Flying Solo at Bonnaroo
Photo by Josh Rhinehart
The scent of newsprint overpowered my coconut sunscreen the moment I hopped in the Relix van in Manchester, Tennessee. On June 11th, Relix’s cargo included copies of the first issue of the 2015 Bonnaroo Beacon, the festival’s official daily newspaper, plus me. After pulling into the backstage grounds, I locked in the two clips on my camping backpack to distribute the weight, wobbled a bit to get my bearings, and set off on what felt like the longest dirt road I’ve ever walked to begin my flying solo adventure. I’d later discover that this walk from the parking lot to guest camping is about four times shorter and faster after the sun has set, when you’re not lugging gear, and when you aren’t given three unique sets of directions that steer you off course.
I should share that I’d never before been to Bonnaroo, and never gone to a camping music festival alone. Concerned friends asked if I’d thought about first trying out a smaller festival solo, or one that isn’t 2,000 miles from home. I guess they didn’t quite see the romance that I saw in flying solo on a 700-acre farm for four days. Ultimately though, while I was admittedly very nervous, I knew I wasn’t going to be alone because I had you guys – the flying solo veterans or first-timers reading this, the ones who share their own stories and comments on Relix.com or social media. Sorry for the cheese here, but your presence is seen, heard and felt, so thank you!
While setting up camp, sweat rolled down my forehead into my eyes and I lost my grip on one of my tent poles. It shot into my neighbor’s campsite, knocking their stuff over. “Shit,” was my repetitive internal dialogue. Turns out setting up a tent in your living room, or even your backyard, is not the same as setting it up on uneven dirt underneath a tree with low-hanging branches in weather that can only be described as grossly humid and HOT AS BALLS.
As I finally locked down my campsite, a couple in their 70s emerged from the tent that I almost took out. They introduced themselves and insisted I call them “nana and papa.” Nana and papa were tickled that I was flying solo. I shared with them the overwhelming kindness and generosity that Bonnaroovians had shown me even before I arrived, with countless offers for rideshares and group camping. Nana and papa were no different; that first night, and every one that followed, they offered me a hot dog before I ventured into Centeroo.
Backstage at Bonnaroo was deceiving. I walked alongside the second main stage, the “Which Stage,” and thought it didn’t look all that impressive from behind. But then I reached public festival grounds and stared at the giant, open space in front of the stage. My jaw dropped. I looked down at my map, realizing I still had a very long way to go before I’d seen it all. I passed by rows upon rows of food vendors, clusters of artists selling goods, multiple massive sections devoted to restrooms, a path to an even larger main stage, giant tents and smaller stages, and even a Ferris wheel. My mouth remained open on this 30-minute circular stroll, and my senses already felt flooded. I wanted to grab someone’s arm and say, “Do you see this?!” Instead I looked into people’s eyes, trying not to be a weirdo but hoping to make a nonverbal connection. To my delight, a handful of people made eye contact with me, and smiled, big and brightly.
At 8:00 the sun went down and I felt like I could finally breathe. I headed over to the “That Tent” to catch Dopapod. Earlier that day I ran into an old friend from grade school who now tour manages the band. (Throughout the weekend I’d be amazed by just how often I’d bump into people I know.) I thought I came to a roadblock about 25 yards from the back of the tent, but it turned out to be the actual crowd for Dopapod. I watched the show from a giant screen for a while and realized I’d need to plan out the weekend a little better if I wanted to ever see the stage.
A few hours later, with the most delicious glazed doughnut I’ve ever had in my life in hand, I made my way to the “Who Stage” for Rubblebucket and secured a sweet spot just 10 feet away with 20 minutes to spare. “This is how you time it,” I thought. While I waited for the show to start, I discovered that flying solo at Bonnaroo has a fly on the wall kind of feel to it. Within my little bubble I witnessed scenarios that I would never actually experience myself that weekend.
To my left, two guys tried to reach a compromise on how long to stay at this show. One wanted to be on time for Benjamin Booker who started right when Rubblebucket ended, and the other wanted to catch a few minutes of Tove Lo. To my right, a group made fun of one guy for the absurd number of doughnuts he’d already eaten (I’d end up enjoying six throughout the weekend). And directly in front of me, a couple thought they were having a fight, but they were both just too intoxicated to understand that they were saying the same thing.
Someone told me earlier that day, “You’ll never see a show quite like one at Bonnaroo.” He cited the magic of the farm, saying the biggest artist to the smallest will almost always perform one for the books. He was right. Rubblebucket’s was special. They played a genuine, heartfelt set, and made the crowd fall in love with them more and more with each song. At one point they had us all sitting or kneeling on the ground, and repeatedly singing “love” in unison. Crowd surfing with trombones in hand and the release of balloons followed. On one of the smallest stages at Bonnaroo, Rubblebucket reminded me that live music can be an experience. And even if you’re flying solo, you’re a part of something massive, a shared connection of wavelengths, a train of emotions riding the track together.
I awoke on Friday feeling pretty badass for not only surviving, but also genuinely enjoying 24 hours at Bonnaroo alone! My schedule for day two included Dawes, Guster, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, Kendrick Lamar, and Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood. Since geeking out on this flying solo thing a year ago, I’ve gotten pretty damn good at going to shows alone and even now prefer it. Bonnaroo was no exception. I found myself purposely ignoring texts to meet up with cool and kind people who I had just met (sorry, guys!). It’s not that I necessarily wanted to be antisocial, but the thought of losing my newfound, precious Bonnaroo freedom, even for a few hours, was downright awful! In previous Flying Solo pieces I’ve discussed the joys of being free to wander around a venue and choose your spot – Bonnaroo took that to a whole new level.
For instance (fast forward to Saturday night), during My Morning Jacket’s performance on the “What Stage,” the largest at Bonnaroo, I played around with crowd hopping. The band had already started by the time I got there, but a lot of folks in the back were still sitting on the lawn. I weaved in and out of picnicking and napping Bonnaroovians until I reached the standing crowd. I’ve never been a huge fan of My Morning Jacket, not because of taste, just because of my own laziness, but the power of the sound system made me an instant fan.
I tried out new spots throughout the show, gradually getting closer to the front of the stage, and surprisingly I didn’t seem to piss off anyone. Finally I reached a cozy spot that was easily 10 yards from the stage and could see the sweat on lead singer Jim James’ face. The jumbo screen off to the side panned out for a shot of the crowd from behind the stage. Overwhelmed and shocked, I turned around and jumped a few times to validate that what was on the screen was what was behind me. “It is!” I screamed out loud, then covered my mouth in embarrassment and laughed. At a festival that boasts 85,000 people in attendance, I’m not sure how many were there to see My Morning Jacket, but I imagine a lot. I’ve been to a fair share of big shows and festivals, but never stood in a crowd that size; to say it was spiritual is an understatement.
With freedom comes responsibility. Bonnaroo is much more than many concerts back to back – it’s four days of living, four days of survival! On the downside of flying solo at Bonnaroo, you’re arguably on your own whenever shit hits the fan. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though, as in my experience it seems to make me stronger and more self-reliant. I impressed myself with my ambitious treks for water when dehydrated, as well as my superhuman ability (coupled with stupidity) to remain on my feet when they were blistered and excruciatingly painful. Pats on the back aside, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish I had a partner in crime during those moments, and some scarier ones as well.
Late on Friday night I claimed space near the soundboard under the “That Tent” for STS9. The folks around me were decked out in body paint and LED lights, and we exchanged a round of high-fives. The band began and the light show was epic! If I was tripping, I would’ve probably thought those lights were god herself, but even sober it one of the best visuals of the weekend. When the song ended it appeared that everyone was in pure bliss, except for one guy just two rows in front of me. He turned his head to look at me a few times during the first song, but he didn’t smile nor wave hello. Then throughout the show he kept turning around to look at me, even when I moved around a bit to try to lose him. Eventually I got freaked out and unable to enjoy the show. I knew that as a woman alone, my safest option was to trust my instincts and leave, so I turned around and zigzagged my way out through the crowd.
As a music lover wanting to enjoy the full set of one of my favorite bands, that situation royally sucked, but above all it made me uncomfortable and was potentially dangerous. When flying solo I always make sure to have a way out, a Plan B if needed. I knew that if things ever became too much for me at Bonnaroo, that the festival’s medical and security safe havens were the place to go. Unfortunately, the reality is that in situations like the one I experienced, you’re ultimately on your own in the moment. I hope to see some changes with this made in the near future, at Bonnaroo as well as at all festivals and venues across the country. There’s specific attention given to attendees with children, those who are sober, and varying levels of VIP. The flying solo community is one that I feel would benefit from that too. And, dear promoters, not only would I be glad to pay a little extra for that attention, but I’d bet you’d sell more tickets.
The morning after the creeper incident, I still felt anxious, uncomfortable and bummed out. On my way into Centeroo, a man walking in the opposite direction stopped me. He pointed behind me and said, “Excuse me, Miss. I believe you dropped your smile back there.” I turned around, as though to look for my long-lost tangible smile, and had a moment of clarity. I smiled and thanked him. We high-fived before going our separate ways, and I immediately felt better.
Later that night, a super tall man wearing the head of a giraffe costume stood in front of me during Tycho’s set. I tapped him on his elbow (that’s as high as I could reach), and without any dialogue, he gently scooped me around in front of him. I, in turn, had him rest a giant beach ball on my head while he inflated it. The ball floated around the top of the crowd for a while, making everyone who came into contact with it laugh or smile.
Flying solo at Bonnaroo didn’t necessarily mean I was alone, just that I was piloting for one. If you were open to it, teamwork was everywhere and no one felt like a stranger. The beautiful, joyous moments far outweighed the negative ones. I think that’s because Bonnaroo’s community is strong, which probably has a lot to do with the festival’s motto, “Radiate Positivity.” Nana and papa asked before we left, “Would you do it solo again?” My answer is the same now as it was then – in a heartbeat.