It was the cultural touchstone of my generation — three days of peace, love, and, of course, music, mud, and skinny-dipping.
Somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 young people somehow made their way to Max Yasgur’s farm in New York’s Catskills, drawn by almost mysterious forces that seemed to transcend even the lure of hearing Jimi, Janis, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Country Joe and the Fish, and Jefferson Airplane perform at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, as it was formally known.
More than 50 years later, the joke goes, at least ten times that many aging baby boomers swear they were at Woodstock, too — perhaps aided by memories of watching the movie and listening to the soundtracks while engulfed in a smoky haze appropriate to the occasion.
I can say with certainty that I was actually there — until, that is, I became one of the few benighted boomers who actually left Woodstock without hearing a note of music or experiencing any of the peace, love, and mellow vibes that came to define the end of the tumultuous and magical 1960s.
“You left Woodstock?” my incredulous son once asked. Yes, indeed I did — but let me explain.
My Sad Tale
It all began on Friday, August 15, 1969, when I was working the night shift at a Long Island newspaper, my first job out of college.
An intern there who I shall call Steve, because that was his name, asked if I would be interested in going to a rock concert somewhere in upstate New York after work. Even though I didn’t like Steve very much — and would learn to like him much less over the course of the next 15 hours or so — I agreed, being young and up for a lark.
In retrospect, this was both a momentously wise decision — having never heard of Woodstock, I would never have gotten there otherwise — and a disastrously unwise decision, since I soon came to realize that Steve was a total pain in the patoot.
To say that we were unprepared for this expedition is like saying that the Trojans were unprepared for Greeks bearing gifts.
Driving up in my clunky Chevy Impala, we brought no food or water, no change of clothes, no sleeping bags, or anything else that would see us through the weekend — largely because we were clueless, but also because we weren’t, uh, thinking ahead. Which is just another way of saying we were clueless.
Having spent time in the Catskills as a kid, however, Steve did know the route to the concert site near Bethel, NY, which is actually about 60 miles east of the town of Woodstock, which had previously denied permits to the “organizers,” who were as badly prepared for what was to come as were Steve, I, and the Trojans.
The drive up, alas, took several hours, during which Steve noted that since I was (already) losing my hair, he couldn’t understand why one of his fellow interns of the female persuasion seemed to have taken a liking to me, and other equally negative observations. He even dissed my car, though it became clear that its ability to transport him to Woodstock was the only reason he had asked me to come in the first place.
I couldn’t wait to get there, but several miles outside Bethel we ran into the world’s largest traffic jam, with thousands of cars at a dead stop on a two-lane road. Desperate to end this road trip from hell, I simply pulled into the left lane and passed a sea of cars until reaching the entrance to the festival. (A distinctly un-mellow move, I confess.) Somehow I managed to park by the side of the roadway, and Steve and I started hoofing it to, well, we weren’t sure where.
Getting into the festival site was no problem — the promoters, faced with tie-dyed waves of humanity streaming in by the thousands — had already given up on trying to sell tickets and declared this a free concert, which only added to the Woodstock mystique.
Torrential Downpour Portends Nothing Good
Then it started raining. Hard. Needless to say, we had no rain gear, and we got soaked.
But this being Max Yasgur’s farm, there were some barns about, and we took refuge in one, where we joined forces with a bunch of chickens and a number of drenched festival-goers who seemed convinced that the festival was a washout.
“Have you heard?” one young woman asked me. “Jimi cancelled, Janis cancelled, the Dead cancelled — nobody can get here because of the storm.”
I’m not sure why I believed her, because hundreds of thousands of people with far more limited resources had already managed to make their way there — so why couldn’t Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead?
As it happens, many of the top rock stars were enjoying the comforts of a Holiday Inn several miles from the site, and would later be limo’d or helicoptered in to perform. But I had no way of knowing that.
And so, positioning myself as far away from Steve as possible, I settled in a mound of hay for a few hours of fitful sleep, until a rooster sounded the alarm at sunrise. And the weather was, indeed, looking a bit sunnier. Maybe, I thought, this might just work out — if I could just ditch Steve.
Steve Starts to Whine
Unfortunately, Steve was also awake and not at all happy.
“I wanna’ leave,” he whined, picking hay out of his hair. “I’m wet and hungry and there’s nothing happening here.”
Those fateful words — “nothing happening here” — still haunt my dreams to this day.
What to do? In hindsight, it’s obvious — tell Steve to thumb a ride back to Long Island. But that morning my conscience — or at the time what seemed to be my good sense, which of course was the opposite — got the better of me.
Steve, as obnoxious as he was, seemed to have a point. We were tired, damp, and hungry, and we really didn’t know what the hell we were doing there. And, on some level, I would have felt guilty leaving him stranded.
I was also slated to work at the newspaper again that evening, and, with no way of reaching the managing editor to explain my situation, I thought I might get fired.
And so, returning to my car with Steve still whining and in tow, I pulled out of one of one of the world’s most sought-after parking spots and left Woodstock.
It wasn’t until I got home and turned on the TV, now saturated with coverage of the concert, that I realized what a colossal mistake that was.
As my editor put it so delicately that night, “You left Woodstock, Norton? The biggest story of the year? I should fire your butt!”
The newspaper folded anyway a couple of months later. Steve continued to harass me until he returned to college a few weeks later.
And as for me, well — I’m left with my memories. It was 52 years ago this week, when I left Woodstock.
Photo credit: Clark Norton
My story: I heard the siren song, and my boyfriend and I decided to drive up from DC.We were going to borrow a tent/sleeping bags. And we considered bringing our own food in a cooler, but decided it would be more fun to buy it there. I can’t remember why we didn’t go but for 52 years I’ve been so glad I didn’t. I hate being wet, hate being hungry, and sure hate the mud! — Marty Farnsworth
Reply: Thanks for writing, Marty. Many good travel stories are about how awful things were, and about how that creates a bond among the mutually afficted. I suspect that has a great deal to do about the Woodstock “mystique.” Several years ago, on a mid-August weekend, my son and I were driving to our house in upstate NY (which happened to be just 13 miles from the Woodstock site), and, in a drenching rain, we passed Max Yasgur’s old farm where one of the annual Woodstock anniversary reunions was being held. As the wet-to-the-bone campers were packing up their tents and pushing their cars out of the mud, I’m sure they were saying “Cool, man — just like the real thing!” See what you (and I) missed?