A lot of artists who venture into the backwoods of the Northwest proclaim Washington’s Gorge Amphitheatre to be one of the nation’s most stunning settings for a musical set. Alongside Colorado’s Red Rocks, the pair host some of the world’s biggest acts who incessantly espouse their love for the staggering natural environs in which they’re privileged enough to play.
Well, the same should be said for the playground of Wolf Run Ranch in Dufur, Ore., except, the thing is, most of the artists who grace the stages at What The Festival hardly utter a word from their pulpits. Whether mumbling hushed salutations as they take the stage, hurling elated expletives as their set peaks, or offering humble gratitude as they exit from one of the fest’s pooled, cubed, dragon’d or incandescent stages, the artists at WTF seem to mostly let the music speak for itself.
Yet for many in attendance, the music is almost secondary to the numerous varied, immersive and communal experiences, the singular, intimate places where the fest’s beauty truly shines. Yes, it’s true that 7,500 of us would not travel hundreds of miles and spend hundreds of dollars if it were not for the music, but the artistry on display at WTF far exceeds what happens on its stages. Every turn is a new sensory stimulation, with your ears and eyes constantly being drawn in new directions.
While a wet Friday evening may have soaked bodies, spirits were not dampened and it made the emerging sunshine on Saturday all the sweeter. Afternoons became ripe for sunbathing and body moving in the shin-deep waters of the Splash Stage—a great place to indulge your inner child, another facet of the festival’s beauty that is nurtured around every corner.
With poor mobile service on the fest grounds, many go device-free for the weekend (a glorious unburdening in this day and age) and what better place to leave your phone behind than at a pool party. From sneak attacks with squirt guns to belly flops on pizza-shaped floaties, the waters and wooden decks of the Splash Stage encouraged unbridled daytime dancing and frolicking in the sun as the weekend progressed.
Beautiful people in mind, body and spirit let their freak flags fly, unleashing all the weirdness that’s repressed in daily lives. Silly disco moves ignited dance movements amongst groups of friends, crews brought out sit-on bouncy ball hoppers ready for hilarious battles, and others spun poi and hoops along the outskirts or carried handheld luminescent toys amongst the huddled, dancing masses at the nighttime stages.
The weather of the weekend progressively emphasized the natural beauty of the place, and as a delightfully warm afternoon bled into the evening on Sunday, it was time to watch the skies come alive. With Mt. Hood’s sharp white profile slicing the blue sky, WTF's clearest day gave way to an unparalleled pink sunset, which bled into a rich red sky and full moon where the clouds formed intricate twisting patterns and the light was refracted into innumerable slices of color and ultimately every shade of gray in the lunar glow.
As darkness descended and the show in the sky subdued, the next to come alive was The Illuminated Forest and its stages. Another playground for sensory stimulation, countless entrancing installations pulsed with lights and sounds, distracting and delighting wanderers ambling towards the flame-expelling Dragon Stage.
With DJs housed in a pagoda atop a fire-breathing dragon’s spine, that was not the only show in this tree-lined, hillside amphitheater. Bellying up to the stage, a bevy of lasers crisscrossed above your head painting patterns in the air and smoke, yet facing away from the stage again accentuated the natural beauty of this place. Finding yourself fully encircled by tall trees, the laser show extended to the wall of evergreens at your back where the digital canvas continued.
Ambling through the oscillating forest eventually led to WTF’s newest glowing experience, the immersive, sonically intense Groove Qube. With stacks of massive plastic boxes aglow, the confined, club-like space brought bodies and energy together until you were ready to seek your requisite rest. Maybe not quite ready to call it a night, it’s always fun to stay up way past your bedtime, and after dancing the night away, the time often came to drink tea, wrap yourself in conversation, and cozy up with one another at the Shinto A Go-Go until the wee morning hours.
And while music was ever-present around every corner—from the liberating flavors of the Splash Stage, to Chanti Darling’s boogie-inducing set, to the oscillating weirdness but building danceability of Danny Corn (listen to his WTF 2016 lineup sampler mix below), to undeniable main stage grooves from Lettuce, Thievery Corporation and Bonobo, to folksy and chilled out vibes at the Shinto, to simply laying inside a cloud and singing along to hits of the ‘80s in between amusing conversation—the place, and its ability to create a shared sense of community and experience, is what stands out as the beauty of What The Festival.
Beyond natural beauty and limitless auditory, visual and sensory indulgences, What The Festival induces a casual, carefree attitude—an opportunity to just let go. Surrounded by others doing the same, this is the place where the beauty shines brightest at this festival.