CAVE-IN-ROCK - The yearly Gathering of the Juggalos has gotten plenty of bad press since its 2007 debut in Hardin County.
Unapologetic drug use and nudity don't play too well in conservative Southern Illinois. There has also been a history of violence at past events, and law enforcement officials are at the ready in case anything pops off again.
Those police, including the half-dozen Illinois State Police tactical troopers cooling their heels a few miles away, were in for a slow day Saturday.
Drugs and nudity were still present. At one point Vanilla Ice took a pull from a 5-foot-tall bong and more than a dozen women stripped down and danced on stage during his set, but violence seemed to be the furthest thing from the minds of the Juggalos and Juggalettes who thronged the main stage.
From most accounts of fans, this year's Gathering is smaller and mellower than in years past.
"There are some (expletives), but this year the (expletives) didn't show up," said Matt Burton, a 21-year-old fan from Chicago.
Burton's high-top sneakers were caked in mud, as was just about everything at the venue after rain fell earlier in the afternoon. This year's gathering was Burton's seventh, and he proudly displayed an Insane Clown Posse-themed tattoo on his right shoulder.
Burton also had a large bottle of whiskey in his hand, and he was more than happy to share it.
"We are Juggalos; we are one," Burton said. "It's the same as Deadheads."
The band has an eclectic following, and there were some freaky looking fans with the requisite braids and face paint. But most of the more than 10,000 people at the shows looked like, well, people.
Festival goers started arriving Wednesday. By Saturday the event was in its third day, and it smelled like an outdoor concert that had stretched for about 72 hours. The smell of marijuana smoke mixed with the scent of stale beer and sweat.
Brian Grove, a 25-year-old from St. Louis, stood on the outskirts of a tent packed with hundreds of revelers watching the Miss Juggalette pageant hosted by adult film star Ron Jeremy. Booze flowed and Grove, who was swigging on a canned soft drink, said the anything-goes attitude of the festival is what draws so many people.
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"Most of this stuff doesn't affect anybody but the people it affects," Grove said of the goings on.
Grove said the true parties don't start until after midnight, and the campgrounds are where the action happens.
"It's a different world at night," said one fan who shaved the word "family" in the thick, black hair on his back.
Family was a constant theme during Vanilla Ice's show as thousands chanted the word over and over again.
Luke Krasniewski, a Toledo native, drove 500 miles for the gathering. He carried a bottle of spiced rum and offered drinks to the handful of guys he partied with in the early evening.
The 21-year-old Krasniewski had a surprising answer when asked why he's been coming to Gatherings since he was 15. He said he's made an emotional connection with the band and its fans.
"Everything about this place is touching," he said. "It's absolute freedom. Everybody here is about the same thing."
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