Many of the most crucial events of the 1960s—including the civil rights victories, antiwar protests, and the sweeping cultural revolution—left few physical traces. All but a handful of the decade's famous counterculture hangouts shuttered their doors long ago, and you won't find any monuments where major student uprisings took place. Sure, you can drive up to Woodstock to see where you once reveled in the mud, but there will be no public intoxication, tents, fires, or camping.
As the organizers of Woodstock 1994 and 1999 probably learned, that history can't be recreated. "What's celebrated about the Sixties are a couple of things," says Bryant Simon, a history professor at Temple University. "It was a moment when youth ruled, and, secondly, there was a certain kind of freedom of expression, of dance, of bodies. Getting high was sort of a third thing—there's a sort of sweetness to those memories. And it was a moment where it seemed that idealism ruled, a certain kind of wide-eyed, sweet, and tender idealism."
Maybe we can't go back, but it's still possible to capture the spirit of the decade by attending festivals like Bonnaroo, strolling through neighborhoods that invoke fond memories, and reliving landmark events through engaging exhibits.
On August 15, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts will observe the 40th anniversary of Woodstock with a concert featuring bands that performed at the original three-day festival, at the original site near Bethel, N.Y. The Museum at Bethel Woods—which is sold out Saturday—tells the Woodstock story through clips (some of which you can watch inside a replica of the Merry Pranksters' bus and others in an immersion theater), memorabilia, and a video booth where you can hear—or share—personal stories.
Former flower children who have returned to their old haunts have found many cornerstones of the counterculture movement "domesticated," as Thomas Sugrue, a University of Pennsylvania history and sociology professor, puts it. "A lot of these places have been remade by their own success, attracted more mainstream and corporate investors that changed the landscape of these places dramatically." Take the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, once a hippie mecca and the former stomping grounds of Sixties icons like the Grateful Dead and Joni Mitchell. "There are still music shops and radical bookstores and places that sell tie-dyed T-shirts and marijuana paraphernalia," says Sugrue, who teaches a course on America in the Sixties. "But there's also a Starbuck's. Berkeley's very similar. So much of it has been gentrified because of escalating real estate prices." But as long as you don't let the Gap harsh your mellow, a stroll down Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue may bring back fond memories.
Another major crossroad for free spirits, New York, still has some remnants of the decade—such as the Chelsea Hotel, which hosted many writers and musicians, including longtime resident Bob Dylan. But the bohemian vibe of neighborhoods like Greenwich Village has waned (many say it's long gone). Still, musicians play in Washington Square Park on warm afternoons, and the people-watching is excellent. You may even see some tie-dye.
Elements of the Sixties ethos still linger in college towns such as Ann Arbor, Mich., and Madison, Wis., because of their mix of students and idealists. "One remnant is in Ann Arbor at the Hash Bash where people smoke marijuana publicly," Sugrue says. "It's a re-enactment of a certain element of the Sixties . . . so you do find in college towns more self-consciousness about the role of 1960s and, on occasion, attempts to relive that moment."
Summer music concerts and festivals are an obvious place people attempt to recreate the music—and feel—of the Sixties. Expand your mind beyond Sixties touring acts and experience a new generation of free-thinking artists at festivals like All Good in Masontown, W.Va., the High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, Calif., and Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, a five-day jam held each year on a farm in Manchester, Tenn. "You've got bands like Phish and Widespread Panic taking the vibe of the Dead to recreate, in their own way, the kind of collectivity that people share in," says Simon. "It's running a risk of becoming too commercial . . . but it still has a kind of wild freedom and improvisation. The music is happening right now at this moment."