personal essay

"Woodstock Site Notes: A Sense of One' s Place"
by Joseph Freda
The Literary Gazette

Saturday, August 16, 1997 — I ride my mountain bike to the Woodstock site. It’s six miles from my house. A very hot day, but enjoyable riding—all back roads, winding through open farmland and cool woods. There is no traffic, and except for one sparse yard sale, no people stir in their lawns and homesteads. I have the rolling hills of western Sullivan County to myself.

I know this can’t be true. This is Woodstock weekend, when the town of Bethel absorbs the crowds who return to Max Yasgur’s field every year. But even a mile from the site, no cars. The first indication of something going on is the New York State Trooper at the intersection of Perry Road and West Shore Road. He sits in the deep shadow of his cruiser’s air conditioning, looking bored.

I wave. He nods.

I pass a pond with black-and-white Holsteins belly-deep in the water, swishing flies. Then the new horse farms that have sprung up near the site, groomed and immaculate. A few cars pass me. As I pedal up the hill that leads to the intersection of West Shore and Hurd Road, the only thing I can see on the horizon is another trooper car—dark blue and yellow. I wonder what the police must think of the people who usually show up for the reunions: the tie-dye and funky hair and wigged-out dancing. How odd that must all seem to them. I pull up to the intersection, and the cops are really putting on a show of force: half a dozen State Police cruisers line the corner, half a dozen more sit in the field next to the site, along with several sheriff’s patrols. All the cops stand around the corner, joking and waving traffic through.

I look out at the site and hit the brakes. The field is completely empty! This is where half a million people gathered in 1969. This is where thousands of people return every year to camp, make music, have fun. I’ve been back to the site many times since 1969, and there’s usually someone here. On anniversary weekends, there’s usually a lot of people here. To see it empty is pretty strange. I laugh out loud.

Alan Gerry, the owner of the site, said that people should come to the site for “their own quiet reflection,” but that there would be no overnight camping. Some people decided to test Gerry’s resolve by setting up camp, and they got themselves arrested for trespassing. Others threatened to rally round the trespassers, and the situation became volatile. Thus the police presence.

I pedal up Hurd Road to the top of the hill, where the field actually starts. I walk the bike onto the field and find some shade. Take off my helmet and gloves, shake the sweat out of my hair, drink some water. Then I pedal around the site, get the feel of the place. I want to find a spot to sit for a while, but I want it to be the right spot. Not too close to the lower end, where the sightseers come and go, where the cops make their presence felt, and not so far away that it doesn’t feel like the Woodstock site. So I ride down the worn wagon lane to the little patch of trees on the west side. Not a good spot—too close to the road. Down a little farther. Too exposed to the cops and tourists. I bounce across the hay stubble to the eastern boundary and then up the wagon lane, up to the top again. I’m getting a good feel. I’ve got the place to myself. I ease on over to where the field just crests and there’s plenty of room in back and on all sides, and I’m sitting here with a 360-degree view of perfect upstate New York farmland and mountains. Green-gold fields, deep green woods, and in the distance, the blue Catskills in all directions.

Mr. Gerry said we should use the site for personal reflection, and the place sure lends itself to that. No one else here, a beautiful sunny day with puffy clouds and a nice breeze—it’s about as contemplative a spot as you could want. I can look down the sweep of field to the monument, where the old log pavilion used to be. I used to drive out to that spot when I was eighteen and nineteen, drive out at night with a girl or a drinking buddy or by myself and walk under the crisscross shadows of the logs and look up at the moon and feel the odd combination of intensity and peace of the place. Right now that corner is crawling with minivans and cars and motorcycles, but they are so far off I can’t even hear them. The shadows of the clouds play over the landscape, altering the shades of green. I look down upon a red-tailed hawk swooping over the lake. With the breeze, I don’t even feel the heat.

I’m not one to get sentimental about Woodstock. It happened here, it was a cool thing, and I’m glad something good is finally being planned for the site. But sitting here in the field, listening to the wind, I remember the one time I met Max Yasgur. It happened about a year and a half after the 1969 concert. I had dropped out of my sophomore year at the University of Missouri, where I had been on track to enter journalism school. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew that boring classes in the midwest weren’t it. Everything I cared about was back in Sullivan County: my girlfriend, my family, the land. I had vague ideas of wanting to write something more substantial than obits and town council reports, and one day I packed my stuff into my MG and headed home. I needed a job for the winter, so I applied with Mr. Yasgur as a milk deliveryman. His office was small but neat. In our interview, Max was very kind—he had known my grandfather, who lived next to the creamery in Callicoon. He read my application, regarded me with a direct look, asked a few questions: why had I left school, what did my family think of my move? I answered as honestly as I could, but I knew I sounded like what I was: a confused kid. He studied me again, as if taking my measure, and then he seemed to make a decision. He got up and bade me join him at the office wall, where he had a schematic of his dairy operation. He took me through the whole process: the milking parlor and the bulk tanks and the pasteurization and even the vacuum tubes that connected everything. My hopes rose. Since Mr. Yasgur was spending so much time explaining this, he must be considering me for the job. But when he was done, Max turned to me and gave me some advice that I’ve always remembered: “Son,” he said, “You’re no milkman. Go back to school and finish your studies, and do what you really want to in the world.”

I was disappointed, and my subsequent job as a snowmobile mechanic didn’t have nearly the cachet that being a milkman for Max Yasgur might have, but it got me through the winter. The following fall I went back to school, this time to study fiction writing and literature, and then on to graduate school and then to various jobs in writing and design. That path took me away from Sullivan County for a number of years and then brought me back again as the writer I had once hoped to be. Nearly thirty years after my conversation with Max Yasgur, I find that I have followed his advice.

I am pleased to remember this as I watch the tiny cars come and go at the far corner of the field. Sitting out here, I feel part a very special moment—to be alone in this particular field in the middle of a Woodstock anniversary weekend. I have been out here on several anniversaries, and I don’t think it has been possible to be alone here since 1969. By next year, the site will be off into its new future. The uniqueness of this moment, its immediacy, comes to me like the dry wind up the hillside: my hour of solitude and personal reflection in the hay stubble is possible only this year. I feel like the focused center of an hourglass, and the grain of this moment drops through. A young family walks up from the monument. I pull on my helmet, coast down the hill, and rejoin the tableau that revolves around the site. I ride back over the hills with a sense of lightness and calm, and I feel the connection to those who have come before me, to those who must come after.

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