We had planned to go to this year's Phish festival the moment last year's festival ended. There are few things in my life that make me as happy as dancing, singing and laughing with Phish and the loving community of Phans who come to see them. While I haven't been able to see as many post-hiatus shows as before, I was damned and determined to never miss a festival.
The call came in while on my honeymoon. It was my sister who broke the news: Trey announces breakup, Coventry will be the last show ever. That was hard news to take during a honeymoon, but as we had already been planning to attend, I was happy to know that I would be there, sharing in this emotional goodbye. My Phamily and I planned flights, car rentals, gear transportation, ticket procurement, directions and other important festival requirements months before the show. Having been through this five other times, we were getting pretty good. The day the Coventry tickets went on sale, I made my order, not taking any chances. As soon as I got my confirmation, I bought plane tickets and reserved a car. Now it was time to wait and get excited.
My wife Noel, my friend Brent and I all had to work Thursday, but it was hard to keep our minds on our jobs with an emotional if fun weekend coming, but we pushed through and at 3 p.m. left for the airport. Our connecting flight in Pittsburgh was delayed to heavy rain in Burlington, which worried us, but that was small compared to what I watched out my window. The baggage people were leaving 10 or so bags behind, including my camping equipment! After alerting all my fellow heads (there were quite a few on this flight) we questioned the flight attendant, who worked hard for us and got all of our bags on the plane. Nothing could stop us now.
We met up with two other members of our "Phamily," Anton and his girlfriend Beth, and got our car in Burlington where we headed on our way. We had tried to rent a van so we could all carpool together as Phish requested, but with no vans available, we had to caravan instead. There was soon a small debate on the best way to go. Anton wanted to go north and take some side roads to the show. But I have never wanted to risk missing a show by not following Phish's directions exactly, and I wasn't going to back down on this one especially. As soon as we got to St. Johnsbury and onto Interstate 91,we flipped on the Bunny, the radio station the band licensed for the event. Shortly afterwards, we hit the inevitable traffic. This, like nasty port-a-potties, smelly drinking water and long walks to the show, is just one of the things you know you're going to have to deal with.
This was 3 a.m.
As in all the other festivals, the first few hours are slightly overenthusiastic. "The traffic seems better this year!" "At least we're moving every 15 minutes or so, that's better than IT!" We watched DVDs, joked around, listened to the Bunny, read, tried to sleep, but we were too excited. So we planned on 15 more hours of this, thinking we'd get in late Friday and have all night to sleep and be rested for the last weekend of Phish.
As the sun came up over the cloud-covered, misty Vermont landscape, you could begin to see just how far the traffic went. You could also see the obviously Phish heads flying past the traffic in the left lane. This has of course always been a problem at other festivals and other than providing an occasional sneer, it was just something you expected. There was a feeling of self-righteousness that we were doing the kind thing. (Why risk the bad karma?) I have always felt that some of the best things come when you've earned them, and dancing your ass off to some great jam even feels a little better when you know what you went through to get there.
Around noon, it started to rain again. Our group had now started to get that 10-mile stare in their eyes, and we began to regret our decision to not bring real food. Our plan had been to buy food in the "lot" and save the space and hassle of keeping food fresh and preparing hot food. But those potato chips and granola bars just weren't cutting it, as the last time we ate hot food had been at the day before in the Nashville airport, many, many meals ago. The Bunny continued to play mostly music, and gave very little information about the traffic, only saying that it was backed up 20 miles and that they were moving as fast as they could. So we took their advice and remained patient, and of course we stayed in the right lane.
There comes a time in every one of these festival traffic snarls that someone starts to freak out. Sleep deprivation, boredom and stress usually make someone snap, and this happened 5 p.m. Friday. Brent had gone far too long without sleep, at this point well over 24 hours, and every time he tried to shut his eyes a semi would zoom past waking him. It's a hard thing to ignore. We were all starting to get alarmed as well, since we had been completely stopped for two hours and that has never happened. After three hours everyone began to settle into this unintentional parking lot and pulled out grills, Frisbees, lawn chairs and patio tents. This was indeed a bad sign.
I got to mill about in my sleepless haze, talking to fellow fans, all of us trying to keep on the bright side. We reasoned that they must have temporarily closed the gates to try and salvage the obvious parking problems, a theory proven by the trucks full of crushed rock and other road-building materials whizzing by us. The whole time we kept an ear on the Bunny, which assured us that despite the problems they were still getting cars in, though admittedly at a much slower pace than needed. They also told us to remain patient, and we would all make it to the show.
One thing all of us had in common was our growing frustration with the now common sight of Phish-heads zooming by in the left lane. What had started as a few boos eventually became very angry yells. In one instance, a group of right-lane people attempted to use their bodies to block a left-lane truck from wedging into our lane, thus cutting in line. The group was unsuccessful and a near-fight ensued, made worse by a right-lane driver throwing a crap-filled sock at the window of the offending truck.
A heavy rain brought the road party to an abrupt end as everyone abandoned their makeshift camps to keep dry in their cars. I had my first true panic regarding the situation as I began to realize that even if traffic opened up, it would take some of these folks forever to gather their belongings, wandering car-mates and sobriety enough to see the traffic moving, if it ever did. I sat in the car with Noel and Brent, who was now so tired he was crying. I watched as the rain fell harder and harder, watching the line of cars blend together in a watercolor blur. I was now becoming emotional myself, knowing that this made the situation even worse. We couldn't run the car for fear of running out of gas, which made the cramped car humid and unbearable. I knew I was going to have to try and sleep in this mess since we were likely to be sitting still all night.
My wife was beginning to freak out now as well. The hour was 9 p.m. She had added up all of the terrible variables and realized too that we were in for a long night. She asked how we felt about leaving the traffic and trying to find a place to sleep. She reasoned that with some sleep, a clean restroom, and some hot food we would all be better situated to deal with whatever Saturday had to offer. I was sent over to Anton's car to propose this solution, just as another heavy rain began.
We pulled off the road at Orleans, which luckily was less than a mile away. After wasting so much anger at those traveling in the left lane, I felt bad as we traveled in the left lane to the exit. We pulled into the gas station, the rain pouring so hard that you could hardly see the ghost-like line of traffic snaking up the side road and onto the highway. We ran into the packed store where a collection of Phish fans and locals milled about. We grabbed some convenience food and waited for Anton to find a phone book and look up some hotels.
One local, Todd Marceau, overheard Anton and told him there were no rooms available for 60 miles. Anton joked that we would pay to sleep in his house, to which he replied that he'd have to check with his wife. Shortly after discussing the issue with his wife Mary, he returned with good news, and just like that our fortunes changed. Soon we were following them onto the highway and towards a roof over our heads. We all felt our sprits lift as we were thankful, once again, for our luck and blessings. I was amazed as we drove south past 20 miles of cars, all with their lights off and tents abandoned; it looked like some bad apocalypse movie where all the people had been vaporized, leaving only their cars as a memory of the civilization from whence they came.
To our happy surprise we pulled into the parking lot of the Bagel Depot, where we were told that Todd and Mary's friends Lionel and Donna Laferriere were going to open up the store and feed us. It was an overwhelming feeling of undeserved fortune. As we shuffled into the shop, Lionel made up very delicious croissant sandwiches for us with chips, a pickle and our choice of beverage, on the house. This was one of the most generous displays of hospitality I have ever been a part of, one that touched all of us to our core. After attacking this delicious food, Todd and Mary led us to their home, where we settled into their living room and fell asleep before the filament in the lamp cooled. It was 11 p.m. Friday night.
We awoke to coffee cups arranged on the dining table and a bright blue sky. We were all much more rested and with the promise of fresh bagels in our future, ready to find a way to the show. Once again we visited the Bagel Depot to have breakfast. The only people inside were locals, which we felt bad about. These people had hoped to make some money off the 70,000+ strangers passing through, and so far they hadn't seen many.
We were greeted with smiles and a few questions, but everyone was happy to see us. As we finished our meal, a plan was hatched. We would follow Todd around the back of the concert, pay to leave our car with some locals and hike in. After Todd reassured us that many others had done the same, I put aside my concern that we were about to break the rules.
A local burst through the door with very alarming news. "They are turning you kids away!" I ran to the car, flipped on the Bunny, and sure enough a sad, familiar voice spoke. Mike Gordon sounded as if he had been punched in the stomach. "We have no other choice but to turn you away." He spoke further, "Please follow the directions of the police and they will turn you around." Mike wished us a safe trip home, again apologized, and said they would refund our money and come up with some way to make this all up to us.
There was a very strange mix of feelings. Obviously this had been the biggest snafu in the history of Phish concerts. I wanted more than anything to ignore his request, but at the same time, I didn't want to make a bad situation worse. We have always taken pride in honoring the wishes of the band, and felt like they had strived to do the same for their fans. It was this feeling of collaboration that made our experiences with Phish different than almost any other band. We were all in this together. If they felt that our turning away was the only way to keep things safe, well, lets suck it up. At least, we reasoned, with only an estimated 30,000 people in the show there were another 40,000 going home, they would have to do something pretty big to make this up.
My sister Natalie had three weeks prior given birth to my nephew, and she lives in North Adams, Mass., only a few hours to the south. We all had wanted to meet the baby, and now that we were given the opportunity, we felt we would try to make some lemonade from this huge lemon. As I pulled onto the southbound onramp, I had to keep an eye out for the streams of traffic heading south. Boy, this was going to be expensive to fix. As we passed under a bridge, a local was hanging a banner, "Sorry." We passed rest areas full of fans hugging each other. The Bunny kept playing Mike's message over and over, with the DJ saying what a sad day it was.
We spent the next two days in Massachusetts, in a bit of a black hole. We occasionally listened to our XM radio simulcast of the Bunny, but we never heard of any further developments. I could only bear to listen to the show once, and it was too hard, I couldn't believe what had happened. My only solace was that there were so many of us turned around that they would have to make this up in a big way.
On Monday we headed back to Burlington. It wasn't until I saw a copy of the Burlington Free Press that I became filled with anger and regret and felt my heart sink. There, in a large color photo, was what I could only imagine: thousands and thousands of fans dancing. The figure the paper estimated was 80,000. My God, there were more people there than they had originally sold tickets too. If we hadn't grudgingly turned around, per the request of the band, we wouldn't have been among the crowd who missed the party. As we pulled downtown, I saw fan after fan, hundreds, with wrist bands emblazoned with "COVENTRY." This was very bad.
At the airport I met only one other couple who had missed the show. As I talked to fans who had made it, I began to realize what had happened. Everyone ignored the request. Some told me that they had read the "secret" message between the lines Mike spoke that day. While Mike didn't say anything about people being turned away, the DJs did, even at one point saying we would be denied access, period. We never considered ditching the car and walking, as it was clear to us that under no circumstances would we be allowed in. Out of our own blind loyalty to the words of Mike Gordon, we never even questioned the request. We never even imagined that the reality of 40,000 people walking to the show would obviously make any police barricade impossible. I felt worst about the fact that with so many people getting in, there was next to no chance that I will ever see Phish perform again.
Our plane was to leave Burlington at 5:30. This, like the concert, did not go as planned. We were delayed and at one point told that we would have to take a seven-hour bus ride to Philadelphia to meet our newly created connections. We were to arrive in Nashville Monday night. Now we weren't sure when we would get out of this mess. We did get to leave Vermont that night at midnight. Since the whole flight was going to have to stay the night in Philly, we were given room vouchers and told that an airline representative would meet us at the airport and arrange hotel transportation. This did not happen. The nearly empty airport only had cleaning people and a plane full of hippies to keep it company. Eventually an assistant night airport manager arranged shuttles to the Grade Z brand-name hotel where we got about three hours of sleep.
Our flight from Philly was delayed the next day another six hours, and we fell asleep in our beds at four on Tuesday. It was upon logging onto the Internet that my outrage became overwhelming. Not only did they let everyone in, but sold tickets to those very same ticketless people they asked to come, a move that can only be seen as attempted recouping of losses due to the thousands who heeded the band's request. Those same people the band told not to come took our place. I later read that Jon Fishman thanked all the folks who ditched their cars and walked to the show.
I don't want to condemn anyone. Hey, if you walked to the show, you got to the show, and in the end that's all any of us wanted. But by respecting the band's requests, we missed out on something that was very important to us. I've been told by attendees that I obviously was not a fan enough. I say that I was too much a fan, for who else would sacrifice something so dear for the good of the lucky few. Had we been given better instructions, or had the Bunny broadcast true information instead of trying to paint a happy face on an obvious fiasco, we, the left behind, would have made very different choices.
I got into Phish in my early 20s and am now in my early 30s. I'm married, have a great job, and am about to start a family. I saw this as a great opportunity to see the band I loved one last time. After 30 shows, five festivals, one Halloween, and countless hours listening to bootlegs, watching videos, and buying merchandise, I was being forced to end this relationship, a move that I felt coincided with the changes in my life that were happening anyway. Now I find myself with a relationship ended on very bad terms. I feel that a clear apology can only begin to lessen these hurt feelings. After all the hours, dollars and love spent, I can't believe the way this group of fans was cast off. There may be forever a painful wedge between the band and their most loyal fans. To riff on a line from the last song played...yes, Phish, we have some regrets.