I didn’t intend for this lapse to happen, but it’s taken me over a week to get around to writing my Outside Lands coverage. Yeah, I happened to have a really busy week and my laptop was out of commission for two days being fixed, but this also happened because at the culmination of Outside Lands last Sunday night, I could hardly even see straight or hear myself think, having experienced three straight days of one of the biggest music festivals San Francisco has to offer. Yes, I’m getting old but I’m not that old; this festival just happens to lay me out due to its sheer size, volume, and intensity. And so after last Sunday, I simply needed to let the experience resonate for a few days before just firing off my recap or notable highlights.

See, Outside Lands isn’t all that easy. Much like Coachella or Bonnaroo or any of the other really big festivals, it’s all about strategy, letting go, being decisive, being impulsive, seeing headliners, seeing the unknowns, dancing, sitting on a blanket, discovery, fulfilling lifelong dreams, etc etc etc. It’s impossible to do it all, yet all I want to do when I’m at Outside Lands is DO IT ALL.

I realize I probably sound really bratty (“oh, woe is me, it’s so hard, I’m so tired, there’s too many people, wah wah wah”). And OK, I approach any large gathering of people (and actually now that I think about it, any kind of impending decision making) with a bit of trepidation. But this year, Outside Lands was even harder because the lineup was absolutely ridiculously awesome.

Therein lies the challenge: I wanted to see every single artist playing and I wanted to see them close enough to count.

I was certainly not the only one blown away by the booking this year. The entire festival sold out, every single day, and I myself saw dozens upon dozens of people jumping fences all weekend long to get in. That said, the festival grounds were packed to the gills. And that just makes it harder to meet your goals. All the things made difficult by big festivals were made even more difficult at Outside Lands this year because Friday and Saturday were so oversold (or overly highjacked by the fence jumpers) that covering ground and getting close enough to count was, frankly, pretty fucking hard.

But oh, what a time I had! Such a special festival, such a wondrous celebration of music, art, food, beverages, people everywhere imbibing, getting plastered, dancing, smiling, having so much fun. But it takes some thought, maybe even practice, to figure out how to best approach festivals of this rank.

Some rules I’ve come to learn over time, like not taking off my of-age wristband at the end of the night if I’m heading back the next day and aiming for the porta-potties in the middle instead of those on the ends (shorter lines). But the biggest and most important lessons, like how to get the absolute most out of a massive three-day music festival… well, as always, it took me a few days to really nail down my strategy.

And with that, here are those highlights and lessons, glorious performances and personal mishaps, that I discovered along the way at Outside Lands 2012.

Day One Strategy: I couldn’t have been more excited about Friday’s lineup. I wanted to see it all, starting with Sharon Van Etten and Two Gallants, Reggie Watts, The Walkmen, Beck, MSTRKRFT, Tennis, Antibalas, Andrew Bird, Foo Fighters, Washed Out, Justice, Neil Young… Compound this sense of urgency with the fact that none of these bands are/were slated to play the Bay again for months (years even!), some due to contractual obligations, and I felt it vital to maximize this opportunity. My plan was to check out half of every set, shove my way up as close as I could, snap brilliant photos, hear my favorite songs, and be on my way, culminating in running into Dave Grohl somewhere along the way and getting drunk with him.

The Reality: Time is so precious with this kind of strategy that a mere five minutes feels like an hour when you consider EVERYTHING THAT IS HAPPENING ALL AROUND YOU. The media check-in line was a monster and took an hour and a half to get through, so my afternoon was sorta derailed since I missed three sets I really wanted to see. By the time I got in, I was too worked up (admittedly, I was feeling kind of aggressive) by the minutes lost that my ADD kicked into overdrive and I couldn’t commit to anything. Instead, I spastically zoomed from stage to stage. By mid-afternoon, the crowd was already incredibly thick and daunting. Fact is, it’s kind of hard (er, rude) to push through a crowd of people who’ve been patiently waiting for the band from the optimal spots they’ve been saving for who knows how long to go shoving up in front of them halfway into a set. Being a pretty short person (5’3), if I don’t get myself positioned well, I’m watching the back of someone’s head and that’s about all I got. (There I go whining again.) The intimate venues in San Francisco have spoiled me! I want to see what’s happening on stage, I want to watch the band perform! As a result, I ended up seeing and hearing pieces of most everything on Friday from what felt like ten miles away, not really experiencing enough of the detail and intimacy and duration of any of the performances to walk away feeling in any way profoundly connected to anything.

The Highlights: OK, so my strategy was kind of fucked and I didn’t really get to see Neil Young adjust his hat or croon into the microphone. But the highlights still abounded, and the names of these musical gods speak for themselves: The Walkmen. Beck, for godssakes! MSTRKRFT, because I love that shit! Neil Young, duh. Also, the amazing ambiance strung up through ChocoLands (the Enchanted Forest I dubbed it) was a first for this fest, and a secret margarita bar in the woods made for expensive, but worth it, drinks that packed a much-needed punch.

Lesson Learned: Instead of trying to see everything, be willing to commit to a handful of bands and watching full (or nearly full) sets from a decent position. Otherwise, you’re taking in half of everything and nothing to its even near potential. Yes, decisions are hard, SO HARD (Foo Fighters or MSTRKRFT? Why?!?) but in order to get the most out of the performances and to ensure minimal fighting through crowds, get a blanket, bring some snacks, and camp up close for your most beloved bands. They deserve your attention.

Day Two Strategy: After learning my lesson the day before, I decided on Saturday to be less schizophrenic with my approach. I wanted to watch some bands for real, instead of running through crowds all day trying to catch a song here and there. I also wanted to sample some of the other offerings Outside Lands has become known for—winelands, beerlands, the comedy tent, the live art, the vending. My strategy consisted, primarily, of taking those lessons learned from the day before and applying the shit out of them.

The Reality: Heck, this strategy worked out way better for me. Okay, so I missed Metallica, a damn shame and disappointment, though I did see their fireworks from a half mile away during Sigur Ros. And I missed local loves Geographer, another sad fact since I was clear on the other side of the park watching Tame Impala. And I missed Portugal the Man, and I am kicking myself for missing Father John Misty. And OK, I missed Big Boi, Bob Weir’s surprise appearance with Norah Jones, the Kills, and Grandaddy. All artists I love. But let’s talk about what I DID see.

The Highlights: Australia’s Tame Impala. I’ve been a fan of their dreamy psych rock for some time now and have never seen them live (and who knows when they’ll cross the ocean again to get back to the Bay) so I was more than satisfied sitting on a blanket early in the afternoon and watching the entirety of their set. I also committed (along with about 50,000 other people) to a full set by Alabama Shakes. I love this kind of music and Alabama Shakes delivers it well: Southern soul sung by a big-throated female vocalist, a group whose brand of Americana draws on some of the best influence of the blues while breathing all-new life into a classic, Georgia brewed sound. Thee Oh Sees were raucous and brilliant as always, bringing enough punch and frenetic energy to instill new fire into what could have been a slumping late-afternoon crowd. Explosions in the Sky ushered the waning day into twilight with their powerful post-rock, and it was a glorious time to just sit and let it wash over me, which I did gratefully. I decided early on to really commit to Sigur Ros, pushing up through the crowd as it thinned after Passion Pit (who apparently is more popular than Jesus with teenagers) to get close enough to really watch the band. And when their chilling and beautiful Icelandic notes started filling a park that was in itself slowly filling with mist, painting the cool Ocean air with their haunting crystalline sound, I knew I’d made the right decision. It doesn’t get much better than seeing this band I’ve loved for so long and rarely get to see live playing in my backyard after dark. Simply stunning.

Lesson Learned: When you avoid repeating the same dumb mistakes, you can feel pretty dang satisfied.

Day Three Strategy: So, seeing as how the day before worked out pretty well for me, my goal on Sunday was to just finally fucking revel in it and relax and have fun; I got extremely stressed out the days prior trying to ensure that I squeezed every last drop out of my experience. So by Sunday, I was in it to win it and had one main goal: To dance my ass off with my friends to Steve Wonder.

The Reality: By Sunday, the crowd had thinned, the sun kept peeking out, the porta-potty lines grew shorter, the beer lines went faster, the people were friendlier, the music was brilliant, the sound was better, my mood was happier, the fog was warmer and thicker and more impactful: In short, it was a pretty perfect Sunday.

The Highlights: Though I saw many things on this day that I loved very much (Jack White and Santigold in particular get huge shout-outs) there were two undeniable highlights that pretty much made the weekend for me. One was Stevie Wonder. The legend stood before us and played one of the most loving, joyful sets of music I’ve ever heard. Thousands of people everywhere were dancing and singing along to every word—the people behind me, in front of me, beside me, the venders behind their counters, the faceless in the crowd, singing to me, dancing with me, smiling at me, loving life alongside me. Stevie (yes, we’re on a first-name basis) kicked off with a cover of Marvin Gaye’s ”How Sweet It Is.” From there, we got such timeless classics as ”Higher Ground”, ”Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours”, ”Isn’t She Lovely”, ”Superstition”, ”Livin’ for the City”,  a cover of Michael Jackson’s ”The Way You Make Me Feel”, all the songs you’d expect, each more bombastic and full of life than the one before. At the culmination of his set, at the end of day three, as the crowd parted ways and made their way slowly out of a park layered in fog, we collectively knew and shared in the fact that we had witnessed something beautiful and unforgettable. And that leads me to my second highlight: Bone tired but elated, I decided to walk with my boyfriend through the enchanted forest to get out to the street, where the purple, gold, green, and pink lights were making incredible tapestries in the blankets of fog, lights strung overhead in the trees, glowing dÁ©cor illuminating their branches. And it was in that simply surreal setting we were led to the intoxicating sounds emanating from the darling little carnival stage I’d been pining over all weekend long.

The Dustbowl Revival Band was playing in the woods, cloaked in fog on the dimly lit and brilliantly designed Dr. Flotsam’s Hell Brew Review stage like they were playing a special show just for us and the few dozen other people who were lucky enough to take this particular path home. And they played their hearts out (”until the police make us stop!”) to those of us still standing, us in the trees kicking up dust and clapping to their old-timey blend of gypsy folk and jazz. I adore this kind of music. I was as intimate a performance as one could hope for, anywhere. It was absolutely the most perfect way to end the weekend.

Lesson Learned: Slowly biking home through the park, which was fast emptying out, people trickling down the quiet lone road back to the Haight, it all became clear: Despite your plan, despite your strategy, whatever the outcome, if you love music and appreciate the immensely special and singular fellowship cultivated at a music festival, an experience like Outside Lands becomes bigger than even the event itself. And I needed to step away and reflect on all of this to truly appreciate how validating that can be.

I can’t wait for next year.

Get more information on Outside Lands here.