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Wheel & Rock to Woodstock
By Alan Ira Fleischmann
Once upon a time, in a little hamlet in upstate New York, a million people crashed a party. Although this party was only supposed to have a couple of hundred thousand people, you know how parties sometimes get out of hand. Somebody tells somebody who tells somebody who tells somebody else, and pretty soon the whole neighborhood shows up. Eventually, the parents totally lose control of the party, which soon becomes a monster. The inadequate supply of munchies is quickly devoured, the septic backs up, and it seems like every junkie in the world is there, but the music is great. After the smoke clears, everyone looks back on the party and realizes that it was the best!
This was August of the year of Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit, Midnight Cowboy, and Oh, Calcutta! Charles Manson (and his "family") had killed Sharon Tate. Sesame Street wouldn't air until November, Penthouse Magazine would not begin publication for another two months, and the New York Mets had not yet won the World Series. What a year it was! Woodstock, however, will probably be remembered as perhaps the single most amazing phenomenon of 1969.
The success of the Woodstock Music Festival, or simply "Woodstock," as it became known, was the unintentional and coincidental result of under-planning, underestimating, bad weather, and Murphy's law, on a mega-scale. Such musical legends as Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, The Who, The Grateful Dead, and Santana, to name a few, played host to the largest concert audience ever assembled. Even the lack of food, toilets, medical facilities, and sunshine (it rained the entire weekend) could not dampen the festivities. In spite of all of these shortcomings, and the presence of the largest concentration of booze and controlled substances this side of Anheiser-Busch and Warner-Lambert, there were no deaths, and three births. A true twentieth century miracle!
I'm old. 40. I remember Woodstock. I wasn't actually there, but I do, however, remember the 60's, the good times and the bad. I still don't like Hendrix or rain. I get hungry after an hour. I don't do drugs. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, however, I would now willingly give the left side from the pair of one of my most important pieces of anatomy to have experienced that brief moment of historical magic, first hand.
I received a "psychedelic" green brochure for the "Wheel and Rock to Woodstock" bicycle tour, and decided that here was my chance to finally go to Woodstock while keeping my anatomy intact. So I did, and it ranks right up there among my most memorable weekends.
The tour, a two-day, 150 mile tour of New York State's Sullivan County Catskills, is actually a fund raiser for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. MS has lots of bikathons throughout the year, but this one is superb! The "Wheel and Rock to Woodstock" attracts over a thousand riders each year, and raises almost $500,000.
As a writer, and as a veteran of the New York City Bike Tour, the Tour de Torrington, The Massachusetts Tour de Cure, and a dozen other large-scale bike tours, I was commissioned by a national magazine to write this article about the tour, and about what it was like to finally arrive at "Woodstock."
As the tour concluded on the second day, I struggled up the final climb, and past the Woodstock monument, a granite slab with a bronze plaque commemorating the music festival site. I tried to picture what it must have been like a quarter century ago. The actual site of the music festival is simply an open field, perhaps a quarter mile square. The field is on the side of a hill (part of Max Yasgur's farm) and the stage was at the bottom of the hill. Wherever you sat, therefore, you would have a great view of the stage. The truth of the matter is that I couldn't really picture it. Try as I might, my imagination could not help me appreciate or comprehend the enormous magnitude of what had happened right here. I simply hadn't been there. I couldn't recreate the magic in my own mind, much less put it on paper for the magazine.
After sitting alone with my bike, recovering from the last big climb and trying to get "literary and philosophical" about the whole thing, I decided to give it up for a while and have lunch. After too much chicken and pasta, I decided to give it one last shot. I walked the few hundred feet to the very top of the hill. I sat down on the grass, looked out over the entire field, and tried once again, in vain, to imagine the sight, sound, and smell of a million stoned, wet hippies diggin' the music.
I lay back in the grass, sort of thrilled to be there, but discouraged that I couldn't find the feeling or the words to truly describe the magic to you, my prospective readers.
A man was walking up the hill toward me. Tall and thin, bearded and balding, he appeared to be in his early 40's, about my age. His three kids reluctantly tagged along behind him. His son and two daughters were in their early teens. When they all reached the top of the hill, near where I lay, he stopped and turned to look down across the field. He took all three kids in a great bear hug, and pointed them in the direction he was looking.
"Kids," he said, "twenty-five years ago, I sat right here on this very spot," he patted the ground, "with a million other kids, and saw the greatest concert of all time. Can you guys imagine a million hippies, with no TV, no food, no toilets, sittin' in the rain for three days, watching a concert of the biggest superstars of the decade? It was the best time I ever had in my whole life. It was really magic!" He sounded so proud to have brought his children to this spot, to maybe share a bit of his experience with them.
"Can we go down and get some more hot dogs now?" whined his son.
With a disgusted wave of his hand, the father dismissed his kids, and they trotted down the hill toward the food tents, laughing and poking fun at their dad to each other. The phrase "old fart" was clearly audible.
The man sat down a few feet from me. He didn't talk for a few minutes. Noticing that I was about his age and obviously sympathetic to his distress, he turned toward me and we had this brief conversation.
"They'll never know, will they?"
"No, " I replied.
"I thought it would really mean something to them."
"They're too young," I said, "just as we were too young to appreciate our parents' views of the Korean conflict, World War Two, The Great Depression, Frank Sinatra, and Uncle Milty. The real awe stems from the experiences of the generation, not from the events themselves." It was the most profound thing I had thought of all day!
"Were you here in '69?" he asked me.
"No," I said, "but I think I can finally relate to what I missed."
I had, indeed, accomplished what I started. I had finally been to "Woodstock." For me, the magic had occurred at that exact moment, and I understood.
We sat on the hill for a few minutes longer, and we both cried a little. He, because he had been here, and I, because I had not.
We both wiped our eyes, walked down the hill, and ate more pasta. He found his kids. I got my picture taken at the monument, with a better understanding of, and appreciation for, the incredible significance of this simple patch of land, and the monument that stands in dedication.
Whether you remember the Woodstock Music Festival or not, the "Wheel & Rock to Woodstock" is a great weekend tour for any cyclist who wants a challenge and maybe a nostalgic thrill. In spite of all the rumors to the contrary, there could NEVER be another Woodstock Music Festival, but the "Wheel & Rock to Woodstock" bike tour promises to get bigger and better each year. If you're not on the mailing list for a brochure about the tour, which is usually held in September, you can write or call The National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Southern New York Chapter, 121 Skyline Drive, Hawthorne, NY 10532; 914-345-3500
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