Tip 1: Fuck the schedule.
SATURDAY, 2011: The acid had taken over about an hour before. It was a slow come up that hit a crescendo when Laidback Luke played a remix of House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” at which point the world turned into a jumbled mess of color and quaking chest cavities. I had never heard of this DJ before.
When I was sober, I had printed out the schedule — an ugly little yellow thing streaked with the parallel indigos of a dying ink cartridge and now also the splotches of a leaking water bottle — with the intention of treating it like my Weekend Bible. But good friends and fun chemicals are powerful persuaders. So while I was meant to be at the New Pornographers, I had instead gleefully followed my group into the Sahara Tent, where I became a believer in the music I had resisted for so long. I didn’t think much about the New Pornographers at all.
When Luke finished, I checked the schedule and found that Bright Eyes was just starting. That was a band I couldn’t miss. My friends don’t typically like that sort of unproduced and crooning folk, but given the quid pro quo of Coachella and the same suggestible mindset I had been in earlier, they followed me. We arrived at sunset, as Conor Oberst and his band gently sang about bowls of oranges. I lay down in the grass and for the first time realized how much dancing had taken out of me already.
My friends followed my lead, and I soon found myself staring into a pinkish-orange sky as someone gently ran her fingers through my hair and the opening horns of “Old Soul Song” drifted all through the air. I closed my eyes in contentment, and when I opened them, my friends were in the exact same position as I was.
“This is so fucking chill,” one of them said with a smile.
Lesson learned: Don’t be so rigid about who you want to see that you refuse to budge, because the real fun of Coachella comes from discovering new acts and genres, going out of your comfort zone, and being with your friends. If they’re not total douchebags, they’ll skip a set they wanted to see in return.
Tip 2: Un-fuck the schedule.
SATURDAY, 2011: Arcade Fire was closing the main stage, while over in the Sahara Tent Steve Angello was playing a last show of the night. The acid was wearing off, leaving us in an aura of contentment with each other but without the earlier lackadaisical attitude about the music we saw. I had chosen the last two sets (Animal Collective and Empire of the Sun) without considering the good faith I was spending, and now as the headliners started in with their opening salvos, we were at a crossroads and I had no say.
I followed my friends to Steve Angello, and to be honest I had a great time. But as the sound reached its last fade-out and the crowd sadly filed towards the exit, I saw people from Arcade Fire’s stage walking out with giant luminescent beach balls, talking about how it was the greatest show of their life. Arcade Fire had dropped the balls during their performance of “Wake Up,” and the crowd sang along as the lights bounced over their heads for the rest of the set, flashing different colors. It’s widely regarded as one of the best acts in the festival’s history. I watch it on YouTube often.
SATURDAY, 2012: When the same friends wanted to go see Sebastian Ingrosso instead of the Shins and Bon Iver (we had seen Ingrosso perform with SHM just the night before), I politely told them they were idiots and ditched them. I went to those sets by myself, stood next to fans with the same musical inclinations as me, and made some great friends. I talk about this year’s Coachella with them occasionally on Facebook. Bon Iver’s set remains the only time music has caused me to tear up. I was supposed to meet up with my crew after, but I ended up staying to watch Miike Snow alone as well. I was in a rhythm of my own.
When I finally did find my friends again, they were sitting in the grass by the water fountain, casually puffing on cigarettes and watching the lights illuminate the smoke as it gently rose. I asked how Sebastian Ingrosso was. Apparently he played most of the same stuff Swedish House Mafia had the night before. “It was okay,” was the resounding conclusion.
Lesson learned: You know what you want to see and you don’t have to miss big sets just because you’re in a group. It’s not that big of an area and you can meet up later. Being together is fun, but I still regard missing that Arcade Fire show as one of the biggest regrets of my life, and the resentment I felt towards my friends afterwards just wasn’t worth it.
Tip 3: Know how to find each other, and don’t plan on using your phones.
SUNDAY, 2012: The day before Coachella, my roommate Pat and I went out into the desert to shoot guns at derelict television sets. When I lay down to steady my shot, I heard a slight crunch and a quiet pop, and when I stood up I found a rock had punched a hole straight through my phone, turning the screen into a sinewy mess of sputtering gasoline color. I went the entire festival without a way to contact people. It was somewhat freeing at first, but it made it next to impossible to separate. You can say “meet by the giant lobster shark statue” all you want — 5,000 other people said the same thing, and then you’re just lost in a different crowd when you get there.
I borrowed Pat’s phone when I wanted to go off by myself, and by the time I rejoined the group, Pat had taken a leave of his own. Apparently, he had wandered off with a girl and gotten lost. But Coachella is about good vibes, and all we could think was, “oh well.” We decided our future selves could deal with that problem and went off to watch Snoop and Dre kill it on the Main Stage. The crowd was hitting 100,000 strong. I’ve never seen a bigger cloud of smoke rise from a group of people before, and I was convinced if it got any bigger it was going to start raining blunts.
At the end of the show, we turned around to start walking out, when we heard a voice from a few people over: “Oh hey guys, were you standing there the entire time?” Pat had come to watch the show and ended up only a few feet away from us. With no phone and no plans to meet up — and no campsite to use as a home base — we could have easily spent the entire night looking for each other. I still have no idea how that happened. I have a few ideas: Pat has the nose of a greyhound stoned off its ass. Pat lied about the girl and followed us for the rest of the night because he didn’t want to admit it. We have some sort of psychic link caused by doing psychedelic drugs together.
I’m just glad he was there, because after standing under that cloud for an hour, I could not have found the grass on that polo field to save my ass, let alone one guy in a crowd of 150,000 people. I was out of my mind. Thank god for small miracles.
Lesson learned: Phones die. They get lost. A good idea is to use a “totem,” a large object you can hold up that people will know to walk towards if they see it. This year, I’m using a 4ft-long pool noodle with LED lights embedded in it. If you know the general area your friends are in and you know what your totem looks like, finding each other is as easy as finding drugs in the campground.
If you must use your phones, remember: There are thousands of other people doing the same, and the networks are jammed. Be specific. A good text doesn’t say, “I’m by the beer gardens,” it says, “Meet me directly to the left of the beer garden entrance before Kaskade at 11:15.” But come on, it’s Coachella. A giant inflatable dinosaur covered in light-wire is so much cooler than a phone.
Tip 4: …
2013: Who knows what this year will hold. It’s my third year in a row, and I’m sure I’ll learn some new tip for enjoying Coachella to the fullest. Check it out in the 2014 preview. But at this point, I’ve got a pretty good handle on how to explore all the festival has to offer, with or without my friends by my side.
I like to think of people like magnets, pulling into and pushing away from each other every so often. Knowing when to separate and come together is part of the fun. Knowing how to come together is another. Hopefully with this guide, you won’t need to go through the tribulations I did along the way.
Or you could just buy a campsite and avoid every one of these problems altogether.
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Colin spent his childhood being dragged kicking and screaming across America. As an adult, he realized he's a glutton for punishment, and now he's throwing himself across the world. He lives for the story and will do anything for the experience of it, though his friends don't agree that's an excuse to eat that cricket in Thailand. Colin enjoys guacamole (that cricket could have used some), music festivals, and that place in Joshua Tree that looks like a Salvador Dalí painting if you look at it the right way. Follow his adventures at www.elsewhereman.com.