On August 15, 1969, a concert began in the small town of Bethel, New York. Originally planned to occur in Wallkill, a town 28 miles to the southeast, the concert was moved to Bethel when inhabitants of Wallkill balked at the thought of thousands of concert attendees invading their town for a three day music festival. Event organizers, expecting 50,000 attendees, scrambled to find a new location for their event, and settled on a dairy farm owned by Max Yasgur. Short on time, the event organizers were able to build a performance stage and install sound equipment, but failed to complete fencing and construction of the ticket booths. Approximately 186,000 tickets had been pre-sold for the show, but now the festival, featuring acts such as Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Arlo Guthrie, Janis Joplin, Santana, and The Who, essentially became a free concert. One of the defining events of the 60’s, Woodstock would be attended by nearly 450,000 concert goers, and has since become synonymous with many of the cultural changes sweeping the nation in the late 1960’s (via
As a child of the 1980s, I am too young to have experienced Woodstock. However, I grew up listening to so many of the artists who performed at the concert. Scroll through my music library and you’ll come across
Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix, White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane, On the Road Again by Canned Heat (which perhaps should be the theme song of this blog!), Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival, My Generation by The Who, and many more. Yet despite the festival site being only a few hours from my home, I had never stepped foot on those hallowed grounds.
My wife and I keep a running list of places to explore. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, visits to many of those sites have been put on hold, as either they remain closed or we don’t feel comfortable visiting places that are not equipped to adequately provide space for proper social distancing. Looking at our list, we realized that the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which is built on the site of the Woodstock concert, is open. After reading the website, we both felt reassured that the organization was taking seriously its obligations for providing a safe environment for its visitors. So on a sunny Saturday in August, my wife and I got in my Accord and headed northward… to spread some peace and love!
A Train and the Curviest Road in New York
Located about one hundred miles northwest of New York City, Bethel was the site of the 1969 Woodstock Festival.
As we headed north, we turned on SiriusXM’s Classic Vinyl station to get in the mood. A good omen for our trip: one of the first songs to come on the radio was by Creedence Clearwater Revival. CCR was the first act to agree to play at Woodstock. The organizers of the festival were having a difficult time attracting bands until Creedence signed their contract – once they agreed to perform, it opened the door to many other acts to sign up (via Wikipedia).
If you look closely in the rearview mirror, you can see a group of power utility trucks. We passed several such caravans during our drive. A strong tropical storm that blasted the East Coast last Monday left widespread power outages, with many areas of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut in the dark for several days. Work continues to restore power around the tri-state region.
Driving through the town of Port Jervis, NY, my wife said, “Quick! Turn left!” We followed a series of signs to a Save-A-Lot supermarket parking lot, where at the far end was a small train yard displaying the Erie Turntable.
A railway turntable is a part of a train yard designed to turn a locomotive a different direction from which it came (usually a 180-degree turn to head the other way). There were once as many as 3,000 turntables in the United States. Today, there are fewer than 200 left, and only about 1/3 of those are still in operation (via Trains Magazine).
Erie 833, an EMD E8 diesel locomotive, has pride of place on the turntable. Several other historic passenger and cargo cars sit on the rail line behind it. It was a fun stop!
The drive to Bethel Woods takes about two hours from my front door. We decided to add a half hour to our journey for a worthy detour: Route 97, the curviest road in New York State.
As I drove this stretch of Route 97, known as Hawk’s Nest, it was easy to pretend I was Max Verstappen, driver for the Red Bull-Honda Formula One racing team. Route 97 snakes its way through the mountains and parallels the Delaware River for several miles before turning northward. Needless to say, I had a blast on the curvy roads!
This section of New York is notable for another reason: it was the setting for a war between New York and New Jersey! During colonial times, settlers in this area of the two states fought over control of the border. During the final battle – in 1765 – the leaders of the New York faction were captured by colonists from New Jersey (although owing to the battle happening on the sabbath, no weapons were used). The war only ended when King George III personally intervened to establish the border of New York and New Jersey. Talk about an unknown footnote of history – the New Jersey Line War lasted for over 50 years! (via Wikipedia). The current border between the two states is at the Tri-States Monument in Port Jervis, a site we visited earlier this spring.
Nearing our destination, we stopped for lunch at Lake Superior State Park. Our picnic spot was beside a water lily-filled cove. Not a bad view for our lunch!
We had this section of the park almost entirely to ourselves. Our only company was a great blue heron, who was looking for his midday meal. After a relaxing lunch, it was time to push onward to our final destination! Woodstock
We arrived at the rolling hills of Bethel, NY and the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.
Opening in 2004, the Center was established to promote the arts and to preserve the history of Woodstock.
“Spread Peace & Love, Not COVID-19.” My wife and I have avoided visiting any indoor activities since the coronavirus pandemic began. However, Bethel Woods took great pains to ensure a safe and sanitary museum environment. From numerous reminders about masks and social distancing, to clearly defined and separate entrance and exit doors, to constant cleaning, we felt comfortable paying a short visit to the Woodstock museum.
The museum, housed in a relatively small space, does a great job of both setting the historical scene for the counterculture movement of the late 1960s, as well as telling the history of the festival.
How do you broadcast music to hundreds of thousands of people? With lots and lots of speakers. These are some of the stage speakers from Woodstock – a mixture of equipment from Altec and JBL, combined in an arrangement that is now known as the “Woodstock bin.”
An original poster of the planned festival in Wallkill. The iconic design of the dove and guitar by artist Arnold Skolnick became the logo for the concert. Fun fact: the posters for the show were printed in Camden, New Jersey, not far from where I grew up.
The Woodstock Music and Arts Fair was also known as “An Aquarian Exposition.” The “Age of Aquarius” (a name, which I learned, came from the musical Hair), refers to the hippie movement of the 1960s. It was a time to, in the words of psychologist Timothy Leary, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”
A festival of hundreds of thousands of people needs workers. Lots of workers. One of the earliest groups to sign on to help run the festival was the Hog Farm, a commune in New Mexico, and the longest-running commune in the United States. The job of The Hog Farm members? They were the security force. You may be tempted to laugh, but one of the hallmarks of Woodstock was the relative safety of the event for such a large gathering.
This bus is an homage to the Merry Pranksters. A group of authors, actors, engineers, photographers, and artists centered around author Ken Kesey, the Pranksters are considered the forerunners of the hippie movement. They also believed in the… enthusiastic… use of hallucinogenic drugs to expand human consciousness. They arrived at Woodstock in their wildly-painted bus, Furthur (via Wikipedia).
The sight of hundreds of thousands of young people, dressed in strange clothes and living a very different lifestyle, unnerved some of the townspeople. However, many more of the locals were of a like mind with Max Yasgur, the conservative dairy farmer who hosted the festival. In the museum I found this quote from Max that I read twice before writing it down: Look, the reason you don’t want them here is because you don’t like what they look like. And I don’t particularly like what they look like either. But that’s not the point. They may be protesting the war, but thousands of American soldiers have died so they can do exactly what they’re doing. That’s what the essence of the country is all about.
Richie Havens, a singer-songwriter from Brooklyn, was the opening act of the concert. The museum has his guitar and kaftan on display. After reading about the concert and watching documentaries, it was amazing to be up close and personal with the artifacts of the concert. It was amazing to be… there.
We left the museum and headed out to the festival site. Beyond this stone circle is the hillside where hundreds of thousands of young people converged for a weekend of music, peace, and love.
A picture tells a thousand words.
At the bottom of this hill, straight ahead, was the stage. I walked to the middle of the field and tried to imagine being surrounded by nearly a half million other human beings.
There, in the middle of the field, I pulled out my iPhone, scrolled through my music, and began playing The Star Spangled Banner by Jimi Hendrix, the song which he is best remembered for playing at Woodstock. Interesting fact: Hendrix, who dreaded playing in front of large groups, purposefully waited to perform until 9:00 am on Monday morning, at which point only 30,000 people remained (via Wikipedia).
As we made our way back to the car, we passed through this stream and garden. The grounds of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts are beautifully landscaped, reminding me more of a botanical garden than a music venue.
Countless sculptures and artworks dot the grounds. As we neared the parking lot, this bird caught my eye. It was a wonderful afternoon at Bethel Woods, and I would happily return again.
Before leaving the grounds, we drove to a small parking lot at the edge of the property where a stone marker commemorates the festival. Set near the site of the stage, the marker was placed in 1984.
The marker lists all of the artists who performed at the festival. It was cool. But even cooler were the three gentlemen standing nearby, all former attendees, who had met up to reminisce about the show. I found myself eavesdropping on their conversation. It was fascinating, and a fitting end to the adventure. A Quiet Afternoon
After leaving Bethel Woods, we headed west toward a roadside attraction my wife had found online: The Hippie Muffler Man! Originally a roadside statue in Albany advertising for a local muffler shop, Muffler Man later served as roadside advertising for an ice cream shop before finally getting his new tie-dyed colors and relocating to Bethel in 2003. Far out, man (via Roadside America).
Our last stop for the day was for some refreshments at Catskill Distilling Company, a local distillery featuring vodka, gin, and whiskey made on premises. Side-note: I love the cow.
Gotta love a place with a clear sense of direction!
On a gorgeous afternoon, we sat on the patio, sipping our beverages, and listening to a woman and two men playing acoustic guitars and signing rock and folk classics from the 1960s. When they performed Don’t Think Twice by Bob Dylan (one of my favorite Dylan songs), my afternoon was made. Our time at Catskill Distillery was a relaxing, rejuvenating end to our adventure.
We arrived home by dinnertime, exhausted but happy with our journey. The Accord performed flawlessly yet again, and inched closer to the next major marker: 160,000 miles. Onward!
Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is open from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm every day. Tickets are $17 for adults, $13 for senior citizens, and $10 for youth ages 8-17. A friend asked if it is worth the trip. My considered answer? If you enjoy music and history, Bethel Woods is a trip to add to your bucket list, a place to see in your lifetime. Not only would I recommend it, but I would add it to the very short list of places that I have seen and still want to visit again. From the Hippie Muffler Man to Catskills Distillery, to countless small shops and restaurants, there is plenty to see and do in Bethel while you’re visiting.
Thank you for coming along on another journey down the open road ahead. And in the words of Woodstock… spread peace and love.
‘Til next time.