When I last visited Vermont [in Aug. 2004], I spent 3 crazy days in mud, sadness, and relief at Phish’s last stand, Coventry. Mud season had hit early via three tropical storms that blew over right before the festival opened. All the planned fields of parking were fields of shit-smelling mud. My life-long friend and brother Mark helped me make it to the show, wanting one last goodbye to all our years of Phish shows (and hoping to cheer me up as my life began to unravel). The locals were super nice, the sunsets were amazing, and I promised myself that I’d return to Vermont soon. – HappyFeet Travels entry, from VT, in April 19, 2006.
Once again, I have written a comment about a Phish festival experience (I wrote about the Clifford Ball here). Someone on the Phish subreddit asked if anyone had fun at the Phish Coventry festival. I had to think about that for a minute. Was it actually fun? Two memories vividly popped up; one was spending a few hours near the entrance cheering on the folks walking in from the freeway. Another was seeing my friend Mark’s hilarious photographs of shoe wear (or lack of shoes) from other phans. And a police horse.
Getting digital photos back in 2004 wasn’t as easy as it is now (cloud storage was about a year away from becoming a new and easy way to share). Mark didn’t even use a phone camera to snap the pics. He eventually gave me digital copies, which ended up on a hard drive with other photos. I rediscovered them a few years ago, and frequently look through them for a laugh. Mark had a great time meeting folks and giving their shoes, etc. funny titles. It was a great way to participate during a sad, dreary, shit-smelling weekend.
The following is what I wrote for the subreddit post (with a few revisions for clarity). We had a madcap adventure, which swore me off of flying around for music festivals. It was the end of the 2.0 era of Phish, which was thankfully short. I didn’t mention a few other memories on the subreddit post. One that really stands out is of a strung-out young hippie coming up to our car/camp site and asking us if we knew where any “pharmies” were. Before we could ask her what she meant, a neighbor interrupted and furiously told her to piss off. We asked him what she meant, and he explained that it was legal prescription “hillbilly heroin” that was ruining the scene. And Trey’s life. Oooooooh. That’s what Trey is addicted to. Damn.
Coventry was a surreal, exhausting, muddy experience.
My bro Mark and I flew into and met up in Montreal a day before gates opened. We saw on the hostel’s desktop computer that phish.com had a notice saying that three tropical storms had delayed the gate opening the next day. Wait to drive in, they requested. I looked at Mark, and we both agreed to “leave first thing in the morning and get there ASAP!”
Driving into the USA sucked, but we were older phans and intentionally drove in looking clean-cut with no contraband. The dogs found nothing, but a few other cars/phans weren’t so lucky.
We bought groceries (and mud boots) in town, and a tow truck driver shopping there told us how bad things were on site. He drew us a shortcut to get closer to the gate, saving us about 8 hours of waiting in a longer line of traffic! Driving in was a painful and brutal experience. People kept falling asleep in the car line, and we spent 8 hours hopping the sleepers (I’d yell to try to wake them).
Finally through the gate, we saw a surreal scene of empty fields of mud with huge-wheeled tractors pulling cars into the middle parts. “Screw that” we said and literally drove into the mud on the edge of one of the “roads” (where most cars parked). Setting up a quick tent, we called it a day, instantly passing out from the trip. I awoke hours later, hearing the “do not come to Coventry” message that Mike had recorded. The message was playing over and over on the pirate radio station set up for the festival, and probably being broadcast as far as Boston on rock stations. Our neighbors were abuzz over what was going to happen next. No one had any idea how the folks still stuck in traffic, or about to leave from New England cities, were going to deal with the announcement.
After eating, hydrating, and getting settled, we saw an RV alone in a muddy field flying a South Carolina flag (our home state). We trudged down there to say howdy. They were exhausted, not too happy, and freaked out about how to get out of the field (they paid the huge tractor to tow them in there). Bummer. We trudged out of that swampy field and wandered around a bit. Up on a hill, I saw a beautiful sunset that day and told the person beside me, “what an amazing sunset!” She said “I know. I live here!” umm, ok.
Heading to the first show was surreal. After a very long walk from our car, near a vending area, wooden pallets made a small path through a pond of deep mud. Cut the line in the mud at your own risk! I kept hearing the “cowbell” SNL skit as we trudged with the masses on the tiny path. The pallets eventually ran out, and 1000s of phans had not choice but to head to the entrance in a pool of stinking mud. I heard the groans of 100s ahead of us, as they entered the swamp, so knew something horrible was coming. Beyond being yet another metaphor of Phish’s last concert, to this day, I consider the walk to the first night as a ring of hell.
At the gate to the show, fences were torn down. No one was looking at tickets, so it was a free concert (if you weren’t in traffic). Too bad the music quality was mixed. First impressions in the show area? Trying to get close meant hitting a river of mud. Huge boulders were in front of the stage, a symbolic reminder that Trey’s addiction was blocking the whole experience. Or maybe the boulders were a symbol of the weather creating massive difficulties for the fans to even get to the show. As for the music, after a few horrible flubs, I couldn’t take it any more and went back to the car to rest and listen on the radio. I had to turn it off after a while. Mark stayed at the show and enjoyed it, saying it wasn’t as bad and I thought it was.
Day two was actually quite fun, in a schadenfreude kind of way. We set up chairs at the entrance and cheered on the immigrants from the Interstate. The sun was shining. It was great to see the exhausted shoe-bums finally get into the last-ever Phish show! I recall the most popular item brought into the festival area were coolers. Beer and food! Mark took his camera and photographed muddy feet and shoes. His photo project was hilarious once he developed the film (most of them are posted here). There was food and fresh water access. We had beer and bud. No one really wanted to talk about the quality of last night’s show, but seeing people arriving from the Interstate was all smiles and cheers.
Getting in that night wasn’t as miserable as first night. We tried to get closer, but ended up on the audience-right wall that was officially an open urinal and smelled horrible. There was a river of mud that few dared to go into, but Mark tried. I had a good laugh over it and saw others laughing at his getting stuck in a mire.
Back to the Page side of the stage, we climbed a hill and watched the scene. Again, the band was barely together. Hearing Page and Trey cry was such a sad moment. We heard the encore at the “gate” of the concert area, ready to leave fast to beat more hell traffic. It was a sad moment to an exhausting weekend, but we did manage to have some fun.
Prior to that last note ever at the gate, earlier in the day, we had neighbors help us push our car out of the mud, and we parked in the “day lot” to get a fast exit out of the festival. After that last note, we beat a downtrodden path to the lot. Security blocked us off at a road that led out of the backstage area. We watched three different buses drive out of there; it was the band. Page actually gave a forlorn wave to us from one of the windows as we gave one final cheer to the boys. We all knew that Trey was probably alone and isolated in his own bus. Damn.
We were probably one of the first cars out. Driving past dozens of cop cars with lights blazing, we wandered into dark Vermont back roads until we found a lodge with a clean bed and – most importantly – a shower! Drove back to Montreal the next day and, after trying poutine for the first time, flew back home.
After all of that, I swore that I’d never travel to see Phish, or go to another festival. I’ve broken that first vow, and may eventually break the second.
Postscript: When I went back to Vermont in 2006 to work for Ben Cohen’s Sensible Priorities art car carnival, I managed to head back to Coventry for a visit. The site was easy to find, especially with no traffic! I parked my van, and walked onto the field. After only two years, the fields had grass on them. I recall that the boulders were still there, as well as some infrastructure that had sunk in the mud. As always, the vistas were of beautiful Vermont countryside. During that quiet moment, I tried to visualize the mud and masses, the sadness and exhaustion. Phish was gone. Trey hadn’t been arrested yet. And, two years back,, we all had to take care of our shoes that weekend. Some of the unlucky ones are probably still stuck in the cow field muck. And the others are photographs and memories.