The Road Back From Backwoods at Mulberry Mountain

Photos by C.MACphotography

Trigger warning: This article will have two separate sections. The first section will highlight the overall festival. The second section will cover Sunday and details regarding the helicopter crash. I will recount my personal experience as an attendee. Some times may not be 100% accurate, but it was around that general time frame.

After leaving 50 degrees Milwaukee weather for an 11 hour drive down south, I was more than ready to set my tent up at Backwoods Music Festival and get this weekend going.

Backwoods occurred May 31st-June 2nd at Mulberry Mountain, a beautiful venue immersed within the Ozarks. My boyfriend and I drove nine hours on Thursday and spent the night in Branson, Missouri, and we finished the remainder of the trip Friday morning. We got there around 10:30am, and the road to get there was so clear I was afraid I put in the wrong address!

Finding a camping spot was a bit hectic because it seemed to be a bit of a free-for-all, but we managed to secure awesome spots only two rows away from the gate of the main stage, Motherland. We were also extremely close to all the vendors and shops. Similarly to Summer Camp Music Festival, we camped inside the venue, but we also camped next to our cars. We didn’t have to wait in line at security to enter because there was not a traditional entrance within the campgrounds. There would be occasional security checkpoints before you entered two of the four stages, where security would just look inside your bag for weapons, but it wasn’t time consuming since it was extremely brief.

The Venue

All of the main three stages were along the concrete path, but they were spread out nicely so no sound bleeding occurred. It was awesome because the road from Motherland to Global Theatre had an abundance of vendors and shops to browse around. All workshops were being held adjacent to the shaded camping grounds among an art village, which gave me major Sherwood Forest vibes. There was a tarot reader that my boyfriend and I did a couples reading at, a tea haven where free tea was distributed among a lounge area, and an art section where festival goers could create a piece of burned artwork. There was a ton of art installations made of natural resources done, too, and a lot of it was super interactive.

The Vendors

I am an extremely picky eater to the point I almost resent food for making me need it to live. If I could have potstickers, sushi, and (actual good) ramen everyday, I would be happy. But alas, I cannot cook nor cannot financially support that glorious lifestyle. However, I never felt short of options at Backwoods. There was something for literally everybody. There was American food, Mexican food, Japanese food, Thai food, etc. and various vegan/vegetarian options. If you wanted a refreshing beverage, there were several smoothie and milkshake stands. Also, if you wanted a delicious dessert to top it off, there was rolled ice cream on site!

I absolutely loved the diversity of the vendors, too. There were art, jewelry, apparel, pins, camping gear rentals, Ozarks tourist information, etc. There was even a window repair vendor! Needless to say, I kept myself extremely busy just browsing everyday. One of the vendors had two raccoons he let us pet, and I noticed they had some pet squirrels, too! 

The Crowd

I have been to my share of music festivals, but there was something unique about the crowd at Backwoods. There were a lot of families with adorable, young children. One little girl was spraying people with a water hose, and it was the cutest thing in the world. There were a ton of dogs, too. Children and dogs aside, the festival goers at Backwoods were some of my favorite people yet. Backwoods is truly a family, and I felt that from the moment I stepped foot on Mulberry Mountain.

The Music

Let me just say that Yheti’s sunrise set at the Aqua Stage was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. His set began at 4:30am and ended at 7:15am. My boyfriend and I started to nap around midnight and woke up at 4 to make it in time. The only con was the scorching sun waking me up only a few hours later.

Saturday night was incredible, with The Motet into Pigeons Playing Ping Pong into PEEKABOO into Space Jesus into REZZ. All of them absolutely killed it, and PEEKABOO didn’t forget to play “Babatunde” so he escapes dubstep time out this time. Camping right by Motherland was definitely one of the best decisions we made this weekend.

Sunday and the Helicopter Crash

Tulsa County Helicopters was giving helicopter tours all weekend of Backwoods and surrounding areas to festival attendees for $40 per person. The trip lasted around seven minutes, and it was stationed near the Motherland stage. I didn’t have service the entire time on the mountain, but before I left I noticed the weather app predicted some showers on Sunday. We figured it wouldn’t be bad, and there was only a 40% chance at the time. The entire Sunday was extremely sunny and hot, similar to the previous days.

7:15pm: My boyfriend and I were at the Aqua Stage, watching Minnesota play. Due to the stage being a little down the mountain, we were at the bottom of the hill’s trail to get close to the stage. At this point, there was nothing in the sky that indicated the weather would become awful. I even overheard a group nearby say, “I guess it isn’t going to rain today.”

7:45pm: There was an announcement that we must get to the top of the hill because of a thunder warning. Everyone quickly left, and the rain started coming down before I got to the top of the mountain. It truly did come out of nowhere. Our car was across the entire venue, about two rows away from the Motherland Main Stage. We hopped into the car and waited for the storm to pass.

8:00pm: The heavy rain and thunder stopped. The sky was still gray, but a beautiful double rainbow was over the Motherland stage. Several minutes after, the Motherland played the opening cries from “Circle of Life” from The Lion King, indicating the show will go on. Everyone was honking their car horns and celebrating the continuation of the festival.

8:15pm: My boyfriend and I were walking back towards the Aqua Stage, as everyone assumed the festival would resume and had no idea about what truly happened. Minnesota was scheduled to play until 8:45pm, so we assumed he may finish it up. On our way back, we noticed flashing red lights. A staff member was instructing us to not walk on the concrete path and to cut through the campsites if we wanted to get to the other side. At first, I assumed it may be a medical emergency due to being hit by thunder or something related. When we walked past the field though, we didn’t see anyone and couldn’t tell what they were here for. A lot of attendees were asking staff about what was happening. All of them said, “I honestly do not know, I’m sorry.”

8:30pm: We went to the Aqua Stage and were told by staff inside the area that it was closed and would reopen in 15 minutes. A helicopter was flying overhead, and I overheard another group nearby say, “I think the helicopter crashed.” It made sense, but I was skeptical to believe that as fact since rumors can’t always be reliable. We debated waiting or walking back to our car that was at Motherland. PLS&TY was playing at The Motherland at the time so we decided to go back to the car and watch from there.

9:30pm: PLS&TY was still performing, and I figured he got a longer set time due to the weather delays. He finished around 9:45pm, so we decided to walk back to Aqua Stage. While walking on the trail, I saw another group walking the other way and I asked what was happening. They said, “Don’t even try going there, they turned us away.”

10:00pm: We went back to our car, and we noticed The Motherland stage was quiet, but full of people. I was extremely confused at what was going on. Next to our car, I heard someone play the news from a phone that confirmed there was a helicopter crash.

I didn’t discover anything else until the next day when we left Mulberry Mountain. I believe there was an official announcement at the main stage around 11:00pm or midnight, but I may have been too far or just asleep to hear it. It has been confirmed three people, including the pilot, passed away during the accident. The other two were staff members of Backwoods. The one passenger who lived has recently been confirmed stable at the hospital and is on the road to recovery.

The cause of the crash it yet to be determined, however many people believe it was due to the unexpected storm. I have seen a lot of negative things on various Backwoods groups. People are blaming the pilot, blaming Backwoods, etc. This isn’t the time to point blame though. We, the festival community, experienced something extremely tragic and horrific. Instead of blaming who or what caused this, we need to come together and support one another. You never know what will happen in life. Because of this, cherish everyone and cherish everything that happens.

Since this tragedy occurred, several GoFundMes were created to help the victims’ loved ones.

One of the people who passed was Sarah Hill. You can donate here.

Another person who passed was Marco Ornelas. You can donate here.

The pilot who lost his life was Chuck Dixon. You can donate here.

Zach Peterson was the sole survivor of the crash. He is currently on the way to recovery, and all donations can be given here.

“Today, our hearts rest with our three team members, friends, and family of ours, who passed yesterday. These three individuals were incredibly hard working and loved by our festival community, and wanted to continuously improve the experience for you, as well as others who attended every year. The fourth individual who was involved in the helicopter crash was a beloved Backwoods attendee, and thankfully, we have report from the local Sherrif, is now stable and on the road to recovery after an intense rescue effort last night. We thank you for understanding that we were unable to run the stages with lights and lasers during the air rescue which ensued late into the night, or sound due to radio interference. Call your loved ones today, and please tell them you love them.” -Backwoods Music Festival on Facebook

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