I was following someone named Maranda, whom I had known for 13 minutes, up a dirt path. Her bottle blonde highlights were straightened and tucked away from her face in a tiny braid, and she was clutching a plastic cup with some sort of beige-y frozen concoction sloshing up the sides. It was nearly 80 degrees, so I grasped a can of ZiegenBock with equal zest as we maneuvered our way around racing fans toward Turn 9 of Austin's Circuit of the Americas racetrack, where we were told to enter for Taylor Swift's headlining set that Saturday night. I didn't know anything about Maranda and her small herd of followers except that we all had pink wristbands. And pink wristbands stick together.
My skin grew a subtle shade of red, layers of dust coated my sandaled feet and my lips were burnt and crusty. I feared what would come out of my nose if I somehow got my hands on a tissue. But these are the kinds of things Taylor Swift fans face at concerts, where they often line up 12 hours in advance.
In fact, this whole mission started months earlier, when Swift first announced that she'd be headlining the Formula 1 Grand Prix. My internet friend Spencer (whom I met while writing about Swift's 2014 Secret Sessions, which he attended) tweeted out a tasty proposition:
I, of course, replied, "I say we do it!!" with childish naivety, ignoring the fact that the race was half a country away and half a year away. But hey, as Taylor sings in "Starlight," "dream impossible dreams," right?
Next thing you know, I'm included on a Facebook group with 30 other Swift fans, notifications rolling onto my phone faster than the credits on a TV movie. My plans to go to Austin were pretty much made before I could even question the logistics. Certain Swifties stepped up to plan a group ticket buy and to book lodging for us. I could barely keep up, but I trusted them all. When they gathered up names on a Google spreadsheet (yes, these people are organized), I definitively put mine down. I was going to Austin.
Over the next few months, we fantasized about the upcoming concert in a Facebook group, which grew to 236 fans. Some people speculated about the setlist (would she play anything new?), others shared outfit ideas, others got deep about mental health, opening up about their anxiety about making the trip. We hashed out details (what should we bring? Where do we go? How do we get there?), voted on custom T-shirt designs, commiserated about $150 parking passes and pondered buying $150 upgrades (most people did).
One particular fan, Jillian Wagner, who interns at a music marketing company in Halifax, Nova Scotia, took the reins on the event, working with Circuit of the Americas on a space to hold a meet-up for the fans coming from around the world. She led the charge in ticket sales, coordinating payment for 72 tickets and mailing them out individually. She negotiated a discount for around 80 pit upgrades. Around 150 people showed up to Wagner's meet-up at the front gate of the race.
Perhaps the best part of Wagner's meet-up? She got Swift's team, Taylor Nation, to notice, and they showed up to upgrade everyone to better spots for the concert.
"At first, I just wanted to make sure all of my close friends were able to get tickets to see Taylor, but then it began to grow really fast," Wagner told me. At the meet-up, she was wearing a custom Grand Prix shirt designed through the Facebook group. She was tightly gripping her phone, hammering out smaller details and prepared to snap a selfie with new friends.
"I never expected all of this to get as big as it did," she said. "I thought maybe 20 fans would get tickets through me and maybe like 20 or 30 would come to the meet-up, so I was blown away by what it grew into. Although it was stressful at points, seeing all of the smiles on Swifties' faces and having Taylor's team show up at the meet-up made me so happy."
I met fans who traveled from Jamaica, Finland, South Africa, Canada, Germany and all over the U.S. for the concert. Daniel Wuerthele, an 18-year-old student, spent $1,500 to fly from Munich to Istanbul to Houston, followed by a bus to Austin. "[Swift]'s one of the most important people in my life 'cause she's such a successful person yet she's still so down-to-earth and so lovely," he told me, wearing a "Haters Gonna Hate" T-shirt and barely containing excitement for his first Taylor Swift show. "Such a great person."
There were a few famous Swifties near the reflecting pool, including Stephanie and her toddler son Layton, who received a visit from Taylor in her Swiftmas video back in 2014. Many people who had met Taylor or gotten a gift from her or a tweet were also there. But the lay-Swifties were recognized too. Even though many fans hadn't met each other in real life, they already knew who they were when they locked eyes. I heard a lot of "Hey, you're Emily!" or "You're Lyssa, right?"
A guy named Jay, who runs a Swift fan account on Tumblr, came to Austin with people he knew online. He's from Finland, where Swift has yet to play, and used the Taylor concert as an excuse to take an American vacation, spending what he guesses to be €1,500 to €2,000 on the trip.
"There's familiar faces everywhere from Tumblr," Jay said. He laughed and added, "There's no one running at me and hugging at me."
I reunited with the group of 12 women who I was sharing a hotel with, including Autumn and Katelyn, who I had met covering Swift shows for a different outlet in 2015. That night, we'd sneak in the back of the hotel (to avoid being charged extra). I brought a mattress pad to roll out on the floor before I had to catch a flight back to New York at 6 a.m. But first, we had a concert to go to and pancakes to get at IHOP afterwards.
The meet-up is where I met Maranda, who was leading the charge to the Taylor Swift stage in the afternoon, five hours after I had first shown up at the venue. It was easy to forget there was actual racing happening until we started hiking halfway through the 3.4 mile track to get where we needed to be. As we wove our way through hills and tunnels, the Formula 1 cars whizzed past on the track, where they were holding qualifying races. The racing enthusiasts were fairly quiet, watching from a relaxing vantage point on a grassy hill or the metal grandstands.
One we got to the stage entrance, we waited in dried, pointy grass with thousands of others. Some had arrived at 7:30 a.m., despite the Circuit asking people to line up at 4:30 p.m. (it caused a bit of fandom drama). Maranda held a singalong for those next to us in line. An hour later, the floodgates opened, and hordes of runners bolted for the front of the stage. Our group (the ones with the pink wristbands, remember?) slipped past the line with hecklers throwing barbs our way. We weren't going to the general admission area with them, so we thought it'd be OK. It was the first time I cut a line that huge.
Our wristbands from the gods (a.k.a. Taylor Nation) admitted us to a raised platform between GA and the pit, with a view straight onto the stage. Maranda pulled my hand and hoisted me next to her so I could see better. The sun set to our left, sprawling pastel hues through the sky and dyeing a few clouds that had dared to make an appearance.
Swift began with "New Romantics." I jumped in place for three minutes straight and regret it (my calves are still sore). Our group of 30 was joined by the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, and for the next hour and a half, we screamed, mimed lyrics and twirled around just like Swift, who had to take tissue breaks for her cold. She played "Love Story," her mashup of "Enchanted" and "Wildest Dreams," and Red B-side "Holy Ground." She played "I Knew You Were Trouble" with a different orchestra interlude. She busted out a brand-new rendition of "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" featuring "Bad Blood."
The concert of greatest hits was devoid of songs from Swift's debut album, which celebrates its 10th anniversary today, but she was quick to shout it out. Instead, she went one to play "This Is What You Came For," a song she wrote under a pen name for ex-boyfriend Calvin Harris, for the first time live.
When everything was over, I had to find the people I was staying in a hotel with that night, so I headed down to the pit. I found a few new friends from the meet-up, so it took over an hour to round everyone up and walk two miles to the car, where we squeezed two people in the trunk and headed to IHOP.
What had started with a tweet in March (Spencer couldn't make it to Austin unfortunately) turned into a full-blown excursion. I met tens of Swifties that I already felt like I knew because the Swiftie community is kind of like online dating: you already know what you have in common before you meet up in person. I'm following my entire hotel group on Twitter now, along with my fellow pink wristbanders. In one night, I'd made dozens of forever friends.
Until next time, Swifites. "I was enchanted to meet you."