Ian Beal strolled through the campground at the Sonic Bloom Music Festival, surrounded by natural beauty. It was the summer of 2015, and the jam-band and electronic-music gathering was being held at Hummingbird Ranch near Walsenburg. The setting was stunning and serene: The majestic Spanish Peaks rose to the south beyond long stretches of rolling grassland, and evergreen trees provided pleasant shade next to a creek that bubbled alongside the area designated for campers.
But as Beal approached the creek, he spied something far from beautiful: A guy with dreadlocks, wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “Dare to suck it,” was flailing around on the muddy embankment.
“He was lying in the mud and yelling about how he couldn’t feel his legs because of this acid somebody gave him in the porta-potty line,” Beal recalls. “I looked at my friend and said, ‘Oh, my God, take a photo of that dude!’”
For Beal, the screaming man was nothing short of an anthropological marvel, a discovery akin to Dian Fossey coming across gorillas in the mist. This chance encounter in the Sonic Bloom wilds became even more remarkable when the mud-covered specimen pulled some plastic baggies out of a pair of Jordan sneakers that he’d tied around his neck. “Next thing you know, he takes one of the baggies, loads this huge line and just rails this shit back and starts screaming some more about how he can’t feel his legs,” Beal remembers.
“You’d better believe we got the photo,” he adds. There was no doubt in Beal’s mind: He and his friend had just seen a wook.
According to the canon of important academic research on the topic, one oft-cited 2009 Ph.D. dissertation by Christina Allaback of the University of Oregon, “The term ‘wookie’ or ‘wook’ appeared in the jam-band community within recent years. I first heard this term used at a String Cheese Incident show during the summer of 2000. Now fans use it quite often when referring to anyone who tours with bands for reasons besides the music — either for money, excessive abuse of drugs or alcohol, or for free tickets or goods.”
Allaback compiled extensive field notes from wooks’ natural habitat — music festivals — and surmised that the term derives from “wookiee,” the fictional species best represented by Chewbacca in Star Wars.
From a layman’s point of view, Beal agrees with the academic theory, since a preponderance of the men and women exhibiting wook-like behavior tend to resemble Han Solo’s furry sidekick, and even use his famous bellow as a mating call. But for Beal, a wook is not just a hippie or a granola-looking person sporting dreadlocks.
Rather, wooks are hippies who also act like assholes. “Asshats,” even.
A popular definition from the Urban Dictionary supports this:
“Noun: A dirty, hairy, stinky, mal-nourished, dishonest creature that often travels in packs…or alone wandering aimlessly around a concert (usually “hippie music”) parking lot…finding as many mind altering substances to cram into their bodies as fast and furiously as possible, get into the show somehow, don’t lose the dog this time, and if by chance they come across unattended property such as a cooler, chair, backpack, or a beverage, it will then become their own.”
Beal had been using the term for at least ten years before he and his friend encountered the acid-strung wook at Sonic Bloom. The photo they captured there became an instant classic among their friends, and at a backyard BBQ later that summer, Beal showed it to his wife, Hannah, and another good pal, Derek Barnes. After the three pounded some beers and exchanged stories of seeing other wooks in the wild, they joked about forming a private Facebook group where they could post wook photos and descriptions of where and how they’d “hunted” their prey. But then the joke became reality: They titled the page “Colorado Big Game Trophy Wook Hunters” and invited about ten of their friends to join. Beal wrote the inaugural post about how he came across the wook in the mud, “bagged and tagged it,” then released it back into the wild.
While the Facebook page was private, it allowed members to invite friends, and within a week its membership had grown to 100 people. A few weeks later, that number had ballooned to 500. And within a year, about 20,000 wook hunters were exchanging stories and photos of their trophies.
Today, Colorado Big Game Trophy Wook Hunters — or CBGTWH, for short — has over 120,000 members, with people posting from all over the world. CBGTWH has inspired copycats, too, but it’s by far the largest wook-hunting network on the Internet.
CBGTWH’s surprising success has not been without growing pains, including critics who argue that the whole concept of wook-hunting is debasing and violates people’s privacy. Such criticism continues to dog the page’s founders, especially as CBGTWH grows. But still they press on.
On a Tuesday afternoon, I meet with CBGTWH co-founders Beal and Barnes at Sancho’s Broken Arrow on East Colfax Avenue. There’s a reason we’ve chosen the Grateful Dead-themed dive bar, one that goes beyond its $3 two-for-one PBR draft deal.
“This is the only designated wook sanctuary on the entire planet,” Barnes shouts over a noodling Jerry Garcia guitar solo coming through the bar’s speakers. “There is no wook hunting allowed here, period.”
“We’re even making a sign for Sancho’s that says ‘No hunting’ that they’re going to put right over the bar,” Beal chimes in. “It’s just too easy here. This is like the wooks’ nest, or their hive.”
I survey the bar’s two dozen or so patrons, some of whom indeed look like close relatives of Chewie, and ask Beal and Barnes if they see any wooks in our immediate vicinity.
“No,” Beal responds.
“Yes!” Barnes counters.
“You see, it’s all subjective,” Beal explains. “You really need the story to go with it, like this person was trying to bum your last cigarette or something. Then you KNOW it’s a wook.”
The hunters explain that, soon after they started their Facebook page in 2015, the creative-writing component of the posts became just as important as the photos or videos that members provided. Always written from the hunter’s perspective with an anthropological edge, the descriptions provide the backstory of how a trophy wook was trapped in the wild.
They both have favorites, including an October 2016 post in which a wook hunter describes being on an airplane and seeing a Phish fan spill an entire baggie of what was almost certainly cocaine all over himself. Part of the description reads: “This creature was the last on the plane, he held up takeoff, mumbled incoherent noises about seeing ‘Phishco’ and was refused the very first drink he ordered. But the wtf holy grail moment of his wookery culminated in him accidentally ripping open a bag of mystery powder from his shoe, which unloaded on the passengers, seat, and floor around him. As he attempted to clean it up by rubbing it into everything it landed on, I snagged a photo of a full paw print of powder wiped onto this fucking jackalopes leg…Bagged, tagged, and released into Vegas for him to go rage Bisco without his drugs.”
Another classic: a mature wook dancing with a giant crystal at the Enchanted Forest Gathering in California in 2017. The hunter notes: “When I first saw my target, I froze. Could it really be? I watched as wook and wookette alike walked up to touch the buck’s monolith of a crystal. What this buck lacked in antlers he made up for in his chosen courtship display. Bagged, tagged, and released to smash chakras.”
But while such posts can sometimes rack up more than a million views and a thousand comments, Beal and Barnes are well aware that some people consider their page mean-spirited. There’s even an entire thread on Reddit dedicated to this exact topic, under this original post: “I find a lot of these pictures very harmless and funny. However, couldn’t comparing people to animals due to their music/fashion tastes be problematic?”
The responses are divided. Reddit user Felicia_Svilling says, “In general taking photos of private individuals without their permission, especially to mock them isn’t that nice.”
But right under this comment, another user fires back: “You’re right, but they probably don’t value their dignity much if they rail 20 lines of ketamine and pass out on the side of the road.”
Early on, Beal and Barnes realized they needed to create rules and actively moderate the page to keep it from getting out of line. As more Facebook users joined, the founders also knew they ran the risk of inadvertently getting wooks who were bagged and tagged in trouble with the law or their employers if they were depicted doing something illegal.
CBGTWH now has ten rules listed on its Facebook page, the first four of which are as follows:
“1. Don’t be an asshat, if you insist, we will be more then happy to send you some heady landscape rocks to kick on your way out the door.
“2. CBGTWH has zero tolerance for racist, bigot, homophobic, and sexist comments. Seriously if we wanted to see that trash we would join some hillbilly civil war club.
“3. No kids PERIOD. 18+
“4. Be creative, witty, funny and satirical with your narrative and commenting. This group is purely fiction and for entertainment purposes only.”
When things start to feel degrading, homophobic or sexist, Beal and Barnes don’t hesitate to delete posts or comments. Members also do a lot of the policing, and will tag some of the page’s seventeen admins when they see things going south.
Barnes, Beal and Beal’s wife were the original admins of CBGTWH, but as the Facebook page grew, they found that administrative duties were taking an inordinate amount of time. Since all of them also work full-time (Beal in retail, his wife in daycare and Barnes in graphic design), they gave admin powers to other members, people they might not know personally but who seemed both responsible and funny. Today, these seventeen users play an important role: They approve which posts appear on the page. Now that there are over 120,000 members, the page can receive upwards of 200 submissions per day; admins take turns going through all of them and selecting those worthy of display. The admins also have a secret group where they can have behind-the-scenes discussions about problematic posts or users they’re considering banning; since they’ve all become friends, Beal says, they also share updates on their own families and even memes poking fun at each other.
While Beal doesn’t post wook photos as often as he used to, he still enjoys running the page and setting the tone. And his colorful brand of humor is definitely on display.
After we order another round of PBRs, Beal recalls how he chastised a Facebook user who was leaving sexist comments. “I went off on a rant, saying it’s fucking 2017 and we don’t need to be telling girls we want to tongue-punch their fart box,” he says. “Like, if you think a girl is hot, tell her you’ll take her to a Papadosio show and buy her a corn dog.”
Barnes thinks about this for a moment, then nods in agreement. “Papadosio and corn dogs, man.”
The page has such reach that comments from the admins can take on lives of their own. After Beal’s rant against the sexist user last year, people started showing up to Papadosio shows with pins shaped like corn dogs fastened to the front of their clothes, Beal claims.
“I started a joke for a whole genre of music with that comment,” he marvels.
The Facebook page can also act like a Craigslist Missed Connections for wooks. Occasionally users recognize wooks in the photos and use that as an opportunity to reconnect. “It’s like wook networking!” Beal says. “They’ll write things like, ‘I haven’t seen you in ten years. You look great!’”
Users can also provide important context. “There was one photo of a kid who was tripping like crazy on a stairway, and everyone was trying to figure out if someone should help him,” Beal recalls. “And then some guy was like, ‘Nah, that guy lives in my basement. He’s fine.’”
Are people ever embarrassed when they find out they’ve been bagged and tagged? Beal says that 90 percent of the time, a wook feels honored. “And we’ll always take down a post if someone who’s pictured asks us to,” he adds.
Fundamentally, the founders say, their page thrives as satire, and while they’ve been surprised by CBGTWH’s viral trajectory, they believe they’re simply providing an outlet for over 120,000 other people with a similar manner of “talking shit” and an appreciation for how the page is kept under control, as well as new directions it can take.
Beal’s wife recently introduced official “tag” stickers — similar to the big-game tags offered by state wildlife departments — with ID numbers on them that CBGTWH members can surreptitiously stick on a wook they’re trying to capture in a photo. It’s considered the mark of a great wook hunter if they can actually tag a wook without their quarry realizing it.
Barnes also designs products offered on the official CBGTWH website, such as hoodies, beer koozies, pins and hats. And while Beal says the group is just breaking even at the moment, the founders are exploring other opportunities. “We’re starting to get festivals like Arise, 420 on the Block and Sonic Bloom reaching out to us as they realize how much reach we have,” he explains. “Some posts reach a million people, and most average 30,000 to 40,000 people. I think we’d be dumb to squander the opportunity that we have.”
The Sonic Bloom Festival will return to Hummingbird Ranch — where Beal sighted his first wook — from June 14 to June 17 this year. CBGTWH is one of the fest’s partners and will be featured on its banners and website.
But even as their organization grows in visibility and reach — today the page includes members from over seventy countries — Beal and Barnes say that the most satisfying part of running the site is never knowing what the next sighting will be. On some days the submissions aren’t that exciting, but then there will be a real find, like a photo of a naked wook with giant dreadlocks dangling behind him frolicking alongside a herd of horses on a prairie.
When you see something like that, Barnes says, it’s a reminder that Colorado Big Game Trophy Wook Hunters is “the greatest campfire joke that turned into something magical.”
Magical, and mythical: As the wook-hunting movement grows, its origin story has become legendary. By May 2016, enough new members had piled on that Beal decided to remind the CBGTWH community how it all started:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I know some of you have woken up deep in the middle of the night, startled out of a peaceful slumber, with the burning question, ‘Who was the very first trophy wook?’” his post began.
After describing the muddy embankment, the acid obtained in a porta-potty line, and the wook’s Jordan sneakers with extra baggies of drugs inside, Beal concluded, “We swooped him up and took him to the Klop Shoppe, where our master taxidermist Kris Kloppe fixed him up real nice."
That post reached thousands of people. But Barnes and Beal aren’t in the game for more “likes”; they’re in it for the thrill of the hunt. “ABH,” Barnes says, lifting his beer mug in salute. “Always be hunting.”
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.