Destination: New York : Flashback to Woodstock : Twenty-five Years Later, Exploring the Area That Hosted a Generation-Defining Event

Schnedler is travel editor of the Chicago Sun-Times

You can still buy a ticket to the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair at a couple of downtown Saugerties shops--but the price has risen just a bit in 25 years. Framed behind glass in one store window, an $8 one-day ticket to that legendary "Aquarian exposition" sells for a cool $49.95. Think of it as nostalgia markup.

And figure it's still a lot cheaper than the $135 ticket price for Woodstock '94, next month's 25th-anniversary spin-off of the generation-defining original. The 1969 counterculture festival promised "three days of peace and music" and delivered a mind-blowing communal romp for 500,000 flower children, few of whom had bothered to purchase a ticket. Can next month's possibly top that? Stay tuned for results of it and Bethel '94, another festival scheduled for the same weekend.

Woodstock '94--featuring a potpourri of acts aimed more at the Grunge Generation than aging Aquarians--is scheduled for Aug. 12-14 on yet another Upstate New York dairy farm, with a projected audience of 250,000. The 740-acre Winston Farm adjoins Interstate 87 on the outskirts of Saugerties, a Hudson Valley community of 4,000 a dozen miles east of Woodstock itself--and 75 miles northeast of the 1969 festival site near Bethel.

That's right. Neither the genuine article 25 years ago nor next month's well-financed flashback can claim a Woodstock address. There will also be a second 25th-anniversary festival in Aug. 13-14 at the original location--but it has to settle for the name Bethel '94. That's because rights to the Woodstock label belong to the 2 1/2-day Saugerties event, which is being organized by '69 festival guru Michael Lang.

If your head is spinning over all that cross-pollination, stay tuned for a combined history-geography primer to sort out the jumble of fests and locations.

And if flower-power nostalgia--or a passion for outdoor mega-concerts--is whetting your appetite for Woodstock '94 (or the geezer-oriented Bethel '94, which has booked Richie Havens, Canned Heat, Iron Butterfly, Judy Collins, Fleetwood Mac, Melanie, John Sebastian and Blood, Sweat & Tears), the allure of those extravaganzas could trigger an August pilgrimage to a swatch of the U.S. East that has been a leisure-time magnet for at least a century.

On the other hand, if you would eagerly detour 500 miles to avoid any mass gathering that features deafening music, September or October would be a better time to orbit Planet Woodstock. What you'll discover is a region somewhat down at the heels economically but rich in history and scenery, stretching from the Catskills "Borscht Belt" in the west to Gilded Age mansions and dozing Rip Van Winkle hamlets along the Hudson in the east.

Distances are short by California standards--roughly 125 miles on meandering highways from Bethel at the southwestern extremity of the Woodstock Zone to the superb Shaker Museum near Old Chatham at the northeastern limits of the three-day circuit I drove last month. Another 50 miles north from the Shaker site lies the stylish Victorian spa resort of Saratoga Springs, and no more than 100 miles to the west is quaint Cooperstown with its National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

The center of Planet Woodstock is the Ulster County village, population 2,300, that gave its name to the 1969 festival as well as the hippie subculture spotlighted by the powerful 1970 "Woodstock" documentary movie.

Woodstock has been an artists' colony since 1902, when Englishman Ralph R. Whitehead set up a handicraft community, Byrdcliffe--which still functions under the umbrella of the Woodstock Guild. Over the decades, the community developed a reputation as the Greenwich Village of the Catskills.

A local tradition of summer performing-arts programs, beginning with the Maverick Festivals held from 1915 to 1931, inspired popular-music fests in 1967 and '68 at the Pansy Copeland farm near Woodstock. Meanwhile, powerful music manager Albert Grossman had moved to town in the '60s and brought along such big-name clients as Bob Dylan and The Band. So the Woodstock name carried the proper cachet when Michael Lang and his partners began mapping out the 1969 event.

However, no outdoor settings around Woodstock itself were suitable for a mass musical camp-out. Lang wanted to use the Winston Farm site at Saugerties (the same one that has become the Woodstock '94 venue), but local authorities wouldn't issue a permit. So the '69 festival wound up near Bethel, bringing the Woodstock name with it. The rest is pop-culture history.

If you're too young to remember hippies, or if you slept like a latter-day Rip Van Winkle through the '60s and '70s, Woodstock amounts to a living-history village showcasing that nearly vanished social species. Hippiedom still hums along Tinker Street, the main drag, although it plays a sometimes dispiriting commercial tune--currently keyed to making some bucks from the upcoming Woodstock '94.

Woodstock retail outlets preserve Aquarian names like Crystal Clothing Collection, Candlestock, Vedantic Light, Dharmaware, Talisman, the Flying Watermelon and Stoned Pieces. Bordering the village green next to Stoned Pieces, the sign over Woodstock Pizzeria's doorway turns a guitar into a pizza pan, while the pizza itself is sliced to make the ubiquitous peace emblem of the Vietnam War era.

Tinker Street shops are amply stocked with Woodstock '94 T-shirts and other festival souvenirs--all marked "Official Licensee of Woodstock Ventures." Typical prices: $10 for a reprint of the original 1969 poster, picturing a dove perched on a guitar neck; $15 for a black and white T-shirt imprinted with the poster motif; $25 for a tie-dyed T-shirt.

Some hustling entrepreneur even made a pitch to Tinker Street's Book Mart outlet to stock small bags of "Woodstock soil" from Max Yasgur's farm--where the original Woodstock festival was held--according to a cheerful clerk who sold me a copy of the "Woodstock Festival Remembered" photo book marked up to $19.95 from the 1979 cover price of $8.95.

The local radio station, WDST, styles itself "Radio Woodstock" and operates as a promotional vehicle what must be one of the last psychedelically painted buses on the planet. One mildly amusing set of postcards sold in Tinker Street shops pictures such scenarios as Woodstock Career Counseling: a bearded gent in sandals sitting for a Tarot-card reading at a folding table under a tree.

Halfway between Woodstock and Saugerties to the east, the astonishing Opus 40 environmental sculpture rises from an abandoned bluestone quarry. Covering six acres, the monumental project represents 37 years of work by sculptor Harvey Fite, who was fatally crushed by his own truck at the site in 1974. Visitors can hike across the sculpture, admiring Fite's stone carvings, and imagine themselves part of an ongoing creative work.

Saugerties, the dateline for Woodstock '94, was a 19th-Century riverboat port where Exopus Creek flows into the Hudson. Once renowned for building racing sloops, it is a bit tattered around the edges but looks well endowed with Victorian-gingerbread houses and antiques shops.

Seventy-five miles southwest, the sprawling hamlet of Bethel--home to Woodstock '69 and the Bethel '94 reprise--looks much in need of an economic jump start. That's why businesses like the Bethel Country Store hope for the financial success of the festival being planned by old-time New York City promoter Sid Bernstein and backed financially by a wealthy local insurance-company family.

"God only knows we sure need something down here," said store owner Ron Hendrickson. "Lots of people will be coming anyway in August. That's why it's important that we have something orderly and organized for them."

Bethel Country Store sells festival T-shirts, while a bus dry-docked on a lawn off New York 178 is marketing an array of Woodstock memorabilia and gewgaws. The collectibles range from framed color photographs of the original festival to $3 cans of 25th-anniversary Woodstock Cola.

Visitors who make their way on country roads outside town to the old Yasgur property, now owned by another family, find an expanse of green farmland naturally contoured to serve as an amphitheater. A monument erected at one corner of the farm in 1984 proclaims: "This is the original site of the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, held on Aug. 15, 16, 17, 1969."

The motifs of dove and guitar neck are sculpted on the monument, above two plaques that bear the names of the festival's onstage performers including: Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Ravi Shankar, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, Creedence Clearwater, Mountain, Santana, John Sebastian, The Who, Canned Heat, Grateful Dead, Sly & the Family Stone, Jefferson Airplane, The Band, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Melanie and Sweetwater. If you peruse the names and can remember all their acts, you will probably feel older than you'd like to feel. And on a hot summer afternoon, you'll be grateful for a cooling slug of Woodstock Cola.

GUIDEBOOK: Encore Woodstock

Getting there: American, USAir, Delta, United and TWA have connecting service from LAX to Newburgh, N.Y.; lowest round-trip fares start at about $460.

Or fly nonstop to New York City (lowest fares start at about $300), rent a car and drive 100 miles north to Saugerties.

Festival details: The Woodstock '94 music festival is scheduled for Aug. 12-14 in Saugerties, N.Y. Its organizers include Michael Lang, a prime mover in the 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, with major financial backing provided by the entertainment conglomerate PolyGram.

The announced lineup of performers ranges from heavy-metal rockers Metallica and rap group Cypress Hill to the perennial Johnny Cash and folk icon Bob Dylan (who did not appear at the original festival). The only 1969 alumni on the program are Joe Cocker, Santana and the first three-fourths of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Tickets, available through Ticketmaster in New York at $135 per person for the 2 1/2-day event, must be purchased in blocks of four and come with one parking pass. Ticket-holders will be shuttled to the concert site by bus; rail and air packages are also available. (Ticketmaster: 212-307-7171.)

There is a Woodstock '94 hot line, (212) 765-1994, although the number is often busy or does not answer.

Bethel '94, Aug. 13-14 on the same spot as the 1969 festival, will include such veterans of the '69 festival as Richie Havens, Melanie and John Sebastian. For information, Sullivan County Office of Public Information, (800) 882-2287. Tickets cost $95, can be purchased through Ticketmaster in New York and include camping and parking.

Where to stay: Although tickets are still available for both festivals, many hotels and B&Bs; in the area have already been booked, either by festival promoters or as part of tour packages, and many have substantially raised prices--in some cases doubling them during the festival weekend--according to local sources. Since area roads will be closed and parking will be limited, as will entry and exit access to the festival, package trips and on-site camping will be the best idea for many travelers.

Two Sullivan County resorts that still had rooms, as of press time, are the 1,225-room Concord and the 400-room Kutsher's--famous as survivors from the "Borscht Belt" era, when the Catskills prospered as one of the centers of East Coast vacationing.

Kutsher's Country Club, Montecello, N.Y. 12701; rates start at about $90 per person, per night, including meals; (914) 794-6000.

Concord Resort Hotel, Kiamesha Lake, N.Y. 12751; $240-300 per person, per night, including meals; (800) 431-3850 or (914) 794-4000.

Recommended but sold out during the festival weekend:

Beekman Arms, 4 Mill St., Rhinebeck, N.Y. 12570; the rambling wooden hotel claims to be the oldest continuously functioning U.S. inn; $70-$110 per room; (914) 876-7077.

Mohank Mountain House, Lake Mohank, New Paltz, N.Y. 12561; surrounded by forest and hiking and riding trails; rates start at $100 per night; (800) 678-8946.

Where to eat: Culinary Institute of America, near Hyde Park, has four restaurants, one of which is casual (St. Andrew's Cafe). The others are American Bounty, Escoffier and Caterina de Medici. All require reservations: (914) 471-6608.

For more information: New York Division of Tourism, Department of Economic Development, 1 Commerce Plaza, Albany, N.Y. 12245; tel (800) 225-5697.

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