with gusto and exuberance, making sure to bring attention to ourselves whenever possible; which wasn’t hard what with Rebecca’s bright pink hair. We shocked the locals and tore up their gravel roads; we let them know that the Canadians were in town.
However, nightfall soon descended upon us. We realized that we best begin paying attention to the signs on the I-90 a little closer to see if we could spot a suitable campsite for us to bunker down in for the night. After a couple of hours of searching, a sign with a teepee emblazoned on it popped up in front of us with the instructions to turn right in two miles. We did and, to our chagrin, were soon lost in the twisting maze of back roads that make up rural upstate New York; no houses or signs of humanity in sight for miles.
At the end of an excruciatingly long 30-minute journey consisting of twists and turns and dead-ends and backtracking, we came to a row of campervans that had, again, no sign of life in them. We decided that in order to avoid getting murdered by a hillbilly psychopath or mauled by rabid wildlife while sleeping in our tent, we’d take the first south-pointing road and find a hotel.
We woke up the next morning alive and in a Holiday Inn near Syracuse, ready to resume our journey. The day before, I made arrangements for a couple of friends to join us on our quest. Living only a short distance from Bethel, and being hippie-types themselves, they were the perfect fit for companions. After a short pit-stop to pick up Nate and Luke and explain what exactly our intentions were to their parents, we ventured on.
We were now on the last stretch of our journey. We passed an old broken-down yellow VW bug, plenty of old republican farmers with daggers of disapproval in their eyes, and an abundance of peace & love signs. You could just imagine the roads were completely blocked with cars that the festival-goers left behind in their own quests to get to Woodstock in ‘69.
Then, without much warning, we were there. Our feet firmly planted in the parking lot of the holy grail of music venues. To my delight, on the side of the field that I had come so far to see, there was a museum devoted to everything August 15-18, 1969. It was perhaps one of the most eclectic museums I’ve ever been to. Inside there was a Ken Kesey – esque bus that was painted with Day-Glo flowers, notes that long lost lovers had left to one another in hopes to reunite, and a giant room with bean bag chairs to lay down on so we could watch hippies frolic on the ceiling in the rain.
The stage and the hill.
Outside it was raining as well. The four of us walked slowly down the giant hill that made up the viewing area for the stage, getting increasingly wet and asking each other questions such as “If I ate the trees here how intense would by acid trip be?” and “I wonder how many children were conceived on the spot I’m standing?”
We meandered towards the stage area, the very same stage area where history was made 42 years earlier. My eyes welled up just looking at the massive square of gravel that lay before me, much to the amusement of the other three.
Soon we realized that there are only so many tears that can be shed over a field, and we left the site. It didn’t matter though; we were on our way to our next adventure chock-full of peace, love, and a continued sense of wanderlust.
Story taken from My Name Is Laura (2015). Available for purchase here.
Have you ever thought about visiting the site of Woodstock?