In the fading afternoon light, Joe Mekan sits near the entrance to Gathering of the Juggalos, smoking a Marlboro and watching his fellow Juggalos pour into the festival. He’s wearing a black tank top and black beanie; tattoos cover his arms, including a work-in-progress he’s doing himself, starting with a stylized skull on his left hand.
“I’ve been a Juggalo since I was 11 years old,” says the Denver native, who’s now 22. “So yeah, I feel like I’m home. It’s incredible.”
It’s the kind of thing you’re likely to hear any first-timer say at the Gathering, especially one who’s waited more than 10 years to make his first pilgrimage. But Joe’s journey has been more incredible than most. In a way, it started three years ago, when he fell out of a tree on a camping trip and damaged his spinal cord, paralyzing him below the waist.
At first, Mekan resigned himself to living in a wheelchair. But when he learned of an experimental treatment available in Thailand, which uses stem cells to restore damaged spinal cord tissue, he allowed himself to believe that he might one day be able to walk again. The only catch was that the combined cost of the treatment and travel to Southeast Asia would likely exceed $70,000.
Hoping to raise funds quickly, Mekan's mother, Ann Baatz, launched a GoFundMe campaign and began writing to various organizations she thought might want to help. The first to respond: Insane Clown Posse’s Psychopathic Records, which offered to donate a percentage of their annual Gathering charity auction to Mekan's medical expenses. They also offered free tickets to the Gathering to Mekan and his family. And they even added a charity raffle, which the family didn’t learn about until they arrived.
So now, Mekan is here with Baatz and her husband, Ron, along with his friend Travis Gruber, who accompanied him from Colorado. Ann and Ron drove up from the Gulf Coast of Florida, where they now reside. For everyone, it’s their first Gathering, and they’ve been having a blast.
“I didn’t know what to expect and it’s just blown me away,” says Baatz. “Everybody’s just so cool. Everywhere you go, if you need anything, somebody’s right there.”
It’s helped that, thanks to the charity auction, and some coverage it’s received in the Juggalo press (yes, Juggalos have their own press), Mekan is a bit of a Gathering celebrity. Everywhere they go together — by golf cart on the steeper hills, but usually with Joe nimbly pushing himself along on the rear wheels of his chair — he’s recognized and warmly greeted.
“Everybody’s like, ‘You’re Joe the Juggalo,” Baatz says. “And they all wanna take pictures with him. It’s been amazing.”
He’s especially popular with the ladies, Gruber is quick to add, thanks to his striking resemblance to a young Leonardo Dicaprio. “Last night, two guys were like, ‘Hey, you look like that Titanic guy,’” he says, laughing.
The family hasn’t yet been told how much they’ll get from the auction or the raffle, but it’s likely to be tidy sum. A great deal of highly prized Psychopathic Records merchandise was up for bid, including one of the rarest and most sought-after prize packages in Juggalo land, a “Mystery Box,” which sold for $6,900.
“The bidding war was intense,” Mekan says. “One guy put a thousand dollars down right off the bat, and then the next guy who walked up instantly said four thousand.”
The whole point of the Mystery Box, he explains, is that no one knows what’s inside it. “It could be the most awesome thing in the world …”
“Or it could be stale Gathering air,” Gruber exclaims. “I’m like, ‘If it’s Gathering air, I’m gonna laugh so fucking hard.’” (Fortunately for the buyer, Mekan says, the box contained “a bunch of classic, rare figurines.”)
Gruber, a tattoo artist who met Joe about a year ago, laughs a lot, often with such force that it sends him bouncing in circles around the group like an excited golden retriever. He’s an intense guy (“Intense like camping!” he jokes at one point), but impossible not to like — and you get the sense that his intensity has been a big part of what’s kept Mekan focused on their goal of getting to Thailand.
“This dude deserves nothing more than to walk again,” Gruber says, as Mekan chats with another new fan/friend. “I’d give a leg for this kid to walk. I’ve never met a more deserving person than him. He’s the most humble kid … he doesn’t complain or pity himself, ‘woe is me’ — none of that.”
When they first met about a year ago, Gruber remembers telling him, “I don’t accept this for your life, bro. Technology and medical advances show that things are being done, and you can move on. And he was like, ‘Wait a minute, this is bullshit!’ It was like somebody just clicked the light on.” Now, the two friends trash talk each other over who might win in a footrace after Joe is healed.
Ron, Joe’s stepfather, is helping the cause as well with a fundraising motorcycle ride, stopping at Harley-Davidson dealerships all over the Eastern U.S. on his way to and from the Gathering to put up posters and raise awareness of Joe’s situation.
“Bikers do a lot for charity. Even the outlaw clubs are very charitable,” Ron explains, who's also selling T-shirts for the campaign, called "For Joe's Legs I Ride."
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“And bikers sort of get the same rap as Juggalos,” Ann adds. “They’re considered gangs and bad guys and stuff like that, and they’re really not.”
Mekan's ultimate goal is not just to walk again, but to become an advocate for the stem cell treatment he hopes to receive, which the FDA has yet to approve in the U.S. He and his family believe strongly that the American pharmaceutical industry actively lobbies to keep out treatments that promise to cure conditions like paraplegia, because, as Gruber puts it, “If you keep people sick, you keep people on pills, then they need to stay buying your pills. I stay rich if you don’t get a cure, but if you get a cure, my pocket takes a dent.”
Many paraplegics, including Mekan, experience severe chronic pain from their condition. He has an Oxycontin prescription but rarely uses it, preferring medical marijuana instead. “I would rather do that than take narcotics,” he says.
But for now, he’s just looking forward to enjoying the rest of the Gathering with his family — and his extended Juggalo Family. And he isn’t about to let his wheelchair stop him from being front and center for this year’s “Faygo Armageddon” finale, which he’s experienced on a smaller scale at two previous Insane Clown Posse performances. “That diet Faygo, it’s an amazing shower, always.”