Mud, as far as the eye could see. And not the kind of mud that sticks a bit to your shoes, but the kind that demands you give it your shoe — evident by a collection of sneakers abandoned by their owners and held captive in the 10 inches of muck nearby.

Illustration by Megan Mulholland
Illustration by Megan Mulholland

That June weekend on Randall’s Island, off the coast of Manhattan, torrential rain had turned a polished park into a mud obstacle course just in time for The Governors Ball Music Festival. I looked down at my own feet, where the bright blue Kmart sneakers I bought for the occasion were completely hidden in almost a foot of muck, accompanied by empty beer cans, smoked joints and umbrellas. My phone was dead, I’d lost the friends I came with, and I had to go to the bathroom. That meant balancing on a tiny, floating wooden plank to get to a group of port-a-potties covered completely in what I hoped was brown mud, but couldn’t be sure. Yet, I couldn’t stop smiling.

I wanted to stand on top of one of the many sinking port-a-potties and yell to the thousands of people around me, “How lucky are we to be here? In this place, with so many different people, and all of us loving one thing: music.” But no one would have heard me, because Beirut’s trumpets were starting to sound from the aptly named “You’re Doing Great Stage.” I swooned as I skated my way through the mud to the fourth row from the front. I was still alone, but it didn’t matter.

I’d always been hesitant to attend music festivals; not sure I could manage the masses of people crowding in front of one small stage. But just like Jay-Z’s song says, the big lights of NYC inspired me to try something new. So I found myself walking across a bridge over the East River from Manhattan to Randall’s Island for the last day of the festival, tagging along with a friend from my intern program. The rain from the past two days had subsided, but as we entered the festival, the mud welcomed me with open arms. My group and I quickly separated, my phone promptly died, and I found myself stranded in the middle of a mud field, trapped not only in muck but all my fears about music festivals. But in the past-tense words of Icona Pop: I loved it.

Beirut swept me away in their trumpet-heavy Indie rock. I stood alone, singing out to the songs I knew and dancing to the ones I didn’t. And it didn’t matter that I was by myself in a crowd of thousands — I had Beirut. I flashed back to my sophomore year on campus when a friend first played me “Santa Fe.” Added instantly to my “Smiles on smiles on smiles” Spotify playlist — designed to get me through the worst of finals and rocky romantic relationships — the band kept me company for a long week studying in the Law School Library last semester. I was suddenly no longer surrounded by strangers as the crowd swayed with me to a song I held so closely. It was a collective moment of “I love this song too!,” a phrase that bonded us together and kept us catching each other when we lost our footing while dancing in the mud.

After Beirut, I raced over to The Lumineers concert. As the sun set over the trees and the New York City skyline, the band played “Stubborn Love” with a local children’s choir. I had what I can only describe as a come-to-Jesus moment. Together, thousands of us — young and old, alone and with our closest friends — sang the lyrics, “So keep your head up, keep your love.” I swayed with the pack of Irish men to my right, danced with the fellow college kids behind me singing their hearts out in frat tanks covered in mud. For that moment, we all believed the song’s words of “I can’t be told, It can’t be done.”

I was engulfed in a love I’d never felt before, the kind I think only comes when everything you love in life works in sync: The band, the song, the children’s choir, the sunset. I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember, writing my own songs a la Taylor Swift in high school documenting my (lack of) romantic endeavors. And in college, I turned to my guitar as I finally explored what it means to fall in and out of love. Music became my release. But I learned it truly loved me back that moment in the audience, dancing and singing not with a boyfriend, a best friend or even an acquaintance, but a mass of people I’d never met from all walks of life. “Love” was something I never thought I could feel alone in a crowd, yet I loved each and every stranger surrounding me for losing that term “stranger” the moment the band played their first chords.

The mud took shoes, iPhones, half-eaten fish tacos and joints that weren’t quite finished and dropped with an, “Oh, shit.” But the mud also took away my fears about music festivals. Maybe being in a crowd alone can be lonely, but when a band is playing a song that defined a moment in your life — whether studying late into the night or dealing with life’s challenges — and everyone around you sings it with the same conviction, it’s impossible to feel alone.

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