Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Somewhat Short Guide to Attending Wakarusa.

Main Stage concert lovers. (Grav Weldon)
So, you’re headed to Wakarusa. Is it your first time? You may be surprised at what you find. Far more than just a bunch of music acts playing before a crowd of campers, the Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival has its own vibe, its own culture, even its own cuisine. Here’s a bit of information that you might find helpful when you go.

Weather and what to wear
This is, after all, Arkansas. We have all four seasons here. However, the season-to-season ratio changes from year to year. For instance, we just came out of one of the longest winters we've ever experienced – with snowfall at Mulberry Mountain on MAY 4TH. Unusual to say the least. Last year’s Wakarusa ranged from rather chilly on Thursday night to downright balmy Saturday afternoon and strongly stormy in the wee hours of Sunday morning.

I wonder if the leg warmers are hot.
Be prepared – for anything. Shorts are a good bet, especially paired with sunscreen. There are few limits to what you can wear, as long as you’re covering the important bits. Sarongs, halter tops, bikini tops, mesh shirts are common in the heat. Last year’s cold snap had many scrambling for something to cover the bare arms – with a lot of sheets twisted into improvised togas making an appearance. For good measure, it might be worthwhile to throw a jacket into your bag.

Shoes? Choose some you can walk in – and that you don’t mind getting dirty. Mulberry Mountain is, after all, located in the great outdoors, which means grass and mud and stones are common. Pack an extra pair or two, and plenty of socks.

If you have that covered, then perhaps you should consider costumes. Yes, costumes. There are actually themed days at Wakarusa, which can be a great chance to have some fun.

The hippies and the hipsters
When I was assigned the opportunity to attend my first Wakarusa, I was given the idea that it was a modern Woodstock. I went expecting hippies… and the images of ‘70s style earth mammas and back to the wilderness folks came to mind.

That’s not quite what I found. While yes, there were some individuals who wore tie dye and had flowers in their hair, there was an overwhelming number of individuals who could best be described as hipsters… irony-free early-adapters, trendy sorts and geeky sorts and overall mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings with cash to spend.

Dancing with abandon is common.
The juxtaposition was interesting. Seeing young men in fedoras and ties interspersed with girls dressed as Japanese animation look-alikes, guys in Utilikilts and backpacks and girls in bikinis and furry hats, and just about anyone in any sort of brightly colored clothing – a cacophony of unusuality. Everyone in the crowd wants to stand out and be different – something that seems to be a hallmark of this strongly Millenial crowd.

Tribes of Wakarusa
One distinguishing factor from traditional concert festivals – that’s strongly developed thanks to the camping element – is the culture of tribes. Sure, we've all at one point or another joined a road trip with friends to some sort of destination. This group camping experience has evolved into a way to demarcate a new social delineation.

A totem.  There's a Mario & Luigi nearby.
The tribe is a unit of three or more individuals, camping and attending together. They may have a camp flag – especially if they’re on the Main Camping plain where tents stretch out as far as the eye can see – to show them where they’re crashing. They may have a totem as well – which is best designed as anything on a stick to be carried throughout the festival by a member of the tribe. Practically, it’s a way for these groups to keep track of each other in an area with questionable cell phone service. But creatively, it’s something more – something to identify the group to others. It may be a cutout of a popular (or even better, a subculture) cartoon icon, a stuffed animal, a flag, a kite, anything. Some even change them out by day and theme, and even from day to night (night totems tend to include things that glow).

Tribes also often dress and play together – wearing everything from like fashions to thematic costumes. In many ways, this is a spill-over of the comic and science fiction convention cosplay culture. And yes, furries have been spotted, but don’t let that worry you too much.

Suit of bears.  Had to be hot.
It’s not necessary for one to be part of a tribe to enjoy the costume play. Some of the more, um, unique costumes I spotted at the 2012 event included a Native American-style get-up with three-feet feathers; ancient Celts; a guy dressed as a pink bunny, complete with knee-high pink socks and a pink sundress; adult lady “fairies” in tie dye leotards and multi-color tutus; and the man who I could best describe as wearing a “suit of bears.”

It’s a performance art festival, too
Which brings me to the Astral Gypsies. Take the costumes of the event and bump it up a notch. These are expert, master puppeteers. They’re advertised as “”Dedicated to opening minds through interactive visionary art, the Astral Gypsies' Giant Puppet Troupe presents a truly "Larger Than Life" experience!” Yeah. That starts to cover it.

Grav Weldon's shot of the Astral Gypsy's octopus.
Mantis and... fish?
What you get is a bit more than what’s on the tin. They have a tent they set up near the main stage where many of their puppets are put on display and yes, yes you can touch them. But the puppets show up everywhere… in line waiting for a grilled cheese sandwich as a mushroom, clamoring down the road as a giant praying mantis, swaying at a concert as a giant bulbous fish. Impressive during the day, at night they’re even more fantastic… take for instance the illuminated octopus animated in the crowd at the main stage, swirling and undulating over the heads of the crowd in an ever-active show bonus.

The octopus puppet serves as sunscreen during the day.
There are others. Last year’s set included a light show erected on Saturday inside a giant white globe. Painters work on canvases, on silk, on even bodies. Everyone’s part of the art.

Better than your usual festival food fare
And then there is the food. Much to my surprise, Wakarusa didn't mirror the festival routine when it came to dinner. I’m a veteran of multiple state fairs, country festivals and community events – and I assumed the usual corn dog and funnel cake routine would be followed here. I was ever so wrong, and ever so glad. Wakarusa’s food is just as varied as its clientele. Crepes and quesadillas are popular, being great hand-held food. Pizza is also popular, with every sort of topping – and, in a different turn, lots of French bread pizza as well. Stir-fry dishes, noodles, one-pot dishes… all available.

Grilled cheese, any way you want it.
Then there’s the grilled cheese sandwich. Let’s face it – after you've spent a great deal on a ticket to the festival, bought a camping pass, paid for gas and got all your gear together, saving a few bucks is a good idea. Many of the vendors offer varying degrees of the classic grilled cheese sandwich – from the plain cheese and nothing else to gourmet cheeses, bacon, meats, vegetables and just about anything in-between the two slices of bread.

There are a good number of Wakarusa food photos located here.

Low on funds? You can always bring your own food to the festival – even bring your picnic right into the concert zone itself. It’s suggested to bring a camelbak and keep it filled (don’t worry – there are plenty of water stations all over Mulberry Mountain, and Arkansas water is pretty decent). All beverages seem to start at $3, so save yourself some money and bring your own (but do try the fantastic teas, hand-squeezed lemonades and other “exotic” beverages). Just don’t bring glass bottles. They’re not allowed anywhere at Mulberry Mountain – because broken glass sucks, especially when it gets into the grass and buried.

Oh golly, the music
The music. It goes on… and on… and on. If you have trouble falling asleep if it’s not quiet, bring the best dang earplugs money can buy – because the music goes on all night long.

It starts before it starts – that is, the first jam sessions happen Wednesday night, even before official activities start. There’s a Backwoods Stage performance to skuttle on down to, if you can draw yourself out of one of the spontaneous parties that pop up all over site. The official start is Thursday late in the morning – and the music goes on until full daylight the next day… and the next. There is a quieter time, from about 7 a.m. to noon each day, when you’ll hear bits of acoustic music from musicians in the camps, but pretty much expect to be listening from the get-go.

A daytime jam in the Revival Tent.
There’s almost always someone playing – and if the main stage is in the middle of a change-out there’s other performances in the woods. It’s a steady walk from one venue to another and there’s no possible way for a single individual to hear it all – but that’s all right.

There are lots of folks who will talk about nothing but the music – and that’s fine. That means I can move on and cover other things!

Such as what to bring. Honestly, being an outdoor festival, there’s no seating. Most folks stand and watch, dance, or bring their own items to sit on. A lightweight bag chair is not a bad idea… a sheet for the ground is always handy. For this and many other reasons, you’ll see people with all sorts of backpacks. These are fine, too – but expect to have them searched. It’s all in the name of safety.

If you’re wanting to catch all of a show, though, and you’re coming in from your camping area, leave early. Lines at the gates tend to back up 30 minutes before the biggest shows – and they can take an awful long time to clear. The same goes for coming in from off-site, but I’ll address that in a bit.

The Ferris Wheel offers great views.  I'm scared of heights.
Not just for the shows
Wakarusa is very much a participation event. Yes, you can just go for the concerts, but there’s far more to do. Each morning at 8 a.m. at the Satellite Stage, there’s yoga, open to all. There are disc golf competitions, music lessons – heck, even lessons on space and time. You can fish one of the several ponds on the Mulberry Mountain property. There’s a Ferris Wheel and a waterslide. You can catch the bus down to the Mulberry River for a swim, and there you can rent a canoe or a kayak or a raft and go for a float.

And the Hula hoops. They’re everywhere. Never Hula’d? You can learn. Folks will teach you. I swear, I have never seen so many Hula hoops in my life – and never have I seen so many that are lit at night. Amazing.

Yup, anything goes.
Dang dirty hipster
All those activities, you’re going to want a shower, right? Here’s the bad news. You can purchase a shower pass or pay $10 for a shower – or you can go without. Flushies also don’t exist for campers at this event. It’s Porta-Potty time, and you should be prepared.

Yes, you can bring a camp shower. There are a lot of ways you can prepare. But know in advance that you won’t be able to enjoy the pleasures of hot water unless you pay extra – or if you've brought your RV.

That also goes for electricity. While there were RV spots with electricity available (long gone at this point), it’s not readily available. You’re camping, for goodness sake. You’ll survive.

But what about those cell phones, cameras and other items you need to have charged? Well, you do get to camp right by your tent, so get a car charger. Small generators are allowed as well. I suggest a solar charger.

Solar power’s lovely, and free after the initial purchase of the solar item. Some camps utilize solar Christmas lights and garden lights on stakes to differentiate from the other tents and to direct exhausted concertgoers back to camp in the late night hours.

Oh, it's always smart to bring your own TP.
Speaking of camping…
If you’re not used to camping, you need to refresh yourself. Make sure your tent is ready to go. Bring an extra tarp, just in case. Remember your battery operated air pump if you’re on an air mattress. Remember your clothes, sunscreen, bug spray, chair, cooler, flashlight and whatnot.

Ground fires aren’t allowed, so if you plan to cook you’ll need to bring your own fire pit, stove or grill. Be smart about it – don’t dump live coals on the ground, don’t leave anything burning when you go run off to see that favorite musical act. Use your head.

When it comes to valuables – lock them in your car. That’s just smart. Yes, most concert-goers are good folks who wouldn’t dream of going through your stuff when you’re not around, but with 20,000+ individuals you’re bound to get a bad apple or two.

Getting to site
If you’ve purchased a pass for the whole shebang, you already know that you can’t get on-site until 4 p.m. Calm your jets. Don’t set your GPS or your Garmin or your Siri to get you there right at four – you’re going to find yourself sitting on the Pig Trail for a couple of hours as other folks who thought ahead get checked through the gate. It takes time to do a quick look-through of a vehicle to ensure there’s no glass bottles and whatnot within – to do that whole ticket and wristband thing and get directions to campsites. If you absolutely MUST NOT miss a moment, you need to get to Ozark or Fayetteville early and be prepared to head over long before the four o’clock hour.

The Pig Trail? That’s Highway 23. It runs through the beautiful Ozark Mountains and gets its name from the University of Arkansas mascot, the Razorback. Used to be, more adventurous Hog fans would take Highway 23 from Little Rock to Fayetteville to bypass the traffic that would always back up along Highway 71 (this is now averted with the construction of I-540).

Better gas up. Coming from the south, there’s a number of gas stations at Ozark (even one that serves good pie). Coming from the north, your last shots are Huntsville and Fayetteville. There’s just not much around in-between, and what you’re going to find is going to be more expensive.

Closest amenities? Well, there are camp stores at Wakarusa, but if you need more than that there’s tiny Ahart’s Grocery not too far up Highway 23. There’s a decently stocked CV’s in Ozark, a full sized grocery store – and the other way there’s a Harp’s on the outskirts of Fayetteville. There’s also a small Walmart (not a Supercenter) in Ozark.

Ozark is also home to a fantastic barbecue restaurant, Rivertowne Barbecue, half a block off the town square. Arkansas Wine Country is two exits east on I-40 at Altus – and all four wineries there offer tours and tastings. Altus is also home to a great little pub called Kelt’s.

If you’re sticking around after the event, check out Dickson Street in Fayetteville – packed with bars, restaurants, book stores and jam joints, right off the U of A campus. Go get a great burger at Feltner Brothers.

If you’re coming in from the west, Fort Smith is south on I-540 – but you’re better off going in through Van Buren (where you can take advantage of the trip and try Arkansas’s largest doughnut) to get to downtown. Alma’s also a good choice – I’d suggest grabbing a Dagwood and pie at the Red Rooster Bistro.

If you’re planning your trip or need a recommendation, drop me a line at


  1. Wow. I had never even heard of this before. Is this an annual event? when is the next one?

  2. June 4-8 up at Moss Mountain. You would love it!

  3. I meant Mulberry Mountain. Moss Mountain's where P. Allen Smith's Garden Home sits... I'm not certain 25,000 music lovers would fit up there!


Be kind.