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A Weekend at Coachella

It’s just before midnight, and we’re stuck in traffic, weary from our two-hour trek through the San Jacinto Mountains. A strange exhilaration filters through the dusty air.

To our left, four girls in cutoff jeans shotgun bagged wine in gleeful gulps outside of their car, attempting drunken cartwheels in the grass. To our right, a group of friends relax atop their S.U.V., whose filthy condition and Michigan license plates indicate one very long road trip.

These revelers greet each other not with a nod of the head, but with a battle cry that echoes throughout the campground, one that can be whooped or whispered:

“COACHELLAAAAAA!”

That’s right, I braved the world’s strangest summer camp this weekend, and one striated sunburn (which I’ll come to), five drug solicitations, and countless PB&J’s later, am back, thankfully, in the KPBS cubicle to share my three-day time in the sun with the rest of y’all.

As the festival’s largest year to date, more than 75,000 attendees packed the sold-out fields of the Empire Polo Club, and I’d guesstimate about half of those infiltrated the campgrounds, which also sold out.

The result? Three-hour shower lines, all-night dance parties, and a survivalist sense of bonding with our neighbors: an HIV researcher from Boston named James, two men from Oakland with permanent Raiders jerseys, a group of college students from the valley and even a few Australians. We shared the shade (our car-to-car camping situation made for some seriously cool blanket forts), beer, and breathless recaps of the day’s entertainment.

As a Coachella newbie, I will say it was pretty cruel to choose between set lists, but personal favorites included Jonsi (the brilliant lead singer of Sigur Ros), Passion Pit, and, of course, the inimitable Shawn Corey Carter – Jay-Z, for all of you who can’t bounce with me.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros were pretty amazing as well, and Zooey Deschanel (of She & Him) can totally hold it down vocally. We even popped into the Sahara Tent for a mini-rave from Kaskade, whose electric feel totally topped that of neighboring MGMT (or so I hear).

If you read my post last week, you know I have an unwavering adoration for black tights, 100-degree heat be damned. But by Day 3, I was ready to ball them up into the back of my suitcase – their polka-dotted stripes, which seemed adorable at the time, etched a creepy rash-like sunburn across my legs that I’m still itching at as I type. All in the name of fashion, right?

Speaking of, the crowd was decidedly Barney’s meets Barnum and Bailey's. The people watching alone was worth the $300 entry fee (well, almost). Denim cutoffs, fanny packs and wide-brimmed sunhats were de rigueur, along with the requisite presence of, um, free spirits (see photo gallery for more).

I even spotted Anne Hathaway under a black hat in the beer garden, relaxing with her boyfriend right there on the grass. Others I missed, though I wish I hadn’t: True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard (with new squeeze Kate Bosworth), Dita von Teese, and Beyonce, who swayed along with Jay-Z to The xx’s performance.

But as magical as the weekend was, its defining moment for me came while waiting in line on the first day. As we readied ourselves for the security check, a shirtless teenager sprinted past the gate. Lost in the vast anonymity of the polo field, he was home free. We all cheered. And he looked so happy.

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