As both a Halloween event and experience-driven music festival, Suwannee Hulaween doubles down on the bewitching delights either offer individually and bakes them into a transcendent party-adventure. They go together like the String Cheese Incident and jams, bringing to life an immersively cohesive world of imaginative self-expression, higher-frequency vibes, and exploratory glory that can unlock one’s inner self while transforming their outer reality. In this swamp, it’s easy to shuck off limiting feelings of self-consciousness and social anxiety, adopting the confidence and freedom of who you want to be instead.
A major part of Hulaween’s appeal comes from its diversity. Most of my festing takes place within the sphere of electronic music, and that sector does not disappoint here. But I love the breezy change of pace the wealth of jam bands provides (SCI host Hula and play six sets across three of the four days), alongside a terrific variety of other musical performers. This rallies ravers, old-school hippies, new-age wooks, first-time festivalgoers and families alike into the exquisite environment of the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park, mingling together amidst the rocking ramblings of Cheese and within the fantastical and spooky art installations of Spirit Lake.
This year’s ‘90s theme meant classic tunes from that era got mixed in or played live, cartoons from childhood were reanimated and specters of pop-culture-past threw us back with gleeful nostalgia. People really commit to the costuming, elevating the spectacle of festival fashion into a far more engaging element of the event that invites interaction between attendees. Such recognizability breeds immediate familiarity amongst strangers, emblazoning wacky moments of character encounters into lasting memory and streamlining the road to new festival friendships.
Across the Midwest and Through the South, to Hulaween We Go
After my inaugural Hula last year, I understood this is, unquestionably, the most fun way to celebrate the holiday. Hulaween is also one of those festivals worth returning to each year – no matter what other options are available – because it breeds real magic, in the same class as its big brother, Electric Forest. Unlike Forest, however, Suwannee supplies about the best camping conditions one could ask for. Attendees get to pick their own spots (lots of areas under tree cover available) and set up next to their vehicles with plenty of room to craft homey and/or luxuriously personalized spaces for their crews. The renegade camps are particularly awesome as a result of this flexibility.
To avoid trekking 24 hours straight to Live Oak, Florida (45 minutes south of the Georgia state line), I set out from Denver in the Techno Cruise Ship (my Town and Country van) a few days early to visit my family back home in Kansas City. I line up several passengers to join me last minute and pick up the first, Rob, in the southern tip of Illinois. Turns out, he’s a photographer in the scene and a righteous dude, too, so I’m glad to help him back on the Hula train after his friend backed out and plans fell apart. Outside of Nashville, we pick up Alex and Eliese, letting them take over driving as we hop in the back.
“Welcome to Wook City,” I say to Rob, as it only takes a minute of conversation to realize this couple embraces the wook life through and through. They cement this status upon revealing they haven’t showered in several days and have yet to secure tickets to the festival – but their “vendor friends should have wristbands” for them. Rob and I chuckle and drift off to sleep as Alex and Eliese put on a downtempo Tipper set.
We all become friends in the last four hours of the drive, and Eliese explains how she left her longtime job at Lowe’s a year ago to find herself in the concert and festival scene with Alex. Leaving behind a tame and thankless existence, she’s undergone a full-fledged transformation into WookiEliese. In response, I wax poetic on how the Festival Realm can engender people to evolve into their truest selves, releasing them from ingrained societal constructs and beliefs. But her eager excitement to start drinking before our arrival at the venue lights the fuse to a bomb showcasing the ugly side of her relationship.
Suwannee is A-Maze-ing
We’re not too far behind schedule by the time we pick up our tickets and enter the park. Suwannee’s campgrounds are enormous, but the main roads are well-labeled and it doesn’t seem too difficult to decipher the map and navigate our way to the Bat House (a swarm of bats fly in and out every dawn and dusk) area on the far side, where both Alex and Rob have friends camped. After driving up, down, and around to no avail, realizing any direct roads to our destination have been closed off by production staff, we pull over to get our bearings.
As Alex disappears in search of his friend to guide us, the wise energy healer I’d met online, Mesa Wind, appears in front of us. Her soothing presence helps calm our anxious nerves until Alex returns and we continue roaming the roads in confusion, at which point the communication breakdown and toxic underpinnings between Alex and Eliese begin to boil over. No one can give us clear directions – not even staff – and we drive in loops, hopelessly lost in a maddening maze until we eventually pick up someone who steers us to the far side. Texts from Rob’s friend misdirect us to the wrong campsite, where we park and set out on foot, leaving the wooks to their own devices in the interim.
Rob and I feel like Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, traversing the dangers of Mordor on a zig-zagging quest to Mount Doom. At last we pinpoint Rob’s buddies Sean and Sarah, and their campsite is in a prime location. But getting back to the van as the light fades from the sky proves just as arduous, recalling my disorientation and inability to ferret out the return route to camp on night one a year ago. WookiEliese has obstinately wandered off on her own by the time we find the Techno Cruise Ship and won’t answer her phone, forcing us to leave without her.
Luckily, we hear her belligerent voice while navigating and pick her up. The ensuing display of full-blown wookery in the back seat combined with further difficulty in reaching the camp again push us all to breaking point, like Gollum driving a wedge between those famous hobbits. More than three hours have passed since entering the maze, and the argumentation and pleading for reason conclude with the wookette running off to the woods of Kashyyk alone. We finally arrive and Alex acknowledges their relationship must end. He heads to the showers and discovers his group just one row over from us. We’re all exhausted, but noticing the row of vendors leading to the entrance is only a couple minutes walk away, the extra strain was worth this spot.
The Bongos Bring Clarity
Tired of dealing with the janky zipper on a tent I cram pretty full, I upgraded to a 16’ x 9’ tent for this festival, which Rob helps me set up for the first time. We both fit all our stuff in comfortably with room to spare, and then I hear the bongo drums of Andy Ammo echoing across Spirit Lake from Justin Jay’s set. I ditch the red jacket and dope mask for my Starlord of Dance costume because Suwannee is uncharacteristically muggy this weekend (historically being cool at night), and just grab Excalibur, my LED-lined “Halo” energy sword totem. Alex swings by fresh and we head in together.
He’s obviously still distressed, but the sight of the quintessential Spanish moss hanging from the trees and Justin’s killer grooves enhanced by the bingo-bango-bongos puts me in the zone, connecting with the enigmatic forces inhabiting this place. I activate Excalibur and the sound-reactive light patterns illuminate the sudden awe in his face. “Dude…that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
A Master Wook like Alex can appreciate the unseen-but-felt influence of the universe upon our lives, so I explain the astrological period that can contextualize the earlier shitshow. “Eliese is 28. Currently, she’s going through her Saturn Return, which initiated its upending of her life when she left her job. From our late 20s to early 30s, Saturn – the planet of responsibility, discipline, karma, change and ‘growing up’ – shakes us to the core and out of complacency. She’s evolving into adulthood, into a new direction for the rest of her life. Many people hit rock bottom amidst a death and rebirth of who they really are. Many relationships crumble alongside our old identities. She must experience that chaos to reach order in her journey.”
“Damn dude. That’s spot-on. Her whole world has been flipped upside down since I’ve known her.”
“Besides,” I add, “you two would just be fighting most of the weekend, and ruin the Hulaween experience for yourselves.”
We infiltrate the crowd at the Spirit Lake stage and I let the rapid-fire house rhythms and dynamite live-bongo beats flush out any frustrations and stagnation in my body. Justin knows how to expertly weave select disco and classic hip-hop tracks into his invigorating flow – it’s one of the factors that turned him into a rising star on Dirtybird while still in college. As he drops Bell Biv Davoe’s “That Girl Is Poison,” bolstered with Andy’s reverberating bongo slaps, I send Alex a knowing look before emphatically swirling around while pounding air bongos. The juicy house tunes and dynamic drumming jazz me up like the glow in the dark jellyfish on my t-shirt, pulsing with an electric jiggle.
The Magnetic Pull of Spirit Lake
Alex and I resolve to continue the vibe at the Patch with the progressive jams of Umphrey’s McGee, although the unending visual enchantments spread throughout the Spirit Lake area (Hulaween’s equivalent to Electric Forest’s eponymous Sherwood Forest) slow our stroll across. The metal face spewing massive flames sucks me in briefly, though we still make it to the far side gateway where two huge, club-wielding green trolls stand guard before we stop. In an innocuous bathroom break, we feel the electromagnetic waves of Spirit Lake exert their pull upon us, from the ogre-like sentries’ internally heard rumbles of “What are you doing in my swamp?!”, to spontaneous interactions with several sets of people.
One of them is Sam, who notices my beaming plasma sword and recognizes me as Speed Raver (even without my LED supersuit), reminding me he was one of about 30 people I met inside the Spider Butt last year (I’ll come back to this). Running into people from one festival to another – or consecutive years of the same festival – who I left an impression on or befriended, makes those experiences resonate across time and space, in deeper ways that exemplify the connective tissue of the Festival Realm.
Alex has a group hug with the crew of strangers he’s been chatting with, then we decide the last bit of Umphrey’s isn’t worth the trek there. Sam joins us back at the Spirit Lake stage for the breadth of dark bass surges Whipped Cream is dishing out. She incorporates a clever spin on the 20th Century Fox theme right as we return, immediately erasing my preconceptions that she lacks distinction in her selection from a lot of uninspired bass artists slinging way too much of the same stuff. Any DJ who uses movie music in a creative, compelling way earns extra points and interest from me. Her womps and tremors keep us stomping and shaking for most of the set, until we swim downstream for a breezy breaker of an entirely different color.
A Breath of Hippie Air
Down the road from Spirit Lake, I get a taste of what constitutes “jamgrass” as Greensky Bluegrass emanate idyllic, sprawling stringed-instrument harmonies with slick-fingered banjo and mandolin solos, exalted by vocals soaring above the Amphitheatre and over the swamp. It’s a calming breath of country air compared to the heavy bass prior…but I feel antsy without something more visceral or additional stimulation, leading Alex and me to browse the nearby vendor offerings.
Exotic trinkets and treasures catch my eye, but we’re pulled over to the vibrational wavelength of a booth run by a married couple of genial, vintage Deadheads. Crystals have started holding appeal for me beyond aesthetic value, so I examine the gemstone collection while Alex honors and respects the traditions of these older hippies, whereupon they realize they’ve graciously connected at Hula several years ago as well.
Next, we gaze wide-eyed upon the majesty of the art showcased in the Mural Maze booth. One of the most jaw-dropping installations in Spirit Lake is the collection of vivid, trippy art murals from a variety of stunning artists. Prints and additional paintings of their work on display motivate my own psychedelic visual style, artistically opening my photographic eye and synchronizing my energetic systems with the magical frequencies of the swamp. Alex and I venture through moving projection mapping displays along the mural wall entrance into the Spirit Lake multidimensional tunnel, which transports him somewhere into the fray and leads me back to the surreal spider-troll sculpture, named Sly the Spy.
In the Web/Atop the Lake
Using recycled wood, Danish artist Thomas Dambo creates giant sculptures of Norwegian-folklore-inspired trolls around the world. Three of them reside in Spirit Lake during Hulaween (a fourth is gone this year), with his spider troll likely the scariest of all his sculptures. A humanlike head and feet, along with terrifying teeth, make him a fearsome, twisted sight from the front. But around back, you can climb through the hole at the end of his large abdomen (aka the Spider Butt) into a cozy chill-out space.
It’s amusing to meet a few people in there, but when many have taken up residence in the Spider Butt, it expands into a hilarious community experience. Friendships form, jokes arise, and when a newcomer peeks their head inside – especially if they seemed discouraged by crowding – chants of “Come – in – the butt! Come – in – the butt!” induct new members into the hole via tribalistic ceremony. For the final hour-plus before Spirit Lake closed on the last night in 2018, while decked out in my Spider-Raver outfit, I spun a web of connections with about 40 people who joined the shenanigans in the Spider Butt. Our record was 28 inside at once.
Right now, however, people are hanging on top of Sly. Ascending his thin leg with my camera in one hand requires nerve-wracking balance. The chick behind me heaves in relief upon making it up, then we both gawk at the preschool-age little girl who promptly follows with seemingly no trouble. I feel like a spider overlooking Spirit Lake from a web in the trees from this vantage point, watching the crowd at the Spirit Lake stage as the reverberations from Peekaboo’s deep bass cause me to wobble atop the arachnid and swing Excalibur in the air.
My good friend and fellow festival character Matthew the Mailman calls my attention down to the ground, enticing me to visit him when he’s operating the roulette table at the casino late each night. He additionally informs me that Frick Frack Blackjack will be especially exciting after midnight Friday and Saturday. I’ll be there with a heavy-ass bag of silly stuff to gamble away.
Mythical Trolls of the Lake
Behind the spider, I stumble upon a kaleidoscope installation with a long, mirrored prism to look through and three woven wheels (the top one being a third eye) at the end of it. When another person rotates the wheels, the view in the kaleidoscope dizzies and dazzles. The metaphysical symbolism of the eye points me to Zach the Shaman, another of the wooden trolls conducting a wellspring of fortuitous energy.
He wears a witch doctor mask and spellcasts a party-vibe enhancement field between his powerful hands, which I tapped into last year as my wizard persona Doctor StrangeLamb leveled up into an all-out Sorcerer of the Dancefloor. Zach continued to guide me a few months later when I found a superb new place to live. I responded to a roommate ad of a girl I’d never met, whose Facebook profile picture was posed in front of him – and upon closer inspection, realized that I just so happened to be sitting on his arm directly behind her in the photo.
I cleanse my intuitive channels and fill my festival-magic reservoirs in his mysterious presence, then carry on to the original Dambo troll to inhabit Suwannee: Snorra, the Lake Monster. Pulling herself out of the ground by a tree in front of the lake, her mouth hangs ravenously open, ready to devour any human in front of her. With marvelous projection mapping highlighting her whole figure in delirious coloring, it’d be easy to fall victim to the hypnotic effects and become her prey.
I bob and weave to the rail for Peekaboo, linking up with Mesa Wind again to pump up and slink down to the booming bass tides. I would not have presumed an old-school, energy-healer hippie to be such a gnarly basshead – but her enthusiasm hypes me up as much as the heavy bass. Once she dips back to camp with her group, I realize the evening’s big event is underway, and zip across the passageway to the Patch for the jamtronica glory of STS9.
Tribe always curates a surfing sensation of elation at Suwannee, which rises within me in an animalistic way as I geek out over a totem of Simba’s outline from “The Lion King.” It gets better upon seeing that a shamanic Rafiki is the one cavorting around with this, prompting me to initialize my personal brand of light manipulation and alchemy with my camera and flash. I nestle in with some poi spinners and, lo and behold, find exactly who I’ve been wanting to see.
One of my favorite memories last year was sliding into the secret ball pit and befriending the others submerging themselves in its soothing wonder. The one I’ve kept in touch with from that encounter, Clementine, is a blue-and-green-haired dancing nymph of nature, and we crack up as we catch up. Her blue-white-eyed partner Zac twirls around an LED dragon staff, and I capture the light trails swirling around him like a blaze of multicolor flames. As STS9 paints the Patch with instrumental synesthesia, I freeze long-form wavelengths of light in time, like brush strokes on the air made with a space whip and vibrant hula hoops.
Wheelin’ and Dealin’, Eerie Lights and Tunes All Night
Anyone who’s invested some time into Frick Frack Blackjack at any of their festival appearances can attest to the ludicrous mania and incomparable novelty of the game. No money is exchanged – players bet whatever frickin’ items they want and the dealers match with some frack of comparable value from their stockade of winnings. The fan-favorite activity has expanded into a casino for Hulaween with various other diversions surrounding the main table. I observe Matthew the Mailman’s stint as “The Wheel Man,” administrating the low-stakes, small-item-betting at zodiac roulette (“Zoulette”). Players bet on the astrological signs and Matthew slings a tennis ball in a tarot-card-lined wheel with suits corresponding to the elements.
One of the most iconic parts of Spirit Lake is the phantasmal animations projected upon watery mists over the lake itself. No night is complete without a session losing yourself in these displays, so I sit by the lake and strap in. Spectral visuals of otherworldly creatures, mystical beings and esoteric imagery representing the beyond, bolstered by hair-raising audio underneath, build an ethereal bridge to the astral plane.
Nearly floating from the immersion in astounding psychedelia, I hit the silent disco at Spirit Lake’s smaller Campground stage to flutter about in ecstatic dance before heading back to camp. A colorimetry booth on the way there showcases hallucinatory art in a black box room, giving those who enter RGB lights to shift the emphasized colors like a strobing kaleidoscope – melting my eyes in amazement as a result.
Renegade sound camps begin to pop off each night before the music inside ends, going until 5 or 6 a.m. There’s a kick-ass renegade next to my camp, so I slip through its hidden door and groove to the electro-funk till they shut down, blissfully passing out for much-needed rest shortly thereafter. The real wildness at Wannee commences tomorrow.