5 Keys to Survival at Bonnaroo

September 4, 2020

We had embarked on a four-day camping trip in the middle of a 700+ acre farm in Manchester, Tennessee (about half-way between Chattanooga and Nashville). It is a town of about 10,000 people.

The summer of 2019 started with a lot of rain in Tennessee. Having never been to Great Stage Park where the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival is held, we didn’t know what to expect.

The peaceful town of 10,000 grew to around 100,000 after the sellout crowd last year. 80,000 tickets were sold. The additional numbers would come from vendors, artists, and support staff. OMG! It was so cool! I’ve never seen so many people on a farm before.

1 — Patience is paramount


We missed the opening by a few hours, arriving late Thursday. My wife, son, and I had to finish work before we could embark on this adventure. We arrived late to avoid traffic. Boy, were we wrong. Traffic was backed up for miles on the interstate. We finally made our exit, and zig-zagged our way to Wal-Mart, where we met friends who were old hats at “the roo”.

I was on assignment for a national medical journal, and Michael Bonner, Director of Coffee County EMS, embedded us in the medical compound with the state and local EMS.

Securing our vehicle pass and armbands, we made our way in. It was a dark, dusty back road. We could feel the music positivity in the air. Excited? No. That would be an understatement.

We rounded a corner and pulled into our campground (aka field) and were directed on where to park. The air was musty with the freshly mown grass, drying from days of rain. We enjoyed sunny skies all through the festival. How lucky can you get! We could hear music in the background as we set up our tents and rolled out or blankets. It was 2 a.m. and I was ready for bed.

Daybreak — The First Day

Our first real day was the second day of the festival, and it was the first full day of Bonnaroo. I woke to birds chirping, sunny skies, and felt like I’d slept a full eight hours. Not knowing just where we were in relation to everything else, or anything about how to get around — since our friends were either gone or not up yet, I decided to climb atop the camper next to us and look around.

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2019 Aerial view — John Dabbs

There were cars as far as the eye could see. Big balloons with numbers on them, tethered above structures across the landscape. I would learn later this was the means of navigation. Good idea! All fields pretty much looked alike to me. Beneath each balloon was a kiosk for information, security, and medical help if needed. I learned later these are called plazas (formerly pods).


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Medical Tent Marker — Centeroo or Main Medical — John Dabbs

I pulled my Nikon from my Pelican Case and returned to my perch. Hunger pangs reduced my interest in looking around. I made my way to the local plaza, where I found some coffee — the nectar of the gods. Then I took a nap before my wife woke up.

As we all started stirring about and ready for the day, about 9 or 10, the weather was great with just a few lingering clouds. We donned our shorts, T-shirts, and sandals, making our way along production row and into the midst of Bonnaroovians, as they like to be called.

2 — Embrace The Vibe

Time to Explore

Never have I dealt with such grumpy, inhospitable people in my life — but they were happy once they ate. We love to explore and found ourselves walking amidst the campgrounds, finding several food vendors. We settled upon one that had a short line and smelled good. I have no idea what I had for breakfast, nor do I remember eating it. I was famished!

We filled our generic camel packs and used them regularly. We bought them five years ago for a trip to New York. They still work fine. We learned early that hydration was key. Thankfully, the venue was well equipped with free water stations throughout the grounds.

As I had not gotten my bearings, we became separated. My wife and step-son were seeing the sights, while I worked. The plan was to catch up with them later.

Seeing as how the farm is only 700 acres, I found them with the help of our cell phones, the balloons, and a Ferris wheel… it only took me 40 minutes. We must have walked in circles looking for one another for 20 of those minutes. It’s a good thing we each other when we did. I was ready to eat again. At least there were lots of choices!

The Heart of the Bonnaroo Experience

We found meeting and interacting with new people was the best part of Bonnaroo. We didn’t know anyone from Adam, but we didn’t find anyone who wasn’t just happy to be there. Everyone we met was very helpful and friendly.

We encountered people of all ages, ethnicities, political, and sexual orientations. We met people dressed conservatively, wild, retro, and not-at-all! Everyone was experiencing what it meant to be free.

Though security was present, they blended in and it appeared to be the last thing on anyone’s mind. The most violent thing I witnessed was a slip in the mud at the enormous water slide. The slide was an experience I wholeheartedly endorse! We bought a pass for the whole event and it really brought out the kid in me (granted it’s a 200+ pound kid, but still).

3 — Relax

Time to Re-Group

After getting a quick bite for lunch, we a bit trying to get the lay of the land and discovered at least six campgrounds. They were similar, but each had a different number on their balloon. Using a map and the Bonnaroo app on our phones, we navigated over the fields and through a section of woods to get back to our tent. The woods we traversed were decorated with sculptures, lights, and camping hammocks. We made good use of those later.

I managed a two-hour nap in a hammock the next day and awoke in time to enjoy the majesty of lights in the trees, and the sun setting. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt such a tranquil moment.

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The Mushroom Fountain — John Dabbs

The sun made a painful impression on us as we swayed to the music. After refreshing ourselves in the Mystic Mushroom Fountain (probably not its official name), I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone skipped showering and embraced nature and the funk that goes with it. An occasional trip to the fountain would surely be a decent stop-gap measure to rinse the dust off and feel good on any sunburns.

Bring On The Masses

For anyone who loves the festival scene, Bonnaroo is one of the biggest and best music festivals in the U.S. People travel across the globe to Bonnaroo, not just patrons but vendors too; selling food, accessories, clothing, jewelry, head shop pieces, instruments, and more. I felt as if we’d only scratched the surface when 4 p.m. came and it was time to enter Centeroo.

Centeroo is the place to be. Long lines form in the late afternoon as the carefree spirits muster for their obligatory security screening. I’d heard about the high-fiving as people entered the gates, but have never given so many high fives in my life! Security checked bags for open containers, drugs, and other contraband. They also made us empty the hydration packs that we’d filled with ice. We knew the rules but had tried to get by. There were plenty of places to fill them with free water inside.

A Comedy Bit or Just Confused

Traveling through Centeroo, getting the feel of the place, and trying to decipher the schedule with the stages, it became obvious that Centeroo would live up to its name. As a music and arts festival, this was ground zero. I couldn’t help but wonder, were one of the organizers a big Abbott and Costello fan? The main stages are What Stage, Which Stage, Who Stage, This Tent, That Tent, and The Other Tent.

We managed to settle in and bask in the glory of the tunes and the vibe resonating from the masses for a few hours before my stomach and nose beckoned me back to the food vendors. The artwork exhibited by some of the food vendors with their operations was intriguing and gave much visual appeal — especially the pizza truck, and the pork barbecue place.

We perused the long lines and judged each by the length of a line, smell, and price before finally settling upon a scrumptious meal that was both filling and didn’t break the bank. We were quite good and didn’t partake in any adult beverages. We’re not prudes, just poor.

4 — Try Something New

Saturday Night Fever

Saturday evening I spied the silent disco venue and its long lines. I talked my wife into trying it with me after about 20 minutes of convincing her no one here knew us. As we waited in line we watched the humorous display of people getting their groove on to music that we couldn’t hear.

As we entered the disco lounge, we were issued earphones so we could hear the music we’d be dancing to. It was my first Silent Disco, and I hope it won’t be the last one. It was fun and funny and at the same time. We shook our booties and swayed with the newfound friends among us, that we’d never met or known before. I couldn’t help but laugh at the onlookers from the line and passersby that were watching us wondering what we were listening to.

5 — Drink Plenty of Water

Bringing The Heat

As anyone who’s ever seen a movie that’s taken place in the south, been in the south, or been on a plantation knows. It gets hot and humid in the summer — and Tennessee is right there in the midst of the heat and humidity. Beating the heat is the name of the game. We saw many people who were new to the climate. These poor souls didn’t know to drink more water than they wanted. They carried no water or water bottles, and they dressed for the Northern Territories.

Of the few people we encountered who’d been overcome by heat, Bonnaroovians quickly came upon them and offered their own water, helping them to shade or offering to the medical staff for them if needed. The people we met wet were courteous and generous. They treated those in need like family (or better than some of the families I know).

Most people were early risers, by today’s standards. They would start stirring before nine, as it’s hard to sleep in a tent or car when its hot and humid. Those with more ventilation and shade tended to stay in a bit longer to enjoy their slumber. I, on the other hand, am quite a night owl and don’t even go to bed until 10 or 10:30 some nights, so I slept in each day until about six and then would scrounge for coffee.

Sunday morning

On the last morning, we wandered until we found a suitable feast and enjoyed each morsel as we contemplated our fate for the day. We opted to try and beat the exodus and said our goodbyes early — making our way to Lynchburg, Tennessee, where we toured the Jack Daniels distillery. We had a great time. Though we enjoyed the distillery, there is nothing like Bonnaroo. I penned that last bit of my article on the medical coverage and sent thank you notes to our hosts and guides. We have talked a few times, and my family wants to know when we can go back to Bonnaroo.