Posted on February 12, 2016
A Thank You Letter To Bethel Woods
When everything and everyone around me is changing, I know I can always come back to you and go back to being 17 for a night.
A car filled with familiar faces. Windows rolled down. Country music blasting from whichever station is coming through the static best on the back roads that we’re driving down just a little too fast to avoid the inevitable traffic.
We know the parking lot will already be more than half full once we get there. We know which trucks to avoid and which trucks to sprint to. We know this night like the back of our hands, because we’ve lived it before. We’ve lived it multiple times every summer since middle school.
It’s the kind of night that stays with you forever, the feelings you can’t seem to forget, the memories you’ll never fully shake.
Most importantly, it’s the place that holds those nights, feelings and memories. It’s the place you close your eyes and mentally escape to on a rainy day. It’s your happy place.
And this is my thank you letter to my happy place: Bethel Woods.
I woke up last Friday morning to seven text messages of the same screenshot. Bethel Woods had finally announced the summer 2016 country concert line-up. Before I could even try to fight it, my mind jumped back to when the line-up was announced a few years ago. We were all in high school. Summers were simple. There was no question about whether or not we would be at every single concert together.
Things have changed a lot since then and I found myself aching with nostalgia as I looked at the dates and wondered if I’d be able to make it there for even one of the nights listed. I realized then that we didn’t necessarily take it for granted, but we definitely didn’t realize how much it would mean to us once we left.
Bethel Woods is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Many know it as the place where the original Woodstock happened. Some know it as just another concert venue. But we’re the lucky ones. We know it as our stomping grounds.
To us, it’s a place where we learned maybe a little too much about life and love and faith and friendship. We grew up in that parking lot and on that lawn. Something about the sea of strangers made us feel invincible. Relationships started and ended. Enemies became friends and friends became family. We laughed, we fought, we danced, we cried, we said goodbyes and we figured out life on every inch of that solid ground.
Now that we’re in college, life has taken us out of our comfort zones, out of each other’s daily lives, and all over the country. But it hasn’t taken this place from us, and we know it never will, because it isn’t just about us. As we look around each year we’re surrounded by people who have made our mistakes and memories and people who are ready to start making our mistakes and memories.
We see our parents, reminiscing about when they were us. We see our younger siblings, starting to become us. Generations keep growing into this place, but no one ever seems to grow out of it. That’s part of its charm. I’ll be the first to say that I’ve outgrown my hometown and my high school, but I don’t think I’ll ever outgrow Bethel Woods. It may be the closest we ever get to a time machine and it’s a time machine that always brings us right back to simpler times. Life can’t touch something like that.
I now live in the center of country music; Nashville, Tennessee. I get to go to plenty of country concerts, to any of the country awards shows for free, and I’ve run into an unreal number of country stars at smoothie bars and malls because that’s the norm here. Yet I know I’ll always fight to find my way back to Bethel Woods at least once every summer because it’s not about the line-up and it’s not about which country stars are going to be there that year.
It’s about who’s always been there. It’s about the people in the car with you before and after the concert, the person you can always count on for a piggy back ride after you’ve stood for way too many hours, the one who will step out of the crowd during their favorite song just to console someone who is upset, the friend you run into in the parking lot after a year of not seeing them, the ones you cut the bathroom line with so you don’t miss the first song. It’s about the unbreakable bond that only people who truly know this gem in upstate New York will understand.
So Bethel Woods, thank you. Thank you for the pictures that I look at on rainy days. Thank you for giving us a place to freely laugh and cry, to freely live and learn. Thank you for helping us understand why country songs about small-town nostalgia and bittersweet first loves are so relatable. Thank you for seeing us through our awkward stages in middle school and through our goodbyes the week before we all left for college. Thank you for giving us “you had to be there” stories to tell our new friends. You hold some of my favorite memories and some of my biggest lessons.
When everything and everyone around me is changing, I know I can always come back to you and go back to being 17 years old for a night.