October 17, 2007 Edition

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Getting the blues

Vivian Heyl
TD Staff

Each October my husband and I pack up our ancient van with all our camping gear and head south to Helena for a week of blues at the annual King Biscuit. Of course it's now called the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival, but to most of us it will always be the King Biscuit.

We camp at the Fireman's Campground located below the levee at Riverfront Park. This is nothing more than a wide-open field with a water hydrant sticking out of the ground in the middle of all that space. By the Sunday before the festival campers were already showing up. By Wednesday they had installed porta potties and cold-water shower stalls and the camp has 40 to 50 campsites set up.

There is nothing that will make you appreciate modern conveniences so much as doing without them. This year the weather was hot and humid and even the nights remained unseasonably warm. The line at the showers was constant. Even in the early morning hours campers stood in line for a chance to get doused by a cold stream of water.

By Thursday the field looked like a refugee site. Tents, RVs, campers, and all things in between were set up willy-nilly all over the place. Some folks came with little more than a pup tent and a couple of lawn chairs while others traveled in luxury in a home on wheels.

By Friday the place had grown to the size of a small town with perhaps 2,000 people crowded into the area. You get to know your neighbors, like it or not.

We have developed many long-term friendships over the years and each year we make new friends. The best thing about the campground is the sense of community one begins to feel. There are clusters of campers who develop their own block within the campground. The largest is aptly named Tent City and houses the in-name-only "mayor" who presides over that section.

Our little section is called Helena Handbasket. We're the die-hard campers who are always inventing new camping gizmos and trying out new ideas.

There is possibly even more music going on at the campground than at the actual festival. Every day, 24-hours a day there is music. Guitars, banjos, drums, mandolins, harmonicas and even an occasional piccolo can be heard floating across the park.

The music is constant. Blues, jazz, country and old time rock-and-roll dominate the genres but I always expect the unexpected.

My husband seems to be able to turn anything into a job, so it wasn't too many years before he found a regular gig (unpaid of course) during the festival and it would be an early morning one. So even on my vacation I'm getting up at the crack of dawn so we can go to Bunky's Breakfast to perform. Well, not me, I can't even play the radio. I am support personnel.

It has turned into a massive jam and musicians pour through the door from 8 a.m. until festival time. We've developed a core group of musicians we call the Bunky's Breakfast Emporium Orkestra. Everyone has a great time including the diners, and the proprietors love it.

We always look forward to the Biscuit and we're always glad when it's time to come home. I need a vacation to recover from my vacation. This year was no different. It was fun with lots of music, food and sunny weather. I'm already looking for my next camping gizmo to razzle-dazzle the Handbasket folks with.

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