Every year, on a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tennessee, a community is built from the ground -- by the polis, for the polis. Over the course of four days, a transformation occurs of the Kafka variety. Returning Bonnaroovians know this, but for newcomers to the farm, the process starts well before the festival.
You know which cars on I-81 are en route to Manchester. Bonnaroo 2012! is scribbled with window paint, and each car is stuffed to the brim with tents, blankets, and bags of Doritos. Passing vehicles get an acknowledging honk and courtesy wave because, in a few hours, everyone will be in the thick of it. Once the Bonnaroo gates open the night before the four-day festival, everything moves at an accelerated pace.
"Why did you get everything kid sized?" someone shouts in the dark. Her friend shouts back. "It was all $9.99 at Target. The chairs were $9.99, the tent was $9.99. It was all $9.99."
For the two travelers, the undersized camping equipment is sufficient since, once the festival ends, they will have to discard it. Their names are Piper and Quran. The two, who are newlyweds as of Saturday, have flown all the way from Humboldt County, California. To get to the farm, they have relied solely on rides from strangers. Evan, who sits atop the van to my right, offered to give the two a ride at a gas station nearby. With them is festival newb Josh, who travels alone. The 21-year-old from New Jersey sports a tie-dye t-shirt, bathrobe, floppy hat, and walks barefoot. The motley crew helps my brother and me set up our own tent (not kid-sized), while someone nearby comments on the fact that 20 minutes prior, these makeshift homes were not here.
What's remarkable is the rate at which the farm transforms into a buzzing metropolis. Even for returning festivalgoers, the farm's rapid metamorphosis requires you to step back and absorb the process. Once the concerts get underway, there is a synergy that occurs between the performer and the audience, which totals 80,000. You have to wonder whether the compulsory drug use acts as a driving factor. And for some, it does. There are plenty of meatheads who, on the first day, are pounding $7 Miller Lights by the minute. They're the same people who go to the House of Blues without leaving the perimeter of the bar, and the same people who've paid to see DMB more than once in concert. Chris Thile of the Punch Brothers calls them "musical butterflies," the kind of crowd who will "check out a song here, a song there, get high as fuck, and just wander around." But the core of these audiences, he says, "is a big musical heart, beating with a lot of intensity." The essence of the musical crowd is not trivialized (for the meatheads do not last very long), and the notion of the collective is not lost.
Surely, there are music festivals of a similar caliber that happen year-round. Some even happen back-to-back weekends, albeit erroneously, to accommodate the throngs of people who get lured into this community. In a press conference, Thile refers to the appeal of the festival. "People circle this months and months in advance... it's like a musical scouting trip," he says. "When you talk to people throughout the year [about Bonnaroo], this is like Christmas."
And it is. For many reasons, the festival renders certain childlike, innate tendencies that, under conventional circumstances, aren't explored. People blow bubbles, relieve each other from the Tennessee heat with spray bottles, ride Ferris wheels, play in water fountains shaped like mushrooms, and -- perhaps more relevantly -- center four full days around music. And Bonnaroo is just a microcosm of that.
"We're here to celebrate music with people," Thile says. The concept of celebrating music with as many as 80,000 people then propagates this theory of "by the polis, for the polis." If Bonnaroo were reduced to its simplest form, it would read: music + people. Make that an army of people. With such high numbers, no two Bonnaroovians will have the same Bonnaroo.
On the last day of the festival, I experience this myself. In an attempt to catch both the reunited Beach Boys and The Antlers, while making it back in time to prepare for Bon Iver, I find myself physically running between sets. It is Day 4 of Bonnaroo, so what was once green grass is now a dirt pit with mud bridges. After hopping a mud bridge or two, I run into an oddly dressed festivalgoer. She looks like a cross between a neon Indian and Wolverine, and is complimented by many. One woman approaches her with a disposable camera. While many run around Centeroo with disposables, this one is sealed in a plastic bag and sits next to an already marked envelope. The camera is a part of a photo project, designed so that each person who receives it must take a photo with another Bonnaroovian, take down his/her email address, and pass it on. There are 24 photos in a roll. Only 6 or 7 have been taken so far.
I jump up and down, asking Wolverine if she can pass it on to me (via Christmas), and she obliges. Out of 80,000 dirty music nerds, I have weaseled my way into this photo project. And, after scouting for a worthy festivalgoer, I find my man. Taylor James from Detroit wears a top hat, an unbuttoned tan shirt, and has a tattoo directly underneath his right eye. My brother explains the project, and Taylor's eyes light up. "You just made my day, man. I'm so happy to be a part of this," he tells us.
Later in the day, Phish can be heard from Tent City, where a small band of cars attempts to flee the scene early. While the early birds sit in an hour-long line to exit the farm, a gentleman offers each passing car a goodbye shot. Young women in a nearby car offer a passerby a few of their pixie sticks, as other festivalgoers high-five those who are exiting. The pixie stick boy later catches up to cars in line to retrieve more.
On Monday morning, you know which cars on I-81 are trekking back from Manchester. Bonnaroo 2012! is half smeared on the windows in paint, and each car is coated with one to three inches of dirt. Passing vehicles get an acknowledging honk and courtesy wave because, in a year's time, we will all be back to do it again.