If you’re looking for a straightforward recount of the music at MysterylandUSA, you’ve come to the wrong place. My trips up Bethel Woods’ big hill to the stages generally ended the same: I walked laps around the circuit, stopping in to chat with vendors, taking a swing in a hammock, checking out a DJ for a few minutes, relaxing in the media section, and repeat. I had come to the site of the original Woodstock more for the festival than the music and, overall, Mysteryland was a spectacular production filled with fantastical participants. There were plenty of stages, tents and presentations to stay entertained and an incredibly gregarious gathering of people to share the experience with. Without further ado, here is a recollection of my 2015 MysterylandUSA:
The sun sparkled brightly in a cloudless sky and a pleasant breeze floated about the hills of Sullivan County. Despite the festival’s 10,000 camping passes being sold out, the steady line of cars leading to the grounds chugged along, never getting too bogged down for Friday’s pre-party. There were multiple checkpoints to prevent a general mass of congestion. At the first stop, vehicles were searched and, when I learned I could only bring in six beers, my heart sank a little — it was going to be a long weekend. To my left, to my right, security helped people pour liters of hard liquor into water bottles to bring in while they confiscated my case of beer. It didn’t make sense, it didn’t seem safe.
After getting into the grounds, I set up my red-fox kiddy tent in a hurry. My partner-in-crime/photographer, Blue Steg, followed suit, putting up his blue dinosaur tent next door. We then lent helping hands to our neighbors, the three amigas, who were stuck in struggle city despite claiming to be professional tent-setter-uppers. They noticed our wristbands were sparkly and asked “You guys are a big deal or something?” “Depends on who you ask.” Their weekend home went up quickly and we made friends in a hurry.
We settled in, ate dinner, exhausted our weekend supply of beer, then Blue Steg and I wandered up to the music. It was a long hike up a steep hill. Rows of colorful flags lined the hillside, shimmering magnificently in the cool twilight breeze. Our first stop was at The Boat. The DJ set up on the bottom while partiers danced on the top deck or the field out front. We checked the scene out for a few minutes, lots of thumping and bumping, then strolled around the grounds, gaining our bearings. My Rangers jersey earned me more high-fives than I can remember and everyone around was in jovial moods. We called it an early night, but festival season had officially arrived.
Cool overnights meant good sleeping and I rested until 9 a.m. Saturday without waking up in a puddle of sweat. My morning mission was to purchase beers for the day. When I got to the vendor, I asked for a case. “No cases.” I asked what kind of beer I could get. “Heinekin.” “Well…I think I’ll have a Heinekin,” I said, handing him a $20. He looked at the portrait of Andrew Jackson blankly. “We don’t take those around these parts,” he said. “You can go to that other booth and exchange for Birdy Bucks.” Dumbfounded, I walked over and traded in $40 for 18 BB’s, which were loaded directly into my wristband. I’m no math-whiz, but I figured a 4.5 BB beer in Mysteryland works out to be a $10 Heinekin in the U.S.A. The whole Birdy system sure seemed like a poorly veiled attempt to maximize profits by inhibiting conscientious consumerism. Too dejected to purchase one, I’d try my luck finding beers from neighbors in the grounds.
When I got back home, the weekend took a wild twist when one of the three amigas asked, “You guys want some tequila?” “Yes.” “Well, we’ve got too much liquor, so please help us drink it. Just help yourselves.” I offered to pay her $20—real dollars, accepted nearly everywhere—because I would gladly spend a weekend in Margaritaville. “Do I look like a prostitute to you, bitch?” she snapped back. A feisty recent college graduate, we would get along well the rest of the weekend.
A cup or three of tequila later, Blue Steg, another of the amigas and I found the energy to hike back up to the music mid-afternoon. The amiga peeled off for The Boat, Blue Steg went to shoot some photos at The Big Top and I decided to explore the vending area. A couple of pretty Nomads noticed my “Umph Love” stickers and told me they liked my style. I stickered them and we started talking our music—Umphrey’s, Catskill Chill, Lettuce, they were into it all. After I said “see ya later,” to my new friends, I made my way to see Lee Burridge in the Spiegeltent. I wiggled around the exterior for a bit, entertained by the surrounding dancers. Bodies were packed into the large enclosed tent and most everyone was grooving.
Blue-Steg and I rendezvoused at 9:30pm and bumbled up to the VIP section. A couple of Brooklynites invited us to take the comfy chairs next to them. They accused us of being Shmevins—we ascertained it meant something like best friends—and chatted us up a bit. Gramatik’s music wafted our way from The Boat in the distance and seamlessly transitioned into Griz. The sax was easy on the ears and our counterpart Shmevins were easy on the eyes. Eventually we parted ways, back home for Red Fox and Blue Steg.
On the way home, I found an over-zealous partier who was swaying dangerously. “Let’s get you home, brother,” I said, putting an arm around his shoulder to steady his gait. It was Teej’s first night at his first festival; he shot for the moon and landed in another galaxy. One slightly more coherent friend had stuck with him. They were amazed that a stranger would put an arm around him and get him home. “We’re in this ride together, boys, and we gotta take care of each other. Believe it or not, I’ve been in your boat before and someone helped me.” They got it. After delivering Teej to his tent and returning home, a brilliant display of fireworks went off in the sky. That seemed like a fitting end to the night so it was quitting time on Saturday.
I was greeted by paternal neighbor Santa Claus with a breakfast shot on Sunday. Santa and his crew were set up on the edge of a busy walkway and it was right where they belonged. Sunday was about challenging passers-by to flip cup. A few rounds in and I was feeling fully fueled for the last hoorah. An artistically gifted neighbor tattooed my back. Her friend washed my hair. Life was good and I was ready to hit the grounds.
Blue Steg and I became separated in a hurry and I started doing my laps. First to the Nomads, then to the hammocks, then to this fantastical metal hexagon structure with fire dancing around the ceiling. An intricate Rube Goldberg was set up featuring a bowling ball going down chutes and through tunnels, dropping through a hoop and spinning around a funnel. The end result was a lever being loosened, an anvil crushing an old car, and loud applause from onlookers. An amazing path to destruction.
Dillon Francis and Diplo closed down the music that night with more fireworks overhead. Looking to carry on with the debauchery, I went back to an old school bus/playground where the silent disco raged on. It’s quite the spectacle when you take your headphones off and watch people boogie in silence. After a short spell, however, I felt an urge to wander. One last loop past Pineapple Paradise and through the campgrounds. Blue Steg was waiting back home and we congratulated each other on surviving the start to festival season.
I will never be referred to as an EDM-head, and that has not changed since my Memorial Day weekend in Bethel, NY. Mysteryland did little to increase my liking of electronic music. What I did come away with, however, is a newfound respect for fans of the scene. My previous experiences in the EDM realm involved watching too many boys and girls running around in neon underwear, pacifiers in mouths, trying to solve perpetual identity crises with unrequited sex. These creatures were conspicuously absent at Mysteryland; instead, I found the festival-goers were normal (I use that term loosely) people like me who just prefer Diplo over Dopapod and A-Trak over Umphrey’s. Mysteryland, you were a helluva ride and Mysterylanders, you were the perfect crew to cruise with.