minichella

I get to the festival as early as I can, which isn't early at all. Late afternoon, pulling into a nearly full parking lot with a steady stream of locals. One by one we're directed into rows before stepping hesitantly out into the sweltering sun. Car doors hang open, roofs too hot to touch. Last minute sunblock applications, swigs of water, stashing of contraband. Rallying, summoning the final day's worth of energy. Let's do this.

We troop, heads drooping in the heat, in clusters, crews, or by ourselves along a dirt path that goes on and on, not ending when you think it should. Another turn, another five minute stretch. Pedicabs manned by red-faced cyclists wheel by, carting the hot and tired, the lazy, the impatient. 'Scuse me guys. 'Scuse me. On your left. Each equipped with an mp3 player, trailing competing snippets of rap or metal or hiphop, which in turn compete with the massive, booming bass floating from the festival grounds.

More walking. Something wet hits my face. A girl, skipping a few feet ahead of her friends, is blowing bubbles from an oversized wand. They shimmer and hang in the air, fat as tennis balls, before bursting at the touch of outstretched hands. I distractedly note the prevalence of English accents in the bits of conversation that reach me. Always so many British visitors to Coachella. I wonder with envy how many of them will be at Glastonbury.

A perfunctory security check: my torso is loosely patted and my bag glanced in, but my zipped wallet is ignored. And then I'm in. The sights, sounds, smells are all familiar by this point. There's less buzzing in my gut, less anxiousness to consume everything than there used to be. I feel like I can relax, wander and dip into things at will. Only a few of today's acts are favorites of mine, and they're staggered widely across tonight's schedule. No pressure. Easy.

I buy two bottles of water, wiping them dry before dropping them into my backpack, and a peach smoothie, which I suck down in the five minutes it takes me to walk the long way around to the Sahara tent. I'd peeked at the app the night before, so I already knew a couple of the art installations, but I wanted to see them up close anyway. Stupid of me to have looked. Coachella doesn't hold that many surprises and whatever form the main structure takes every year is one of them. This season it's a caterpillar, reared up so its segmented belly and legs are exposed. Four stories high, yellow and black stripes, spindly antennae askew on its head. Creepy and wonderful.

Sahara is relatively empty. This time of the day, sunlight beams straight inside, pressing brutally on shoulders and cheeks that have already seen too much of it over the weekend. But as always, the sound is irresistible, and under the huge, hangar-shaped dome whose framework is covered in speakers and lights, the die-hards dance. I've come here first on purpose, to soak up some of their vibe. My favorite tent, Sahara is where you go to be shamelessly joyous, to jump and laugh and dance alongside strangers who don't give a shit how well you do it. Some engage communally: millennials who giddily sing to one another familiar refrains of chart-topping EDM songs. Some are lost in themselves, watching their own frantic feet try to catch the beat.

This is the music they've been listening to all year, or longer: on the radio, at the beach, in the car on the way to the club where they'll hear it again. The anthems of their generation. These songs are in their blood and under their skin, and the thrill of hearing them live rips from somewhere deep inside and shudders through their bodies. Multiply that bliss by several thousand, and you understand Sahara's magnetic pull - the feeling of being a part of something epic.

Full of smoothie, still getting my festival legs, I move a little bit but mostly just watch and listen. The tent starts to fill up, kids in scraps of clothing are bounding in by the dozen, high-fiving and hugging when they recognize one another. A girl with blonde hair twisted into corn rows bounces around playfully with her friends; they all bear the beat-up, sunburned, happily exhausted look of campers. The girl's glassy expression and slight stumble give her away: she's wasted. A tap on her shoulder; she turns to greet a shirtless coed with wavy, jaw-length hair that looks expensively cut. He's doesn't say anything, just gives her a sheepish look that she returns with a wordless hug. The way they hang on one another, swaying for several second with her arms tight around his neck and his hands lightly on her back, suggests longtime friendship. I imagine endless late night talks in dorm rooms. Gossip and secrets. Deep platonic affection. He starts to speak but she puts a finger to his lips, shushing, shaking her head. Her lips are easy to read: It's okay. I love you. The drunken drama of the scene would be comical at a bar but for some reason, here the moment is unspeakably sweet. The pair has obviously had a big fight, maybe one that lasted all weekend, maybe something that embroiled their friends (who are watching and smiling approvingly) and cast a pall over the whole party. But now, on the last day, buoyed by friendship and a soundtrack that will squeeze their hearts every time they hear it - they are making up. This is Coachella.

---

A little while later I'm waiting to watch Ryan Adams. His appearance here - his first ever at Coachella - is one of the reasons I was willing to trade four hours of driving for eight hours of music. I've never seen him perform but I've been a fan for fifteen years, and his music is fraught with emotional significance for me. I score the last wedge of elbow room along the VIP railing, where I can watch those with wristbands twice as expensive as mine dribble in and leisurely plant themselves feet from the stage. They all seem to know another; their hairstyles, outfits, and general looks speak of The Industry. I keep my eyes peeled for celebrities and the few musician's faces I'd recognize, but then everyone starts to look famous, so I turn my attention those nearer to me. Trying to guess who's a true fan and who just likes being up close.

It doesn't take more than a minute to start chatting up another fan, and another festival lover; she hasn't missed a single Coachella. I high-five her, marveling, but she explains that living in Indio makes it easy. "What was the best year?" I ask.

She answers without hesitating: "Two thousand four. Radiohead. And the Pixies reunited." Her date looks bored. I ask him if he's a big Ryan Adams fan. "Oh no, I had to drag him out here," she laughs. I confess I've never seen Ryan Adams live and she seems excited for me. We compare notes on what we're hoping to hear and suddenly another woman is joining the conversation. Between us we cover three different generations.

And then he's on. His voice is effortless perfection, twang and honey that coasts smoothly across ballads he jokingly describes as "self-antagonizing." I don't know all of the tracks he plays - he's been producing for a long time - but it doesn't matter. Fifteen years fold away and I'm instantly back in Tucson, circa 2000, back to who and what I was. And I'm not alone; ghosts whose company I don't mind are with me, too. Listening and remembering, I could cry. Instead I breathe deeply until the constriction in my chest loosens. It's the best singer-songwriter set I've ever seen at a festival.

---

Sunset. Kaskade, on the main stage. How many tens of thousands coming to watch, I don't know. But they're running, it seems like they are all running. Even those already here are swept up in the excitement: the opening blasts of bass, of bouncing lights it's finally dim enough to appreciate. Jockeying to get closer, to get in the mix, in the thick of it. Twirling and jumping on one another's shoulders, you've never seen so many people so intoxicated by music, by their own existence. Two girls in flower headbands cross arms and spin like children, throwing their heads back and laughing with abandon. The grounds and everything on them are saturated in the last bits of sunlight, all that is brightly colored turned pastel in the haze. It's the in-betweenland of dusk, where flashes of neon start to emerge, to blaze and catch your eye. I dodge through the chaos to find my own sweet spot. Close enough but not too close. And then, for a little bit, I become part of the chaos.

---

Alice has taken her pill. It hits her stomach with a big swallow of water and a promise to herself: I will be smart. She is mindful, taking in her surroundings, appreciating every curve and beam of the massive statues she walks under. Metal? Fiberglass? She doesn't know how they're made, only that soon they'll recede into a sort of wallpaper, the pattern of which will cease to be as interesting as what's inside her own mind. And she wants to remember, before she forgets.

The pill's gelatin capsule has already dissolved; it won't be long now. Alice needs to decide where she wants to be when the wave hits. She never knows how big the wave will be, but she always plans for big waves. A glance at her watch; timing is everything. But the music isn't right where she's at, where she thought it would be best. No, it's jumpy and shallow and just...wrong. So she ducks into a different place, cooler and darker and covered, separate and more secret.

It's a big wave. Alice feels her heart pound and takes deep, gulping breaths. As much as she wants to dance, to let the music carry some of the pill off, she can't. The water is up to her neck. She retreats to the wall, carefully lowering her pulsing body to the floor. She hates having to give up these precious moments, she desperately wants to flow with the music, which is incredible, but she has no choice. Breathe. Breathe. For the fifth time she makes sure she has everything she needs.

Alice watches the others. She'll live through them, for a few minutes, until she can wade back in and join. A couple, two young men, directly in front of her. Light strobes across the face of one, then the other. They look almost painful in their bliss, lifting their heads to the sound, eyes closed, moving both as one and as two. The rightness of the scene, the wholeness of it, is a thing for Alice to hang on to. From the outside, she looks blank. Numb, even. But inside her body is a welling of ecstasy so powerful that blankness is all she can spare. Every cell overflowing with elation. So huge, this wave. She could get carried away.

Alice has taken her pill, and now the pill is taking her.

---

Jamie XX. A sexy, mellow heaven. A hammock for my overstimulated brain. Exactly what I needed, when I needed it.

---

Gesaffelstein. Hol-y shit. Never have I. I mean, I knew a little bit. Couple tracks on my running playlist. But I had no idea how unbelievable he is. Later Terence, when I showed him some of his Weekend 1 set, would describe it like Depeche Mode, if Depeche Mode did EDM. Yes.

What kills me is that I walked away from him twice. I was drifting around between a few different stages, undecided and uncommitted, and each time I walked by I heard how great he sounded. But it wasn't until my third pass that I planted myself at the back of the tent and didn't move until it was over. If you like glitchy or hard electronic at all, please do yourself a favor and listen to the entire video I linked to above. Or at least from 8:10 on. It is ridiculous. It's also his last performance, ever. Which makes me incredibly grateful to have seen it.

Danced my damn face off. At one point some guy doing the same thing right in front of me turned around, as if looking desperately for someone, anyone who was feeling the music the same way. He saw me, gestured towards the stage, and sort of just shook his head in wonder. "Right??" I said, laughing incredulously, glad I wasn't the only one who'd had no idea. I mean, I hate to diminish what I felt at Ryan Adams, but this was definitely my favorite set of the day. Wicked, wicked fun.

---

It's 1:15 am. I left the festival over an hour ago. But I'm still in the parking lot. I'm still in the parking lot because I Can't. Find. My. Car. I've been looking for it for over an hour. Things I'm feeling: shame, stupidity, frustration, exhaustion, fear, and resignation. I am fully prepared to be here until dawn, until there's enough light to finally see it. As best I can tell that is exactly what I'm headed for.

Did I make a note of where I parked? Yep. I wrote down the section and even took a few pictures of landmarks nearby. Did I put a pin in my GPS? Nope. That I did not do. So now I am walking up and down every last aisle of the section I parked in, systematically, in the dark and in the dust, trying not to cry.

And I succeed, up until the moment I ask some guys leaning against their trunk if they have an iPhone charger I can borrow. I'm on 3%. Not that calling anyone would help. Terence is fast asleep and has work early; I'd die before I woke him up with the news that I lost his car. I strongly consider calling Mason, who I've been texting with during the night, just for the moral support, knowing he'll laugh at my predicament until I do, until I'm calm. But really, what I need more than a charger is to just find the goddamn car. They don't have a charger, anyway. Back to searching.

Up and down, up and down. Row by row. Exiting drivers glance at me sympathetically as they merge into long lines to leave. Over and over I hit the fob, hoping to see tell-tale brake lights pop up nearby. Nothing. It has vanished. I've already had to stop once, return to the festival in a pedicab to use the bathroom, and make the trek back out to the parking lot. The attendants feel bad but there's not much they can do. I'm not the only one, after all. In the hazy moonlight I see others staggering about - though in groups of two or more. I seem to be the only solo car-loser. Fucked. I am so fucked.

"Did you find your car?" A figure is walking toward me, silhouetted against the gritty night. "I found mine, finally. Did you find yours?"

I glance around. "Are you talking to me?"

"Yeah." Close enough to make out now. Thirty-something. Dark hair, eyes, skin. T-shirt and shorts. His face is open and friendly, but sort of spaced out. He's not exactly looking at me.

"No." I lean over, defeated, resting my hands on thighs. "I've been out here for an hour."

He shakes his head. "No, no. That's a long time. I'm going to help you." Seeing my tears start, the desperation melting into gratitude that someone, anyone, gives a fuck, he shushes me soothingly. I half expect him to try to hug me but he doesn't. Instead he jerks his head towards an Audi a few feet away, headlamps glowing. "We're going to do this mathematically, okay?"

I nod. "You're the nicest person," I start. "I don't know--"

"No, it's alright. This happened to me Friday. It's the worst. We'll find your car, okay? This is my car. We're going to use my car as home base and work from it."

"I took pictures," I tell him. "I took pictures when I got out of my car. Of where I was."

He lights up, like a teacher happily surprised by a student he'd written off. "Perfect! That's great! See, now you're thinking. Let's see them." I don't tell him that my phone's about to die, afraid that if he grasps how bad the situation is he'll flee. Two percent now. If it dies, maybe he'll have a charger. I open my photos and pass the phone over.

"Oh see this is great! Look, this line of trees in the picture, where is this line of trees? Can we see a line of trees anywhere?" This guy has definitely got to be a teacher. Elementary school, even. He pivots where we stand, trying to match up reality with my snapshot.

But I'm useless. The line of palm trees I thought I was looking for don't make sense relative to where I know I parked. I'm turned around and disoriented and oh wow, he's pulling a joint out of his pocket now. Lighting it.

"Cannabis," he announces, as if he just likes saying the word. He examines the joint thoughtfully and then takes a drag. I brace myself for the offer, which I'll feel rude rejecting at this point - but it doesn't come. My savior is not sharing his weed. "Do you know it's 4/20 tomorrow? I mean if you're gonna be lost that's as good a day as any, right?"

The spaced-out look makes sense now. I laugh, trying not to think about him driving high, on the freeway home. Myself, I've been sober for almost three hours; the last hour, brutally so. He asks me where I'm from and we make small talk while he looks at my phone, then squints around the dark parking lot, then looks back at my phone. "I don't think you're in this lot."

And so I'm not. I'm in the next lot over, which we get to though an opening in the fences dividing them. Terence's car sits maybe a hundred feet from where I'd been pacing. Just right there, waiting for me. My knees go weak at the sight of it, and I realize I don't know my companion's name.

"Kumar. It's Kumar."

The next minute with Kumar is kind of a bummer. Thanking him profusely isn't enough. Neither is my offer of $20, which I quickly explain that I don't mean as an insult. "Please, just get a lunch on me tomorrow or something. I'm so grateful." But whether it was the hit of pot or whether Kumar is actually, after all, a bit of a creep, I don't know. But suddenly I'm being pressured into a hug from which I'm not immediately released. 

"Come onnnnn, it's Coachella," he whines, when explain I have to go. Big drive, boyfriend's waiting, etc. I disentangle myself from Kumar's arms, though not before he grabs my ass.

I'm annoyed and anxious to leave but as he walks off I call after him. "Are you okay to find your car now?" Without turning around he waves a hand over his shoulder, dismissing me. Having refused the knight's advance, the damsel in distress no longer interests him.

"Happy Coachella!" I say anyway. "And thank you!"

I sit in the car for a full minute, reveling in my relief, before texting Terence. His phone is off; he won't hear it. But just in case he wakes up, I want him to know I'm coming home.