The train ride had gone smoothly, the countryside was postcard picturesque and nightfall was still hours away.
My friends and I strode giddily through the pasture on this last day of spring before finding the rest of our group camped out in a prime spot. We added our blankets to the spread and barely even noticed the misty drizzle that would soon haunt us throughout the deceptively long night.
It helped that the stones were majestic.
For years my dad has enjoyed rubbing it in the face of just about everyone in my family that he went to Stonehenge back when people could actually go up and touch the stones. But there I was, with some of my fellow British Bulldogs and even a few Yalies in London, on the eve of the summer solstice: winding my way through stones, touching stones, standing on stones.
Joining the growing mass of “pilgrims,” we scoped out the situation, and, of course, took plenty of pictures among the more than 5000-year-old circle of stones, opened exclusively for the occasion.
As we soaked in the magic, we found ourselves among plenty of other student-age people. Many were from England, though plenty came from other Anglophone areas: According to one Englishman I met, Americans only seem to care about visiting London and Stonehenge, and here I was.
There were also quite a few seasoned veterans of the solstice, though these probably did not include the bewildered-looking elderly backpackers. Rather, the veterans were often those leading the charge of the assorted neo-druids and general hippie types.
As one woman wrapped in red fabric and adorned with beads “seeped energy” from the ancient stones, a few people with long beards and wearing furs wandered and sometimes even danced between the pillars. Dreadlocks — though perhaps not associated with the druids who first put up the stones more than 5000 years ago — were plentiful.
“This is the oldest dance club on Earth!” one of my companions observed as we wound our way into the inner circle of stones.
Not that this night was shaping up to resemble an ordinary night out. After all, ordinary parties only rarely feature scattered groups of meditators.
The bongos, which formed the focal points within the circle, were beginning to reach the height of their frantic yet sustained rhythm. This beat provided the immediate fuel for the crowded, bobbing dancing also found at times in some of London’s more modern clubs. As with nights out at those venues, the adventure in Stonehenge was smoothed for my friends and me with improvised concoctions involving hard cider (Strongbow) and vodka, though this time in a sports bottle.
Still, even with “VodBow” and a fresh coat of neon-yellow face paint (graciously provided by a batch of vaguely punkish English teenagers), the Yale group would slowly begin to fade.
The combination of cold and rain, neither of which boded well for a clear sunrise, certainly did not help. Without a clear sunrise, we would surely miss the alignment of shadows that had made the site so famous in the first place.
Yet even as I huddled with a few friends and more strangers around a propane fire, I could not help but marvel at the situation.
All around and within the circle were 28,000 people huddling for warmth, dancing madly — possibly also for warmth, as I did when I rejoined — queuing for the port-a-potties or just mingling. And for what? A sunrise.
Well, that sunrise never came. The sun did rise, but besides a gradual lightening of the clouds masking the sky, there was not much to see. The highlight at that point was probably the tight coil of people meditating right in front of me.
“They pray to the yoga gods,” one particularly wobbly passer-by noted to anyone within earshot.
Within minutes, though, attention was diverted by a few large men carrying a couple of pikes with antlers and cutouts of the sun on their tops to the center of the circle. The dance party within erupted into even greater volume.
But we were cold and wet and tired and dirty, and so was all of our stuff. It was time to go back “home” to London, though one guy did end up in Edinburgh with a few Australians instead.
Since that night, my companions from that trip like to refer to Summer Solstice 2008 as an “experience” — worth it but not one to be repeated.
Still, I just can’t think of a better way to celebrate an otherwise seemingly ordinary event. It is just a sunrise, after all, and I missed it.