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Woodstock Revisited Again: Jim's Recollection (updated from last year)

Forty-seven years ago this morning I woke up in my sleeping bag on a grassy hillside in the Catskill Mountains of southeastern New York State alongside roughly half a million people.

It was Saturday, August 16, 1969. No, I'm happy to say, it wasn't pouring rain at that point! The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and people around me were already stretching, getting dressed, sharing breakfast, passing water bottles, and filling pipes and papers in anticipation of the greatest rock concert the world had eveer seen.

After a six mile hike from where we'd abandoned my friend's dad's sedan just off the road in the midst of the biggest traffic jam in U.S. history (which some of you might remember had closed the NY State Thruway section of I-90 - fortunately a few hours after we'd already exited to the mountain roads,) we had all drifted off slowly the night before after being soothed by Melanie singing "Beautiful People" and singing along with Arlo Guthrie's "You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant!" (If you're too young to remember either of those, I highly recommend turning on the background music at this point: http://youtu.be/a414FPnl3KU http://youtu.be/m57gzA2JCcM )  That first night, closed out by Joan Baez's hourlong set, went until 2 a.m.

For my traveling companions and me it had been our longest road trip ever, crawling in traffic for the last several hours of the journey from our hometown in the northwestern part of the state, but we had already met many festival attendees who had come much further, including some who'd made the pilgrimage in converted school buses from California. For them and for a number of us who'd gathered there on kind old Mr. Yasgur's farmland, this event promised much more than our favorite bands or a big party in the woods. In the midst of our young lives, rattled, torn and alienated from our elders as many of us were, coming of age in a nation divided by a long and unjust war and ongoing struggles for racial and gender equality, we had been drawn also by the festival poster's promise of "3 days of peace, love, and music." And I think most of us got what we came for.

My then best bud John and I had already plunged into a bit of the peace and love part on the hillside that first night, spreading the slices of a big loaf of bread with the peanut butter and jam we'd brought along from the car to share with the hungry and less prepared folks around us. Others had chipped in and rewarded us with sharing whatever goodies they'd packed in, already building the sense of community and caring that would pervade the weekend for us. That experience continued and expanded Saturday morning for John and me over the course of our long trek back to the abandoned car for the tent and additional camping gear and provisions we hadn't been able to carry when we'd arrived the evening before.

In a sea of pedestrian traffic to rival any contemporary festival crowd moving in both directions for the entire length of our twelve mile walk, we were constantly offered shared food and water by both fellow attendees in transit and local residents who'd set up provision tables along the roadside, knowing that by now the festival grounds had been officially declared a disaster zone due to the size of the crowd in attendance and the impassibility of the roads leading in and out of the area. This had meant that, in those initial hours of the weekend, food and beverage concessions at the site were already running out with little hope of replenishing their stock before the roads were cleared of traffic. Fortunately we had a cooler in the car that enclosed, in addition to a bit more nourishment, a plastic gallon jug that John had ingeniously filled with ice tea and frozen solid the night before our trip. Even in the August heat, packed in the now rapidly melting ice in the cooler, the tea had remained more than half frozen, sustaining us, along with others we passed along the way, throughout most of our hike back to the festival.

Incredibly, we made it back to our friends on the hillside by 1:30 that afternoon, in time to hear Country Joe's famous and then highly risqué "Fish Cheer" and "Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die Rag" http://youtu.be/ScxI94XDdtY while picking up on the electric buzz circulating through the crowd about the next-up band that few had actually heard yet, a group called Santana, who in another half hour had us all on our feet, many dancing in abandon to a sound unlike anything we'd heard before. http://youtu.be/BoC8RTaUZMc

And there was so much more amazing music to come in the hours ahead, with Canned Heat, the Grateful Dead, Mountain, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly & The Family Stone, Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplan, and the Who all still to come that second night on the festival's single stage. And it hardly ended there, with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, Paul Butterfield, and Ten Years After all still to come in the next day and a half. At some point between sets, though, the two of us hungrily wandered off in pursuit of rumored free food being served from the bus of one of those west coast communes who'd joined the gathering early and brought in extra provisions. Nicely spiced frijole stuffed cabbage leaves, it was my initial introduction to vegetarian cuisine. It was one of a long list of first tastes I experienced that weekend, and though I don't recall vividly every one of those moments, I still savor my recollection of the best of them.