By Gabriella Borter
BETHEL, N.Y. (Reuters) - Baby boomers dressed in tie-dye, rolling wheelchairs and chasing a memory of peace and love flocked to Bethel, New York, for the weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the music festival that defined 1960s counterculture.
Thousands of flower-crowned visitors made the journey to the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which now owns the original festival site, to hear some of the same musicians including Arlo Guthrie, attend a planned Saturday concert by Santana, and feel the spirit of community that the 1969 festival produced.
"Even though I'm seeing the site 50 years later, I feel like I'm there at the first concert," said Peter Hadley, 63, who arrived on Thursday. "Everybody greets us, talks to us. It's the love that started back in '69 and it's present here, now."
Woodstock, which was held at Max Yasgur's dairy farm in upstate New York from Aug. 15-18 and featured about 30 acts, became a logistical nightmare when more than 400,000 people showed up, causing traffic gridlock for miles.
This weekend, in stark contrast to 1969, attendees found metal detectors, indoor plumbing and abundant food vendors at the Bethel Woods Center, which is hosting several concerts to mark the anniversary.
But those making the return trip said they had been unfazed by the chaos and unsanitary conditions in 1969, and instead remembered the kindness of locals, law enforcement and other concert-goers who offered food and medical aid.
"Everything that could go wrong went wrong. But everything went right," said Duke Devlin, 77, who hitchhiked to Woodstock from Texas and has lived near the festival venue ever since. "We were bombarded with bliss."
Arlene Seymour, 69, arrived for the weekend wearing the same tie-dye shirt she bought on her way to the 1969 concert. She fondly recalled sharing food with people she had just met and sleeping in the trunk of a stranger's car to avoid the rain.
"It just wouldn't happen like that today," she said. "Because of the environment in the world, people would be worried to have it so loose."
The anniversary attracted not just baby boomers. Younger people, dressed in throwback bell-bottoms and fringes, came to experience the atmosphere they missed in 1969.
Down the road from Bethel, a more informal reunion with music was taking place to mark the weekend in a style reminiscent of 50 years ago.
"You can still sense the love," said Michelle Lecuyer, a 53-year-old sales director from New Hampshire, who described standing on the field where rock legends like Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker and Janis Joplin performed as experiencing "a slice of heaven."
Previous Woodstock anniversaries have not fostered such harmony. People threw mud at performers at a rain-drenched Woodstock '94 in Saugerties, New York. A fire broke out at the 30th reunion in Rome, New York, and the event devolved into violence.
Last month, original Woodstock producer Michael Lang's plans for a 50th anniversary festival fell through when the organizers failed to secure a venue and headliners including Jay-Z and Miley Cyrus dropped out.
But the gray-haired crowds gathered in Bethel were determined to have peace. Ignoring the rain on Thursday and Friday and the omens of Woodstock reunions past, they held hands in a circle around a peace sign on the lawn, smoked blunts while singing along to Arlo Guthrie, and swayed to the rhythm of their generation.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; editing by Jill Serjeant and Richard Chang)