Return to Woodstock: My Journey Back for the 50th Anniversary

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?


How Will I Feel at the Woodstock 50th Anniversary Reunion?


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.

The author (right) and his best friend at Woodstock anniversaries in 1989 and 2019. They regret not bringing a camera to the original festival in 1969.

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.


Martin D. Hirsch
Martin D. Hirsch
Martin Hirsch started building his own communications consulting practice in 2017 after a career spanning almost 35 years with one of the world’s leading international healthcare groups. He’s led internal and external corporate communications, brand and reputation management, and crisis and issue management. Working in both the United States and Europe, he has advised multiple CEOs and collaborated with colleagues all over the world. Martin’s strengths include executive consulting, strategic message development, content marketing, storytelling, communications training, public speaking, mentoring talent, and inspiring organizations to advance beyond their limitations.Lately he’s been helping clients by writing keynote speeches for top executives, developing strategies for pitching new business and explaining complex issues, ranging from how to apply new digital health tools in the pharmaceuticals industry to making sense of the rapid and complex changes challenging employees to maintain their equilibrium at major corporations. Martin also works as a faculty adviser at the New York University School of Professional Studies, helping graduate students with their Capstone Papers. His speaking engagements have included presentations at the IABC World Conference, the European Association of Communications Directors Summit, the Corporate Communications International Leaders Forum, the European Commission Communications Directorate and the Rotterdam School of Business Reputation Forum Netherlands. More recently, he was a panelist at the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association conference on expat issues held at Pfizer headquarters in New York. Martin’s writing, including essays, letters and poems, has appeared in newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Europe. You can read his blog on MUSE-WORTHY, here on BIZCATALYST 360°. He received the American Association of Journalists and Authors 2018 Writing Award for Best Personal Story Blog.

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