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Ten o’clock Saturday morning, I’m driving on unnumbered roads in the Catskill Mountains of New York State, past Jeffersonville toward highway 17B. After less than an hour, to my left, an old farm with large letters on the side: YASGUR, then a store called the Woodstock Emporium. To my right, just visible through the line of trees, the sloping bowl of that most famous field, chlorophyll-green. The original soundtrack CD in the car is up to the Crowd Rain Chant. The lawn is instantly recognizable, like an old friend’s face, that hasn’t changed as much as it might have after nearly 50 years. This is why I’m camping in the Catskills and not the Adirondacks.
Driving past the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, looking like a timeshare resort, lots of parking. Filippini Pond is there (once the communal bath) and a few modern affluent homes: retired people “coming back to the land."
I park the car at the fenced-in commemorative garden and monument surrounded by wood chips and fresh spruce trees. A couple in their car next to me sits watching, pointing up at the hill. A heavy man with grey hair and a trimmed beard stands with his two adult children and says, “Yep, right over there, on the other side of that crest,” and he points to the top. “Your uncle Bernie and I just came to listen to the music.” They ponder and then walk across the gravel to his Mercedes and they’re off to a picnic.
I turn off my car halfway into Santana’s Soul Sacrifice, tremulous and with a camera around my neck, I walk down West Shore Road, filming with the turbulence of my steps, down to where large concrete barriers and gravel outline what had been the stage. A sign tells me that I must apply for permission even to walk onto the field. I don’t want to ask anyone. I’m reminded of how easily authority fails to understand, then and now.
This is a surprisingly serene, pastoral landscape; there is no one and no sound anywhere around me. The entire clearing, well known from film and the album covers and countless crowd photos, is contained by a round-wood fence, like a frame around this green masterpiece. And it’s all mine. I stand where the stage stood and continue to film. The slope is perfect, the clumps of trees at the summit are where I believe they always were, but what had once been freshly plowed alfalfa stalks is now freshly cut green grass. This is a memorial. (Just ignore the circus-like resort in the background.)
Like a professor of Shakespeare wishing to step onto the ramparts of Elsinore castle or history buffs crossing between columns at the Acropolis, I’ve got to get out into the open where a third of a million people sat. It’s such a natural amphitheatre that had Aristophanes seen this 2,000 years ago, he’d have said: “Yes, this will do fine.”
I walk in circles unable to get myself to leave, now climbing along the hillside. Remnants of shower heads, electrical setups, an owl totem pole, certainly from more recent gatherings than 1969. A large meadow opens up to the east; I know it had been filled with tents and a number of cows.
Standing and looking back down the main basin, I’m thinking what a thing this is for so many to have come here at once, as if they knew what they were coming for, without proof of what the weekend would bring. An unimaginable chance of planning, of gathering, that would work, really, only one time. Driving up, tens of thousands in friends’ cars, in buses, from towns and cities, converging with tents and raincoats (having heard the weather) from not only New York and Buffalo and Albany, but from Toronto, Kingston and Ottawa. Time taken off from weekend jobs, but back home on Monday, maybe Tuesday, sure that, by coming unannounced, they would have the time of their lives. No money for food by the third day, but: “can I spread my sleeping bag here for a few days, do you mind, is there room there next to you? Can we hear anything from here?”
The answer was always, “yes.”
All simplicity, just turning away from whatever news is outside this farmer’s field – including the news created by Woodstock.
A field, a slope, a series of trees. You couldn’t get to the front side of the hill, it was so full of bodies. “Can you see the stage? Can you see who’s talking to us?"
“Look, they’re putting up shelters with poles and blankets!” Like a town rising up quickly all around.
Woodstock was a time of expression, not exhibitionism, not voyeurism. But that’s how I experienced it – watching the news at home in awe of the traffic jams and crowds. I remember reading in a newspaper earlier in 1969, probably the Ottawa Journal’s teen pages, a small ad at the bottom: the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.
Mike and Rick and I talked of going if Rick could get the Rambler. But by mid-August, something came up (Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention at the National Arts Centre actually). Too bad. Woodstock, like youth, it comes once and it’s gone.
I’m still focusing on too much sky, too much grass and not enough bodies. But the air is music and I don’t want to leave. I walk back up to the little memorial garden and take a selfie. I suspect my photos and video footage will compare poorly to this experience when I look back. I reluctantly turn my back and drive away to my campsite.
Later, with the sun sinking behind me, I think: “Oh yeah, I was at Woodstock.”
Claude Paradis lives in Ottawa.
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