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Travelogue 16: Summer Solstice at Stonehenge (final 2002 travelogue)

On June 20th at 6pm I took a taxi from the Salisbury train station out to the rolling green hills and the 5,000-year-old Stonehenge monument. The traffic stretched to the horizon, so I got out and walked the last 1.5 miles to the stone circle. Before meeting the first of 3 police checkpoints, I met two Japanese girls studying English here; they came tonight out of curiosity for the great human gathering. We arrived at 6:30pm to find an amazing site before us: the stone circle was accessible to all, the fencing normally in place had been removed and as we were among the first visitors we went right up to them and touched them and walked among the tall ancient magnificent stones. I could tell immediately that it would be quite an exciting night, the stream of cars, many painted or decorated was coming slowly in from all directions to the far parking lot, and mirroring this was the interesting mix of people, mostly blatantly dressed as hippies or punks or new-agers. The Japanese girls were comfortable to sit it out, and kindly saved me a seat all night, so I could go out, mingle, photograph, and return as I pleased.

By sunset both inner and outer stone circles were full of people, and the surrounding grassy banks were also lightly peppered with over 2,000 onlookers. People began drinking and eating while the sky, overcast, darkened. The police supposedly allowed 'only a reasonable amount of alcohol' per person, but inside the monument a rip-roaring all-night party was underway. There were drums circles in the center, people smoking pot, drinking, and dancing. In some cases it seemed respectable, they hugged the stones and smoked a joint, acting like nature lovers. Other times it just seemed sad, like the beer guzzling young parents whose loitering children didn't seem like they quite belonged.

Nevertheless it all sort of worked out. Families, the old, the young, the foreigners, the locals - so many people forming an organic whole, moving and pulsing in differing degrees to the natural energy and earthy rhythm set by the stones and drums. I really enjoyed watching. I felt at time like an outsider visiting a fantastic human zoo, it looked like a Breughel or Bosch painting. Everyone was moving and there was so much frenetic activity, surmounted by quiet stones and a dusky sky. The vision bordered on psychedelic. If you stayed still it seemed surreal, and when you joined in it felt primal.

As the evening wore on I shot two rolls of high-speed b&w film and meditated with my back supported on a huge ancient standing stone. It was a powerful and magical meditation. I transcended the drunkenness around me and fell through the vibrating surface waves of the drum beat into an inner silence. Despite being clearly seated with eyes closed I got offered drugs, stepped on, shouted at, begged for money, lovingly patted on the head, called 'cute', and photographed.

The best thing about the revelry was that so people were blissful. I do not know how much was drug-induced, but everyone was high including me, and I did not drink or smoke anything. This is what effect such a human gathering can have on you. By the time the sun would rise in only 3 more hours (it was 2 am) the energy was grandiose. The head count was over 20,000 I found out the next day. Between 2 and 5am the activities included parading torch circles, marching flag bearers, chanting, dancing, praying, and every variety of anticipatory partying imaginable.

The event was a 'happening' an unstoppable 'occurrence.' Everyone was celebrating their own place in nature, relating personally to a 5,000-year-old monument to the Earth & Sun. We were both reveling in the visceral present, and celebrating the eternal.

All night the stones were bathed in an eerie but beautiful blue-green light cast by 4 police-operated cinema-set-quality lighting rigs. At 4:30 am they were turned off. The stones lost their illuminated glow and became a cold silent witness to the holy event unfolding: all could feel the suns imminent arrival. The blue-black sky had become a lovely velvety indigo. Unfortunately it had become obvious that the overcast and foggy nature of the weather would hide the sun itself, but the pleasant atmosphere never wavered.

The drums did not cease for over 10 hours, but the energy was always shifting. Now the dancers and moving masses of humanity began to shuffle more, the excitement built up to the point at which I was standing atop a fallen stone, above the mass of people, watching the heel stone to the east that marks exactly where the sun rises on this one day. The light grey horizon hid the coming sun, but everyone could feel its slow arrival in the surrounding humanity. The hesitant pressure was dense, like the calm before a storm, like a breath held too long.

Then at precisely 4:50am the sky opened a little, and to celebrate the solstice began a light rain that felt like a blessing from nature to compensate for the cloud-hidden darshan of the sun. We were drizzled with holy water at the crack of dawn on the longest day of the year. This date has marked a calendrical transition since time immemorial. From this date forward the sun gets lower, the days shorter, the cold short days of winter are both at their most distant, but also within countable proximity until the winter solstice when the sun, like a pendulum, swings back for the next six months from its most distant toward the summer solstice, its northern hemispherical zenith.

The weather and exhaustion sent away many spectators. By 7:30 am there was less than a thousand souls left celebrating and it began to feel like a close-knit community again. I climbed upon the one large fallen standing stone in the inner circle of the stones and danced for an hour with others who didn't want the day and event to end. We watched (and I photographed) the amazing assortment of individuals left dancing and playing in the vivid, colorful mass of humanity surrounding the few remaining drummers, contrasting to the backdrop of ancient standing monumental stones. I could feel the Earths' energy around and in me. I kept remembering that this is the one time, annually, when these stones are touched, made alive, and held to witness crazy animalistic human activities.

One older man, quite skinny, maybe in his 50's, Irish, was dancing on a pedestal in the center of everyone. He was quite a character: shirt off, clapping and cheering everyone to continue dancing. Earlier I was lucky enough to miss his nude dance. I also saw such notable characters as the Beer-Muted-Saxophonist, The topless girls, the white-robed 'druids', the faerie woman on stilts, and the man with 8 foot long dreadlocks, which he stuffed in his pocket to keep from dragging. It was an amazing opportunity for people watching, photographing, nature appreciation, spirituality, dancing, drumming, singing, and just living! However there was not, as I had hoped for, any 'real' druids practicing rituals or in any way religious. I later found out they donŐt like the crowds and have taken to practicing rituals and celebrating in peace at another ancient, but smaller stone circle nearby.

The day ended when a peaceful brigade of 40 police cleared out the area. I was sad to leave, but also tired and hungry. The saddest thing was to see cigarette butts and beer cans crushed into nooks and crannies in the stone circles, and discarded clothes and other things strewn about. I felt like a witness to disrespect. The silver lining was that many people were cleaning, picking up garbage and taking it with them, but it didn't fix it all...

The rest of my time in London pales in comparison to that evening and day. Soon I have to fly home and register for classes and get back into the swing of responsibility.

My energy is gone, but my soul is strong, and I think the most important lesson I learned in the past 6 months is to be happy and 'bloom wherever I am planted'. You who know me well must certainly classify me as an optimist, generally happy, but I also like security and comfort. I learned these past months to be happy in both dirty and clean cities, beaches and deserts, mountains and glaciers, apartments in London, and dirty hostels in India. I have been happy and comfortable everywhere. And I would like to think that I will always be happy. From these 5 months of travel I now know more about the world and myself than I ever thought I would.