This year I attended the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, whose annual attendance makes the small city of Manchester the seventh largest in Tennessee for four days out of the year. The majority of attendees camp in tents on the 700-acre farm with ten massive air balloons marking locations and providing centralized hubs of amenities. Despite knowing no one when I first arrived, strangers quickly became friends that I could depend on.
Part of the Bonnaroo code, featured on their website and in printed materials, is to radiate positivity, and the people mostly followed it- a hot dog was traded for a lighter, people obviously not doing well on whatever substances they’re consuming were given bottles of water, and high-fives were all but mandatory as you walked past fellow Bonnaroovians in-line to enter Centeroo, the main area outside the campgrounds where performances occur. However, besides this, capitalism was king. Once they had you on the farm, they knew you couldn’t easily leave. Ice was $5. Showers were $10, though they were half off during off-peak hours, but knowing this is part of the experience. There was a sense of community and we were all in it together.
This year, Bonnaroo installed a permanent water line and built one set of “normal” bathrooms. It’s a start, but portable toilets were the most commonly available. Their scent comes with the festival experience, as well the constant feeling of being dirty. With thousands of people trampling the ground, dust rises and finds the sweat that covers your body. I didn’t realize how dirty I was until I showered and watched as brown water ran off me into the drain. Days after the festival, I still found dirt in my nose and ears.
The heat also can’t go without mentioning. It was unbearable at times with temperatures reaching the mid-90’s. The relentless sun rarely hid behind the clouds. Sunscreen was a must, and in periods of extreme heat it was just as important to find a shady place to listen to music as it was to be close to the stage. Shade was essential at my campsite and I was ill prepared. With the sun rising from the east, I quickly learned to place my tent abutting my car to block its rays for as long as possible before it woke me up around 6 a.m. every morning.
Out of necessity, I made friends with the camp cater-corner. They had a canopy with tarps and blankets draped down, strategically moving them throughout the day to block the sun. More importantly, they were extremely welcoming and wonderful people. They became the social hub and mentioned this was their seventh Bonnaroo.
Saturday night, the scene became slightly apocalyptic as storm clouds rolled in and lightening illuminated the night sky. Everything was in danger of getting soaked and those excited to see Pearl Jam were disheartened to hear the PA system throughout the entire farm telling everyone that Centeroo was closing due to unsafe conditions. I packed up camp, anticipating the worst, not knowing what fully to expect but also a little excited to have to rough out a storm. Rain came, but it lasted less than an hour. Pearl Jam played with only a slight delay in schedule.
With so many genres and breadth of musical tastes represented, it wasn’t surprising to see my plan for navigating the Bonnaroo music schedule was unlike anyone else’s. It’s impossible not to find something to do at Bonnaroo, but it’s also impossible to do it all. Music is the main attraction, with two main stages and three large canopy tents as well as other various lounges and small stages. Alongside music, there’s a cinema and a comedy theatre. The various people I met at camp all had different agendas and I embarked on my journey alone.