Bonnaroonies. Bonnaroovians. Bonnarites. Bonnarees. There are as many names for attendees of the Bonnaroo Music Festival as there are attendees. There are also just as many different takes on the event. Some from the hippie or esoteric side of the fence may want to claim that Bonnaroo and the likes are gatherings where fellow humans come together to celebrate the Muse of Sound and commune with the overspirit. While that may be true, let's be honest. It's mostly a gathering of rich, white, college-aged kids who just want to have a good timeand that involves lots of substances, legal or otherwise.
For four days, I was a citizen of the city of Bonnaroo. Camping on site is a much different experience than day-tripping to check out the music and scene. The encampment at Bonnaroo was like a cross between a National Boy Scout Jamboree and the annual art festival Burning Man. (As much as I'd love to say I've attended the latter, I haven't, though I've been to two of the former.) But the population of Bonnaroo is at least triple that of either gathering. Bonnaroo officials claim an attendance of about 90,000, but some estimates put the actual figure closer to 150,000. That puts Bonnaroo somewhere between Murfreesboro and Chattanooga, both in terms of its location and its population.
My friend Matthew mentioned that all it's going to take to end Bonnaroo is a scare-tactic investigative news piece warning parents about the prevalence of drugs. I agree, but I don't say this as a prude. Having graduated from the school of psychedelics years ago, my personal varieties of consumption can be counted on one handbut I do need the entire hand. Even so, the range and variety of mind- and mood-altering substances available at Bonnaroo constituted a major counterattack in the inane drug war. While ethyl alcohol and marijuana were most common, every drug imaginable was being sold or consumed. In some ways, this is good news for legalization advocates: proof that 90,000-plus people can party for four days straight and live.
Festival "pharmaceutical reps" could be found standing along busy roadways, particularly Shakedown Street. Others roamed the concert grounds or even moved from campsite to campsite like door-to-door drug distributors. Selling techniques involved simply holding a sample of your wares or just saying what you were offering: "doses" (LSD), "mushrooms" (psilocybin variety), "nuggets" (marijuana, refers to chunky buds), "opium" and "rolls" (MDMA, short for rolling). Of course, you could also buy your drugs in more epicurean style, in the form of ganja treats (brownies, crispy rice squares, cookies, goo balls) or mushroom chocolates.
Even though drug use was rampant, the biggest drug problem was user ignorance.
The two kids who died as a result of the oppressive heat likely didn't understand the reality of the environment. While official tests aren't back yet, it would be a safe bet that they had MDMA (ecstasy) or one of its close cousins in their systems. The problem with these extremely popular drugs is that they cause hyperthermia, an increase in body temperature. And the feeling that serotonin and dopamine overloads give users makes them less likely to be concerned for their health, and this is especially important when dancing in a field under a June Tennessee sun.
Though many parents would be appalled at what their kids were up to at Bonnaroo, there were plenty of people who took theirs. During one performance, I looked over to see a young child kicking a ball with two girls smoking a bowl. The parent sat nearby, enjoying the show and satisfied that her child was in a safe environment. This scene was repeated later as a boy threw a football with two beer-drinking hippies, much to his bored little sister's dismay. These parents know their children will grow up just fine. Plus their kids will have a great memory of a fun family outing.
But the fun can only last a while. Eventually Bonnaroo will go where Grateful Dead lots ended up and where Phish lots were heading: to the dogs. Because drugs are illegal, there is invariably an insidious criminal element. Among the worst offenders are nitrous-oxide dealers. Also known as "hippie crack," nitrous is usually brought in by a shady crew who have a team of security-spotters so they can move their operation at a moment's notice. Once they've made their money from an exorbitant mark-up, they flee the scene, leaving a debris-strewn field of spent balloons that someone else will have to clean up.
The sheer number of attendees will also cause the fall of Bonnaroo because more and more will show up solely for the nearing-the-edge-of-control party that may eventually teeter completely over the edge.
When I left the city of Bonnaroo, I had been its citizen for four full days of good times and bad weather. Day one had been full of joy and possibility, but day four put it all in perspective. Looking around, all you could see was waste. I arrived at Bonnaroo, but I left Trasharoo. The landscape was nothing but tons and tons of debris and discarded camping gear, cars stuck in mud and dirty people who still hadn't come back from their long strange trips. I had a stellar time and look forward to the next one, but it's good that Bonnaroo comes only once a year.