What do you think of when you hear the word Coachella? Celebrities, ferris wheels, H&M, Native American headdresses, cultural appropriation? I just got back from my fourth Coachella. When I hear the word, I think of heat. I think of impatience. I think of dirty bandanas and bad sunburns. I think of pure exhaustion, blisters on the bottom of my feet and blowing dirt out of my nose days after getting back from Indio. I think of the anxiety of anticipation, because Coachella doesn’t begin on a Friday at 11 a.m., it begins in January, and lasts four months.
The lineup drops a few days after New Year’s Eve. The hype train leaves the station. I cringe every year I shell out 500-plus dollars from my savings account, but it’s worth it to see that confirmation email sitting in my inbox. The wait begins as I realize Coachella is a million miles away. February dumps the weight of winter quarter on us. Beyonce announces she’s pregnant in the middle of March and Instagram whines when Lady Gaga is tapped to replace her. I have a hard time believing Coachella is weeks away once spring quarter starts and my impatience only grows worse when my tickets finally ship. The set times are released at the start of April and 100,000 hearts break across Southern California. Classes drag on, my dealer is ignoring my messages and not a minute too soon, the week is upon us. Bubbling with excitement for the experiences just ahead, I shove my camping gear into my four-door Honda Accord Wednesday night, but I can’t sleep a wink.
Come Thursday, I desperately need to pee on the drive down the 10. Our caravan creeps forward as we get in line outside the venue. I grow sick of the same tunes we’ve been spamming since January. I can see the top of the Outdoor Theater above the wall of the Empire Polo Club. My mind is racing with paranoia as we approach the security check. A young security guard searches through the trunk. Another scans our wristbands. A police officer gives us a wave, and just like that, we’re in. Trembling, I take my first steps onto the green grass of Lot 8 and crack open my first ice-cold beer of the weekend. The campgrounds hum with excitement. But we are not in yet.
I wake up Friday covered in sweat and my head is throbbing. The wind knocked over my E-Z Up and my tapestries are torn to shreds. The line at the water station isn’t moving and it’s way hotter than I expected. I can hear the thump of the speakers as we march through security — Coachella is mere inches away. But I’m held back: Julian needs to go to the bathroom, Rebeca left her sunglasses back at the campsite and half the group wants food, but no one wants the same thing. . That one girl who tagged along at the last minute doesn’t like the taste of water and wants to spend the entire day in the Yuma tent. My best friend’s new girlfriend can’t stand the crowds in the Sahara tent. Annabel wants to see Big Gigantic. Sam wants to see King Gizzard. I’ve been dying to see Bonobo since January. No one has any idea where anything is and I realize leading a group around the Coachella polo fields is like herding drunk sheep. We all get split up before 4 p.m. and my phone dies before 5. 100 degree heat eats away at my excitement — even after four months of whipping my body into shape, my legs aren’t in the mood to dance. All my expectations for an unforgettable weekend fall like sand through my fingers, and I wander, alone, through a crowd of strangers.
But then I see them: All smiles, patiently waiting outside the DoLab, is every member of my squad. Like Odysseus’s return to Ithaca, our reunion is nothing short of epic. As the sun sets and the heat finally peels off, we scramble to the main stage. The lights dim. The crowd roars. After four months of anxiety and anticipation, planning and patience, we have finally made it to Coachella.
Under the influence and a clear blue sky, we sing and dance as we share a million laughs across three golden days of wonder. We become accustomed to the heat. Dirty bandanas and Claritin save us from the dust. Our bodies wear down with each passing day, but we ignore our mortality to squeeze every last precious drop out of the ephemeral weekend. By Saturday night, we’ve mastered the venue. Long walks don’t seem so long. The crowds don’t seem as hostile. It’s awe-inspiring to realize how many thousands of people are experiencing the same thing. And too soon, the sun sets on Sunday night. The lights come on as Kendrick Lamar leaves the stage and the music ends. The harsh wind we ignored all weekend now sends chills down our backs as we take the long walk across the littered venue back to our campsite. As the drugs wear off, we share a final night in the desert before we pack our gear in silence Monday morning and head back home. I wash away four days of dust, grime and other people’s sweat. I finally rest my aching knees and blistered feet and rub aloe on my sunburned face. Far from the haze of Indio, I scroll back through thousands of photos and reflect on Coachella.
But I don’t think of celebrities or ferris wheels. I think of heat, of $400 tickets and months of saving up. I think of the paranoia of the security check and the disappointment of set time conflicts. I think of dazzling music, fantastical art, laying out on a massive grass field singing at the top of my lungs with my best friends and how lucky I am to have shared this experience with them. I think of exhaustion and excitement, and every moment of anxiety that it took to get me to Coachella for a fourth time. And I wonder when I can do it all over again.