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Wakarusa. It’s a fun word to say, but what does it mean? The exact etymology is unknown, but it’s rumored to be a local Native American tribe’s unit of measurement meaning “knee deep in mud”—or if you prefer the regional slang: “ass deep.” When the Wakarusa Festival organizers adopted the word for their music festival back in 2004, it made a lot of sense: That inaugural event took place right along the banks of Wakarusa river in Lawrence, Kansas. As it turned out, this four-day festival of jam bands, electronic dance parties, wild art, and vendors didn’t last long there; Lawrence is a hip college town for sure, but it isn’t Santa Cruz, and the chemistry wasn’t quite right for this free-spirited gathering.

Wakarusa fans often speak of the festival in a grand spiritual framework, enlisting terms like rite of passage and pilgrimage.

It’s for the best though. After careful research, the organizers found their sweet spot atop Mulberry Mountain near the City of Ozark in Arkansas. The fans are reverent about this 650-acre campground, which, aside from offering hiking trails and waterfalls, is on private land. This makes it much more permissible to rock out to VibeSquaD at the all-night ‘Interstellar Meltdown’ sessions. Although the festival’s days on the Wakarusa river-grounds are history, the organizers have kept the name, now invoking a looser, more metaphoric spirit of the word. The festival may not be in Kansas any more, but it’s still Wakarusa—as in ass deep in music, food, fun, and friends. ‘Waka-Waka’ goes the mantra.

West Coast Vibe Meets Mid-America

Wakarusa is a sort of High Sierra Music Festival “East,” featuring a round-the-clock procession of similar bands: String Cheese Incident, Thievery Corporation, Ben Harper, and Sound Tribe Sector 9, to name a few. And like High Sierra, this festival is nestled in Mother Nature and maintains that same mid-scale size that makes for an intimate atmosphere. The vibe is all summed up with one of the festival’s mottos: “Never corporate, always progressive. Forever your home away from home.”

If there is a difference between the two festivals, it seems largely contextual. While the west coast is thick with “hippie music festivals,” there is something refreshing about having one in the heart of the conservative South. Perhaps that’s why Wakarusa fans often speak of the festival in a grand spiritual framework, enlisting terms like rite of passage and pilgrimage. Mulberry Mountain is definitely a holy grail of sorts, with 20,000 fans—many from out-of-state—seeking its riches of alternative music, food, and community.

Wakarusa World

Set in the middle of the national forest, it’s not surprising that a subculture quality has taken hold at this remote festival. Wakarusa is a world unto itself, with its own terminology and traditions. There are the wide-eyed "waka-virgins," the “jaded vets” (who know everything), and the wandering “wooks,” who trade tour stories for food.

The festival has its own lingo as well, and before long you’ll be fluently speaking Waka-ese. If you find yourself snoozing during the set breaks, you are taking a “waka-nap.” Later, you might stroll a “waka-mile” from the stage to your campsite for a game of “waka-frisbee” (played with a beer in one hand). And, no doubt, by the end of the festival, you will surely have a “waka-tan,” which is the tan line left by the festival’s required wristband. Waka-what?

What are the Wakarusa traditions? A costume contest and parade, the Sunday morning drum circle, the waterslide, Burning Man-style art installations, and the increasingly popular “Interstellar Meltdown.” This all-night “festival within a festival” showcases the Mulberry Mountain’s electronic side. Past line-ups have been announced by the festival’s mascot Sassy the Sasquatch, a prodigal Big Foot who, as legend goes, left Mulberry Mountain for city life, but has been courted back to stay this year.

How much does six stages of goodness cost? One of the great aspects of Wakarusa is the reasonable price. In an interview with Consequence of Sound, festival co-founder Brett Mosiman puts the ticket price into perspective: “[Y]ou get a four-day world class vacation on top of a mountain with 120 bands for a little more or less than one night of a hotel room in Chicago or St. Louis.” That’s an impressive way to consider this experience.

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