I stand surrounded by tens of thousands of party people on this terra-formed oasis. They look happy, smiling, throwing Frisbees, disco napping in pockets of shade, dancing in celebration, rushing from one attraction to the next, walking arm-in-arm. Some look stoned, a reward for a weekend's worth of escape -- and for winning the surreptitious security game.
Towering palms wrap around the rectangular, emerald grounds, their fronds waving like pom-poms in a stiff breeze. That breeze itself is sublime, welcome relief after a day of broiling sun. Night is falling; the excitement of the day is at its peak. With a mixture of orange and purple light from the setting sun and spotlights fixated on the palm trees, the scene is gorgeous, an Apocalypse Now intro without the napalm.
On the stage in front of me, a giant rock concert unfolds. The Queens of the Stone Age, stoner rock savants, play "Song for the Dead" with Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan on vocals. Their speed-metal very nearly spirals out of control.
The masses on either side freak out like ceiling fans -- or subtly crouch to inhale more weed. A few songs later, the band stomps through the sensuous "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret." It's the one song the Queens don't willfully butcher onstage. I close my eyes, collect that stiff breeze and relax. This is inspiring. This is beautiful.
This is in Indio, California.
To attend Inland California's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, approximately 7,000 other Sonoran dwellers and I had to drive from this desert to another.
In between, we drove through a whole lot of nothing; proof this is the mythic Southwest. The barren, solemn 240-mile stretch is marked by undeveloped lands from Buckeye to the Western front; patches of scraggly brush; the Palo Verde nuclear plant; the General George S. Patton Memorial Museum; long spaces of highway between exit signs; less-than-handsome truck stops; and Blythe, California, home to a Best Western, fast food and a strip of gas stations. It was a meditative exercise, as much "Why am I here?" as "Why am I here?"
It wasn't until I reached a double-take-inducing row of Indian-run casinos in the town of Coachella that I knew physical life was upon me again.
And it was only after I traveled down a series of Shady Acres-Twilight Zone-style back roads and walked across two open fields of yellowed grass (forget the sunscreen in the car, and that becomes six fields) that I finally realized the whole point -- I hit the somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
The Coachella grounds on the Empire Polo Field are astounding; a gigantic, open grassy field, with the palm trees hugging all sides and mountains on the horizon. With its art, music, desert locale and natural eccentricity, it's a grand experiment in Utopia. It's a place to frolic, sleep when you want, run around, ingest drugs without much in the way of hazard, fraternize with total strangers, marvel at a sunset while Primal Scream blazes through its surprisingly clean blend of electronic rock and, mostly, scramble from one plain black backdropped concert stage to another to catch any of 80-plus artists that make Coachella the closest Arizona will ever get to a Woodstock or an Isle of Wight.
Now in its fifth year, Coachella, which took place April 26 and 27, is an increasingly popular trek for Arizonans. Paul Tollett, president of Goldenvoice, which promotes the festival, says roughly 12 percent of the 68,000 tickets sold this year went to road trippers from this state.
"It's their show," says Tollett. "We definitely do not think of this show as Los Angeles' show. This is the Southwest's answer to festivals."
The musicians perform at Coachella in any of five concert areas -- a main stage, a second outdoor stage and stages in three white domed tents. The busy itinerary keeps festivalgoers switching gears and struggling to make decisions. At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, for instance, the choice is between former Radish singer Ben Kweller, the Neptunes' rock band N.E.R.D., Fugazi's Ian MacKaye on a spoken-word soapbox, post-hard-core New York trio the Rapture and underground trance favorite Christopher Lawrence. Tough one.
After hanging out for a few Kweller songs (his power-pop crunch sounds humongous live), I eventually settle on Lawrence, an American equivalent to Paul Van Dyk. He's on the turntables in the Sahara Tent, a huge open space reserved for the ravers and dance-music fanatics, where the polyrhythmic Deep Dishes and mystical Underworlds and pioneering Masters at Work perform. It's the grounds' main depository for freaks. We all need a few freaks to hang with, and I find them here and now.