Last week I went to my first Bonnaroo, a fact I repeated probably close to a hundred times over the course of the week I was there. It was, in fact, my first full weekend, camped out music festival period. I've been to Jazz Fest in New Orleans, the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, SXSW in Austin and plenty of smaller music festivals around the country, but they were all day-trips. This was different. I'll admit I was a little nervous about it as I knew I would be twice as old as most of the people in attendance, but I wasn't going to let that stop me. Better late than never, right? And actually it's those nerves that made it that much more exciting to be there. It turned out to be a really amazing experience and I'm really glad I went. As the weekend wore on though, the question changed from how many times I'd been to Bonnaroo to if I'm coming back next year. When my answer was "probably not", I got a lot of hurt and quizzical looks. Hadn't I had fun? I really did, I answered, but there are so many other things to do and places to explore. This may very well not be my last Bonnaroo. I'd love to go back to The Farm and do it again, but only if it fits into my schedule. You see, while Bonnaroo was a great experience, I've had lots of comparable experiences in my life and through them all, going back again was probably never as good as the first time. While I understand that for a lot of people it's hard to put yourself out there in front of a new bus over and over again, I'm here to argue that it's worth it. Even if you get run over now and again, it'll still be worth it You can only ever do anything for the first time once, and I plan to live out as many firsts as this world allows.
The overall experience of Bonnaroo can best be described, in my opinion, as being a part of something bigger than yourself. Something with history and tradition and a language all its own. Something you would find hard explaining to others because you really had to be there. It's big and exciting and magical and it's all happening and then, just like that, it's over. For those who have never experienced something like it before, it's sad to leave, depressing even that it's done. You can't believe it came and went so quickly. You can't believe it's 361 days until the next one (not exactly but you get the point). You try and tell others about it, but talking about Which Stage and What Stage and This Tent and The Other Tent just raises eyebrows and you find it's really hard to describe the weekend because it wasn't about the event, or the food, or even the music or the people, it was about the experience and it's hard to put all of that into words. It's just something you have to experience yourself to understand.
When I was driving home from my amazing week at Bonnaroo, I started to think of some of the wonderful experiences I've had in my life being a part of something bigger than myself. It was good stuff to think about and left me full to bursting with good memories of amazing times and amazing people. I tried to remember exactly what it was like to be there, in the moment, living it for the first time.
The first experience that popped into my head was my first summer working at camp. When I was 16, I went to work at Lenhok'sin High Adventure Base in Goshen, Virginia. I helped run a high ropes course which Boy Scout and Adventure Scout troops would hike to and camp at. We sang songs about Bill Grogan's Goat and had inside jokes I can't even remember. But we were a good team out there and it was the best summer of my life to that point. I remember at some point there was an all-staff dinner and people were dismissed starting with those who had spent the most summers at camp. There was awe and almost reverence for those who had been there for 10 or even 15 years. I remember thinking those were people who knew how great all of this was. I felt lucky to have figured it out so young. I bawled like a baby when we left at the end of that summer. I spent months trying to explain to people how great it had been, but nobody understood because they hadn't been there. I didn't go back the next summer, and the following year I did, but for the last time. It was a good summer, but it didn't have the same magic as the first time around. There are people who still go back year after year, and I respect that immensely, but for me it was the novelty of the experience which hit me so hard. I wouldn't trade either of those summers, though, for anything.
The next thing that came into my head was my experiences at Penn State with the Penn State Dance Marathon, or THON as we called it. If you've never been a part of it, even the name sounds stupid. THON is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world which raises money for children with cancer at Hershey Medical Center. When I was a student, we raised over a million dollars a year, now they are raising 10 million ($147 million to date). The basic idea of it is that students stay on their feet for 48 hours without sitting or sleeping (I think it's actually 46 hours these days). The entire school comes together to support the effort with everyone from fraternities and sororities to student government to the sports teams to the faculty and staff turning out. All of the popular local bands play, and it is a whirlwind of music and inspirational speakers and families of children with cancer reminding you why you are there. It was an amazing undertaking and took the whole year to plan, and I was very proud to be a part of it for five years. The logistics for that weekend are mind-blowing and the entire thing is run by college kids with the help of a few advisers. The "line dance" and "bathroom breaks" are things you'd just have to be there to understand. It was this massive event that we planned for and looked forward to all year, and when it was finally there it was intense and exhausting and exhilarating and everything that was good about Penn State and college in general. In fact I just watched this video from this year's THON, and it sent chills up my spine. Every year when it was over there was a huge emotional release. We laughed and we cried and we hugged and we promised we'd see each other next year. Some of my friends still go back every year, 20 years later, to be a part of THON. I've been back myself, but it could never be the same as it was when I was out in the middle of things. And even then I'd say it was hard to match how I felt about it as an 18 year old freshman experiencing it for the very first time.
My very first trip as a tour guide was so short (10 days) that it's almost laughable to me now. But at the time it was super intense, exhausting and challenging. I had people on my tour from countries I knew nothing about and many of them had traveled to places I'd never even heard of. In those ten short days I got to know them better than some people I had known for years. We had adventures together and lived, ate and slept together. One of the people from that tour, Edwina, is still my Facebook friend today, 18 years later (we barely even had email back then!). Ending that trip was super emotional for me and I didn't know if I was going to be able to keep putting myself through those feelings. As it turned out, I could, more than a hundred times over. I had better trips, longer trips, and yes, a few truly awful trips, but none would ever be that first trip. It just wasn't possible.
That following winter I went on my first trip abroad. I was in Europe for probably less than three months, but it feels like I was there for a year. I was on a shoestring, staying at hostels and taking the overnight train from one city to another. I met tons of people, saw too many old churches and art museums and got drunk in a dozen different languages. I learned the banter of travel (gems like "I'm a traveler not a tourist") and also learned it's not easy being an American abroad (everyone has an opinion, and everyone wants to use you as a sounding board for it). Again, I met amazing people who are still my friends to this day. I remember Christmas in Barcelona with Gaetan and New Years in the Swiss Alps with Sam (who I would hang out with the following year in Australia). I pushed boundaries on that trip and learned a lot about myself. I tried new foods and picked up bits and pieces of other languages and cultures. Getting on the flight home was tough, because I knew it meant that that trip was over. I've traveled the world since then, been to 55 countries on 5 continents and even lived in a few. I've seen amazing things and met wonderful people, but it would be tough to put them up against my first sunrise in Paris when I was just 24 years old.
So many firsts! I could tell you stories about my first real girlfriend (hi Eva!), my first day as a teacher, my first day (of two years) living in Japan. Or I could tell you about smaller firsts like my first concert (Chicago) and all the Zippos in the air my 12 year-old self didn't understand, or my first Fantasy Fest (Hi Heather), my first Mardi Gras, my first skydive or bungee jump. This past year I experienced an eclipse in totality for the first time, something just as mind-blowing in many ways as my first real kiss. Or even the first day of the trip I'm currently on and the feeling of being totally free in a very different way as I set off into the unknown. And yes, I would absolutely put my experience last weekend at Bonnaroo on that list. It was an amazing time. Even at 42 years old I could still experience something wonderful, something bigger than myself, for the very first time. It meant a lot to me.
You see, for me, life is all about those new experiences and doing things for that very first time, and I hope I'm never too old experience that. I know for many people there is only so long they are willing to try new things because putting yourself out there is hard. Or they want to fall into a comfort zone and stay there because, well, it's comfortable. I remember when I lived on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and people told me they had been coming there every year for decades. I smiled along with them and would never have made them feel like they were doing something wrong because there's nothing wrong with that, but in the back of my head I thought how great Fiji is and isn't it a shame they'll probably never get there. In the end, we all have to do what's right for us, and maybe that is what's right for them. It's certainly not my place to judge. Other people live in the same place and go to the same restaurants and the same bars and even the same events year in and year out. Again, to each their own, but that is not the life I've ever wanted to live. I don't have anything and I don't want anything, all I've ever wanted is to live this life to the fullest I possibly can. I thrive off of what's new and exciting and if it doesn't make my heart race just a little bit, it doesn't do it for me.
If you've ever watched a little kid wander through the world where everything is new and their eyes are wide and their hands are outstretched towards anything and everything they see, that's how I want to live my life. And yes, when I see that same kid, I know that there is pain and heartache and cuts and bruises ahead too, but those are a part of life. My scars are as much a part of my story as my photos are and I wouldn't trade either of them. It's such an amazing world that we live in, and we're really only here for such a short time that I really just want to make the most of it.
I'm not saying I'll never go back to Bonnaroo or Mardi Gras or Paris or Japan, all I'm saying is that there are other experiences I want to have too. So when I had people tell me last weekend that this was their 15th Bonnaroo or that The Farm was like a second home to them I nodded and smiled along. Because at the end of the day we all live our own lives and decide what makes us happy. Maybe they need this and planning for it is what gets them through the day or the year. I'm not knocking them. But in the back of my head I couldn't help but wonder if they've ever been to Burning Man or Coachella or Lollapalooza (coming August 2-5). How would they know that this is the one, if it's the only one they've been to? I know that coming back next year or years from now would be another amazing experience, and coming back I'd know what to expect. On the other hand, it's not knowing what to expect which makes my whole world go 'round.