Look around me
I can see my life before me
Running rings around the way it used to be.
Like a good girlfriend, Autumn, in her scarlet and saffron dress, conspires with the sun, and nudges me to go.
Two days ago, I began to eye-ball tickets to An Intimate Evening of Songs and Stories with Graham Nash at Bethel Woods, New York—home of the original and unduplicated Woodstock Music and Art Fair.
Going alone anywhere has never been an issue for moi, as me, myself and I seem to get along just fine. So, when no one expresses interest, I wonder: Should I go? Should I go? It’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive. Should I go? Evelyn lives there. I could stay with her. Should I go?
The weather declares the affirmative, so at noon on the day of the show, I punch in my Visa number and click purchase.
Too young to embrace the countercultural movement when it happened, my inner hippie now rears her flowered head. Though I discover this groovy chick later in life, she is not only welcome but celebrated. She is super chill. Today’s version of groovy. And, even if she is working on a legal brief or writing a story, she keeps her playlist on the Mamas and the Papas or Bob Dylan or the Zombies.
I print out the ticket the old-fashioned way and jump into Mini Pearl, my sporty, if diminutive, comfort zone. We hit I-84 with great fanfare and with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSN&Y) blaring. And now(!) I venture to see the N of the famous quartet. The Nash component. The British component. Yeehaw.
Because I am an immigration attorney, CSN&Y’s tune Immigration Man obviously resonates with me, or at least it did last night when I discovered it. Why didn’t I hear this little ditty before then? Only God knows, and I believe in divine timing. Silly? Perhaps. But now is my time to hear it and also sing it at really high decibels:
When I was at the immigration scene
Shining and feeling clean
Could it be a sin?
I got stopped by the immigration man
Says he doesn’t know if he can
Let me in.
Let me in, immigration man, Can I cross the line and pray I can stay another day Let me in, immigration man I won't toe your line today I can't see it anyway. Hey hey.
In sixth gear, I sail past Waterbury with its European-looking skyline, houses and churches on hillsides, and continue West, past Newtown, Danbury, past the turn for I-684, which we usually take to go to Manhattan. I haven’t been this far West on I-84 in quite a while, if ever. I soak in the foliage. The iridescence mesmerizes. Mostly tangerine, crimson and lemon. Sometimes chartreuse and fuchsia.
I climb one of the Catskills just as John Lennon croons #9 Dream on my playlist, and pass a big sign that reads “Sullivan County.” Descending with hundreds of other drivers going to who-knows-where, I gasp audibly. As far as I can see, mountains undulate into the horizon. I giggle and yelp along with the Beatle. Dream away, magic in the air. Was magic in the air? Yes, there is. Magic in the Air. I wonder if the other drivers can see me. This blissful me. This singing me. I don’t care. I feel free.
After two and a half hours on this highway, I finally get to “86” I-84 at Exit 104. I hang a left on 17 West. I have only ten miles left on this pilgrimage to Bethel Woods. It is my Camino del Santiago. My rock n roll hajj. My insides percolate. Even effervesce. I am a Coca-Cola just opened. A bottle of Dom Perignon popped. I wanna yell to pedestrians: “Far out, man. I’m going to Woodstock! Can you dig it?”
My friend Evelyn, a genuine hippie and bona fide Woodstock attendee, lives nearby. On several occasions, she tried to explain that the original conglomeration of flower children was held, not in Woodstock, New York, as the name suggests, but in Bethel, New York. Yet, it wasn’t until I read Michael Lang’s Road to Woodstock that I got it.
Now, I’m almost there.
Waze warns turn right on Hurd Road, but so small is the sign reading “Bethel Woods Center for the Arts” that I almost blaze past it. I hit the brakes and hang a quick right. The literal “road to Woodstock” is freshly paved and sports a double-yellow line, though not a lot is on it. Along the left, the sun lights verdant land that is bound by a tidy wooden fence. Minor disillusionment threatens, as it all seems so manicured, but this sensation soon goes away and is replaced by unfettered awe. The feeling you get when you are somewhere worthy of respect and reverence. Where something significant occurred either in the historical sense or the spiritual sense. Woodstock happened to be both.
And, isn’t that what pilgrimages are all about? The Spirit?
My eyes tear—not gushing, just a little like they did when I beheld Notre Dame’s steeple with its copper-green disciples ascending towards heaven.
It may be sculpted, but it is also preserved—thank goodness—and well cared for. Protected for late-bloomers like me making up for lost, groovy time. For seekers. For those who want peace and love and harmony for all. As Elvis Costello asks, “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?”
I arrive at 3:30 p.m., well ahead of the concert. Evelyn will meet me at 4 and get me in to the museum. I’ve got time to drive the third of a mile down Hurd Road—the Hurd Road—to the monument and see the natural bowl that was part of Max Yasgur’s dairy farm and about which Michael Lang spied and declared, “This is it!” When I hit West Shore Road, I turn right and immediately pull into a tiny shell parking area. Next to me is a Winnebago with Toronto plates. Canadian pilgrims—very cool.
I enter a smallish wooden-fenced-in area. Before me lies the monument: bright red upper third with its signature motif, a dove on a guitar fretboard. Below this are two bronze plaques listing the performers with, of course, Richie Havens at the top. At the bottom of the stone in bigger font are the words:
THIS IS THE ORIGINAL SITE
MUSIC AND ARTS FAIR
HELD ON AUG. 15,16,17, 1969
THIS MARKER ERECTED BY OWNERS
LOUIS NICKY AND JUNE GELISH
Having already read Michael Lang’s book and watched the YouTube video about the event, I was familiar with the acts but scanned them anyway. Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker. How’s that for starters? It follows with many now-famous acts, including CSN&Y, and ends with Country Joe McDonald and the Fish. Pennies, nickels and quarters splay across the names. The other sojourners’ way of saying that they had been here too, I suppose.
Beyond the stone and the wooden fence, lies the object of my journey (besides Mr. Nash). And I suspect that of many other far-out fans. Spread out like an exquisite malachite fan or a grass meadow that the Almighty had sculpted into a bowl, smooth and rounded, lay the site of the original Woodstock. In pristine condition, and with healthy, Kelly-green grass, it beckons me to run to the bottom and imagine being there in 1969. Unfortunately, Evelyn texts and waits at the museum. I have to go.
Evelyn and her husband, Dennis, are celebrated on a brick on the pathway leading into the Bethel Center for the Arts. It reads “Evelyn and Dennis Raymond, The 1st Volunteers.” Not only did she attend the original Woodstock, but she was the first person to step up and help when the Center for the Arts opened. I am among greatness.
In the modern structure that resembles a dumbbell, a small concert hall sits at one end, and a gift shop and the Museum at Bethel Woods at the other. A twenty-year-old-ish lady sits behind spectacles and the ticket counter. Evelyn says to her, “I’m a volunteer here and I would like to bring my friend into the museum.”
After she gives her name, I brag about Evelyn’s involvement, “In fact, she was the first volunteer here!” Nothing. Zippo. Nada. The young lady is of the silent generation. The no-speaka-da-English generation. The no-speaka-da-anything age bracket. I mourn for her and her spoken words and pray that her people, too, will have a spiritual awakening like what happened on this site fifty years ago.
We don’t have a lot of time, as we have to dash to Evelyn’s forty minutes away for dinner. Then, I must drive back before the Brit takes the stage. After the express tour of the museum given by Evelyn, who could be an exhibit herself—Step right up and see the hippie. Ask her where she stood when Richie Havens performed—we emerge, and at the other end of the building and through glass French doors, a white-haired man is on stage. Someone enters the doors and music sneaks out. “Nettie, it’s the sound check!” says Evelyn, excited.
We inch closer to glass and through it we hear singing: “When I was at the immigration scene, shining and feeling clean. Could it be a sin?”
Goose bumps—or, the “goosies” as I call them—tickle my arms. “Oh, wow. I know the words to this song. I’m an immigration lawyer!” I blurt this out to the guards and the volunteers near the door. No one takes notice. But I do. I immediately recognize this as a God-wink or a blessing. It has to be. Never hearing the song until last night? It speaking to me and my fight for immigrants? Playing it again and again in the car until I memorized the words?
Of course, many would call it coincidence. But I have gone through a handful of these blissful moments to recognize them as heaven-sent. Serendipitous usually. Over-the-top definitely.
I make it out to the glorious countryside and Evelyn’s house nestled in the blazing leaves of the Catskills. I return in time to see Graham Nash. It is just about all my heart can take without bursting.
When he instructs to teach your children well, my body begins to float above the audience. When he says that he wrote Our House right after he broke up with Joni, I want to hug this seventy-seven-year-old crooner over a split fifty years ago. And, when he strums into Wasted Along the Way, I hug the lady next to me. She doesn’t seem to mind. With wisdom, he advises:
And there's so much time to make up everywhere you turn Time we have wasted on the way So much water moving underneath the bridge Let the water come and carry us away.
That’s it. I’m making up time. I don’t want to waste even another second on nonsense. What defines nonsense shall be determined later, but I know what sense is. It has to do with living. And family. And music. And love. And nature.
Furthermore, that the Creator himself (or herself) notices that a little sound check by a man from across the pond and from long ago means a lot to me, proves that being right here is definitely not nonsense.