Surviving Yonder Mountain’s Harvest Fest

There are few places in the U.S. quite as beautiful as Ozark, Arkansas in the fall. The top of Mulberry Mountain was absolutely alive with fall colors, twinkling stars, and the sweet sounds of bluegrass at Yonder Mountain’s Harvest Fest. Yonder Mountain String Band hosts this three day party, where it is perfectly acceptable (if not encouraged) to do some foot stompin’, whiskey drinkin’, and hell raisin’. Due to some crazy weather, this Harvest was slightly more challenging than the previous years so here’s a little recap of all my adventures and mis-adventures from the celebration.

The scenery leading up to the fest is pretty amazing, so I suggest taking a little extra time to to stop and smell the roses, or in this case, check out all of the beautiful mountain landscapes. Do your best not to piss off any cops, even though, because the demographic is different from Wakarusa (which is hosted in the same location), police presence on the way in to the fest is not as aggressive. At any rate, it is always good to observe speed limits, especially because there was a lot of construction on the neighboring highways. Once you arrive at the festival grounds the lines for security checks are very short, and for the most part you have room to set up and make yourself comfortable. I camped with the WET volunteers in a field straight across from the main stage. Upon arrival I scoured the field to pick the best spot. I had three agendas: 1-Find neighbors who seemed friendly and like minded to share my weekend with, 2-Find a spot that is not too long a walk to the nearest porta-potties (for those long drunken nights), and 3-Find level ground to set up a tent, as harsh weather was looming on the radar and I did not wish to wake up sleeping in a swampy tent. After looking around for just a few minutes I found all three of my objectives and cozied up next to some fun looking folks. After a long 12 hour drive, I got out of my car and said “Hey guys, mind if I camp next to you?” They heartily replied “Please do!”. As I started loading my junk out of the car Jordan came over to help me with my tent while Cassie cooked some dinner for the whole group and Kristen worked up some shots. I knew immediately that this group of folks from Austin, Texas were a great choice!

After getting settled into the campsite I began to wander towards the stages. A beautiful thing about Harvest camping is that from many campsites one can hear the music without ever having to leave your lawn chair, but I was ready to go get up in the nitty gritty Yonder set. The weather took a turn for the chilly as the sun set and clouds started to loom in, so legging under my pants, thick socks, and several layers proved to be necessary. On my walk in to the show I saw an RV with a lovely setup of lights, pinwheels, and best of all, a fire pit. I stopped to warm my hands and compliment the setup, only to find that the two slightly older gentlemen who captained that RV were very open and friendly. In true Harvest style they allowed me to warm my toes by the fire and warm my belly up with some whiskey. They invited me to come by the next day for some giant roasted turkey legs, which sounded amazing but I could not commit completely because who knows what tomorrow may bring on Mulberry!

I found some friendly hoopers and party favor connoisseurs at the Yonder show who were gracious enough to share their Hot Apple Pie Moonshine and accompany me over to the Everyone Orchestra set to have my mind completely blown. If you are unfamiliar with this event, it is a collection of members of several bands who are set to perform throughout the weekend, all playing different instruments for which they have become famous, playing in a giant jam orchestrated, literally, by a conductor. In this case the conductor was Matt Butler. His eccentric style and high energy antics made an unbelievable jam even more ridiculously fun to watch. The jam included members of Yonder, Dirt Foot, and countless other bad asses which, needless to say, was a sick way to see such talented musicians performing on one stage together.

After a fun night of hooping and hollering, I made it back to my campsite in one piece and called it a night. Sadly, while I rested my head Mother Nature was busy causing a ruckus. It rained buckets and buckets in the early morning hours, leaving the campsites a cold and muddy place. This is a bummer, yes, but any festy kid knows that if life gives you mud, you mud wrestle your mood into submission and embrace the challenge. I nerd-ed out by opening a book and hoping the rain and my slight hangover would pass. After checking the weather on my phone and realizing that if I was going to hide from the rain I would be confined to my tent for the next seven hours or so, I decided to devise a new plan. As I was working on finding my rain gear I heard a familiar voice outside my tent calling “Kathy Jo, wake up and come climb in with us!” My Austin neighbors had returned from their Work Exchange shift and without missing a beat began preparing mimosas, whiskey coffees, and of course what morning would be complete without tequila shots! Because I am big on being prepared (hence writing a Festival Survival Guide) I also insisted that we take shots of AirBorne since we were sitting with our bare feet in cold rain puddles which had found their way inside the tent. Since we had already had tequila, whiskey, vodka, and champagne in the first hour of waking, we decided to just keep it going and our day continued like this for hours until, to our joyful surprise, Old Mister Sunshine decided to come back out and play. It was on to some music finally and wandering around to some new scenery.

Yonder Mountain was hosting a press conference with the visiting Media so I hiked my way over to the conference center. If you ever get the pleasure of chatting with one of your favorite bands up close, I hope that they are half as interesting, humble, and engaging as the boys of Yonder. It was such a treat to hear their thoughts on their own music, the changing music scene, their beginnings, and even the challenges and joys of hosting their own festival. They were super excited that the landmark 1500th show was set to take place the next night at their own fest, They had plans to bring an entirely fresh set list, special guests, and lots of other surprise to their Saturday night set. Unfortunately Mother Nature had other plans, but we’ll get back to that shortly.

While watching Mikey Hart get on a block of Dead songs, a nice young man approached me and told me that he was enjoying my hooping, and could he sit down and chill for a spell. Or maybe I invited him to sit on my lovely assortment of trash bags used as tapestries…either way, we engaged in a conversation in which I found out that he was originally from Atlanta, just like me. He had come to Arkansas back in May with the Gong Crew who entertained at Wakarusa and met an artist who inspired him. The artist invited him to stay at his house and sort of apprentice with him to learn some new skills which could help him in his future endeavors. Aaron (my new festy friend) decided to take him up on this and had been living in Eureka Springs (a little quaint tourist town about an hour from the fest) for the past five months. He was ready to make his way back to Atlanta because he had learned a lot and was ready to focus on his music full time. Somehow, after knowing each other for only a matter of minutes I decided to go with Aaron to Eureka Springs, pack up his room, and bring him back with me to Atlanta. That’s the funny thing about festivals, right? It makes you feel like strangers are instantly friends, and the “real world” does not exist in the scary “some strangers are ax murderers” kind of way. So I agreed.

Saturday held even more surprises. Even though the mud made it almost arbitrary, I decided to give myself a little cleanup. I grabbed my shower bag out of the trunk and washed up. After getting clean I wandered over to the other end of the campgrounds to get some breakfast. Along the way some kids stopped me to ask about my Solarbak (the solar panel backpack I live by at festivals). We chatted and they informed me that the weather report called for lots of heavy rain starting soon and not ending until well after dark. With this information I figured that since it was the last night I may as well put anything I could into the car so that it would not have to all be put away soaking wet the next day. I hustled back to my campsite only to realize that I could not find my car keys. Now normally, I advise my readers to always have a spare set of keys hidden away somewhere in case of a mishap, however, this fest I rode alone and have never lost my keys, so I decided not to worry about it. Bad mistake! I hunted around for my keys to find that when I had gotten my shower bag out of the car I clipped my keys to it, then locked my car up when I was done. Sigh.

I walked up to the media center to see if anyone could help. I was looking for the Saint Bernard’s, a group I had seen around Waka and Harvest giving out water and helping people out. They were not around but I noticed Split Lip Rayfield hanging around outside. I said hello and chatted with them a bit when Wayne informed me that his sound guy “Jimmy” ironically enough, may have a Slim Jim in his gear. How awesome, I thought, to be let back into my car by a performer at the fest! Unfortunately, I waited around for 45 minutes only to find that Jimmy did not bring these tools and it was back to square one. I stopped by the Work Exchange post to ask our recent acquaintance if he could radio someone who may be able to help. After a lot of running around I decided to head back to my car to wait for the locksmith. On the way I saw a tent for the Vibe Tribe. This group is a fun bunch of folks I had seen at many festivals hooping, dancing with fire toys, and being generally awesome, so I stopped by to see if they could help. I was directed to a guy named Kent who was a locksmith and to my surprise he dropped everything, walked with me across the campgrounds to my car, and immediately opened my door in a matter of seconds. Yay! He was so great, friendly, and efficient. An added bonus was that he basically did it for a donation so it was half of what the locksmith would have charged and he hung out and drank a beer with us. Thanks Kent!

With that unpleasantness behind me the day raged on with muddy enthusiasm until what we had all been dreading all weekend was upon us. The show had to stop! Just as yonder was preparing for their exciting 1500th show, the thunder began rolling in and the heavy rains began. Yonder only got to play two songs before the announcement came through that all festival attendees should immediately hunker down in their cars because a tornado warning was in effect for our area and we could expect high winds and hail. With this news we gathered up all the booze and food and piled into the Austin neighbor’s tent to weather the storm. There was only a few minutes where I believed we were in real danger, at which point we had to run out of our tent and get into the car because the winds were so fierce and the hail began to come down. While in the car, I looked over at my tent only to find that it was not there. Apparently during the whooping winds, my tent pole snapped in half causing the jagged ends to puncture the top of the tent and rain tarp, then another gust or two and the tent was completely ripped in half. Ugh…what is the return policy for an act of God? Nothing to be done about that now, so onward and upward. A few hours passed and we were starting to get on the dark side of hammered. We passed around a bottle of whiskey and made up bluegrass songs to entertain ourselves until one by one we fell victim to the warm covers and fuzzy heads. I don’t know how long we were asleep but I woke to someone saying “wake up, bitch! It’s time for Mountain Sprout!”. I had been looking forward to that show all weekend, and although it was after 3 am and I was almost too inebriated to walk, I jumped up and rallied. We headed off to the venue and it looked more like a post apocalyptic scene than a music venue. Fields of mud, discarded tent remains, and lots of incredibly wasted people were scattered among the fields. The “walls” of the venue had all fallen down so there was no longer a gate check to go through so bottles of moonshine and other booze were in the hands of almost everyone. I was saved by the fact that our camping neighbor Luke is an amazing human being and made it his mission to see that i did not face plant into the mud. I didn’t make it easy for him, as the parts of the night that are vivid are me acting like a weeble-wobble. Luke swooped in just in the nick of time every time I lost my balance. It didn’t help that a man dressed as Jesus continued to hand me a handle of cheap whiskey. I wasn’t the only one who was a hot mess, however. Once we got to Mountain Sprout it was apparent that the whole festival had become a shit show, especially the boys in the band. The fiddle player managed to throw up and pee on himself on stage, which is a metaphor for the entire crowd. It was a beautiful disaster, and I only managed to eat the ground once. Thanks Luke, Jesus gave me booze but you were definitely my savior!

The night ended in a warm fire and a pile of people on the one remaining air mattress that wasn’t covered in cold water, which was the perfect end to the crazy weekend. It was time to go home. The lessons I think we can learn from my adventures are these: Having great neighbors can make all the difference at a festival. Always bring a spare set of car keys. When in doubt, find the Vibe Tribe. If a tornado rolls through take down your tent and grab the whiskey. And most importantly, Yonder throws one hell of a party! See you all next year!