I was up and out the door at dawn as morning thawed to gray. Sean yawned at me from behind the wheel of his mother’s tan Toyota. Xander was sitting shotgun, snoozing, with his face buried in a pillow against the passenger door. His blond bedhead was out of control.
I stuffed my duffel bag into the trunk and crawled into the backseat beside a big blue plastic cooler that was packed with the provisions we’d procured the night before: wheat bread, peanut butter, strawberry jam, apples, oranges, peaches and a case of bottled water. This would be our sole sustenance for the three days that lay ahead.
We pulled out of my driveway and onto the highway – southbound, baby. Our destination (destiny) lay half a thousand miles south in rural Tennessee. A man had a farm there where music would be.
My comrades had gotten their tickets to the festival months before, but I’d only just heard about the thing. Sean had an extra and asked me last second if I wanted to go and I said yes without giving it the usual amount of thought. It was not in my nature to undertake such spontaneous adventures, but I was beginning to grow weary of always saying no.
“This will surely be the greatest weekend of your life,” he told me. “A genuine Dionysian paradise, the likes of which you’ve never known.”
Sean seemed to model himself after Dean Moriarty, the hyperactive hero of On the Road, forever speeding toward the horizon like a bat out of heaven.
I did not, however, share his thirst for thrills. If Sean’s aim was ecstasy, mine was serenity. If he was a raging river, I was a placid pond.
The sun hovered low amongst cotton candy clouds, coming up to warm the air and light the way. Xander came to and looked around like he wasn’t quite sure where he was. As though he’d just woken from a dream of winter to find himself in June. Squinty-eyed, he turned to me and said, “What up Luke,” with sleep in his throat.
“How’s it going Xander?”
“What time is it?” he wondered aloud.
“Time for some tunes, my friends,” Sean said. He reached across the front seat to the glove box and pulled out a thick CD wallet. He brought it to his lap and began to flip through its clear plastic pages, glancing up sporadically to see where he was going. Half of the albums inside were burned, with labels handwritten in marker.
“Let’s get this trip started properly, gentlemen. Methinks a little Without a Net ought to do us right.” He slid a disc into the slot on the dashboard and the Grateful Dead began to play. Jerry Garcia’s distinctive guitar sound came jangling out of the speakers behind my head.
It may as well have been ’69, although much had changed since then. It was the 21st century now, and my generation (the babies of the boomers who’d set out to change the world) did not possess the infinite idealism that once defined America’s youth. We understood innately that while music might be the most wonderful thing on Earth, merely singing of love would not stop war.
My eyes were opening up a bit, and though I was not yet wide awake, the pleasant noise that filled the car seemed to act as aural caffeine. Despite the nine-hour drive we had ahead of us, I did not plan on sleeping. I began to reconsider, though, when my front seat companions spent forty-five minutes discussing the intricacies of the Dead’s live catalog while I sat in back with nothing to add.
Though the three of us had played soccer together throughout our high school years, I’d never thought of them as much more than teammates. I had a sense that this was their trip and I was just along for the ride. But then Xander turned around and asked me to please hand him the leather satchel that lay on the floor at my feet.
“What’s in there?” I asked him and he shot me a knowing grin.
Whatever it was prompted Sean to drum the wheel with glee and shout out “Bonnaroooo!” Xander produced a swirly glass pipe and a baggieful of marijuana and began to pack the former with the contents of the latter. I watched him remove an emerald nug (with thumb and forefinger like tweezers), break up the buds and place them carefully into the bowl. The intensity of that scent still lingers, like a skunk making love to a pine.
He offered the first hit to me, but I’d never gotten high before, so I said, “All you, man.” He then asked Sean, who waved him off and told him, “You packed it, you puff it.”
While I once feared the drug, I now could see that it wasn’t as bad as I’d been led to believe. My pot-smoking friends had not become monsters. On the contrary, they seemed to have turned into gentler, kinder people who had regained the sense of wonder that’s often lost once boys hit puberty.
Xander fished a lighter from his pocket, put the pipe to his lips, ignited, inhaled, held it long in his lungs, cracked open his window and let a stream of white smoke escape from his mouth and get sucked outside.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Sean said. “Let’s hotbox this thing.”
“Well shit, I don’t know. I didn’t want to stink up your mom’s car.”
“No worries, man. We got three days to air it out.”
Xander rolled his window back up and passed the pipe around. We all took tokes till the bowl was cashed, then cruised along the interstate in a beautiful haze.
The music got better, or maybe my ears did, because I could now perceive sounds that hadn’t been there before. I could hear everything, all at once, every line of every instrument, every note like a single drop of rain. Was this how it was for Mozart?
The past became the asphalt behind us, the future the asphalt ahead. Time no longer an abstract concept but a space we were moving through. The three of us, weightless adolescents, floating down a road that goes on forever, as carefree as we were ever going to be.
Outside, the earth, a thousand shades of green. The color of life, of grass, of leaves. Beyond the green, the sky blue sky and wispy white on that – a canvas painted by some unseen hand. I took it in, all of it, higher and wider than any camera could capture, and thought of how miraculous it was to not be blind.