The Evolution Of Coachella’s Campgrounds


Campers, start your engines! (Credit: Chris Victorio)

It’s Saturday, May 1, 2004, and the desert heat is comparable to Dante’s eighth ring of hell. But the Pixies, Kraftwerk, Hieroglyphics, LCD Soundsystem, (old school) Black Keys and Living Legends played day one of Coachella, so it almost doesn’t matter. Radiohead closed out the main stage leaving those who witnessed the magic in awe, herding back to the campgrounds to ride out the high.

’04 was the second year camping was permitted, changing the entire dynamic of the festival. Coachella evolved. It was more than just music—it offered an inclusive experience encouraging attendees to revel in the rawness of fandom. Although incomparable to Burning Man, ‘Chella camping was its own microcosm of myth and lore. People walked around naked. Mushrooms were traded for food and/or water. Music blared. No one slept. It was a good ‘ol fashion party, and it didn’t take long for people to catch on.

On Sunday in 2007, a riot broke out in the campground after Rage Against The Machine closed out the festival. In the depths of the Coachella forum, multiple attendees reported helicopters flying above the grounds, SWAT swarming the area and a tazing. “The cops came in and then formed some kind of wall, I guess to try and threaten us,” said OnlyNonStranger, a Coachella forum member who posted on a camping thread back in ‘09. “Oh and did I mention that some dude got tazed? Yeah, I saw it happen from 15 feet away. It was fucking gnarly.”

By 2008 the campgrounds were heavily patrolled by police from Banning to Indio and every department in between. The festival also implemented a 2 a.m. curfew. But the increased enforcement and bed-time hours still didn’t stop attendees from raging their faces off. “Don’t worry about the curfew, it’s a party all the time,” said SFX Monger on a Coachella camping forum thread titled Sex In Camping Zones”, explaining to a first-timer that the rules were essentially just there as guidelines. “Just because speed limit is 65 doesn’t mean you’re physically unable to drive faster, duh.” 

On Friday during weekend two in 2014, I went looking for a friend who took 10-hits of LSD. Of course, service was non-existent, but even if it were, he wouldn’t have been able to use his phone. Earlier in the day he showed me where his tent was, (thankfully) and I managed to make it back there. But I hadn’t seen him in hours. He was gone. OutKast already closed out the evening and the masses were flocking back to the campgrounds. People were throwing rolls of toilet paper across the aisle ways. Music thumped and lasers beamed. People rolled on the ground scream-laughing like hyenas.

Eventually, I found my friend stumbling out of a random tent with a lit cigarette he waved around like a conductor’s baton. He made a new group of friends, who sent him on his way with 4 Sierra Nevadas, two cigarettes and a bag of tootsie pops. There were no cops in sight. It was about 2 a.m. and most everyone in the campground was awake. “These campgrounds are as tame as Mantecore the tiger,” my friend yelled, the cherry on his cigarette the size of a pencil. “You should’ve seen this place in 2004, 2005, 2006. Everyone’s a rookie.” The tiger reference lost me. I had no idea what he was talking about and just nodded my head. What he said was actually hilarious, though, because Mantecore is the tiger that attacked Roy during one of Siegfried and Roy’s performances. Ha.

Hello? Is there anybody in there? (photo by: Mary Carreon)

Fast forward to Coachella 2018 weekend-two and the campgrounds were shut down until Friday at 3 a.m. due to 40-mph winds. So everyone who paid and traveled from all over the world to camp at the festival early is S.O.L. According to the Coachella Reddit page (and the news), many of the Coachella campers who arrived early partied and slept in their campers, tents, and cars in the local Walmart parking lot.

“You have to earn your Coachella sometimes,” said Ryan Mervis to a channel 4 news reporter. “And sometimes that requires drinking a bunch of beers in a Walmart parking lot. You know, Walmart-chella.”

The City of La Quinta established areas for stranded campers to park and wait. “These are safe, well-lit areas that will accommodate campers and will have restroom facilities on-hand for use,” says Patty Arellano Ward in the Coachella Reddit page. 

Greg Baker, a Long Beach resident who’s camped at Coachella the last five years, tells us he got to the campgrounds at 1:30 a.m. but didn’t get through security and set up until 8:30 am on day one of the festival. “The people directing traffic on the streets kept telling us different ways to enter,” says Baker. “When we finally got into a definite line to enter [the campgrounds] we moved at a snail’s pace.”

Baker tells us that attendees were livid (and exhausted) trying to figure out how to get into the grounds, making for a very chaotic scene. The security guiding traffic didn’t have control of the situation, and at one point even disappeared causing the lines of cars to scramble. “There were tons of workers at the security checkpoint doing absolutely nothing standing around,” he says. “There were only about 4 workers directing everyone where to park for the car camping and three of them were just huddled in a circle joking around ignoring the cars. There was only one poor lady trying to direct cars everywhere.”

While waiting in line, Baker and his camping squad had to knock on people’s car windows to wake them up as they waited in line. “People passed out from exhaustion,” he says. “When the line finally started to move we had to wake them up to keep the line moving. All three of us have been to Coachella at least 5 times– almost entirely tent or car camping, and I’ve never seen it so disorganized and the workers so inept.”

So Coachella weekend-two campgrounds were a shitshow–and not the good kind. But even on Friday weekend-one, the campgrounds still weren’t a shitshow– good or bad. The OC Weekly crew romped around the camps to see what people (read: the kids) were up to. To our disappointment, nothing was happening. Everyone was tucked in their tents and nowhere to be seen. The desert crickets were louder than the campground. Although it’s possible everyone who was trying to party was at the silent disco, or the Turn Down Tent (both of which were lackluster this year), but neither of those areas were jam-packed, either.

Honestly, the campgrounds at Coachella are as tame as a college library on a Tuesday eve. Like much of Coachella, the campgrounds have evolved. No longer is it the nighttime after-party rage—it’s all about the daytime rage, which makes sense because on the most surface level, Coachella is a frat/sorority house wonderland.

I wandered into the campgrounds at 4 p.m. on Saturday to see if people were still tucked in and asleep (who knows, sleep-chella could be a trend?). The campgrounds were covered in squished Bud Light cans and turned over beer pong tables. Red solo cups were all strewn around cars and tents. One guy was yacking his brains out between the cars. His friend comes over to help him out. “Bro, are you okay?” he says to the barfing friend. “Bro, are you going to be okay?”

I walked past the guy blowing Bud Light chucks everywhere. No one was in the campground—just the skeletons of drinking games from hours past. I eventually found four guys playing an intense game of beer pong. I walked over to them and realized I could probably be their mom (if I was on the show 16 And Pregnant.). They asked if I want to play, to which I politely declined. “Where are you guys from,” I asked.

“Jersey,” said a guy named German, as he bounced the ball into his friend’s cup. “We just decided to go for it. We drove out Wednesday and just drove straight here, no stops. We got here really late on Thursday.”

They told me they were in college and had class on Monday night at 8 p.m. “We’re leaving right after Eminem on Sunday night and driving straight to class—without stopping.”

The Jersey Boys (Photo by: Mary Carreon)

Their dedication was admirable. They had a pipe filled with cannabis sitting in the middle of their beer pong table, which was inevitably getting splashed with beer foam. German told me that he’s the only one in his group who’s old enough to drink. But all of them had white Heineken wristbands to get into the beer gardens. “I’ve been sliding off my wristbands to give to my friends so we can all get into the beer garden,” he says, “because that’s what good friends do.”

One of the other guys at the table, Pierson, wasn’t just experiencing his first Coachella—he was attending his first festival ever. “I love music festivals,” he said. “This is how you know you’re living your best life.” We caught up with the guys post-festival to see if they made it to class on time. “We didn’t make it,” Pierson said. “But we can afford a few absences…We made no stops. I had to pee and was high the whole time.” 

Aside from the fact they didn’t know who David Byrne or the Talking Heads were, and were most excited to see Tyler the Creator and Post Malone, they were a really great version of who the majority is at Coachella. The generation below millennials doesn’t rage ‘till the sun comes up the way older-millennials and preceding generations do. They party right when they get up and are in bed by 12:30- 1 a.m. And maybe that’s the smarter way to do it. But the epic tales of vintage Coachella campground antics will forever echo through the highly patrolled rows of tents.

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