Surviving Wakarusa 2013

To say that this year’s Wakarusa was an interesting experience would be the understatement of the year!  While thousands of festy lovers came to enjoy a weekend of excellent music and good times, Mother Nature took the 10th anniversary party as an opportunity to throw a little fit, it seems.  She spent the first few days hurling 40 mph winds at the attendees like a child throwing toys, flinging lightning bolts and raindrops at us in a fury, and making the grounds close to uninhabitable.  Some were un-amused by the challenge and threw in the towel early.  For those who toughed it out the weekend still held plenty of adventures and musical treasures.

The weather wasted no time getting ugly.  By Thursday afternoon, cars entering the venue were lucky not to get stuck in the muck.  The toll booths (where attendees exchanged paper tickets for wristbands) were moved to a different location again this year, in an attempt to resolve bottle necking problems.  This plan would have worked, perhaps, if only the fields were not completely soiled with mud too thick for any car without 4 wheel drive to make it through. Security carts with straps worked hard alongside neighborly festival goers to pull cars out or push them by hand out of the high mud.   The problems were further exasperated because the toll booths seemed to be having some communication problems, and few of the festival workers seemed to be able to give any directions or answer any questions.  Cell phone and internet reception was spotty at best.  It took my friend over two hours to resolve some glitch with his paper ticket which, for some reason, could not be read by the scanners.  To the festival’s credit the customer service number for ticket issues connected me to an actual human being, who was incredibly helpful and polite.  My friend used the lost hours as an opportunity to play in the mud, dragging cars out with his truck, pushing them on foot, and generally being a little kid in a mud puddle, so all was not lost.

Security at this site had an interesting method as well.  To receive a parking sticker for your vehicle you must first go through and have security check your car for anything both illegal and Waka illegal.  I believe this setup was not thought out entirely.  The way the gates were positioned one could drive in, get checked, and drive out the way they came, before going back down the mountain to the campgrounds.  This is all good in theory; however, those wishing to bring in illegal goods could simply dump off one member of the group with said items, go through security, and then pick them back up.  The fact that people were even silly enough to get caught with anything at all is a little baffling, yet plenty of them did.  For future reference, glass bottles of liquor and beer will be confiscated along with all the obvious stuff, so bring aluminum or plastic to avoid wasting money, time, and sobriety.

After traversing the wetlands and security, the next step is setting up camp.  Setting up camp in the rain and mud is a beast, but it can be done.  This was my 3rd year returning to Mulberry Mountain, and what I have learned from past experiences is that one can just never have enough tent stakes.  When the winds get super intense, as they did this year and plenty of other times in this location’s history, attempting to keep an EZ up or shade tent in place is basically a futile effort.  If you don’t believe me, check out some pictures of the tent graveyards.  Monumental EZ up frame structures were erected from the countless remains of broken frames, and turned into artistic sculptures located all over Wakarusa’s campgrounds.  Sadly, mine was amongst them.  The thing is, had I not been just a little drunk during the storm I may have realized that holding the shade tent down while passing around the moonshine was not the best course of action.  We had used large tent stakes and doubled up on them on every corner, however when the wind is that fierce the best thing to do is take it down either entirely, or push the legs down a few notches so that the tarp is just a little bit above the ground.  This gives you the ability to stay under shelter without having the structure either blow away, or in most cases, snap from the pressure. My shade tent was very sturdy and almost brand new, yet in those winds the legs snapped off like toothpicks.  Looking around the campsites it seemed that very few of them survived, and many that did were being held together by duct tape.  Lesson learned!

At a press conference on Friday I met a fellow journalist who was having a little trouble with her camera and asked if I could help.  She and her friends joined me at our campsite to try and resolve the problem.  We all ended up sharing a meal and some drinks together before heading in to the venue.  Once we caught a few amazing shows, the weather began to take a turn for the worse once again, and once again the rest of the night’s shows had to be canceled.  That is when the winds and heavy rain really got rowdy.  The storm was too intense for them to return to their camp so we gave them refuge for the night.  We shared our warm clothes, cooked food, and welcomed them to crash in our dry tent.  The next day we went down to main Stage camping, where they had set up for the weekend, to survey the damage.  It was heartbreaking.  Their tent was completely flooded and resting in about a foot and a half of mud.  Their EZ up met the same fate as mine and was beyond recovery, and most of their equipment was either blown away completely or too mud soaked to transport.  The vibe all around was a collage of feelings.  Some campers gave up and decided to call the whole thing a wash and go home.  Some were pissed off and cursing the weather for ruining their shows, their things, and their Waka.  Most however, and those I applaud, decided to say “shit happens” and sit in their mud covered chairs, dig their mud covered grills and coolers into the muck, and go about enjoying their time to the fullest.  Our new friends joined this movement.  After a few moments of taking it all in and feeling the defeat sinking in, they rolled up their sleeves, packed whatever salvageable gear they could onto the truck, and relocated to some higher ground.  You can’t fight Mother Nature, and sometimes it seems that all is lost, but if you decide to get past it, you will.  You could say it was a challenge, but it was also one of those times when you got to see the festival family vibe at work, with everyone helping each other out and doing the best they could.

Entering the main venue involved trekking through mud up to your calves, so getting to the stages took much longer than usual.  It is certain that many people missed shows because of cancellations or the fact that getting from one stage to the next was often just too much trouble, but great shows were still going on at every stage.  Safety was the biggest concern of the festival, so once the weather got too bad the organizers had little choice but to push times or cancel acts completely, and with every step into the mud you could see people busting their asses trying to navigate the slippery streets.  I am told that there was even a person struck by lightning, but have heard no definite details.  Without spreading falsehoods let me just say that I truly hope that this person is okay, and remind you all to be very safe and cautious if you find yourself at a stormy festival.  Lightning strikes are extremely rare, but you can obviously never predict what may happen!

Once the mud in the stage area got super intense we had to develop a plan for hanging out comfortably during the shows.  We brought chairs to sit on (these are allowed inside the venue at Waka), a tarp, and trash bags.  We put the tarp down, sat the chairs along the borders to keep people from walking over it, then put trash bags down to sit our book bags, hoops, or ourselves on to keep them from the mud.  Once we were ready to head back to camp we deposited the tarp along with any muddy shoes into the trash bags, and then used the other bags to clean up our garbage.  Once we perfected this method we were pretty comfortable during the shows.  The walk to and from was another matter.  I saw a variety of methods as far as footwear including no shoes at all, hiking boots, and even the hilarity of someone duct taping flops to their own ankles to keep them on.  I found that flip flops were more than useless, unless you wear them on any paved areas then take them off before you reach the mud.  My waterproof hiking boots were helpful for hanging around our campsite, but the mud was too high at the venue to attempt walking through in them.  The best things I can suggest are galoshes.   They go up high enough that the mud missed soaking through the top, and those who had them in tow seemed infinitely more comfortable than the rest of us who were bundled up in sweatshirts and hoodies only to have our bare feet sitting in freezing mud.   My suggestion is to invest in a pair, but as they are not very comfortable, couple them with a pair of socks and cushy insoles to make your feet dry and happy. To dry our wet shoes, socks, and clothes, we plugged an inverter into the car, and then attached an extension cord with a fan to blow continuous air until they dried.  Campers also made good use of any makeshift clotheslines, fences, or trees they could find.

With all of the folks attempting to get clean over the weekend, Wakarusa found itself in the unique position of having a water shortage.  This was clearly an unforeseen problem, and the festival did it’s best to maintain enough water for drinking.  This means that while one could fill up a water bottle, one could not fill up a solar shower or use the water to wash their feet or hands.  The pay showers were also closed, and a volunteer was stationed at every water spout to ensure people were only using it for drinking.  While I often emphasize the importance of drinking plenty of water, it was wildly inconvenient for all involved to have no way to clean themselves after being covered in mud.  Those who paid for showers and were denied them were certainly the most upset; as they paid $20 for two hot showers and to my knowledge they were never granted a refund.

With all of the mishaps of Wakarusa, it was still an amazing time.  The music that was not cancelled was absolutely stellar!  Widespread Panic put on one of the best performances of the weekend, and even the mud could not stop the enthusiastic Spread Heads from dancing their asses off, and loving every second.  Dispatch put us right back in a great mood following an always entertaining set from Umphrey’s McGee.  No frowns could be seen in that crowd!  Gogol Bordello was one of the most unique sets of the weekend, only beaten in that respect by the ever show stopping Quixotic Fusion.  Their spectacular stage show full of elegant dancers, aerial artists, and creative costuming was visually stunning, but mixed with the brilliant electric violin and killer drums; it was an intense and beautiful experience.

For all of the heartbreaking weather that Wakarusa attendees survived, I still believe that enough love was shared to overcome it all.  Plenty of good shows were enjoyed, new friends were made, and exciting times were shared all around.  Even with all of the challenges I truly believe that this festival is going to continue its long tradition of bringing the best music, art, and vibes.  I encourage those who experienced Wakarusa for the first time this year to keep the faith and return again when perhaps the weekend will hold fewer disasters.  You can make all the plans you want, but being prepared and rolling with the punches is the only way to keep your festival weekend happy.   Here’s hoping that everyone made it home safe, see you next year! Waka Waka!

By the Way: The featured image for this post is a wet muddy dog because that is how we all felt, and meant as a joke.  Pets who are not service animals are not permitted in the fest so don’t get the wrong idea!  Also thank you to Kyle Bosdell for da peektures!!