WATKINS GLEN 1973, part 3
Copyright 2006, Robb Strycharz
When we found a chainlink fence out in the middle of farm country we assumed it had to be the raceway. Sure enough inside the fence was what we later learned was the secure back stage area. At a crossroads we found what was supposed to be a gate into the raceway area. There was no one to collect our tickets. We found the gates wide open and at places the fence had been cut and rolled back. We were amazed. On some level it resonated with our "beat the system" mentality yet it had to hurt to know the $30 we collectively spent on tickets was all for nothing. But that also meant the Freaks had overrun and now owned the festival. It might be shaping up for something memorable if not historic!
In the chaos we tried to get the lay of the land. The road west was lined with large festival tents where medical facilities, food and souvenir vendors were located. We cut through some tents and though a line of white chemical toilets. Why there was mud there was anyone's guess. Some guy was having fun playing in it. It was our first clear view of the main crowd... and it was staggering. So this was what 400,000 people looked like! Up from the crowd jutted the towers for the huge sound system. Who knew where the main stage was. We tried making forays into the belly of the beast but it was utterly pointless. We'd get 30' and found a dead end... another route got us 50'. There'd never be a place big enough for 3 people to stand let alone set up camp. Finally saw the stage... about 1500' away... topped with a green and yellow roof. No doubt the crowd thickened exponentially with its proximity to the main stage. It was hopeless. With the concert to begin in less than 3 hours we'd never find a decent place to hear the concert.
Dejected we headed back to the main road and noticed that the crowd thinned considerably in the newly mown hay fields to the south. At this point any place away from the madness looked promising. Walking through the fields we noticed some used the cut hay to create shelters against the sun. As if the mindless crowd wasn't enough, the animal-like huts reminded us of the National Lampoon's album "Lemmings". It struck a chord. Ya, that's what we had all been reduced to: lemmings... the legendary animals that often mindlessly followed each other to their deaths.
We headed up a gentle slope through the field, getting further and further from the stage. Who cared. Finally we could go no further. We were right up to the chainlink fence that marked the boundary of the racetrack property. It was there we set up camp... a crude shelter, really. We attached a black plastic drop cloth to the chain link fence and suspended it with sticks and line. It might have worked except the plastic drop cloth would not long stay fastened to the fence. Pathetic as it was, at least it was a refuge from the summer sun. Next to us someone had done the same with a blanket using a crutch for a pole. From our vantage the main stage was easily visible... some 3/4 of a mile away. Yup I measured the distance on Google Earth. In the hazy distance, amongst the rolling hills, was Lake Seneca, one of NY's famous Finger Lakes. Who ever thought of building a racetrack out here and how the hell did it ever get to be world famous?
On the other side of the fence a mounted Statie rode by. I struck up a conversation. He was involved in a search for a missing person. Due to the area's peculiar geology steep, often dangerous, ravines eroded into the layers of the ancient sedimentary rock. Watkins Glen's other claim to fame was its state park... a scenic gorge cut out of that rock. As for the concert... officially it was now free! No one had been collecting tickets for a day or two. Estimates he'd heard were that there were now some 450,000 people here. That made us bigger than the legendary Woodstock! Yikes! No... somewhere we learned that there were 600,000 at Watkins Glen! That made us the biggest rockfest ever. We were not just witnessing history.
We WERE history!
It must have been about 10a when Davy and I went looking for water. On the main road I picked up some copies of a newspaper called The New Times... Special Watkins Glen Edition. Inside an aerial photo with a key and explanations of where everything was at the site. If we stayed on the road going west it would take us to the actual racetrack.
I bought a Summer Jam poster... which at $2 I thought was a rip-off. But who could resist? The art work was pretty decent and this was now the biggest rockfest ever... right? The question was now whether I could keep it safe all the way back home?
What were the odds of bumping into a good friend from our home town in the biggest crowd ever assembled? Yet there was John C with his rambunctious black Lab Skeet who was wearing a red neckerchief. We often camped together which in those days was an excuse to party. We let John know where we were holed up and he promised to be over. Davy and I finally found water and headed back. John soon joined us and we partook in a ceremonial joint. All we could do is look around in amazement.
What was a rock festival without acid? Surely it would blow out the cobwebs of not having had enough sleep and it had the added promise that soon things would get even more interesting. With some newly found chemical energy I again headed out to explore.... this time about noon. I went down to the main road and headed west into new territory. I wanted to see the Grand Prix race track. The ground, predictably was full of litter. But a lot of that litter was discarded tickets. I was a fool not to collect as many as I could. Who knew there'd be an eBay in 25 years? The road did lead to the race track but I didn't venture far in that direction. Maybe that's when I heard first the music in the distance. About noon the Dead officially began the concert. Heads turned and many reversed direction towards the concert area. I joined them.
Soon I again faced the dense core of the crowd. I decided, foolishly, to make my way into the belly of the beast... to get as close as I could to the main stage. The ever-shifting maze of half naked bodies, blankets, sleeping bags, and twine holding up tents and crude shelters would have been enough for me if I were straight but I had quite the buzz on. Every step had to be planned to find a few square inches of dirt so not to step on something or someone. It was truly an obstacle course for the gods. For an hour I did the best I could under the circumstances trying to worm and contort my way through the crowd only to get about 300". Only 1200" left to go to the stage. Now what? It seemed anyone deep in the crowd was there for the duration. As it was noted in the book Aquarius Rising... for anyone in the area in front of the stage it might be a 3 hour trip just to get to the toilets and back... 5 if they were stoned. How many never got back?
I finally gave up and cut over to the line of Port-O-Sans west of the crowd. Just about every one had someone seated on it... straining for a better view of the stage. Behind the line of chemical toilets was clear strip about 15" wide before the fence. Some were camping there but with the view of the stage blocked by the wall of toilets, this was like a highway to the front of the concert area. I eventually got as far as I could then cut to back into the crowd eventually making it within about 300' then an incredible 200' of the stage. The Dead were playing away. Being more interested in the festival itself than the Dead I worked my way back to find a hole in the fence. This led me to the area behind the fenced off stage area which, itself, was pretty sizable. Outside the fenced area was wooded... yet the woods was packed with Freaks. They may only have had a view of the backside of the stage but the music was pretty loud. As for my 3-D camera... its two lenses that looked like eyes, always got a weird look from people.