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Phish crowds overwhelmed Vermont highways in 2004. How is the state preparing for eclipse traffic?

Cars are parked alongside an interstate highway. People are walking down the road carrying jugs of water, bags, camping supplies and other items
Todd Levy
/
Courtesy
The traffic getting to Phish's 2004 concerts in Coventry got so bad that people parked on Interstate 91.

When the band Phish held a weekend of concerts in the Northeast Kingdom about 20 years ago, the traffic got so bad that people parked on Interstate 91, and the band asked its fans to turn around and go home.

Vermont could get more than 100,000 visitors next month for the total solar eclipse, and state officials are hoping for a much better outcome.

On Aug. 14 and 15, 2004, Phish held what they said was going to be their final concerts ever, in the tiny Orleans County town of Coventry.

More from the Vermont Public archive: Phish wraps up its last ever concert in Coventry

The band had been together for about 20 years, and these final shows were billed as a once-in-a-lifetime event, kind of like a total solar eclipse; it was something that if you missed it, it wasn’t going to come around again.

Coventry had about 1,000 residents at the time, and an estimated 68,000 showed up for the concerts.

And as Matt Maxwell remembers, things did not go as planned.

“You had people wandering all over the Northeast Kingdom, coming down from the highways on foot, and, you know, trying to get here to this farm,” said Maxwell, whose family runs a dairy farm that rented out a portion of its land to the band for the festival. “So, yeah, it did not go well.”

A man stands on snowy land with a building in the background
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
Matt Maxwell stands on his family's farm in Coventry. The land behind Maxwell was rented out to Phish for the 2004 two-day music festival.

The plan, as Maxwell remembers it, was to use some of the surrounding fields for parking.

But Vermont got pounded by a tropical storm in the days leading up to the event, and the fields were a muddy mess.

Even before the band hit the stage Saturday night, there was nowhere to put the cars.

Traffic backed up 30 miles on I-91, and Maxwell says a lot of the Phish fans abandoned their vehicles on the highway and walked in to see the shows.

“You know you had cars coming from all over the country,” he said. “You know people that live in Vermont — I mean they know what it’s like to drive in mud, and, they’ll have the right kind of vehicle and the right kind of tires. Some of those people, they’ve only driven on tar their whole lives, so they don’t know what it’s like in a, sort of a, county setting when you’re driving on mud and wet grass, and stuff like that.”

More from Brave Little State: Why do people like Phish? A guide for the uninitiated

Judi Hussey was at the show, and she still lives in Coventry.

She says it wasn’t just the band’s music that left an impression on her town.

The traffic. The mud. The crowds. It’s something that’s a part of Coventry’s identity at this point.

“The traffic was lined up 91. Yeah, it was an adventure,” Hussey said. “It was exciting. It was something we still speak about years later.”

"Some of those people, they’ve only driven on tar their whole lives, so they don’t know what it’s like in a, sort of a, county setting when you’re driving on mud and wet grass, and stuff like that.”
Matt Maxwell - Coventry resident

Coventry is in the path of the total solar eclipse, and the viewing in town will be as good as anywhere else in northern Vermont.

It probably won’t be Phish’s-final-concert-busy, but there could be some traffic as folks make their way to Jay Peak or other advertised public viewing sites.

Hussey says she’s got her glasses and will watch from home. She’s not concerned about the traffic and crowds this time.

“No, I’m not worried about it,” said Hussey. “Hey, we handled Phish. We can handle the eclipse.”

The upcoming total solar eclipse is happening April 8, and it could be muddy again here in Vermont.

Or we could have snow and ice on the back roads as thousands of out-of-state visitors try to get to their solar eclipse watching sites.

More from Vermont Public: Eclipse-watchers urged to stay off muddy trails, mountains

Eric Forand, director of Vermont Emergency Management, says the state is doing its best to prepare for all of it.

“Yes, it’s a significant event,” Forand said. “Everyone in the past seems to equate it to the Phish event in Coventry where cars got abandoned. So it’s not that, because it’s not a specific one site. But there is the potential that if individuals weren’t prepared enough, and they were on the highway when this thing happens, that they stop their cars and get out and look. You know, that’s dangerous, so we’re just trying to ensure public safety, and they have a plan for what’s going to happen so they don’t get in any trouble.”

Forand says there’s been a lot of planning among local and state law enforcement and transportation departments, and some towns are taking part in biweekly preparation meetings.

The state will open the Emergency Operations Center on eclipse day to coordinate the response.

And Forand says that while a lot of planning is going into the time leading up to the celestial event, the big test will come when the eclipse is over, and everyone tries to get back on the highway and head home.

Because, Forand says, Vermont wasn’t really made for this.

“There was no expectation when [Interstates] 89 and 91 were built to have 150,000 in one day on it, so there will be some backups,” he said.

“It’s nice to experience those types of moments with the people around you that you care about. You know, I was at the festival with a bunch of friends; I’ll be at the eclipse with, you know, my husband and my kids, and, it’ll be nice.”
Cristina Maddocks - Manchester resident

Cristina Maddocks, who now lives in Manchester, remembers the Coventry Phish show fondly.

The 10-hour traffic wait. The mud. The bittersweet realization that you were living through history, and seeing something you’d never see again.

All of it brings back sweet memories of a simpler time in her life.

“I was 21. I had just graduated college. I was psyched,” Maddocks said. “I was really looking forward to it, and, of course, thinking, yeah, it’s going to be this monumental thing, this one final festival. And, so there was that, like, holding your breath kind of moment.”

An aerial photo shows thousands of fans gathered at a music festival in the middle of a field in Vermont.
JON PIERRE LASSEIGNE/AP
/
AP
Phish fans converged in the Northeast Kingdom town of Coventry for what was billed as the band's final festival.

She still sees Phish occasionally, though life has changed.

She’s got three kids now. A professional job. A home.

Maddocks says she’ll avoid the crowds and possible traffic jams this time around.

She’ll be watching the eclipse with her family from their backyard.

“It’s nice to experience those types of moments with the people around you that you care about,” said Maddocks. “You know, I was at the festival with a bunch of friends; I’ll be at the eclipse with, you know, my husband and my kids, and, it’ll be nice.”

So if you want to experience the eclipse on April 8, you won’t need a festival ticket, but make a plan.

Figure out where you want to be. Get there early, and get a hold of some eclipse glasses.

And have a good show.

Find a map of the eclipse path and all of Vermont Public's eclipse coverage here.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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More eclipse resources

See all of Vermont Public's 2024 eclipse coverage.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.