Fifty years ago, fresh out of the caps and gowns we wore for our high school graduation, and with our college acceptance letters securely filed away, my best friend Phil and I got in my parents’ 1968 Ford Galaxy and set out for the adventure of our lifetimes. In a few hours, we arrived at my aunt and uncle’s summer home in White Lake, New York, a two-mile walk from the field on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm where we’d spend 18 hours a day – from Friday, Aug. 15, through the early morning of Monday, Aug. 18 – enduring a pounding sun and intense heat and humidity through noontime, bouts of thunderous, torrential rain, bone-chilling nights and squalid mud and muck, all for the privilege of participating in one of the 20th century’s landmark moments.
For us, and some 400,000 others who were there, Woodstock was an unforgettable, magnificent milestone that may not have convinced us to drop everything and settle there permanently, like Texan Duke Devlin, who came and never left, but that did stay with us to this day, and whose influence on us shows no signs of letting up.
Bethel or Bust
As the golden anniversary approached, despite highly publicized plans by Michael Lang, the producer of the original festival, to hold a musical extravaganza called “Woodstock 50” in Watkins Glen, New York, Phil and I never wavered. For us it was always Bethel or bust; there was simply no separating the heart, soul, and spirit of Woodstock from the exquisitely perfect field in Bethel, New York, where those iconic “Three Days of Peace and Music” washed over us like baptismal water.
Michael Lang leaned that the hard way. Plans for his event at Watkins Glen went awry, and then he found a fallback site all the way down in Columbia, Maryland. That venture was canceled on July 31, after a series of snafus snuffed out Lang’s plans for good. Less than two weeks later, Phil had flown from LA and I had hopped an Amtrak train from Manhattan to Philadelphia, where our reunion would kick-off. After taking a nostalgic drive to visit our childhood in Levittown, Pennsylvania, we were soon packed and ready to get “back to the Garden.”
How Would We Feel, 50 Years Later?
The question that dogged us both was, what would we find there 50 years later? Although we’d returned multiple times for previous anniversaries and always felt the magic, we had not been back since, well, the turn of the 21st century. We knew that in 2016, a complex called Bethel Woods had been constructed on the site consisting of a Woodstock museum, amphitheater and performing arts pavilion. Would the keepers of the sacred site have “paved Paradise and put up a parking lot,” to Joni Mitchell’s line? Would they have destroyed the site’s inexplicable, spiritual essence, or would the place still possess the power to transport us back to that pivotal three-day period that marked the portal between our adolescence and adulthood?
EDITOR’S NOTE: SEE PART ONE OF THIS ARTICLE BELOW⤵︎
With 30-plus years of intense professional life fresh behind us and our transition to later life recently underway, we got into a rented Camry and headed north. It took us five hours to travel 50 years.
When we arrived at the now manicured and carefully managed Bethel Woods, we found the historic, bowl-shaped field carpeted in healthy, green grass dotted with onlookers. Those who had not been there 50 years ago strained to grasp what it had been like. Those who had been there seemed to be groping with all their might to grasp a precious handful of Woodstock stardust from the air. I was one of them.
Phil distinguished himself as a knowledgeable, engaging and popular Woodstock guide. Armed with not only his first-hand experience but from having researched the subject every which way over an extended period, he held his listeners in thrall, recounting the route we walked to the field, the places we sat amid the throng on different days and bands that stood out for us as highlights.
The museum was better than we could have imaged. Devoted not just to Woodstock, but to capturing the historic and cultural essence of the ‘60s, it featured artifacts of the festival like the psychedelic, rainbow-colored bus that carried a contingent of hippies across the country to the festival; exhibits of the logos and artwork that lured rock music lovers and alternative lifestyle adherents from all directions; an assortment of videos covering various aspects of the event, its planning and divergent perspectives on it from pro and con neighbors and officials; and a minute-by-minute schedule of who played when.