The Holy Wacken Land

OK, I think I’m ready to talk about Wacken now. Be forewarned that this is long and densely detailed, and whatever you think I’m going to say, you’re probably wrong.

Three things got in the way of my Wacken planning:

1. Festival tickets sold out in 10 hours, six months before the festival and months before I even knew for sure I’d be in the neighborhood (the Study Abroad program I'm leading and its attendant class had to “make”).

2. Hotel/hostel/b&b accommodations within a 50-mile radius got snapped up quickly as well.

3. Likewise, Wacken’s camping rentals (tents, sleeping bags, mats, etc.) were already all gone, meaning I’d have nowhere practical to stay during the three-day event (Wacken is seven to eight hours away from Munich by train).

Add to this the fact that aftermarket tickets were running 200 euros and up (face value: 160 euros) on various StubHub-like sites, and I was forced to put Wacken on the backburner until I (a) got settled in Munich and saw what I’d be able to manage schedule-wise, and (b) figured out where I could stay during the festival.

Eventually, after I’d learned about the Eurail Pass (which is wonderful) and traveled for a few weekends, aftermarket-ticket prices came down, and I bought one on viagogo from a UK seller for 78 pounds, which came out to about $122 (around 50 euros lower than face value). I still had no leads on accommodations, but I told myself something would come up.

Then it started raining in north Germany. Really, really, apocalyptically raining. I’m about as much of an “outdoorsman” as Tim Gunn probably is, so I immediately started thinking I would have to bail on this festival, a thought process spurred along by the more important reality that my ticket hadn’t arrived yet. There were no e-ticket/print-at-home options available, so I had it sent to my aparthotel in Munich. Attempting to track my ticket order on viagogo’s site merely took me to my order-confirmation page, which stated that event tickets were typically released the week of the event, I could expect to receive my ticket two to three days before the event started, and I would get an email when my ticket had shipped.

Several days before Wacken began, I emailed viagogo’s customer-service department, explaining my concern at the lack of a confirmation email/ticket and was automatically informed I would get a reply within 24 hours. None came.

The day before Wacken started, I tried to track my ticket again and saw a new message beneath the old one: “CANCELLED: Your order has been cancelled. You will not be charged.” Well, I had already been charged, so I sent viagogo another email asking what the hell. No reply. Later that day, I found a phone number for viagogo (this number was indescribably hard to find) and explained to their representative all that had transpired, and I will sheepishly admit that I secretly hoped she would say, “Yes, we’re sorry, but your order was cancelled for [insert reason]. We will refund your money in [insert unreasonably long period of time].” All signs seemed to be pointing to STAY IN MUNICH, DUDE (or GO TO SWITZERLAND, DUDE, etc.), especially the unstoppable rain, which was bad enough that the Wacken organizers had begun sending dire pleadings through their festival app urging metalheads not to show up early (still prepping the site), not to drive their own cars in favor of public transport (saturated parking areas), and so on. Faced with all this, I had all but decided Wacken Open Air 2015 was not to be for me.

But then the viagogo rep came back on the line and said (a) yes, my original order was cancelled because the seller had backed out (or something), but (b) viagogo had found a replacement seller, and though this ticket was more expensive, the additional cost would not be passed on to me, so (c) I would be getting a confirmation/tracking email later that day for the replacement ticket that was guaranteed to arrive by the event’s start date (“tomorrow” in this timeline). My reply was something akin to, “Oh. Um…wow, OK, yeah, great, thank you so much. Yay.” I didn’t really believe that the ticket would get here that soon, so I began fashioning my argument for a refund: I was guaranteed to get my ticket before the event started, the original order’s botchedness wasn’t my fault, just what kind of business are you running here, etc. And this lasted until my phone rang perhaps 20 minutes later – it was the same viagogo rep as before, informing me my ticket had already arrived at my aparthotel, been signed for by one of the staff, and was waiting on me (I was still on campus at the time). “Wow, OK, yeah, great, thank you so much. Yay again.” I didn’t believe this either (non-hope ALSO springs eternal), but when I got to my room, there the ticket was.

Why wasn’t I elated? I’m a lifelong metal fan, and Wacken is the biggest metal festival in the world. The only act there I desperately wanted to see was Uli Jon Roth, former Scorpions member and one of the greatest guitarists ever, but he was playing Wednesday night (before the festival technically started – yeah, I don’t understand it either), and I had a Study Abroad-related function then that I simply could not reschedule; it had been set up by my Hochschule München contacts months in advance, and I didn’t think it professional or ethical to juggle such an event for a conflict about which I was conflicted anyway. Nevertheless, going meant the chance to see Judas Priest, Rob Zombie, Black Label Society, Armored Saint, Savatage, Cannibal Corpse, Death Angel, and a handful of others I recognized/somewhat dug, so I should have wanted to go. Why didn’t I? Here’s another enumerated list:

1. I was tired. On the day I would have left for Wacken, I had been in Europe for almost four weeks, and, in addition to the stress of navigating a new place and supervising 13 college students alone for all that time, I had also traveled to other countries every previous weekend since coming to Munich: Austria, France, the Netherlands. (Understand that when I say “stress,” I’m not in the least bit complaining. This trip has been magical, but living in a foreign city largely on my own for weeks requires more of my physical and emotional energy than being at home.)

2. I have serious OCD tendencies. The disarray and lack of control provided by a three-day music festival would be a major test of my personality even in dry/drier conditions, but adding acres upon acres of wet and muddy ground to the mix was a mental nightmare that, even beforehand, took an enormous amount of my aforementioned energy to counter.

Yet, ironically, both of these are also the reasons I ended up going not just to Wacken but to the countries I’ve already listed. As each of those prior weekends approached, I warred with my sedentary habits: “Yes, I know chilling in your Munich hotel room with the odd city excursion sounds awesome, but you’re in Europe. You can sit at home. Fun is knocking. Answer the damn door.” So I did. Salzburg and Vienna were wonderful. Paris was fun. Amsterdam was incredible. Wacken, I reasoned, would be at least one of those things, too.

Armed with hiking boots, an Eno hammock borrowed from a student, a camping fleece, and three days’ worth of bare essentials, I set off, arriving in Itzehoe (the nearest sizable town to Wacken) at around 10:30 p.m. Thursday night. The festival itself had officially been underway for about 12 hours (again, cool stuff happened Wednesday night, but it was apparently unofficial – WTF?), though I’d still have music to hear until around 1:00 a.m. and then all day Friday-Saturday. Excitement finally began to set in.

The first tangible sign that I might be in over my head was the mud. When the Wacken shuttle arrived in Itzehoe, throngs of people done for the day got out, all of them muddy from roughly the calves down. They were happy, though, shouting “VAHCKEN!” and throwing devil horns, which gladdened me. On the shuttle’s numerous stops en route to the festival grounds, however, I was greeted by new riders who, unlike me, had not packed light. They looked like people going to tailgate: wheeled crates and wagons loaded down with BBQ grills, lawn chairs, sleeping mats, big tents, cases of water, cases of beer, etc. “I’m doing this wrong,” I said to myself. Nevertheless, I was committed: three days outside my comfort zone, and then I’d be back in my four-week-old Munich routine. I wished for a beer.

The second tangible sign I was in over my head was the mud. When the shuttle got to the festival site, we debussed and started walking toward the gates. I could see very serious stagelights. I could hear a very serious metallic roar. My blood started pumping. I smiled. I wished again for a beer.

Then we stepped off the shuttle stop’s gravel – its sweet, solid, mostly dry, mostly non-displacing gravel – into what I can only describe as the Diarrhea of the Earth. The festival ground proper, and mainly the wide pathways where we walked, was a river of four-to-six-inch-deep mud. I can’t adequately stress the extent to which I’m not exaggerating. Imagine Venice, and then replace its canals’ water with viscous mud, and you have some idea of what we walked in. You could feel our communal barometric pressure drop the second we stepped into the mud, like all the metallic joy was being squelched out through our feet. “Holy shit,” I said involuntarily. “Ah, Schiesse,” several people around me said, I assume also involuntarily.

I don’t know how far it was from that drop-off point to the wristband kiosk, but it felt like miles/kilometers, though this may simply have been the fact that every step dropped me four to six inches into an Earth that then tried to keep my feet for itself. And, of course, the terrain wasn’t level, so some steps stayed relatively close to the surface (wherever that was), and some dropped more than six inches. I had bought hiking boots that day, rightly thinking that the Asics I wear as walking shoes would not suffice. What I actually needed were hip-waders.

Have I mentioned my OCD tendencies, that I am a neat freak, that I dislike being dirty? You know the “Bring out your dead!” scene in Holy Grail where you see peasants literally rolling around in the medieval mud? That scene kept flashing before my eyes in Wacken, and for the first time ever, it wasn’t funny at all.

I kept walking, not wanting to look foolish or uncertain (ha ha, I know right, as if), hoping that firmer ground lay just ahead. It did, occasionally, only to be quickly replaced by more Earthly Diarrhea. Along the way, I noticed two critical things:

1. The camping grounds were, smartly, more elevated than the Diarrheal Plain. They had grass, and they were also 100% covered by tents, campers, RVs, and the odd car. I didn’t have a tarp and/or tent anyway, but even if I had, there was nowhere to put it.

2. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were no trees anywhere inside the grounds, meaning I had little to no chance of using the hammock I brought within the festival site. The nearest trees were outside the fences and not at all easy to get to.

Thus, even while I was trudging along, ankle- to calf-deep in dirt soup, anxious to find some solid ground and be near a stage (and still wishing for a beer), I realized that I had nowhere to sit or sleep. Hell, I didn’t even have anywhere to put my backpack that wasn’t a wet picnic table or beery countertop. “I’m doing this wrong,” I said to myself, not for the last time.

Regardless, I kept my chin up (after every third or fourth step) and took in the atmosphere. People, tattoos, black-metal t-shirts, flaming bullhead logos, patch-laden denim jackets, people, ax-throwing contests, beer, smoke, nonstop music from every direction, more people. I bought a badass Hammer Burger from one of the many food vendors and chatted with a kind and shirtless German. I finally got that beer, a Beck’s (official beer of Wacken) that paled pathetically in comparison with all the Helles and Weissbier I’d had over the preceding weeks but which still tasted better than it had any right to. I heard Trans-Siberian Orchestra playing with Savatage and saw their insane light show. Despite my misgivings, I was doing it. This was happening.

It was late, though, and soon the throngs started to disperse. People trudged back to their tents or headed for the exits, so I headed that way too. My plan was to either find a hammock spot in the trees outside the fences or catch the shuttle back to Itzehoe and figure something out, even if it meant going to Hamburg (the nearest city) and paying too much for a hotel room. I also found comfort in the notion that I could simply leave the festival and not return; pride prevented me from truly wanting to do this, but the option existed.

And then I fell down.

I had almost fallen several times – teetering was unavoidable given the shifting ground – and I had seen several people go down on a knee or stagger sideways and finally go “plop.” But I was doing OK, and I didn’t think it would happen to me......until I wasn’t, and it did.

There was no cause other than the mud. I wasn’t in a big crowd of people when it happened, so no one bumped me or anything. I was just walking toward the exits and preparing to choose one of my options for the night when I evidently stepped into a particularly uneven spot. My balance disappeared, I swayed backward and swung my arms to counteract the motion, but it wasn’t enough, and I fell back onto my ass. (This is not a figure of speech – I. FELL. ON. MY. ASS.) “Ha ha!” I blurted automatically, instinctively trying to distance myself from embarrassment via self-effacement, but it didn’t matter because no one was nearby and no one was paying attention. I put my hands into the mud to foist myself up, got into a crouch, and was in the process of standing when I fell again, this time to my right, knee and hands into the mud. I got up more quickly and was able to stand flat-footed, and I immediately started moving forward to look for a wash-up area. Not finding one any time soon, a security guard poured water out of a bottle over my hands so I could remove the worst of the muck (my hands were so covered they were twice their normal size, and I already have big hands). Thanking her profusely for this kindness, I walked away, my options for the evening and weekend sorted: covered in mud from my thighs down, with nowhere to get firm-footed and unmuddy and regrouped for the next day, I was going to catch the shuttle back to Itzehoe and return to Munich. I reached for my phone to check the time and use some of my international data to look up train schedules.

The hip pocket where I keep my phone was empty.

I stuck my hand into my hip pocket over and over, willing it to appear. I slapped the Velcro pocket further down my leg. Empty. I slapped all my pockets, front and back. My left Velcro pocket had my money (thank Dio), but nothing else.

My phone was gone.

“Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god,” I said breathlessly, realizing instantly what had happened. My fall had been at the perfect angle and force to eject my phone from its pocket, and because my hands were so muddy from the fall, and because my brain had been consumed with standing up out of the godforsaken mud, I hadn’t thought to ensure that my phone was still there until this moment. This terrible, nauseating, oh-my-god moment.

(Side note: I love my phone. I am a bona fide iPhone addict, never without it and rarely not looking at it. I’ve literally had dreams of losing my phone, of dropping and damaging it horribly, of being separated from it while surrounded by people who did not treat my loss with the proper urgency. None of these dreams involved losing my precious to the Earthly Diarrhea, which is why I don’t refer to them above as “nightmares.” THIS was the nightmare.)

I kept patting my pockets and staring around at the cruel mud, trying to calm the lightning storm of panic in my brain. Soon I retraced my steps and found the spot where I’d fallen, all the while looking everywhere for a glint of phone screen. Several very nice people recognized my plight (bent over, peering intently at the ground), sympathized with me, and helped me look. One guy even gave me his keychain flashlight to aid my search, and I know that I will keep that flashlight forever. I asked security guards if any phones had been turned in; none had. I probably searched for about an hour before realizing (a) I would never find my phone in all that mud – it had fallen and sunk and would likely not be found until preparations for next year’s Wacken, if then; and (b) even if I had found my phone, it would have been very far beyond repair, not only water damaged but unspeakably dirty – no one would be able to rehabilitate that thing, certainly not in the Holy Wacken Land (that’s what it’s called on the festival map, which is cool). My phone was also passcode/fingerprint-protected, which provided some illogical comfort.

So I left. I trudged to the shuttle stop, waited about 10 minutes for the shuttle to arrive, and then I boarded it, only to wait another 45 minutes before we left, presumably to ensure we’d captured enough interested riders. When we got back to the Itzehoe station, I made a beeline for the men’s room, which was empty but splattered with brown foulness, as though some poor creature had recently suffered from a particularly violent gastric ailment in there. I had hoped to use the sink to wash myself off, but it was brimming with dirty water. I went into the stall – it was somehow not as bad as the rest of the bathroom – and used the baby wipes I’d wisely bought pre-Wacken to clean myself off as best I could. I put my disgusting clothes in one of the plastic grocery bags I’d brought, and I put that bag inside a larger department-store bag with my even more disgusting hiking boots. I put on clean clothes and shoes and wiped down with baby wipes again, and then I used the ticket machine to find the next available train south, which was to depart at 4:49 a.m. It was 4:15 a.m. I had been at Wacken (or in its vicinity) for only six hours, and already I was about to leave.

Recall my refrain: “I’m doing this wrong.” What should I have done, then? Here’s yet another enumerated list.

1. Not go at all. I had used the aw-get-outside-your-comfort-zone-John tactic several times on consecutive weekends to good effect, but this weekend I pushed it too far. I probably – not definitely, but probably – should have listened to my instincts and not gone in the first place. After three consecutive out-of-country trips, I needed to not travel. It’s even possible that I’m just not cut out for multi-day music festivals, but I’m not ready to say that yet.

2. Commit earlier. If I was going to go, I should have committed to it well before I did and prepared more thoroughly. This one is a no-brainer and is also inextricably linked with…

3. Secure accommodations early. Even the festival ticket itself is less important than having a home base. Book a hotel room, reserve a hostel bed, get to the festival grounds as early as possible to claim a camping spot, whatever – just don’t restrict yourself to walking around with all your gear without a place to rest. Because, you know, you might fall down. In the mud.

Interestingly, I packed my Mötörhead t-shirt to wear at the festival, and probably every day of the festival, but I didn’t put it on until I was changing in the train-station bathroom because I had been saving it for daylight and my two full days of metal nirvana. Better late than never.

You know what shirt I had on, though, through all these shenanigans? The one that has a stick figure strumming a guitar above the phrase “Life is good.”

I agree.