Night of the Living Heads

Wednesday, December 29, 1:10 p.m.

I spot the first obvious Phish fan in an aging Volvo with Quebec plates and a dancing bear sticker on the bumper just past the I-595/I-75 split. The car, smeared with road salt, is occupied by four young gentlemen in sweatshirts sporting serious car hair, the kind you get from sleeping in your Volvo for 36 hours with your face mashed up against the glass and your buddy's leg across your lap. The four probably share space with supplies needed to sustain life in a cow pasture for four days: blankets, cooler, lawn chairs, Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos, Bud, Marlboro Lights. I can almost smell the dirty socks from the passing lane.

At the toll booth that marks the eastern boundary of Alligator Alley, workers are waving everyone through. No charge today. A little gift from the State of Florida. "Happy New Year," says a booth worker.

This turns out to be a challenge as much as a wish. Ten miles past the booth, traffic comes to a dead stop. As in, Put it in park and get out and take a stroll. People pile out of their cars, light cigarettes, and climb on the hood. A woman behind me grabs a guitar out of her white Chevy Blazer and butchers a Dylan tune while on the roof of her truck. The driver of a blue semi parked in the right lane shrugs his shoulders and laughs. "I'm just trying to get to New Orleans," he says. He has no idea what's going on. When I tell him, he gets on the CB to relay the news to a good buddy frozen in traffic five miles farther west. "Hey, man, looks like some band named Phish is playing, supposed to be 100,000 people, three days long, like a Woodstock thing."

The comparison is understandable. Any time thousands of people gather in a field to live in polyester Hoovervilles and listen to overamplified music that doesn't translate well outdoors 300 rows back, someone is sure to label the gathering "the next Woodstock." It's a reflex born of media saturation about that storied, muddy event. "Woodstock" long ago became cultural shorthand for "enormous, generation-defining, multiday rock concert."

Of course the fact that Phish fans have a tendency to ape the '60s, right down to tie-dye and a fondness for bongos, only adds fuel to the fire. And damned if this thing doesn't kinda look like Woodstock did in the movie, too. It's big, lasts a long time, and is packed with more freaks than anyone knew existed, outside of Berkeley.

Any similarity, however, is merely skin deep. Nothing important is happening out here in the swamp, unless you consider inhaling nitrous oxide, drinking champagne, and rolling on X at the same time important. And many thousands apparently do. Phish offers its fans all the drugs and degeneracy of Woodstock without that tiresome stuff about civil rights, politics, and the war machine. In that sense what's happening here is a fitting metaphor for a jaded age in which nothing is shocking and even the counterculture is a rerun.

There's also a lot of money at stake -- 80,000 campers paying $150 each equals big bucks. Especially for a band that sells itself by not selling itself out.

Under a cobalt blue sky on a 66-degree day near the end of the millennium in the vast stretches of Alligator Alley, however, lack of substance just doesn't matter. There's a palpable sense that this could be the thing everyone will be talking about in 30 years. Nobody wants to miss out on that.

But after five hours of sitting in stalled traffic, my own sense of adventure has ebbed. When a hackey sack game breaks out in the fast lane, I know it's time to head back to Fort Lauderdale and try again tomorrow. That's one advantage of being a local. I pull a U-turn through the median right in front of a Florida Highway Patrol cruiser. The cop doesn't bat an eye.

The eastbound lane is clear and affords a sobering view of what has to be the most psychedelic tie-up ever in South Florida. A few miles east, traffic snarls behind a smashed Chrysler minivan. Ambulance crews are working to put the occupants on stretchers.

Thursday, December 30, 3 p.m.

It's a safe bet that most of the people who paid $150 to get into this concert are temp slaves stretching their budgets to be here and don't want to miss a note. So they should already be in by now. At least that's my rationale for waiting until late Thursday afternoon to brave the Alley again. And I'm more or less correct. This time traffic backs up about five miles before Snake Road, a breezy, three-hour delay.