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Bonnaroo Camping Experience Essay

By Elizabeth Glazner

The Bonnaroo Music + Arts Festival will present 150 performances over four days at a 700-acre farm in rural Tennessee beginning Thursday. In its 15th year, the event is one of many major corporate-owned and profitable grand-scale productions descended from Woodstock, the fabled 1969 music and arts festival that devolved into brilliant but utter chaos because way too many fans jammed its 600-acre pastural site, which then got soaked with unexpected rain.

Beer cans, glass bottles, rotting food, makeshift latrines, clothing, drug paraphernalia, cookware, chairs, sleeping bags, and even camping tents were all left behind by Woodstock's 400,000 attendees. According to anthropologist/blogger Corey McQuinn in a post "Free Love is a Battlefield: The Archaeology of Woodstock 1969," the festival's promoters flew over the once-bucolic cow pasture after the event and saw a giant peace sign made from the immense pile of trash.

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Bonnaroo 2016 will draw far fewer fans -- about 90,000 -- and, thanks to an organized sustainability plan, will prevent the creation of untold tons of mostly disposable plastic waste that would mostly go to landfills. Their plan includes Refill Revolution, the reusable beer and beverage cup discount program co-sponsored by Steelys Drinkware and Plastic Pollution Coalition launched in 2014 (it discounts refills if you use a reusable cup, which you can buy on site).

Bonnaroo also has a comprehensive plan to accommodate every kind of camping from single tents to family tents to deluxe glamping setups to cabanas and RVs. Last year, organizers diverted 8.25 tons of tarps, tents and other usable goods from going to landfills.

To try to corner the evolving tent-camping festival-goer market, The Glad Company, makers of all things disposable plastic, experimented with a single-use tent at SXSW that doubles as a giant trash bag. The idea was to have an easy set-up plastic tent that you just invert and fill with all your garbage, tie off and toss when you're done. A promotional video for the product -- which was never commercially produced -- called it "a zero-waste camping experience." But aside the obvious question about exactly how much humidity would build up inside the patented Force-Flex tent walls, a big reinforced plastic bag full of your mixed and therefore virtually unrecyclable materials, including more plastic, is hardly zero waste.

In the same marketing space you'll find other ideas, including this one made of cardboard, and these, made of various synthetics (plastics), also designed for a one-night (or maybe two or three-night) stand.

Meanwhile, Daisy and Ozric of the sustainable fashion accessories brand What Daisy Did are teaming up with some of the U.K.'s biggest event organizers "to combine event sustainability with functional fashion to try to help combat the disposable mentality that so many demonstrate during events." The brand's main focus is to tackle waste created by inefficient supply chains, utilizing materials such as factory-wasted leather and tents left at festivals.

They collected 80 tents from Reading Festival last year to create 300 drawstring bags which will be sold on the merchandise stands at this year's Reading, Leeds and Latitude festivals. In 2014, Reading Festival saw 596 tons of waste go to landfill, with camping equipment such as tents making up a big portion of it.

"There is a huge misconception that tents left at festivals are collected by charities," according to the duo. "Whilst this is true, they only have the resources to take a small fraction of the tens of thousands that are left." What Daisy Did hopes the sale of their bags made of recycled, abandoned tents will educate people of the damaging effects festival waste is having on the planet. Each bag will have a label engaging users in the issues surrounding abandoned tents.

Tents used to be made well, looked after well and last a lifetime, according to Daisy and Ozric. However, "prices and quality of tents have plummeted to the point where charities aren't so willing to collect any of them as most of them are damaged... It's a sad fact that the world is getting more and more disposable (and) you can now find tents that are actually marketed as 'one use' or disposable!"

What Daisy Did plans to make ponchos and yoga mats from tents, tote bags from camping chairs and wallets from broken wellies. "We could even make festival bunting and flags."

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My first time at Bonnaroo, I was 21 years old. It was the festival’s third year, and the Southern gods rained down their wrath over the 700-acre farm in Manchester like only a Tennessee summer storm can do. I remember losing my flip-flops in the mess of mud, but not caring a thing about frolicking barefoot through the slick, grassy fields. I was at Bonnaroo, this was already the best summer of my life and it had only just begun.

Sure, plenty of Bonnaroovians, as we’re called by the masses, can claim more festival notches on their belt than me. I’ve made it to more than half of Bonnaroo’s 15 past installments since its 2002 inauguration, but my attendance record is far from flawless. Yet, as a “local” who grew up in the very county that birthed one of the nation’s most authentic present-day music events, I feel like I have a unique perspective that others simply don’t.

For more than a decade, Bonnaroo has thrived as one of the country’s most celebrated camping music festivals, despite taking place in a town that barely boasts 10,000 permanent residents and yet becomes the state’s seventh largest city for one lone four-day stretch a year. Some 75,000 attendees swarm “the Farm” annually, and it’s drawn the likes of Jay-Z, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam, Elton John, and that one (make it, two…) infamous Kanye West appearances, in addition to this year’s top-tier headliners, U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Chance the Rapper.

And for a town of its size, Manchester handles the influx in population like a consummate professional.

But look, I get it, if you’re not all about the music, why on Earth would you come to Bonnaroo? Sure, Roo is and has always been, at its core, about the art—both the music but also the large-scale sculptures and installations that are woven throughout the farm—but it’s even more about the community and giving back. Here’s why you want to be part of it:

Go Green

You can learn about protecting the environment through various workshops and talks held in Planet Roo. Some of Bonnaroo’s environmental initiatives include solar installations; the Refill Revolution, which encourages fest-goers to stop using plastic bottles through reusable cups and hydration stations; a comprehensive waste management program, and Root for Roo, an ongoing effort that allows people to leave a permanent mark on the Farm by purchasing a tulip poplar or oak tree for themselves or in memory of a loved one.

Give Back

You can give back through add-on events like Oxfam American and Eat for Equity’s BonnaROOTS community dinners that allow you to support the festival’s mission while jamming out to the tunes of Minnesota bluegrass band Wailing Loons. This year, Bonnaroo aims to build on these dinners by collaborating with Seed Life Skills, a non-profit founded by Chef Hugh Acheson; those interested can learn about the importance of culinary instruction, food policy and education through "how-to" demonstrations, in addition to taking Chef Acheson’s cooking class out of the Planet Roo Academy.

Treat Your Tastebuds

You will definitely eat well. Within minutes of stepping foot in Centeroo, you’ll catch a whiff of the bacon roasting inside Henri (aka Hamageddon), the 4,000-pound, fire-breathing steel pig that doubles as an art installation and follow the scent trail to Baconland where you can purchase flights of the good stuff. But there’s more than 50 food options: The culinary scene has attracted those festivalgoers who care more about what goes into their stomachs than in their ears thanks to a smattering of vendors throughout the festival site (the Amish Baking Company and Prater’s BBQ always being two of the most popular), as well as a food truck oasis full of tacos, grilled cheeses, poutine, roti rolls, thin-crust pies and other tasty morsels to provide you fuel. The Broo’ers Festival also puts beers and ciders from 25 different breweries right at your fingertips (and your lips).

Work it Off

And if you’re a fitness buff you can work off what you eat as you go. I took my first ever Acro workshop at Roo 2015—one of many such one-off offerings in Planet Roo—and there’s always a 5K fun run, as well as other cardio-inspired activities like the late-night Twerk It Out with Big Freedia dance party or Yoga-Roo for yogis of all skill levels.

If You're Still Not Sold

Manchester is its own hidden gem, one oft-overlooked by Tennesseans themselves. Before or after your time on the Farm, begin your Manchester exploration “downtown,” where local businesses like West Main Brick Oven, High Cotton Vintage Furnishings and the Mercantile are shaping the future of the once dilapidated square. Within 10 miles off the festival site, you’ll also be granted with myriad offerings from Mother Nature: Tennessee is home to 56 state parks, several of which are within an hour's drive of Manchester. For outdoors lovers, Old Stone Fort—a historically significant Native American site built in the Middle Woodland Period over 2,000 years ago and home to some gorgeous waterfalls—is located within the city limits. For those who want a more dramatic and sweeping view, Beersheba Springs, Foster Falls, and the mountaintop enclave of Sewanee are snaked with hiking trails and peppered with watering holes. For food and spirits aficionados, the brand new Whiskey Trail launches this month and carves its way across the state and through the area, hitting such distilleries as Jack Daniel's, George Dickel, and Short Mountain.

So really the question remains: If you’ve never done Bonnaroo before, what’s stopping you now?

Kristin Luna is a Tennessee native who has traveled through all 50 states and more than 100 countries. Her work can be found on her decade-old travel blog Camels & Chocolate and you can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.