I wasn’t prepared for a hike. I didn’t have a backpack or sturdy boots, or even a stash of lightweight snacks. What I did have was a station wagon jammed with supplies for a luxurious weekend of car camping, nearly all of which had to be abandoned, along with the car, in a driveway on the side of Route 58 in rural Vermont. My friends and I were headed for Coventry, a two-day outdoor music festival that would be the final performance of the improvisational rock band Phish. We had been attending Phish festivals for years, and our preparations for comfortable camping and carefree celebration were finely tuned. In the month leading up to Coventry, however, unseasonably heavy rains had inundated the fields and farmland that doubled as a concert site. Though the downpour had finally tapered off, the camping areas and concert grounds were so badly swamped that cars had to be towed through the sucking mud, one by one. The gates had to be closed, and we were stuck on the outside.
So, we walked. I condensed the essentials—several gallons of water, a sleeping bag, a change of clothes—into two canvas shopping bags, one on each arm. The sun baked hot on the cracked concrete road, and my arms ached with the weight of the overstuffed bags. My mind raced ahead. The band had been running announcements on a local radio station, imploring cars to turn around and go home; what would they tell us when we arrived at the entrance, beleaguered, car-less, but with tickets in hand? It occurred to me, more than once, that walking six miles in the burning sun to camp in a mudpit, without adequate gear or enough food to last the weekend, without assurance that we would in fact be admitted, and with no idea how we would find our way back to our vehicle, was not exactly a rational act. In truth, it was a pilgrimage.
I had been going to Phish shows for nearly a decade and I returned, again and again, because they were where I felt closest to the divine. When I danced at a Phish show, the music lifted me out of myself and I became a whirling eddy of sheer joy, or a particle of light suspended in a glistening musical web, or a shadow, creeping down into the nether regions of the human psyche on a dark, twisted riff. I swirled like a Sufi mystic, or swung my hips in funky rhythms that seemed to rise up from the earth itself and, just when I felt that I’d breathed in more beauty and joy and life than one human being could possibly contain, I would look around and see that I was surrounded by thousands of other people who were sharing in that groove with me. A vast, pulsating sea of my species, connected to each other like drops of saltwater, ebbing and flowing with the same musical tide. When the show was outdoors, I could feel that energy connecting me, connecting us, to the earth beneath our feet. Each celebration with Phish left me awed by the realization that, in the words of “Enter on Duty” essayist Ron Steffens, I was “living