My first time at Bonnaroo, I was 21 years old. It was the festival’s third year, and the Southern gods rained down their wrath over the 700-acre farm in Manchester like only a Tennessee summer storm can do. I remember losing my flip-flops in the mess of mud, but not caring a thing about frolicking barefoot through the slick, grassy fields. I was at Bonnaroo, this was already the best summer of my life and it had only just begun.
Sure, plenty of Bonnaroovians, as we’re called by the masses, can claim more festival notches on their belt than me. I’ve made it to more than half of Bonnaroo’s 15 past installments since its 2002 inauguration, but my attendance record is far from flawless. Yet, as a “local” who grew up in the very county that birthed one of the nation’s most authentic present-day music events, I feel like I have a unique perspective that others simply don’t.
For more than a decade, Bonnaroo has thrived as one of the country’s most celebrated camping music festivals, despite taking place in a town that barely boasts 10,000 permanent residents and yet becomes the state’s seventh largest city for one lone four-day stretch a year. Some 75,000 attendees swarm “the Farm” annually, and it’s drawn the likes of Jay-Z, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam, Elton John, and that one (make it, two…) infamous Kanye West appearances, in addition to this year’s top-tier headliners, U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Chance the Rapper.
And for a town of its size, Manchester handles the influx in population like a consummate professional.
But look, I get it, if you’re not all about the music, why on Earth would you come to Bonnaroo? Sure, Roo is and has always been, at its core, about the art—both the music but also the large-scale sculptures and installations that are woven throughout the farm—but it’s even more about the community and giving back. Here’s why you want to be part of it:
You can learn about protecting the environment through various workshops and talks held in Planet Roo. Some of Bonnaroo’s environmental initiatives include solar installations; the Refill Revolution, which encourages fest-goers to stop using plastic bottles through reusable cups and hydration stations; a comprehensive waste management program, and Root for Roo, an ongoing effort that allows people to leave a permanent mark on the Farm by purchasing a tulip poplar or oak tree for themselves or in memory of a loved one.
You can give back through add-on events like Oxfam American and Eat for Equity’s BonnaROOTS community dinners that allow you to support the festival’s mission while jamming out to the tunes of Minnesota bluegrass band Wailing Loons. This year, Bonnaroo aims to build on these dinners by collaborating with Seed Life Skills, a non-profit founded by Chef Hugh Acheson; those interested can learn about the importance of culinary instruction, food policy and education through "how-to" demonstrations, in addition to taking Chef Acheson’s cooking class out of the Planet Roo Academy.
Treat Your Tastebuds
You will definitely eat well. Within minutes of stepping foot in Centeroo, you’ll catch a whiff of the bacon roasting inside Henri (aka Hamageddon), the 4,000-pound, fire-breathing steel pig that doubles as an art installation and follow the scent trail to Baconland where you can purchase flights of the good stuff. But there’s more than 50 food options: The culinary scene has attracted those festivalgoers who care more about what goes into their stomachs than in their ears thanks to a smattering of vendors throughout the festival site (the Amish Baking Company and Prater’s BBQ always being two of the most popular), as well as a food truck oasis full of tacos, grilled cheeses, poutine, roti rolls, thin-crust pies and other tasty morsels to provide you fuel. The Broo’ers Festival also puts beers and ciders from 25 different breweries right at your fingertips (and your lips).
Work it Off
And if you’re a fitness buff you can work off what you eat as you go. I took my first ever Acro workshop at Roo 2015—one of many such one-off offerings in Planet Roo—and there’s always a 5K fun run, as well as other cardio-inspired activities like the late-night Twerk It Out with Big Freedia dance party or Yoga-Roo for yogis of all skill levels.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
If You're Still Not Sold
Manchester is its own hidden gem, one oft-overlooked by Tennesseans themselves. Before or after your time on the Farm, begin your Manchester exploration “downtown,” where local businesses like West Main Brick Oven, High Cotton Vintage Furnishings and the Mercantile are shaping the future of the once dilapidated square. Within 10 miles off the festival site, you’ll also be granted with myriad offerings from Mother Nature: Tennessee is home to 56 state parks, several of which are within an hour's drive of Manchester. For outdoors lovers, Old Stone Fort—a historically significant Native American site built in the Middle Woodland Period over 2,000 years ago and home to some gorgeous waterfalls—is located within the city limits. For those who want a more dramatic and sweeping view, Beersheba Springs, Foster Falls, and the mountaintop enclave of Sewanee are snaked with hiking trails and peppered with watering holes. For food and spirits aficionados, the brand new Whiskey Trail launches this month and carves its way across the state and through the area, hitting such distilleries as Jack Daniel's, George Dickel, and Short Mountain.
So really the question remains: If you’ve never done Bonnaroo before, what’s stopping you now?
Kristin Luna is a Tennessee native who has traveled through all 50 states and more than 100 countries. Her work can be found on her decade-old travel blog Camels & Chocolate and you can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.