Thirty years ago, the Star’s Mitch Potter hitchhiked from Toronto to the original site of Woodstock in upstate New York, to see how much had changed in the 20-year shift from hippiedom to yuppiedom. Here’s the original article, published in August 1989, that chronicled his journey.
“Don’t politicize us, we were beyond politics.
“If you need to know who we were, watch an eagle fly, listen to the wind, understand the outstretched hand and open your hearts and minds.
“Get beyond the confusion, the maya, even if it is for one minute.
“To my beautiful brothers and sisters, all peace and love. Miss the gathering something awful.
“Keep on keeping on.”
BETHEL, N.Y.—These words, scrawled in longhand on a scrap of plywood, lay like poignant syrup against what may well be America’s tackiest historical marker.
More a tombstone than a monument, the gray concrete memorial stands as a pathetically feeble remembrance of the Woodstock Music And Arts Fair, Aug. 15-17, 1969. Like a large, cold wedge of mouldy cheese, it overlooks the dairy farm once owned by Max Yasgur.
In the past week, some 500 daily visitors have trodden across these fields of hay stubble with an outpouring of alternately sad, wispy, nostalgic sentiment.
Some stare into melancholy memories of having once belonged to a blissed-out nation that felt, for a fleeting moment, it had achieved the unity of absolute being. Others remember sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and Pete Townshend clobbering Abbie Hoffman with his guitar. Others still gaze across 125 empty acres of natural amphitheatre and wonder what the fuss was all about.
We are 90 miles (145 kilometres) upstate from New York City, and like many in the unprecedented and since unequalled audience of 500,000 people that gathered here 20 years ago, we hitchhiked. The journey-by-thumb from Toronto was a 24-hour odyssey, much colder and nastier than On The Road romanticist Jack Kerouac would have liked. Two increasingly suspicious, violent decades have passed, but as the beatnik writer’s words promised, hitching rides can still be a strangely uplifting pastime — like flipping through the TV channels and being part of each program.
“Welcome home, brother.”
We have just been hugged by Ralph Lake of Casper, Wyo. Ralph has been camping beside the Woodstock monument for nine days now, the first of hundreds of expected campers who will hold vigil through next week’s anniversary.
Ralph is of the earth, with a face the texture and colour of a Prince Edward Island potato that has spent too many months in a storm cellar. At 50, he is likely one of the oldest living hippies, and already, one local newspaper has titled him “Woodstock‘s non-official guru.”
Ralph is also a member of the Rainbow Family, a nomadic tribe that perpetuates Woodstock ideals by living off the land with annual and semi-annual “gatherings.”
“I’m training to be a wizard,” he explains. “We have leprechauns and elves in the family, too. The idea is to instill the values of peace, love, spirituality and harmony with the environment without having rules or bosses.
“It’s working. We’ve been here for nine days, and people have brought us more food and supplies than we know what to do with.”
Ralph is interrupted by a young girl, perhaps 16, who crouches in front of him holding a wicker plate of small items as an offering. “Oooh, crystals, “ he cooes aloud, turning each slowly in his hand with an expression of wonder and enlightenment. “And a whale’s tooth, too.”
Later, Ralph begins to stoke the campfire flames with his “fire-starter” (a length of pipe for blowing air onto the coals that he explains is wrapped in 17 different kinds of leather).
It is easy, so easy, to dismiss Ralph and the time-warp in which he resides. Most of the yuppie nation would label him one of the walking dead, a burn-out from an era that has since been codified as an aberration to modern life, a flawed utopian dream too weirdly, drastically different from the North America’s safely bland, shopping-mall, game-show ethos. Ralph and his brethren will hold prayer in a “circle of hands”, and later, let their spiritual selves hang out at a “full moon expression session.” We’ll slap our sides, giddy with sarcasm, then head off to the McDonald’s drive-thru.
Indeed, Ralph has scars. Steady use of marijuana is playing charades with his short-term memory (at one point, he stands confused by his tent for a full five minutes, trying to remember what it was he rose from the fire to collect). But of all the people this journey brings us in contact with, Ralph is the happiest, even if joy stems from the study of, say, a twig or pine cone for nine or ten hours. He is also the only one we find who isn’t, in some way, contributing to world pollution.
The marker is abuzz with visitors now. Bea Berger, 71, tells of how she and her late husband pulled their ice-cream truck up to the festival to sell a few treats and ended up staying three days, sleeping along the road to Woodstock-On-The-Lake, a swampy mire where thousands reportedly frolicked in the nude.
“They were dirty,” says Bea, wondering how anyone could get incensed about people trying to clean themselves. “This place turned into a mudhole, we gave away most of our ice-cream and the kids had fun. I wish it would happen again. They were good kids.”
A pup-faced British Broadcasting Corporation reporter barnstorms through the site with a microphone and a smirk, and is gone in minutes. A newspaper publisher from Fort McMurray, Alta., walks up with his four kids and begins to shiver with emotion. “I tried to get here 20 years ago but I didn’t make it in time, and it’s something I’ve always regretted,” says Irwin Huberman, 36. “Even driving up the road, I could feel a sort of holy, supernatural thing about this plot of land. I felt the same way when I visited Jerusalem. Something amazing happened here.”
If towns could talk, this sleepy Catskills resort community would be complaining of fallen arches and varicose veins.
For more than 50 years, Bethel and the surrounding hamlets of Sullivan County have been remarkably well-insulated summertime havens for the tri-state area’s Hasidec Jews, who keep at arm’s length the world of modern film, music and television to avert the dilution of faith. They stay in shoddy bungalow colonies and, for the more affluent, enormous resort hotels that offer weekly shows from the likes of Buddy Hackett and Paul Anka.
It is they who suffered most in 1969 when Woodstock first breezed through the county, clogging Hwy. 17B with a solid river of humanity en route to the festival.
It is the same community that stands in the way of a reunion, or even a proper commemoration of the event.
Says Art Vassmer, 64, who along with farmer Yasgur used his influence — in this case, the supplies of his general store — to keep the unexpected hordes alive in 1969: “I got up that Friday morning and I was scared to death. There were thousands of kids everywhere. But I opened up the store — didn’t raise the prices like some did — and we sold out of most things in hours.
“Those kids weren’t causing trouble, no problem at all. I’m proud to say I loaned money and accepted out-of-town cheques and they made good on every cent.
Get more of the Star in your inbox
Never miss the latest news from the Star. Sign up for our newsletters to get today’s top stories, your favourite columnists and lots more in your inbox
“They got rained on for three days and their spirits weren’t broken, but people around here didn’t see it like that.
“The locals tried to block Woodstock, but when the chips were down and the kids were wet and hungry, they all helped out wherever they could. And you know, once it was over, a lot of people in Bethel just closed up again and started hating these kids.
“That’s why there’s no proper monument. The town was offered $200,000 free and clear just to allow a reunion concert, but they said no. They just don’t see what a thing this could be.”
Thanks to Bethel’s reticence — and the steady obstinacy of Warner Bros., the conglomerate that holds title to the Woodstock name (and guitar and dove logo) — this event will remain relatively untouched by the vultures and profiteers who milk the baby boom’s ravenous craving for nostalgia. On one level, that means visitors see only a cheap monument and an empty field of dreams. But, given a different scenario, hucksters could easily parlay this farm’s legend into a strip dotted with monoliths like the Flower Power Sightseeing Tower and the Holiday Inn Woodstock. Better that they let it be.
This story began under a hard rain one week ago, on Hwy. 401 at Toronto’s eastern city limits.
We — I was grateful that my road partner, Darren Harnett, 24, agreed to join the expedition, providing the safety of numbers — if only to gauge just how different modern living is compared to the days when the times really were a-changing.
Like many of the Kerouac-inspired wanderers of the Age of Aquarius, we amplified the task by denying ourselves sleeping bags, blankets and tents. This would be a wing-it enterprise, albeit with a “crisis-only” credit card (it was not used).
Our first ride, amazingly, took 30 seconds to flag. Hank, a courier from Hampton, Ont., took us to Bowmanville, warning along the way of the $53 fine and likelihood of a night’s accommodation courtesy of the Ontario Provincial Police should we be spotted using the thumb.
After 30 minutes at a Bowmanville truck stop, we lucked out when Daniel, a Montreal trucker heading home with a load of fruit juice, invited us to hop in. Daniel likes his view from on high — better to ogle the passing female motorists, he explains. He tortures us with a Samantha Fox tape for two hours, until darkness falls and we spill out onto the highway near Gananoque, Ont.
The rain still falls and we walk toward the Thousand Islands Bridge, our conduit to the U.S. Two miles along, an OPP cruiser pulls alongside and asks us in.
“We’ve had a disturbance in the area, gentleman,” Const. Ken Stewart explains, running our names through his computer. We check out clean, and Stewart gives us the once-over, then shrugs and says he’d be happy to drive us to the border, still eight miles away.
Almost midnight, we get a big break when the U.S. Customs inspector turns out to be a Woodstock alumnus.
“I was better prepared than anybody, “ he proclaims, bemused at the oddness of our retro-mission. “I didn’t care about the hippie thing, I went to see The Who. My best memory is when Abbie Hoffman came out onstage and Pete Townshend clobbered him with his guitar.
“The irony is that when Abbie went into hiding after the festival, he moved to Wellesley Island, just down the road from me.
“It was an amazing event, but it could never happen again. The times really have changed, but not the way we thought they would. I don’t see the kids looking for a place to go these days.”
It’s a warm rain that follows our eight-mile (13-kilometre) hike along lonely Route 81. Despite steady traffic, we stand rideless. This is low ebb on the hitching journey and, as a dilapidated barn beside the highway beckons with the promise of dry hay to bed down on for the night, we hold our “Syracuse” sign up to one last set of passing headlights. They stop! A window rolls down and a burst of Grateful Dead music — Jerry Garcia pleading “Every silver lining has a touch of gray. . .” — saves the day.
Deadheads, the weekend kind, with short hair and no tie-dye, tell us to hop in the back of the pickup. My hand lands on a leg, which belongs to the owner of the truck, who apparently overdid it at a beer party and was unceremoniously dumped in the back.
Larry, the tipsy, grinning driver, exclaims with delight upon learning our destination: “Woodstock! Wow. Well, tell ya what, it’s not my truck and it’s not my gas, but I’m gonna drive you guys as far as I can. That’s great.”
Larry drops us off at a truck stop 10 miles (16 km) north of Syracuse — a total of 70 miles (112 kilometres) beyond his own turnoff. Now it’s 4 a.m. and we’re bone-tired. Still raining, too. We eat at the 24-hour diner, and — with no other option — crawl underneath a bridge to sleep. This was ugly but dry, a surrealistic pillow made of concrete. But by morning we crawl from out from the hideaway, dry and anxious for the highway.
Remarkable luck brings Tom, a 21-year-old buck from Long Island, our way. He’s heading home from a Thousand Island’s holiday, and cheerfully motors us the last 170 miles (275 km), to within yards of the Woodstock marker.
Leaving Ralph at the site as dusk begins to fall, we wonder that it might be time for the credit card. A bed would be nice, or at least a sleeping bag. Back on the highway, we hitch a ride with Tom Connolly, 38, who — like so many other spontaneous saviours on this journey — turns out to be a sound tech/gopher from the original Woodstock.
Tom, from Windsor, Ont., came down early, drawn by the excitement of ’69, and ended up not only working the festival but falling in love with a local, marrying her and raising a family of three daughters. They were later divorced, he moved to Augusta, Ga., and now lives there operating a concert promotion business.
His reasons for returning are twofold: To visit his daughters and make a killing on 20th anniversary reunion T-shirt sales. He’s talking tens of thousands of dollars profit, if all goes well.
In a matter of minutes, Tom hears of our pilgrimage and lack of accommodation and offers spare sleeping bags and a corner of the tent he’s staying in at a nearby campsite.
We spend a night at the fire, talking peace and love, power and commerce, and collapse gratefully for a marathon nap. The next morning, Tom and I drive to Monticello for coffee, and return in an hour to find somebody has taken the tent, bags and cooler.
Darren sits dejected on a picnic table, rubbing sleep out of his eyes.
“Your ex-wife came and kicked me out. She said you didn’t ask permission to borrow the tent, so she took everything.”