Big Cypress to MSG: 20 years On the Train with Phish

20 years ago I was only casually familiar with the band Phish. I was 20 years old and dating someone who had attended a few shows. Living in the South, having Phish in your neck of the woods doesn’t occur often. Not that I knew that then, but it certainly explains how I wasn’t turned on to them sooner.

December 1999, then boyfriend (John) offered for my friend (Sara) and I to attend Big Cypress with him. He explained it was a music festival in the middle of the Everglades that was hosted and performed exclusively by Phish. He told us he’d won the tickets in the lottery (PTBM). Slightly confused and intrigued, we both said yes. If you remember 1999, we had been told that potentially the end of the world was among us; that computers wouldn’t be able to update and banks could lose all of their money.

The Traffic.

It was Y2K and the world was filled with uncertainty and a bit of chaos. Regardless of that, 75,000+ people decided the best option was to “follow the lines going south” and descend upon the Big Cypress Indian Reservation. As we prepped to leave Jacksonville and head to the Everglades, we had only our basics­­ – and looking back they were very basic. We cruised down I-95 and turned on to Alligator Alley, stopped at the gas station to fill up and grab a few things. Little did we know how important that decision would be.

Currently we live in a world filled with technology, but this was 1999. There were no smart phones, satellite radio, google on your phone, or Waze to guide you. We utilized paper maps, atlases and speaking with strangers to serve as navigation. As we drove down Alligator Alley we came to a stop and saw large construction signs telling us to “stay in the right lane, the left lane is for passing.” What should have been a six-hour car ride turned into an 18-hour event all by itself. If you are unfamiliar with the Everglades or Alligator Alley – especially 20 years ago – when the sun set, there were no streetlights, no gas stations, and no way to turn around.

With no other options, we sat in the right lane, barely moving, with thousands of other cars. At some point, the side of the road became a party – an event entirely to itself. We walked along meeting others, sharing traveling stories and playing frisbee. Some grilled out and shared their food. We made drinks, threw footballs and made the best out a situation that was out of our control.

Phish Big Cypress
Atmosphere during Phish In Concert New Year’s Eve – December 31, 1999 at Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in Big Cypress, Florida, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

Arriving to Big Cypress

We finally reached the campground as the sun was rising. The land was so beautiful and breathtaking it was quickly forgotten what we had all been through to get there. In complete awe (and ready to be out of the car) we took off exploring. We stumbled a upon a “city” of sorts, complete with a boardwalk, a Ferris wheel, a drum circle buried in the woods, art installations, and entertainment village. It was so much for my 20-year-old brain to take in.

Big Cypress Boardwalk
Big Cypress Boardwalk

The foundation for the weekend was laid when Chief Jim Billie (of the Seminole Tribe of Florida) joined Phish to gently remind us to have fun on their land, but to respect it and remember that we are in the woods amongst panthers, alligators and snakes. He impressed upon us that this was sacred land, his native peoples’ land, and that we were merely visitors.

Although there was roughly a one-hour set played on 12/29/1999, the shows truly began on 12/30/1999. Beginning with “Water in the Sky”, the show lasted almost five hours, included 34 songs, and introduced me to what are still some of my favorite jams today. As a first timer and someone who loves to dance, I remember looking around and feeling the energy permeating through the crowd. You could feel it in your soul – THIS was something special. I didn’t know what, but I knew there was no place I would rather be.

One of the things that Big Cypress is known for to this day is the New Year’s Eve show, or the Midnight set as it was called. Later I learned that the band was so dedicated to ensuring that they played all night they hired security and had porta-potties on the stage so that they couldn’t “wimp out” as Trey Anastasio has said. As a Floridian, going to see DJs that didn’t start until late, and ended when the sun came up was nothing new…but a band!? That was unheard of. It was during this set that I got “it.” Around 11:30pm, Father Time was riding his bike and ticking away the 1900’s until he collapsed in exhaustion. A boat began to fly over the crowd only to breakaway into a giant hot dog carrying the band to the stage. They took to the stage, opened with “Runaway Jim” and we were certainly off to the races.

The Prank heard “almost” around the world

After a few songs, Trey announced that Peter Jennings and ABC World News were filming video clips of different NYE events occurring around the world. He gave us a gentle heads up that the lights would be turning on, the large screens would change – basically, an “it’s ok, don’t freak out.” What happened next I now know to be quintessential Phish. The band wanted to pull a prank, on who? The whole damn world. Trey tells us they are going to play a song called “Heavy Things” but instead of clapping, he wants everyone to chant “cheesecake, cheesecake, cheesecake.” He has us practice. After we go over it, he changes his mind to have us just say it once. Say “CHEESECAKE” and “say it like you’re pissed.” For me, that was it. I was in. I was hopelessly in love with the band, the community and the energy. I knew nothing other than I needed more. SO. MUCH. MORE.

NYE 1999

As that seven plus hour set came to a close, “Here Comes the Sun” played over the speakers as we all found our way back to our respective camps. I begged my exhausted friends to sit in the field and watch the sun rise over the Everglades while The Beatles tune played in sync with Mother Nature. As we sat, and others joined us, I looked around and saw everyone smiling from ear to ear; exhausted – but very deep in thought – on what was now New Year’s Day of 2000. All of us a little curious of what if anything had occurred outside of this Indian Reservation. In that moment we realized we had been living in an incubator situation and had no idea what we would be going home to. Its hard to imagine for those that did not live it but the uncertainty was all to real for those who were there.

For an event that occurred 20 years ago, the memories are forever engrained in my brain like they occurred just last week, and have truly altered my future. I believe that is true for almost every person who attended Big Cypress. However, what none of us knew then was that we would become what is known as 1.0ers – marking our period of time with Phish who would soon go on hiatus.

And we still Phish

As I sit here writing this, now 20 years and countless shows later I am eagerly awaiting tonight’s show at Madison Square Garden. Filled with immense joy that this band has brought to me and the countless friends it has directly placed into my life. What I didn’t know then was Goo Balls can be considered breakfast, lunch and dinner. Patches of fabric sown together can serve as some of the best clothing for a show. Message boards and sidewalk chalk to find your friends are a lost art in my opinion. Trading tapes was the stuff dreams were made of and you were proud of your collection. I also didn’t know that my friend could have a knife, birds of a feather are flocking outside but I do know that I am gone and I’ll never look back at all.

I always love to hear your thoughts!

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