On Camping

Jul 05, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

As I look through images from the sold-out 2010 Coachella, and prepare for my beloved Bonnaroo, I'm posting an essay I wrote for a magazine published by the team behind the Coachella festival, and URB magazine. Simply called "CAMP", the magazine was given for free to festival goers who'd wisely opted to pitch tents, rather than stay at nearby hotels. If you've never been to, nor camped at a music festival, 2010 is an excellent year, and here's why I think so.

"I camped out, once, when I was nine." These sarcastic italics were delivered by a friend I'd urged to skip the conditioned air of his hotel-to-car existence, and live under the stars for a few days. What surprised me about his reaction was that my friend had a lot of experience in P.L.U.R. (peace/love/unity/respect, the '90s update to the '60s "turn-on, tune-in, drop-out") and to me, camping's a natural jump-off point from what was best in Rave culture. After our conversation, he lost some cred as a true bon vivant, which is about more than partying; it's about embracing life and the freedom that comes when you see the heavens through the apex of your tent, and it hits you: we are ALL under one sky.

Thinking about the great festivals of the world -- Glastonbury, Bonnaroo, or Burning Man, where camping is very much a part of the experience -- I always marvel at how Coachella's desert polo field has seen no rain in the entire ten years of the festival's existence. My camping experience at Coachie is a myriad of memories. Some are small, like folks gifting me a lighter when I popped out of my tent fireless, in need of a proper stoning. Some are epic: stopping at my tent just long enough to eat, change shirts, hydrate, and head to the photo pit to shoot the legendary Paul Weller as Johnny Marr (founding member and guitar God from my all-time favorite band, The Smiths) joined him onstage. If I'd had to drive back to a hotel, I'd have missed this magical moment. Instead, I was a mere pit stop away from one of the greatest concert experiences of my life.

So tents can save you time. They also create interesting psychological dynamics, offering vicarious thrills and people watching. The solitude of a tent is unique: like an eyeball under a lid, no one knows if you're asleep or awake (although at night, tent silhouettes can be very revealing). Tents also remind me of the amazing illustrations found in an edition of Franz Kafka's stories -- invisible dotted lines depicted walls, which seemed X-rayed by the sense of another person, just on the other side, in a perfect encapsulation of what existence can be like at times.

But the liminal lines a tent creates are not lines of alienation. Instead, they are a semi-permeable membrane of a literally bubbling society, whose architecture is created to an admirably human scale. This stripped-down existence also grants us small yet palpable insight beyond what's immediately around us, into a more empathetic vision of the struggles faced by others, the world over.

As you read this (hopefully inside your tent), there are persons nearly everywhere on this planet, with neither sewage nor shelter, wishing they had the sweet tent you're camping in. If you think you'll never use your tent again you can donate it to Vans For Vets ( which sends tents to places like Haiti -- and maybe even to a Haitian restavec (effectively a modern-day slave) fleeing to live free.

And as the world shrinks, there's great value in re-learning the beautiful lesson of how to co-exist peacefully under one sky. Seen from overhead, a tent city looks like a molecular pattern, in a macro-micro visual meditation on what we're made of. I wonder what our city looks like to the migratory birds (fun fact: Coachella Valley is one of the world's most important bird sanctuaries) that come here, after seeing an increasingly ravaged planet...I hope they find our slice of civilization a sight for sore eyes. For some of The Marines standing next to you doing security, tents signify a very different set of circumstances.

Tents can even have an effect on you even when you're not there. For example, if you're debating how hard to party at the shows, it's nice to know you can cut loose, because nobody's driving! Or if you plan on partying all night back at your tent, then you might wanna hold back a bit during the daytime.

All 10,000 Coachella campsites are sold-out, which means Thursday is the new Friday and Monday is the new Sunday. Over 96 hours, there will be drumming circles; shows will be missed shows for reasons terrible and excellent; lifelong friendships will be struck and a few definitive break-ups will go down, and when you're packing up your tent, you will have more than few enduring memories.

You are participating in the most ancient of human activities, and you are also entering and creating a city that's nearly tripled in a year's time, from 13,000 to 36,000 individuals, making Camp Coachie one of the largest cities around. If an election were held tomorrow, you'd have the deciding votes.

Welcome home, pilgrim.

A few festival highlights: