ADVENTURE AT THE OREGON COUNTRY FAIR 2015
The Road There
Thursday 1p on July 9, one day before the event kickoff, I caught my ride to the Oregon Country Fair site with a girl who replied to my rideshare request on Craigslist. Emily, let’s call her. She had two other girls as well as myself packed into a small red 4-door, giving us full carpool cred. I wanted a pleasant interruption from city life, perhaps a sign that would point me towards the future from my present crossroads in life. “When I go into something like this for the first time, I try to have no expectations,” said Emily—one of a number of sage pieces of advice that she handed me during the ride.
I chose to leave my tent where I’ve been camping for the past two months in PDX, rather than hauling it away for three nights. The risk of anything untoward happening in my absence seemed negligible; I hadn’t encountered a single other human being since I picked that spot to camp back in early May.
Emily told us on the drive there that she was “actually working for the police force right now,” then reassured us, “I’m reasonable.” She was an OCF virgin, a first-timer, while I had vague, utopian memories of my mother bringing me to the Fair once when I was 15 or so. The other two girls were more or less veterans, in possession of significant other passes (SOPs). That meant they would be able to stay in the secret campground inside the Fair, which the general public only glimpsed from blocked trailheads & holes in the wooden walls & fence that kep them out of the VIP area. As VIPs with SOPs, they assured us, they would enjoy the upper echelons of camaraderie & group debauchery that we unprivileged plebes could only vainly imagine! We were made keenly & tantalizingly aware that the *real* fun was reserved for such insiders! But they encouraged me to believe I might have beginner’s luck or bum an SOP from someone who was leaving early & had no further use for it. It would depend largely on my social forwardness versus my tendency to withdraw into a writerly bubble of introversion.
I’d brought along a current issue of hipster alt-weekly par excellence the Portland Mercury. We flipped through it but saw no mention of the Fair; not surprisingly, given the Merc’s longstanding & weirdly intense hatred of those they deemed ‘hippies.’ Willamette Week’s coverage amounted to a single page of cartoon caricatures of various stereotypical fairgoers, including The Nice, Cool Liberal Guy, wearing a t-shirt that says THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE; The Naked, Pregnant Anti-Vaxxer with “her breasts painted as flowers, hula hooping with two naked & muddy children covered in some unidentifiable pox”; & The Super-High High School Student, recognizable by his “bloodshot eyes, too-new shoes, Oregon Country Fair tie-dye shirt purchased at the entry booth, iPhone constantly buzzing with ‘Mom’ on the screen.”
OK, they’re kind of funny. But I can’t help wondering, why does it seem so necessary for the Portland papers to make mean-spirited fun of everyone else all the time? Despite the apparent rivalry between the Mercury & Willamette Week, the two weeklies are often united in their snarky tone & frequent mockery of the city’s weirder elements. But are they not disparaging the very things that make, or have made, Portland unique & transgressive? Beneath their shared progressive sheen, these publications are anything but radical. They advocate voting Democrat as if the two-party system still works—or ever worked, for the people—& uphold the establishment in various ways both overt & subtle, influencing legions of readers not to rock the boat too much. “Just chill out & smoke some weed & drink some more local craft beer & ride your bike home (nude is fine) & shut up,” they exhort us. Their relentless hippie-bashing & sowing of disunity keeps us divided, fighting among ourselves rather than uniting to shake shit up for real; it discredits the 1960s-inspired counterculture, whose idea(l)s in my opinion are needed now as much, or more, than ever.
I wasn’t going to the Fair to bring back scathing reports of all the freaky people I would meet. I wanted to return to the wondrous, semi-unconscious, childlike state of grace I’d known before the fear of being judged by other people ever entered my awareness of the world.
The drive was only two hours & we were there in no time. We turned onto Suttle Road & saw campsites: FurtherSide, Quiet Camp, Darling Reunion, Carefree Camp. When we reached the Fair site itself, Emily dropped the other girls off inside the parking lot, & they quickly disappeared not to be seen (by us) again; it was clear from the beginning that they would probably find separate rides back afterward. (I got the feeling that, not only is the Fair more fun for those on the inside, it also lasts longer… there’s got to be lots of interesting stuff happening on that land the other 362 days of the year, right?) Emily checked in at Quiet Camp, then I grabbed my stuff from her trunk, agreed to get ahold of her before Sunday to confirm my ride back, & set off on foot to figure out where I was going to stay.
It had taken most of the money I had, $62, for admission to all three days of the Fair, & the campsites I stopped at wanted between $15 to $25, per person, per night, to camp. That pretty much ruled out camping the legal way. I had thought of bussing in to Eugene, there to seek a random crash place, but was told the busses wouldn’t be running until the next day, official first day of the Fair. I managed to sneak into Carefree Camp, since I happened to be wearing a bracelet in the form of a thick blue rubber band, the kind used to hold broccoli at the supermarket, which resembled at a glance the blue wristbands worn by legitimate Carefree Campers. I had not slept well the night before & promptly curled up in a vacat camp spot for a nap. I thought of spending the night there as a renegade, hoping the rightful campers wouldn’t check in til the next day, but grew restless, & finally, not wanting to deal with the anxiety of possibly being forced to move or kicked out at any moment, I left the camp & decided to hike to nearby Veneta instead. Previously, on the ride in, I’d asked the girls in the car, “Couldn’t I just find a spot to sleep, without paying, somewhere that no one would find me?” They’d replied, “Normally we would say no, but in your case… just one person by yourself, without a tent even… & it seems like you’ve got some skills.”
Heck yes, I could do it! This tiger has prowled the jungle before.
I asked for directions to Veneta from a guy directing traffic. “You’ve gotta walk along this road for a mile or more, then turn right on Territorial Highway… you’ve got a ways, man,” he said. His tone belied doubt that I would make it so far, burdened as I was.
“Well, how far… like, ten miles… twenty miles?” I asked.
“Oh, no, not that far… more like two or three miles.”
“Oh, man, that’s nothing!” I walk farther than that, from my tent into downtown Portland, almost every day.
I reached Veneta & hit up a shopping center on Highway 126 (aka the Florence-Eugene Highway) for dinner. The supermarket surprised me by being more expensive than Portland. I was under the impression things were marked up in the city, not so much in small towns, but evidently this is a misapprehension on my part. To my relief, they took EBT (food stamps). While I sat in the parking eating dinner & sipping wine from a Gatorade bottle, around sunset, a bus parked nearby. Dreadlocked boys with tattoos & skateboards got out. One of them approached me to offer a small bag of raisin bran in exchange for a gulp of my wine. I felt a kneejerk urge to refuse—if I give him one drink, he’ll want more!—but social finesse won out. To my relief, he took only one reasonable swig, then handed it back & didn’t ask for more, which would’ve been awkward. I’d brought some wine & vodka along, enough to float me through the weekend, so that a visit to the liquor store wouldn’t be necessary, but it wasn’t really enough to share.
So I wrapped up dinner early & resumed scouting for a spot where I could sleep with some semblance of privacy. I ended up sleeping next to a utility box behind a restaurant just up the road. The concrete slab on which the utility box sat was just long enough for me to stretch out full. I wondered whether it was dangerous to sleep right next to electricity & telephone wires, but remembered a chart I’d recently seen that showed the various frequencies of electromagnetic radiation & radio waves. The electricity & radio waves were low on the frequency spectrum, less harmful than sunlight, or so I interpreted the chart—so I didn’t worry about it.
Despite the busses not running, I was glad we’d arrived a day early, so as to relax & enjoy the pre-Fair anticipation. But the sky had turned cloudy & a thunderstorm was possible. The storm didn’t materialize, but it did rain, gently enough that I managed to stay dry cocooned tightly within my sleeping bag. The moisture only penetrated about two thirds of the way through. Still, I had to laugh the next morning at the supermarket when I heard the townsfolk talking about the first rain they’d had in a long time. My luck for it to happen the night I was sleeping outside without a tent!
Getting Through the Gate
Though I had done my best to find a spot out of view, when I woke the next morning to the sound of voices & cars nearby, I realized that I was in fact directly in the line of site of an espresso stand with fairly heavy morning traffic flow. I thought I overheard the barista bantering with her customers about how the Fair attracts numerous drifters who crash all over the place for lack of camping money.
It was day one of the Fair, & I intended to be there the entire time, from 11a to 7p, so I wanted to travel light. This necessitated stashing everything not absolutely essential in a quiet corner of the woods close to the utility box. (I’d already decided this spot would do for all three nights, if I didn’t find something better, especially since the forecast predicted no rain following the light drizzle of the night before.) This was a risk: if someone stole my sleeping bag, worse than having no *where* to sleep, I would have no *way* to sleep. “PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB – THANK YOU!” I wrote on a piece of paper with a sharpie, bungee-corded to my rolled-up sleeping bag. Then I set off for a fair day of adventure.
It started with waiting in a rather long line. Despite having purchased my ticket in advance—no tickets are sold on-site, at least not officially—I had to wait just like the Will Callers to get my purple 3-day wristband. At first the line appeared prohibitively long & slow-moving, & some of the people in it were socially inept. Like the stoned kid who started out directly in front of me, but kept losing his place & hovering to the side, then behind me in a way I found distracting. Meanwhile, the woman directly behind me seemed to think that because she had a stroller with an infant in it, it was OK for her to impatiently nudge my feet with the front wheel of the stroller several times. But I also encountered people of good sense & sensibility, like the guy farther ahead in the line whom I overheard extolling the virtue of “tolerance” at a diverse gathering like such as the OCF: “I don’t have to agree with you, but I do recognize your right to do what you want.”
We were required to submit to a bag inspection, which caused me a moment of fear, since I wasn’t sure whether external foodstuffs were allowed inside the Fair, & I had one bag stuffed full of grocery items, not to mention my glass piece zipped in a pocket of my pack. Luckily, food was allowed, & the inspection was cursory. Once we got through the line & could disperse into our own voluntary formations, all was well. I passed inside the gate & entered a wonderland dimly remembered from my first visit—as an awkward, brooding teenager in the company of my mother—many years before, in the early to mid ‘90s. Some things had changed, including a new 6-acre addition that had just opened after 5 years of work, but enough remained the same to dislodge a broken mosaic of memories long buried in the vaults of my unconscious mind.
There were lots & lots of vendors selling lots of delicious looking food, & crafts people selling tantalizing trinkets, t-shirts, accessories & souvenirs that I mostly couldn’t afford to buy. All things considered, I exercised admirable restraint. All I bought the first day was a two-dollar cup of coffee, one order of green veggie curry for six dollars, & two gift cards at a dollar apiece to send back home to Minnesota.
The magnificent dragon’s head sculpture at the info booth just inside the gate, composed of hundreds or thousands of pieces of welded scrap metal, cast iron, pieces of bicycle frames, etc, is probably the single most impressive art installation among the many on display at the Fair.
As I moved through the fairgrounds, I began to meld with the vast swirling concourse of my fellow fairgoers, & to feel transported through both space & time to a different reality, or dimension of reality. There were parades of Cirque du Soleil-ish aliens on stilts. There was a line of people wearing monarch butterfly wings, migrating through the crowd. I heard some people describing it as “kind of a mellower Fair this year,” but read later that this year’s Fair attracted the most attendees in decades: more than 50,000 people over the three day run. It was a squarer crowd than I might have liked, overall. Despite my criticism of the snide tone of the Mercury & WW, I have spent much of my adult life immersing myself in hip & subversive pacific northwestern culture—punk shows, public protests, radical faerie gatherings, anarchist squats, genderqueer art & fashion shows—& have been described as a hipster myself. There were lots of families with lots of children; there were plenty of teenagers & young adults; there were various & sundry elderly & differently abled persons, including one old man whom I saw having an attack or fainting spell of some kind, being guided by his son to a quiet spot in the shade. In fact, all age groups were well-represented at the Fair, & surely this is one of the good things about the OCF: In my rootless solitary urban existence, I don’t often get the benefit of multi-generational wisdom & experience. I decided that it was good for me to break a little out of my comfort zone, demographically speaking.
The Library & the Garden
I spent all of Friday slowly & thoroughly exploring about one half of the total Fair site, the whole right side of the figure 8 plus the 6-acre new addition, according to the map I’d gotten at check-in. There was a history wall covering the first 40 years of the Fair, 1969 through 2009, which I spent a good hour or so reading in its entirety. I learned about it being called the Oregon Renaissance Faire for its first few years, only taking the name Oregon Country Fair in 1976. I read about pervasive, seemingly endemic struggles with police & residents of the neighboring small towns of Elmira & Veneta; about the experimental beer garden which only lasted a year or two, giving way to the officially drug- & alcohol-free policy that persists to the present day; about the Fair’s nonprofit raising funds in the 80s & 90s to purchase several hundred acres of land encompassing the Fair site. The fact that stuck out sharpest in my mind was that Ken Kesey, during his 20th anniversary on behalf of the Fair in 1989, urged the crowd to resist the end-of-night sweeps in which the Fair was closed for the night & the general public shut out from the secret VIP festivities.
Friday ended with a couple nice moments for me.
First, I discovered the free library, where I picked up Through a Window: My 30 Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe, by Jane Goodall—Doctor Jane Goodall. A book which I remembered my mother reading years ago around the time when she had first taken me to the OCF. I may not be able to watch TV nature docs right now, since I’m living in a tent in Portland, but I sure can get stoned & read a book on chimpanzees by Jane Goodall—& damned if that isn’t just as good. I also free-scored a novel, Assassin Rabbit from the Dawn of Time: A Post-Ironic Novel of the Near Future, by Mark Taylor, which looked too delightful to pass up; sort of Gregg Araki & Donnie Darko via JT LeRoy, it appeared at a glance-through. I was surprised & happy to find copies of several issues of Slingshot, including issue #118, with my article, “Not Our City Anymore!” & the positive review of my previous zine SF Resistor by Eggplant. (Longshanks is glamortramp; they’re both me.) I felt an urge to seize the guy standing closest to me & blurt out, “I wrote this article!”, but refrained when I realized his enthusiasm with regard to this fact was unlikely to match my own.
Second, I returned to the dharma garden—where I had done yoga earlier in the day, until the poses she was having us do got so sexual I felt I couldn’t do them in public with a straight face—for a reiki tummo “open heart meditation.” Our teacher was a delightful individual, sort of an eastern sage in the body of a middle-aged white man, who told us he’d become a lama (a buddhist teacher) at a young age. He wore a fabulous orange-gold vest & spoke to us glowingly of the sensuous & “yummy” feelings of OKness that flow from this practice. Reiki tummo is synonymous with kundalini, he told us; he contrasted it with za zen “mindfulness” style of meditation that I’d practiced in San Francisco, which he regarded in some ways limiting, less liberating than reiki tummo. I kept the handbill I got in the dharma garden with my notes scrawled on the back, from which I quote:
This guy leading “heartfulness” meditation, which, he declared while wearing a glamorous golden-orange rayon or silk (I’m not so good with fabrics) vest & white genderless eastern style pantaloons, is “really yummy” & involves relaxing to a smiling state & submitting happily to a higher power that automatically accepts us even if the rational part of our brain doesn’t want to believe in it, a benevolent cosmic force of oneness that is loving & affirming & very, very sexy. He assured us that even if we had to force a smile at the start, by the end it would come naturally. He was right. I guess I’ve missed weekly meditations since I left The City, because the effect of being part of this circle was unexpectedly pleasant, electrifying even, such that I rushed up afterwards to thank him for showering us with his benevolence, & ask how he had done it.
The meditation turned out to be an excellent closer to that first intense day, & an early high point of the whole Fair for me. I left Friday evening around 7p, just before the end-of-night sweeps came by to throw us out, feeling pleasantly calmed from the excited, restless energy waves on which I’d been surfing nonstop for the past couple days.
On the way out, I stopped for a few minutes to sing along with a troupe of performers who were doing a cantata mashup of ‘80s pop hits with accordion & tambourine accompaniment, including “Don’t Stop Believing” & “Take On Me” by a-ha. I was disappointed to find I’d missed Beats Antique close out the first day at 6p on the Main Stage, since they only played once & looked interesting. I felt like I’d had a full day, yet the night was only beginning, & I felt a little lonely walking back to Veneta alone as the sun headed for the dark edge of the sky: everyone else was going to have a fun night camping together & I was going to sleep all by myself next to a utility box in the middle of an unfamiliar town! But I’ve grown so used to solitude that it feels normal to me.
Day Two: Things Get Hazy
I went all Friday sober, unless you count a can of Rock Star & a large coffee—which you really should count. Saturday, on the other hand, I started drinking wine right after breakfast, soon progressing to vodka & orange juice (premixed, in a juice bottle). Soon I added potent marijuana to this chemical mélange as well. I snuck back into Carefree Camp & got a free one-gram bag from a fella I’d met during my brief stay there on Thursday evening, in exchange for a ten-dollar donation. (Such are the hoops we must jump through to surmount the legal absurdity of marijuana’s present state of semi-legalization: OK to use recreationally in private, but with no legal route as yet to acquire the stuff, aside from bringing it over the border illegally from Washington).
Walking back to his campsite en route to transact, he & I talked shop a bit. I recounted the plagues of potgrowing I’d read about, such as root rot & spider mites. He said spider mites were the hardest to deal with, that there was almost no way to get rid of them except to spray the plants with neem oil or import ladybugs to eat the mites, “but then you have ladybugs all over your house, & I don’t like that.” (Oh, c’mon… how bad can an infestation of ladybugs really be?)
I’d smoked weed regularly for several months before leaving San Francisco, then went off it cold turkey when I moved up to Portland, with no withdrawal other than occasional mild longings; such is the kindness of maryjane, surely the gentlest of drugs. I could honestly say I experienced more withdrawal from the cessation of my weekly meditations when I left SF than I did from weed. I asked my source for a sativa that would energize me for an active day of fairgoing, & went with the strain he suggested, called Purple Urkel. After not smoking for a couple months, however, I was unprepared for the power of these nugs.
As a result, by the time I actually entered the Fair site on Saturday, I was both slightly tipsy & rather baked, which made me selfconscious & slightly paranoid. This was partly due to the Fair patrollers circulating through the site. They butted in while I was chatting & sharing tokes with another guy in what appeared to be designated specifically for smoking herb.
“NO SMOKING, UNLESS IT’S GREEN!” read the sign above us. We pointed this out to the patrols, but they merely repeated their programming that there was no usage of alcohol, marijuana or any other drugs allowed on the site. I waited for them to move on & toked up again, defiantly—what would Ken Kesey do?—but the other fella got spooked & left in a hurry.
There were a number of designated smoking areas where I noticed people smoking weed with varying levels of discretion, from nervous & secretive to flagrant & fragrant. If the patrols happened by, they targeted the most brazen offenders, though their only real weapon was shame. I heard one older guy boldly holding his ground, arguing with them about it: “So if I wanna smoke weed I gotta go hide in the bushes?” he asked.
“No, you have to leave the Fair site completely. That’s what the law says.”
“But it’s legal, now!”
“It’s legal to smoke in private. This is a public event.”
Unabashed, the man went right on smoking after the patrols left. “Don’t worry, it’s a slap on the wrist,” he assured another standing next to him.
Winding it Down
The patrols didn’t intimidate me, but the main stage did. I spent all morning searching for it, since I’d never made it there the first day—but owing to the effects of the weed, when I finally found it, I was afraid to approach. There were tons of people there, radiating a powerful sense of watchfulness. I felt that if I stepped past a certain point—through the tented area on the perimet into the pit in front of the stage—it was almost like stepping out on stage myself: thousands of eyes would be on me. I wasn’t ready for that. I hung back, snacking & smoking in the shade.
True to form, the highway patrol was a continuous, highly visible presence throughout. Each evening as I left the Fair to walk back to my spot several miles away in Veneta, I would see flashing lights in the road ahead of me, as the sheriff’s minions read the riot act to another hapless victim of their righteous, uniformed vigilance. I overheard a grizzled Veneta townie telling another, “If the cops can stop me, why can’t I stop them? I think that’s fair.” Then, just as I approached, they would invariably move further down the road to the next stop.
In Veneta I saw a front-page news story mourning the death of a “homeless but certainly not friendless” man who had earned the respect & affection of the local residents. Also I picked up a copy of Eugene Weekly, with Beats Antique on the cover. Inside were several pieces on OCF, noting the resignation of general manager Charlie Ruff, the “highly ignored pot ban” that remained in place despite marijuana’s newly legal status in Oregon, & also a dissenting voice from Bird Woman, aka Shirley Musgrove, a disgruntled OCF veteran who sat out this year’s Fair after lobbying unsuccessfully to become one of its official performance artists.
“They’ve had the same puppeteers with those giant walking puppets for 25 years,” the paper quoted Musgrove. “It used to be kind of cutting edge when you worked there, now I just see the same repeat people there year after year.”
I also noticed that local taxicabs were black with yellow trim & lettering, the usual colors inverted. It looked super cool, the way a website with light colored text on a dark background can sometimes look awesome.
Someone back in Portland saw my OCF wristband & said “that’s the third one of those I’ve seen, what are they?” I told him & he said “where I live we have a county fair, with pigs & chickens & shit, is it like that?” & I said “no, that’s a misconception, it’s way bigger & weirder & cooler than that.”
I didn’t see pigs or chickens. There were dragons, giants, lizard aliens, unicorns, hoola-hooping mermaids, human-sized monarch butterflies, & cute young furry boys aplenty, though, to be sure.
It needs to get gayer, though. The promo materials this year seemed to be heading in that direction, with prominent photos of flamboyant men in genderfuck costumes, but I didn’t see enough queerness actually occupying the space yet.
The Road Back
Saturday got cloudy &, for me, dissolved by late afternoon into a stoned stupor in which I left early & headed back to my place of sequestration in Veneta. Most of Sunday I spent hauling my stuff, hitchhiking a ride once, back to the Fair site in two separate loads. Around 5p I reconnected with Emily at Quiet Camp, & the two of us road back to Portland together, alone. We had both absorbed a significant experience, but both of us felt a strong urge in the moment to be back home. I doubt that I looked forward to reading by candlelight in my tent any less than she to reoccupying the private sanctuary of her apartment. She took an off-highway, more scenic & pleasant route back to Stumptown, avoiding streams of slow-moving traffic. During the drive we processed about our Fair. Her first experience of extemporaneous group camping had been significant, but not entirely peaceful. A rude & abrasive individual, apparently one of the Fair performers, speaking with anonymity through the wall separating his privileged class from the riffraff, verbally attacked & insulted a number of Quiet Campers, including a benign old man singing blues & playing guitar, whom no one inside the camp had minded, at all. Also, she reported in disgust, there was one guy who ran, via generator, an air conditioner & refrigerator in his tent all weekend. And it wasn’t even that hot!
Nonetheless, it was clear from what she told me that camping had been “half the experience,” & I resolved to camp next time, if at all possible.
I told her about a couple episodes that immediately struck me as momentous. But overall, I decided, it mostly felt like I was a greenhorn, gathering material for the next time I went. My half-formed fantasies of being immediately accepted into the Fair family—scooped up as an assistant performer by some theatrical gang, taken under the mentoring wing of a discordian elder wizard—had proved overhopeful. But I didn’t hold this against the Fair. It had been the pleasant interruption & Return to Wonderland I needed, albeit in a quieter, more serene way than I had initially expected. I got some of my Max-from-Where-the-Wild-
“I’m going to wear my wristband until it falls off,” I told Emily.
“Of course,” she replied.
Links & News Articles covering the 2015 Oregon Country Fair
Fair Folk: 8 People You’ll Meet at the Oregon Country Fair
Marijuana still banned at the Oregon Country Fair
Highly ignored ban on pot at Country Fair to stay in place
com/story/news/2015/07/10/ highly-ignored-ban–pot– country-fair–stay–place/ 29962525/
Patrols issue 50+ traffic citations near Oregon Country Fair
local/Patrols-issue-50- traffic-citations-near-Oregon- Country-Fair-313945881.html
‘This is surely our best attendance year since 2000’
Crowds set new record attendance at Oregon Country Fair
New Adventures in Fair-Going: Oregon Country Fair adds a chunk of real estate, and other important debuts
Diamond in the Ruff
Outgoing general manager Charlie Ruff reflects on the past, present and future of OCF
Flown the Coop
Bird Woman, disillusioned, skips out on Fair this year