Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sneaking into Outside Lands

“Most of them flicks I can’t recommend, but back then half the fun was sneaking in”
--Boots Riley


"Are you a construction worker or something?"  The guy was asking too many questions, and I was eyeballing a sharp pair of pliers and yellow reflector jacket.  I pass on the pliers but take the jacket.
"No, I'm a writer.  I need this stuff for a project."
"I need to ask you one question."
Oh boy.
"Should I keep taking Creative Writing classes?"
Should I come clean?  Explain that I’m not a “real” writer, but a chronically underemployed circus performer with a blog?  No, that will only lead to more questions.  I’ll have to tell him about the SF Circus Center, why I don’t do acrobatics anymore, and will fail to explain the difference between juggling and object manipulation.  If it goes on long enough he’ll ask if I've ever done it with any "hot contortionist girls."  I hate that conversation--sometimes I stay home just to avoid it.

Still, his Creative Writing aspirations lingered in the air--like a piece of dust waiting to clog up my hard drive.  He looked like a younger me, wondering if I should really go to Circus School.
“Yes, of course,” I tell him. “Why not?”

                                  __________          __________          __________

The idea of sneaking into Outside Lands came--like so many bad ideas--from shooting the bull in a coffeeshop.  I often toss out writing ideas to my friend Russell, and if his ears perk up, I elaborate.  I didn’t want to go all Commando over the fence, so I started staking out the park when the signs went up, thinking of an old Escapologist motto, "You're not going to escape by being stronger than the ropes, you're going to escape by knowing more about what's going on than they do."  

I would go on foot, or take late night drives through the park-- assessing entrances, exits, and weak spots.  Security was out on my first trip, almost a week before the show.  They were friendly guys, wearing yellow, orange, or red windbreakers.
“We’re here so people know we’re not stealing their park, we’re just borrowing it for a while,” one of them told me.  
“Are you guys hiring?”
“The company, -------- is always hiring, and they’ll take just about anybody.”  Hmm.

On Thursday, I set some rules for myself:  No property damage, no wrestling if I got caught, and definitely no resisting arrest.  I would sneak in on wit, brains, and shadows--or not at all.  I left the house around 6:30pm for a recon mission, but  I packed a bag with the essentials--just in case.  I took my yellow reflector jacket, my red security-ish windbreaker, 2 bottles of water, a blanket, a sandwich, and a pen and paper.  I forgot my toothbrush.


I walked into the park alone with my bag feeling like a secret agent.  I was Chuck Norris rescuing POW’s, Denzel taking on kidnappers, or Mark Whalberg bringing down a government conspiracy.  I walked slowly around the fence, surveying each entrance.  The show wouldn’t start until Friday at noon, but the gates were already regulated by people wearing purple Event Staff shirts.  There were 3-4 fences in some places.  At the VIP entrance I crossed the street and watched from a bench.  Everyone going into the park was flagged down by a guy with long blond hair.  He looked friendly, so I went to check it out, was flagged down, and told the park was closed.  He was less friendly up close.

The VIP entrance was the last of three, and on the Fulton side of the park.  Walking away, I felt dejected.  Who am I kidding? I thought, this is never going to work.  I continued along the road by the fence, moving away from the festival, towards the Lincoln side, and home.

On the way back I found an opening in the fence at Anglers Lodge and walked in.  There was a small parking lot with some trucks and a few trailers, but no one was around.  I found a stairway that led up to a cabin, and behind the cabin was a fly fishing pond.  I recognized the pond immediately from my walks inside.  I was directly behind the main stage, on the other side of the fence.

I walked to the other side of the pond and went into the woods.  The trails took me in a few circles, but eventually, I found a weak spot.  The fence was at the top of a very steep 20 ft. hill, and it wasn’t fastened to the ground.  With a little effort, I could probably squeeze under it.  The plan was to hide in the woods until 3 or 4 in the morning, wait for a good moment to climb under the fence, and walk not run to the port-o-potty that was 20 to 40 ft. away.  I would pray that it was unlocked (and clean), lock myself inside, and wait for the music to start.  8 hours in a port-o-potty will make a great a facebook status, I thought with a chuckle.

With 2 hours of daylight left, I decided to look around some more; you never know what you’ll find in a park with 1,017 acres.  I was trying to follow the fence towards 19th ave. when I found a small paved road--too small for a car, but just right for a bike, golf cart, or pedestrian.  I followed the road uphill on a hunch.  A woman in a red windbreaker came walking down towards me and said hello with a smile as we passed each other.  At the end of the road was an open gate, and beyond the gate, was the backstage section of Outside Lands.  

I forced myself not to stop, stare, or look guilty.  Security and staff were everywhere, but no one was watching the gate.  I walked in with my bag slung over my shoulder and my heart pounding in my chest.  On my left was the fence, and beyond it, I could see the pond.  On my right was the back of the main stage and the polo fields.  In between were several trailers and a thin row of small trees.  Each trailer was outfitted with three cans with colorful labels that read: Trash, Recycling, Compost--even rock stars recycle in San Francisco.

The trees gave me a little shelter from the hubbub, but soon I had to choose between walking directly through the festival grounds, or the delivery area.  I chose the delivery area, hoping it would be mostly vendors.  Any time I passed someone I would give them “the nod.”  The “what’s up / I know where I’m going” nod.  At the end of the delivery area I found a new fence.  Shit.  The path I was expecting was blocked.

I turned right, and went into a food vendors tent which, mercifully, was empty.  To get to the woods, and the hiding place I had scoped out, I was going to have to walk to the other side of the festival.  But at the moment, there were several staff with walkie talkies and a golf cart outside of the tent.  If I went back to the delivery area I would look lost, but if I stayed in the tent and the vendor showed up, I was busted for sure.  There was nothing to do but wait.

Thankfully, after a couple of minutes, the golf cart drove away.  I stepped out of the tent and turned left, walking out in the open, and then passing through the VIP area.  It was nice, with a soft padded floor, lots of tables, and a long bar in an enclosed space.  This is probably as close as I’ll ever get to VIP, I thought.  At the end of the VIP area there was a man in a red windbreaker hanging something up.  I gave him the nod, but I did it too fast.  It was a nervous nod, a nod from someone who isn’t supposed to be here.  Would he notice?  I would have noticed.  I kept walking, passing back into the open, and towards the woods at Choco Lands.

Just before I reached the entrance to Choco Lands, a man in a bright orange shirt on a 4-wheeler drove in front of me, turned the 4-wheeler around, and stared right at me.  A giant yellow arrow came down from the sky and pointed at my head, illuminating a sign on my chest that read “This guy snuck in you need to kick him out!”  I could feel the man’s eyes behind his sunglasses.  He knew what I was up to.  He was coming for me, he... turned right again on the 4-wheeler.  He was making a u-turn.

I walked up the path between the trees into Choco Lands.  When I saw a good spot, I darted off into the woods.  I crawled on all fours, and then on my stomach, into a small opening under the trees; the foliage was so thick I could barely sit up.  I opened my bag, unrolled my blanket, and ate my sandwich.  This would be my home for the next 14 hours.

The stillness of my enclave amplified the sounds around me.  I could hear hammers clanging, voices laughing, and trucks beeping.  Several times my head popped up, convinced a truck was about to run me over in the dark.  Later, in the distance, I could hear someone sound checking on a harmonica--Amazing Grace. Surprisingly, I slept well.

In the morning I hid in the woods until I knew the doors were open and bands were playing.  This was the moment of truth--if I get caught now I spent the night in the park for nothing, I thought.  I crawled on my stomach again and came out covered in brush; just another concert goer at Outside Lands.   

                                    __________          __________          __________

The Festival

The first thing I did was look for coffee--at $4.50 a cup, even sneaking in wasn’t going to be cheap.  After coffee and some lost ipod drama, I was ready to survey my new digs.  I was also starving.  I walked from McLaren Pass towards the Barbary, bought a $10 burrito, and sat down at an empty picnic table to enjoy breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  A group of teenage girls joined me at the table.  They were excited to be at Outside Lands, with tickets for the whole weekend.

The kids were friendly, offering to share dried mangos, almonds, and rum hidden in shampoo bottles.  I declined all three, too focused on my burrito.  We were debating the question of the day--Justice or Neil Young?--when a police officer walked up and gave me the stare.  My heart stopped beating.  How did he know?
“Are you hiding any booze over here?” he asked me.
“I don’t drink.”
“You don’t drink?  Can I look in your jacket?  We got some information that you guys were hiding some liquor over here.”
It occurred to me that I was, sans wristband, at a table with three 19 year old girls who are hiding booze.  After a quick glance through my hoodie he turned to face the girls.
“Do you have any liquor in shampoo bottles or anything?”

Lucky for me, these were good kids, or rather, bad kids that knew to play it cool.  The girls handed over their purses with innocent eyes, adding for good measure, “we have some actual shampoo and stuff, if you wanna look.”  The cop opened a purse, pulled out a melted ice tray looking thing and stared at me.
“What is this?”
“Um, I’m not actually associated with these people.”
“Yeah, we don’t know him, we just sat down here to eat.”
The policeman decided we were ok, and apologized for the disturbance.  “I understand.  You’re just doing your job,” the leader said to a chorus of yeahs.
“We better go,” she told her friends.  I decided to avoid cops and teenagers for the rest of the day.  Maybe the rest of my life.

                              __________          __________          __________

It was time for some music.  I went to the Land’s End stage and caught the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.  These guys were amazing--fun, funky, and excellent performers. Unfortunately, no one told them that SF crowds are too cool to sing along, and the audience participation stuff did not go well. Regardless, I left their set ready to grab my bag, ditch Outside Lands, and hitchhike to New Orleans.  Who dat say dey gonna beat dem saints?

Next I went to the Twin Peaks stage, where Wallpaper was playing.  I had never heard of them, but this is a group to watch.  Clearly channeling early Beastie Boys, they borrow from pop, 70’s funk, and Oakland swag.  Singer Ricky Reed was thrilled to be at Outside Lands proclaiming, “I’ve been sneaking copious amounts of psychedelics into this bitch for years--but this is our first time playing here,” before launching into a crowd favorite.  As if on cue, someone offered me “doses” during their set.

Wallpaper was sneaking in music if I’ve ever heard it, and sure enough, I saw 4 or 5 guys run down the hill and jump over the last fence into the crowd.  Hot on their heels came another group of baseball capped, T-shirt wearing youngsters, who were thwarted by the orange shirted Event Staff and SFPD.  The Event Staff were outside of the fence, SFPD was inside, and big mean looking guys drove golf carts back and forth on both sides.  It was like a game of Whack-a-Mole in reverse.

According to Josio--an orange shirter from Pittsburg--“as soon as they get over this fence, it’s over.”  He said if the Event Staff catches you trying to climb over they’ll just walk you out, but if SFPD catches you on the inside, then you’re in trouble.  I asked how many people he thought make it over per night. “Probably at least 50.”  Josio gets paid $10.24 an hour (SF minimum wage) to patrol the fence--he likes the job.

                                  __________          __________          __________

My Stepmom used to say, “If you would spend half as much time doing what you’re supposed to do, instead of trying to get out of it, you would be a lot better off.”  As usual, she was right.  Between reconnaissance, shopping trips, and execution, it took 35 hours to sneak in.  Even at $10.24 an hour, I could have earned enough for a ticket with those hours, and at $15 an hour, I could have bought a VIP ticket.  So my advice to fellow sneakers?  Get a job.

Another Planet fares better than most promoters, but I’m not a big fan of these mega-festivals.  Setting up even one band is a lot of work, so a hundred of them on temporary stages is bound to be messy.  And, you can never control the weather, which was awful--even for the Sunset; I could see my breath by 6pm.   Freezing winds, rancid port-o-potties, and an hour long wait for coffee (single cup brew at an event with 65,000 people?), had me ready to go home before Neil Young and Crazy Horse began their headline set.  I stayed out of pure stubbornness, determined to get my money’s worth.  I’m glad I did, so I could hear these immortal words in person:

“hey hey, my my,
Rock and Roll will never die,
hey, hey, my my”

Let’s hope so, Mr. Young.  Let’s hope so.
Thanks for reading,

p.s. Did you like this?  Then please, re-blog it, re-tweet it, facebook it, give it to a carrier pigeon, or do whatever you like to do with stuff that you like.  Thizzanx!  


  1. I thought about spending the night in the park and all my friends just laughed. next year...

  2. Make sure you bring a toothbrush.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.