Big Cypress--or, the longest traffic jam ever!

At around 2:30 PM on December 29, my friend and I left Lakeland, Florida to hear Phish bring in the new millenium. Phish planned to play on New Year's Eve from just before midnight to sun-up, for seven and a half continuous hours. 75,000 tickets were sold.

To get to Big Cypress, the Native American reservation, you have to take "Alligator Alley," an interstate that connects Miami to Tampa. Which is cool: when we started going east, I made sure we got a full tank of gas, because who knows whether the reservation would have a gas station?

3:30 PM.

We hit some traffic. No problem... although I have no idea how far we are from the exit, it seems like everything is cool. "Alligator Alley" is three lanes wide, and all three lanes are totally full of cars.

4:00 PM.

It looks like we're moving pretty slowly. A big delivery van to our left seems to be eyeing the "median," a forty foot wide sloping gulf of grass. The driver appears to have no idea as to why there's so much traffic. I roll down my window and tell him there's a concert... he nods, confused, never having heard of Phish.

4:30 PM.

The van off-roads it, carving a huge semicircle in the grass before scraping the asphalt on the other side and turning back to Miami. In this last hour, we have not passed any exit ramps. I look at the Honda's dashboard clock: hopefully we'll get there by sundown, to get rest and be ready for the first set the next day.

5:30 PM.

To be optimistic, it looks like we move 100 feet every 15 minutes. Everyone waiting has taken to turning off their car unless they can drive in a burst of a few car lengths.

6:30 PM.

It's getting dark. A fourth lane has formed on the shoulder. People flirt with creating a fifth "lane" in the grass. Passengers are getting out of their RVs, vans, and cars, and are walking on the lane dividers.

7:30 PM.

Fundamentally speaking, humans only have a few basic needs. A lot of people have been "holding it" for a long time, and can't any longer. Groups of women walk to the fence by the swamps lining Alligator Alley and alternate between shielding one another and going to the bathroom. There must only be like five exits on the whole of Alligator Alley. There are definitely no rest stops.

The fences are supposed to keep the alligators away.

8:30 PM.

The police come and make everyone merge out of the far left lane, so that the people not interested in Big Cypress can go about their vacations. Surprisingly, few Phish fans take advantage of the "fast lane," mainly understanding that the lane is in everyone's best interest. This makes quite a few carloads of kids very happy.

Apparently, Phish has set up an FM radio station for the Big Cypress concert, but we can't hear it yet. I take that as a Bad Sign.

9:30 PM.

I get out of the car and do a cartwheel on the white dotted lines, figuring this is one of the few times I'll be able to play on an interstate. Only drivers like me tend to stay in their cars. The passengers all meet one another, play frisbee, or dance to the jam band music blasting out of various cars and buses.

10:30 PM.

The traffic is getting worse, if that is even possible, because vehicles are running out of gas. Asking around, no one knows how far away the exit to Big Cypress is. Apparently there will be even more waiting after we get off the interstate.

11:30 PM.

You can see a lot of stars on Alligator Alley, because there are no cities nearby.

12:30 PM. Enough!

I decide to have my friend drive so I can walk to wherever we're going.

1 AM.

I get to the Big Cypress exit. Here I see the problem:

We have three lanes of traffic going east, all of which have to merge into one. There are pilgrims coming westward, as well--also three lanes of them, also merging into one. Those two lanes then merge into one lane: six ten hour lines turn into one. The merge is coordinated by two police officers who are taking their good time.

That one lane then passes a gas station. So many cars are pulling off--for water, for gas, for supplies--that no car can get by to go to the show.

We are waiting in the longest gas line ever created.

As I walk to the gas station, I notice some people sitting on a railing by the road. I wonder why they're there, but go on past them to get something to drink. I buy two gallons of water--the line's not that long--and start walking back.

1:15 AM.

One of the people sitting on the railing stops me as I try to walk by. He says, "the police won't let us go back to our cars. Someone was dancing on an RV and fell off when the RV moved."

"They got run over and died."

"Since then, the police won't let anyone walk on the side of the road."

The tragedy of the dancer's death is real, but I can't believe the police are trying to keep people from walking by the road. No one's in their cars. Only these two police officers are doing anything to stop pedestrians, and they're doing a terrible job. Some people walked to the gas station to get gas so they could start their car back up, and they were not allowed to leave.

I nodded, crossed the road to the side away from the streetlights, and snuck by the police to come back down the exit towards the car. I was willing to say anything to get them to let me go: my friend's bleeding, my car's on fire, I'm a lunatic...

1:30 AM.

On the way back, I tell people how long they've got before they get to the gas station. Someone comes by and lets me know that after I left, everyone scattered and passed by the police. Everyone seems to be happy, now that they have some sense of how long it will be.

2:30 AM.

We get by the gas station. Our fill-up before the Alley hasn't run out, so we can zoom down the road to Big Cypress. The FM Big Cypress station finally comes in.

3:00 AM.

We arrive at the gigantic venue entrance. They've gone all out: there are probably 10 lanes for cars. No one hired a traffic engineer, so they didn't realize the bottleneck was earlier, at the exit. We have "will call" tickets, which I pick up.

One hundred feet later, back at the car, I've lost my ticket.

This is the Zen moment of my life. I realize that the entire ordeal can be seen as a test or a lesson, as a way of learning what's important and what's not in life.

My friend doesn't feel the same way, and demands that I find my ticket. There are stragglers everywhere, trying to get in to the concert. We watch a guard open the trunk of a station wagon, and poke through bags to find a kid trying to sneak through. It's amazing. Probably twice as many people are here as have tickets. If I dropped my ticket in the grass, it's gone.

3:30 AM.

I find the ticket: it slipped between the car seats. We get a reservation map and find our "zone," and sleepily put up a tent.

4:30 AM.

Sleep, finally.

10:30 AM.

Florida stays hot, even in December. By now it's 90 degrees Fahrenheit and in a tent it's probably doubled. With my last breath I open the tent and crawl to get water out of the car. It will be a miserable day.

"Epilogue:" The Concert

The venue was huge. The campgrounds were divided into a grid, with resources (like water and toilets) at the cross-sections. The 1,000 gallon water tanks went empty, so at one point we climbed on a tank and dipped Nalgene bottles inside to draw the dregs.

The concert went on: two sets on December 30 (one of which I slept through, which I regret because I woke up to the echoes of a rocking Led Zeppelin cover), an afternoon set on the 31st, and finally the seven and a half hour New Year's Eve show.

Eight hours of a non-stop concert is a long time. The band had a Port-a-Jon on stage to make sure they wouldn't leave at any point. Probably the most masochistic point of the show was the end, at 7:30 AM as the sun came up, when the band was done and people were chanting for an encore.

The ride back was only five hours of traffic jams. I got to do another cartwheel in the middle of the road. For the next few days, I turned the car off at stop lights.

I have never since complained about traffic jams.