Whoever has driven north on the New York State Thruway must remember the exit at Harriman, which leads to Route 17 westbound toward the scenic Catskill Mountains. Once famous for providing access to the magnificent Jewish resorts of the area, Route 17 and its offshoot, Route 17B, are now better known for having been impassable on a certain weekend in August 1969—that bucolic season when the Kaatskills, as they were called by the old Dutch settlers, seem half dissolved in the haze.
Among the travelers that weekend was a simple, good-natured fellow of the name Hip Van Winkle. A native of Ulster County, he was descended from the Van Winkles who sailed with the first Dutch patroons supplied by the Dutch West India Company in the 1630s, only to squander that opportunity through an insuperable aversion to productive labor. That same ungodly sloth was inherited through the Van Winkle line for the next three centuries. But not by Hip. Energetic, hard-working, resourceful, he seemed destined to build a business, sustain a farm, or perhaps invent a better way to trap the venomous copperheads that lurked throughout the region. But that destiny was thwarted by his wife, a relentlessly mellow Vassar dropout who, despite calling herself Flower Child, never ceased to find fault with Hip for his “uptight” tinkering, puttering, and fixing of things in their ramshackle farmhouse.
To these struggle sessions Hip had but one reply: Dropping whatever task lay at hand, he would spread his arms in a gesture of peace, and escape to the local head shop. It was there, well toked on Acapulco Gold and attempting to meditate through a blustery spring afternoon, that he first heard about the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, which was being held not in Woodstock, where the townsfolk were already experiencing a surfeit of hippies, but in Bethel, several miles to the west. Hip’s first thought was to skip such a time-wasting event, but he was persuaded otherwise by Nick Veda, the proprietor of the head shop, who embodied the spirit of the times by the way he inhaled the smoke of the fragrant weed, allowed it to fortify his blood, and then emitted a placid stream that slowly coiled up to unite with the earth’s atmosphere.
Returning home, Hip told Flower Child about Woodstock, and for several weeks was able to counter her nagging to “stop doing and be” with the riposte that what he was doing was preparing to be in Bethel in time for the opening act. And so they were: On Friday, August 15, when the traffic on Route 17 was backed up to the Thruway, and thousands of festival-goers were abandoning their cars on Route 17B, the little Winkle family—father, mother, and two small children—were safely ensconced in an army tent on the high ground of Max Yasgur’s sloping pasture. As the sun set and the pasture filled with blissed-out pilgrims, Hip agreed to mind the children while Flower Child sailed forth in tie-dye skirt, crushed velvet tunic, and trinkets of coral and turquoise.
It was a long evening. The baby girl, Stardust, spent hours gazing beatifically at the passing forest of legs, but the toddler, Hip Junior, did not settle until ten o’clock, when Ravi Shankar was playing a hypnotic raga. By then it was raining, and as Hip sat under the flap of the tent, smoking Acapulco Gold and watching the water run down the sides of the tent and into his carefully dug trenches leading down the slope, he silently reminded the absent mother of his dry, sleeping children that there were worse things than being married to “an anal-retentive Boy Scout,” as she frequently called him.
Flower Child did not return until midday Saturday, when Country Joe and the Fish were settling into their groove, and even then, Hip suspected that she had come back by accident. Glassy-eyed, mud-spotted, hair tangled with wildflowers, she wheeled into view with such a loving, all-embracing smile on her face, it was clear she did not recognize him at first. When she did, her expression grew defiant. She needed to crash, she announced. If he was thinking of visiting the stage, he would have to take the kids.
Hip opened his mouth to object, but another struggle session was averted by the unexpected appearance of Esther Van Ruysch, the nurse who had attended the birth of both Winkle children. Helicoptered in to treat festival casualties, Nurse Esther had just learned that, even though she was off duty, she could not be helicoptered out till after midnight. A staid, fortyish member of the Dutch Reformed Church, she was clearly not finding Woodstock her cup of tea, so she was happy to babysit while Flower Child slept and Hip took a much-needed stroll.
Stretching his cramped limbs, Hip found it hard to stay within the festival bounds. For one thing, he felt drawn to the surrounding hills, with their dense forests, sunny knolls, and thickets of birch, sassafras, and witch-hazel. For another, he was more vexed with Flower Child than he cared to admit. Her laid-back lifestyle, which he was expected to emulate while also serving as its main support, was thrown into relief by the kind and sensible Nurse Esther. Feeling rather strongly that Woodstock was not his cup of tea either, he turned his back on the revelry and strode rapidly into the hills.
Hours later, his solitary ramble deposited him on a rocky outcropping, covered with wild grapevine and moss, and overlooking the blue waters of a sizable pond. Resting for a moment, he realized it was too late to get back in time for the groovy, relaxed sounds of Canned Heat. With a sigh at what Flower Child would say if his absence caused her to miss the even groovier and more relaxed Grateful Dead, he fell into a profound slumber.
When he awoke, it was dusk. Hurriedly he tried to stand but was overcome by the stiffness in his joints and a sudden dizziness. Hearing a low voice call his name, he looked up and was astonished to behold an elderly Algonquin woman floating in mid-air. Of stocky build and youthful complexion despite her snow-white braids, dressed in antique buckskin finely worked with wampum beads, the woman narrowed her black eyes and beckoned Hip to follow her. There was no way to do that without stepping off the precipice, but her gesture was so compelling, and the line between earth and sky so indistinct, he obeyed.
Soon they were climbing through clouds that grew thicker and blacker the higher they went, until Hip feared they might enter the legendary vault where the thunderstorms are stored. But instead, they came to a great wigwam with a smooth floor, where the Algonquin woman bade him sit cross-legged and share an elaborately carved wooden pipe whose smoke was so richly flavored, his awe and apprehension subsided. Seeing him at ease, the woman proceeded to tell the tale of how she came to marry Badawk the Thunder Spirit:
As a young girl I was sleeping by the water below when a giant serpent with glittering eyes overcame me and filled my womb with his progeny, causing me to be driven away from my village into this wild place, where sitting and weeping I was found by the Ancient One, who led me to this wigwam and bade me dance. While dancing I birthed three serpent-children, whom the Ancient One killed, one after the other, with his stick. Then the Ancient One summoned Badawk, his son, and said to him, “Take this woman for your wife and be good to her.” We wed, and in time I bore Badawk a child who now flies ahead of the storm with a pair of wings whose grumbling marks the approach of the Thunder Spirit’s roaring crashes and the blinding flashes of his sister, the Lightning Spirit Psaiuk-tankapic.
Amazed, Hip asked the woman why the Ancient One killed the serpent-children. She replied:
Their bodies died but their spirits flew to three different tunnels in human time, all of which can be reached from this wigwam. At the bidding of the Ancient One, each serpent-child wears a mask of peace and love while conjuring a festival for the descendants of the invaders, but beneath each mask the fangs of the serpent-child are heavy with the venom of revenge. You are an invader, but because you turned your back on the first festival, you have been chosen by the Ancient One to witness the other two, so that you may live to tell the tale of your tribe’s destruction.
The woman now fixed Hip with a gaze so steady and statue-like, his heart turned within him and his knees smote together. Then she took a long, silent drag on the pipe, and bade him do the same. One toke provoked another, and before long his senses were overpowered, his eyes swam in his head, and he passed out on the floor of the wigwam.
Upon waking, Hip’s first thought was to lay off the Acapulco Gold: That dream was so vivid, he must have sleepwalked all the way back to Max Yasgur’s pasture. But wait—this was not Max Yasgur’s pasture. The terrain was flatter, the music louder, the crowd ruder. He wondered at the connection between the deafening guitar distortion and hoarse screaming emanating from the stage, and the pale, bitter faces of the crowd—men and women dressed in black, with tattoos, piercings, and heads either shaved or crested with spiky hair the colors of Kool-Aid. At the sight of Hip a group of them called out, “Peace and love, brother,” “Far out,” and “Groovy” in such a mocking tone that he sidled away with eyes downcast, only to notice, looking down, that his beard was flecked with grey and had grown so long, it covered his Zuni belt buckle.
There was trash everywhere: plastic bottles, beer cans, food wrappers, all emblazoned with the slogan “Woodstock ’94, Saugerties NY.” Could it be? Had he really jumped ahead 25 years? He thought of asking someone, but the music was so deafening he could barely think, much less talk. As night was falling, he wandered aimlessly, gaping at the circus-sized tents, the five-story speakers, and the stage wider than a cow barn, weirdly flanked by what looked like a pair of outdoor movie screens. He was hungry and thirsty, but, lacking any cash for the concession stands, he collapsed on a pile of pizza boxes.
“What have we here? A bad trip from ‘69?” Leaning over him was a young woman in a festival T-shirt and a badge saying Jennifer Van Ruysch: Volunteer Medical Assistant. Her harried expression suggested she was in no mood to deal with some middle-aged dude who should have been home watching TV. But she did her duty, helping Hip to his feet and escorting him to the medical tent.
On the way, she asked his name. When he told her, she gave him a clinical look and said, “I don’t think so. Hip Van Winkle is one of the hot-shots running this fiasco. You must have heard about him on the news. Somebody dug up the story of how his dad took off during the first Woodstock and never came back. They interviewed my mom, who was the last person to see him. She told them he must have been murdered or something, because he was such a good guy, very hard-working. But that’s my mom. She never says a bad word about any—”
Hip interrupted her in sudden excitement. “Your mother is Nurse Esther? Is she here?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact. She’s in the medical tent.”
It took just a moment for Nurse Esther to recognize Hip and ask what on earth had happened to him back in ’69. Eyes misting, he started to tell her about the Algonquin woman but then stopped himself, realizing how crazy that sounded—especially to Jennifer, who was making it pretty clear that he was wasting her mother’s time. She had a point: The medical tent was full of young people with head injuries, broken bones, and worse. When Nurse Esther was called away to attend a young man who had broken his back in what someone referred to as “the mosh pit,” Hip took his leave, thanking Jennifer for her help and mumbling something about catching up with her mother after the festival.
Weary and dispirited, he plunged back into the crowd and was borne helplessly toward the stage, which was empty except for billowing smoke, raking searchlights, and a clanking, throbbing racket like a factory gone berserk. Hearing the name Nine Inch Nails, he watched in stupefaction as the band members emerged filthy and wraithlike from the darkness onto the stage. It was all so nightmarish, he began to feel faint, and would likely have keeled over and been trampled, had he not at that moment felt a steadying hand on his arm, and the voice of Nurse Esther shouting in his ear: “There you are! I’ve been looking everywhere for you. You’re not leaving here without seeing your kids!”
Leading Hip to a mercifully soundproofed trailer behind the stage, Nurse Esther introduced him to Hip Junior, all grown up and wearing a black T-shirt and white skull earring. He was carrying a walkie-talkie, and after greeting his long-lost father with an air of suppressed impatience, walked to the other end of the trailer and began talking into it. Even less welcoming was Stardust, who, according to Nurse Esther, had changed her name to Vomit. Instead of greeting her long-lost father, Vomit trained on him the same indifferent gaze that had seemed so beatific when she was a baby. Only now it was blank as ice. Prodded by Nurse Esther to be civil, at least, she said, “I’d rather blow my fuckin’ brains out.”
“Don’t speak to me like that,” Nurse Esther rebuked her. “I’ve taken care of you and Hip Junior ever since your mother OD’ed.”
“Right,” spat Vomit. “But that fuckin’ hippie totally abandoned us.”
“You’re wrong,” said Nurse Esther in a firm voice. “Your father did not abandon you. He hiked into the hills and met a spirit who cast a spell on him. Basically, he’s been asleep for 25 years.”
Coming from anyone else, the story would have provoked laughter. But coming from Nurse Esther, who was descended from one of the oldest Dutch families in the region and steeped in the local lore, it rang true—even before she fortified it with logic: “Look at his clothes, they’re the same. I know, because I was the one who described them to the police. Stardust, you can see for yourself. Is that tie-dye vest retro or real?”
Peering closely at Hip’s vest, Vomit frowned. She did know the difference between retro and real, so she whispered, “Fuck, man. Too bizarre.” This caught Hip Junior’s attention. Setting down his walkie-talkie, he made his way back through the trailer and, with a suspicious glance at Hip, asked Nurse Esther what the hell was going on. She told him to ask Hip, which he did. But before Hip could reply, his two children and kindly Nurse Esther vanished like the mist over the Catskills when the sun burns it off.
Griffiss Air Force Base is a recently decommissioned installation in Rome, New York, a city to which all roads do not lead. It was there, on a vast sunbaked tarmac enclosed by barbed wire, that Hip regained consciousness. Glancing up at a shabby airplane hangar painted in psychedelic style, he noticed that the name WOODSTOCK ’99 was painted in large block letters above the elevated stage. Again he wondered, Could it be? Had five more years gone by in the blink of an eye? At that moment a heavyset young man slammed directly into him, almost knocking him over and depositing a smear of what looked like mud but smelled like something worse. Cursing and calling Hip an “old fart,” the man reeled back into the sea of mostly male revelers, who to judge by their bellowing were growing drunker, angrier, and hornier by the minute:
“Shit, we paid $150 a ticket and these motherfuckers are ripping us off for everything else!” … “What the fuck, man? I’m crappin’ in my shorts and these fuckin’ Port-A-Potties are totally fucked!” … … “Hey, bitches! Show us your titties!” … “Where’s the fuckin’ water?” … “I paid eight dollars for one fuckin’ bottle and they’re already fuckin’ out!” … “Why do these motherfuckin’ stages have to be ten miles apart?” … “Grab the cute blonde! I want to see her tits!” … “Fuck you, frat boy!” … “Dick-face redneck!” … “Sheryl Crowe sucks!” … “Nü Metal rocks!” … “Thank your fuckin’ stars they don’t charge you eight dollars to take a shit!” … “Give me the fuckin’ camera!” … “That’s gross, asshole!” … “Don’t puke on me, do it in the fuckin’ beer garden!” …
For the next few hours, Hip maneuvered through the crowd, finding temporary respite in the places where at least some of the young men were accompanied by young women they knew. But even there, the crudity of the language assaulted his ears. Noting that the lyrics from the stage, to the extent that he understood them, were even more assaultive, he began to wonder what the hell had happened over the past 30 years. Did the music get meaner and nastier and the fans follow suit? Or was it the other way around?
Sunset brought slightly cooler air but no other relief, as the male revelers in the crowd waiting to hear a band called Limp Bizkit amused themselves by hoisting females onto their shoulders and commanding them to bare their breasts. A surprising number of women complied, some even fondling their own flesh in what struck Hip as a pitiful attempt to excite even more male attention. Whenever one of these toppled from her perch, she was swarmed by a pack of gropers. A few disappeared underneath them, there to suffer an unknown fate.
At length Limp Bizkit appeared: five muscular tattooed white dudes, one in spooky face paint, who spent the next hour toggling between ridiculously pissed-off rhyming speech and ridiculously pissed-off hard rock. The only departure from this monotony was when the lead singer, who did not sing, bent double and shrieked in a banshee voice that most human beings use only a few times in their lives. Unlike Hip, the mob did not find this boring. On the contrary, taking their cues from the stage, they switched from groping to aggression, and began to hurl projectiles at the stage and rip the plywood sheathing off the sound relay towers, which any fool could see was there to protect people from high-voltage equipment.
Time to split, thought Hip. After an exhausting half-hour extricating himself from the surging mass, he searched in vain for the exit. He would have asked for directions, but the behavior of the crowd was so ugly, he refrained from doing so until he spied a passing journalist, a woman around 30 with a notebook in one hand and a camera slung round her neck, striding past with a cool composure that set her apart from the rest. When Hip hailed her, she neither looked at him nor stopped walking, but she did gesture over her shoulder and say, “Back there.”
“Thank you,” called Hip as she passed by. Then he caught a glimpse of her face, and his heart would have stopped, had a sudden rush of adrenalin not filled his blood. “Stardust!” he cried, “Vomit! Whatever your name is, wait for me! I’m your father!”
It was almost as if she were expecting him. They embraced, somewhat awkwardly, and she informed him with a wry smile that she had gone back to being called Stardust, which was so retro nowadays, it was cool. Seeing how bedraggled he was, she took him to the press tent, where, as a stringer for MTV News, she was eligible for cold drinks and snacks. It was there, over 7-Up and corn chips, that father and daughter formed their first affectionate bond. Stardust had to work the next day, which was Sunday, but she allowed Hip to rest in her snug, well-furnished hotel room, with a stout cheery bellboy to deliver room service. Upon her urging, he ventured forth that evening to witness the closing act, a band called Red Hot Chili Peppers.
That band had a better rhythm section than the others, though nowhere as good as Santana’s. But the lyrics were puerile, and even though Stardust was a grown woman, or perhaps because she was, Hip found it embarrassing to watch the band in her company, because the bass player was totally naked, and at the end of the set flung his guitar to one side, causing the audience to scream as though the sight of his schlong was the high point of the festival.
Perhaps it was the whiteness of Hip’s beard, or some lingering trace of Calvinism in his blood, but he could not help imagining this was not a festival at all but rather a scene of torment, in which 200,000 young people were condemned to writhe perpetually in unquenchable thirst, lust, and rage. A little while later, watching the mob ignite the fiery inferno that eventually destroyed the site, he knew for sure that the serpent-child’s mask of peace and love had been lifted, and the venom of revenge was doing its work.
To his great relief, Hip awoke from that nightmare on a pleasant summer day in the familiar environs of his home village in Ulster County. Or at least somewhat familiar. As he approached the village center, he encountered a great many people whom he did not recognize. This was odd, because he thought himself well acquainted with his neighbors. Even odder was the villagers’ manner of dress, which consisted chiefly of skin-tight jeans that flattered no one, and—oddest of all—small illuminated rectangles that seemed surgically attached to each and every palm. Trying in vain to catch someone’s eye, Hip speculated that this item of jewelry (for that was the best he could surmise) had such hypnotic power, the Ancient One himself could pass by and no one would notice.
Full of misgiving, Hip made his way to the corner where Nick Veda’s head shop once stood. In its place was a glass-fronted “Urgent Care Center,” marked with the logo of a Kingston hospital and the name of the managing physician: Dr. Jennifer Van Ruysch. Seized by sudden hope, Hip threw open the door and demanded to see the doctor. His voice was so loud, the half-dozen patients waiting in plastic chairs actually looked up from their rectangles.
The receptionist was reaching for the telephone when a middle-aged woman in a white coat emerged from the examining room, saying, “Please remain calm, everything’s under control.” Peering at Hip over half-moon glasses, the woman, who was not quite the spitting image of Esther Van Ruysch but close enough to be her daughter, broke into a smile: “I know this gentleman. He has a habit of popping up every 25 years.”
And so we arrive at the conclusion of our Tale. Reunited with his offspring, Hip declined their offer to join the team organizing the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. “That event has stolen enough of my life,” he said. But he did allow Hip Junior to bankroll a modest home repair business that eventually reached discriminating customers as far away as Poughkeepsie. Today, every time a pessimist pronounces the death of true craftsmanship, an optimist praises the honesty, skill, and remarkable work ethic of the really old dude who can fix anything.
And every time old Esther Van Ruysch sees Hip in the village cemetery, trimming the grass on Flower Child’s grave, she smiles in memory of a dusty leather-bound book on her grandfather’s shelf: Charles G. Leland’s The Algonquin Legends of New England, published in 1884. Long since discredited by modern historians for its failure to give a full accounting of the destruction of the local Algonquins by the land-hungry Dutch, the book nevertheless contained some marvelous stories, such as “Of the Woman Who Married the Thunder,” about the young girl impregnated by a serpent, whose offspring were killed by the Old One of the Hills, who then wed the woman to his son, Badawk, who brews clouds black as ink and bristling with the fiery bolts of his sister, Psaiuk-tankapic. When those clouds break, woe betide the valleys.