Remember the Tripping Fields, that spacious, California-shaped tract of somewhat swampy multipurpose grassland at the southern tip of the SUNY-New Paltz campus, probing into the lower Moriello Orchards? Even my mother, who moved here in 1962 – well before the activism/hedonism of the counterculture redesigned her quaint little Huguenot town – called them the Tripping Fields. I don’t think she knows what “tripping” means. She probably imagined that it had something to do spring, youth, meadows, daisies and free time. She was right.
Spring Weekends were held there: two-day rock concerts featuring a panoply of surprisingly big names, afforded by the Student Association’s mandatory fees and justified by an assumed homogeneity of taste that has since been rightfully redressed. I don’t have the data to back this up, but I seem to recall that, at the peak of the Spring Weekend era, the crowds at these concerts were more than double the student population of the college.
In my youth, before my own college years elsewhere, I attended a bunch of Spring Weekends. I remember: mud, mostly, cities of mud; but also hippies packed like salted fish onto a tract of land that was (actually, not kidding) a single long golf hole, with a green, a bunker and a pin. As if in orchestrated cultural counterpoint, along the forested eastern fringe of the Tripping Fields hid the opposite of golf, the exemplary communal village of the long-defunct Environmental Studies Program: some A-frames circled around organic gardens, one high-tech solar house that always seemed to be in progress, a single-residence grotto like an aquarium tank embedded in the side of a hill. I looked for the grotto for years, and couldn’t verify its reality until I met a man who claimed to have lived there. It’s all gone now.
Just as Spring Weekend attracted thousands of non-students, the Environmental Studies Site, if I recall correctly, had some issues with casually matriculated squatters. This was a different New Paltz, well before the academic rehab that may well have spelled the end for innovative studies and, indeed, for the classic Spring Weekend itself. Perhaps, in the ’70s and into the ’80s, academic standards were low and the students were high; but in a timeless paradox, lax standards sometimes encourage a kind of imagination and autonomy that high standards can squeeze right out of you.
I didn’t actually see a lot of great shows in the tripping fields: the Waitresses, Gary US Bonds, a Pure Prairie League side project and, in one year in the gymnasium, after the field shows had been prohibited, They Might Be Giants, Michelle Shocked and Tribe Called Quest. But the legendary student-run Jedi Productions booked excellent gymnasium and theater rock shows year-’round, so there was no shortage of big-name talent passing through.
Many veterans of those days rue the passing of New Paltz as a tour destination. Even though I remain a working rock guitarist, I am no rockist True Believer. Monolithic guitar-rock did not fairly represent the diversity of the SUNY-New Paltz studentry. That SA budget should have been more fairly distributed to a variety of student-initiated programming, and ultimately it was, moving the SA beyond what my friend Mark Aldrich once called “the great melting-pot rainbow of white.”
So I don’t rue the rock, but I do miss the idyll of Spring Weekends. As the licenses of the ’60s gave way to the ’80s’ attempt to restore the academic sobriety of the institution, the administration may have grown less comfortable with allowing students that kind of free rein and access to facilities. From the perspective of the Sudbury educational model, Spring Weekends exemplify learning at its very best: students working without adult interference or the need for external validation, initiating and organizing themselves and using real money to make real things happen. From an administrative perspective, it is not hard to understand some reluctance. Rock concerts are chaos unleashed. New Paltz’s reputation as a vigorous party school was not an academic asset, and Spring Weekend had become its flagship ritual, when the loonies ran the bin.
Baby-Boomers and vets of the culture wars like to remember an era of free love, pre-HIV, before sex was all second-guessing and actualized Freudian nightmares. Me, I wax nostalgic about the pre-Lyme era of fields and long grasses, the days of hill-rolling and copse-traipsing, gone forever. Spring was long, meadows weren’t poisoned and everyone loved guitars.