The Fairest of them all
(Filed from Seattle, Washington at 5:30 p.m. on July 13, 1999)
The Oregon Country Fair began thirty years ago as a crafts show by a group of local hippies. Have times changed? Not much. The hippies are still here, colorful as ever and espousing love of earth and our fellow man. It's a good thing, too, because this is one country fair that gets it all right.
Fen and I arrive at the Fair, near Eugene, on Wednesday night, two days before opening day. It's not that we're overanxious -- we're volunteers in the Communications Booth at Community Village, a corner of the Fair which promotes social and environmental awareness. The Oregon Country Fair is part crafts show, part vaudeville and all heart. Community is the Fair's real middle name, since the mantra here is "a multi-generational community that continually and intentionally recreates a resonant culture and purpose, and finds meaning in doing so." What they don't tell you, however, is that hippies eat really, really well. Setting up our tent in the dark yet again, we retire late on Wednesday night with visions of Patti's Pies dancing in our heads.
* * * * *
The Fair is abuzz with activity on Thursday morning, although the gates won't open for another day. Booths are being rebuilt on the fair grounds, on land that floods every winter yet miraculously dries up by the Fourth of July. Most of the booths are built in communion with nature, amid the trees and shrubs that are part of the natural setting. The verdant canopy overhead is a Godsend, since the Oregon sun can be a scorcher come July. I seek refuge on top of the Communications Booth, in a modified treehouse which affords me privacy while I check my email and cellular-phone home.
Once hunger strikes, Fen and I set about in search of food. Many of the vendors have opened their proverbial doors at noon in order to accommodate the hungry volunteer masses. True to form, we stop at the first booth we see, The Whole Enchilada. Fen orders the whole enchilada (true to form) while I order a smaller plate. We continue along the dusty path to Phoenix Rising, where the chocolate chip cookies are something special thanks to a unique recipe twist: wheat flour. Last stop on our food quest is Patti's Pies, where the patty -- um, make that pie -- is an unbaked, fruit-filled disc with a divine date nut crust. Patti plumps her pies with a banana filling that serves as the binding for a smattering of peaches, blueberries and marionberries. Oh, strawberries, too. At $3.50 a heaping slice, it's grossly underpriced.
Duly fortified, Fen and I return to our booth for more set-up. Once it gets dark, we repart to The Ritz, the Fair's outdoor shower/sauna/campfire. A hot shower under the stars...a camper's delight.
* * * * *
On my way to the loo on Friday morning, I hear piano music. Peering around a corner into Shady Grove, I see a young man tinkling the ivories. It's the perfect interlude. Once it's my turn for the portolet, I step inside and notice that the toilet cover has a sticker on it which says "Intel Inside." It's perfect, too. Heading back to our booth, I stop in at Liberty Coffee, which swears "death before decaf." I order a double latte and choose to live.
Our booth comrades are all social activists from way back. John Gilmore is a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group which promotes free speech online. David Oaks is with Support Coalition International, advocates against forced psychiatry and the involuntary drugging of mental patients. David's message is further brought home by virtue of the fact that our little corner of Community Village has been designated a Normal Free Zone. Along with a number of flyers and books, David has also brought with him a petition against forced psychiatry in the community. We encourage signers by breaking into a chant of sorts, one booth member shouting "heal normality" while the rest of us chime in "naturally!" It seems to work and we get lots of signatures.
Fen and I are here speaking out on two of our favorite non-profits, San Francisco Women on the Web (me) and Broadcatch (he). Since Fen is a geek, he spends most of his time trying to keep the Fair's net connection up and running. This is no small task, since the method being employed by the Fair goes something like this: three radio modems on treetops which send a signal to a farmhouse a mile away.
"Are you using Internet Exploder?" John Gilmore asks, perplexed as to our difficulty in making this system work.
We're not using IE, so some people do manage to check their email, although it was probably due to a benevolent spell cast by the Spirit Booth.
Since Friday afternoon is our designated Fair shopping day, Fen and I duck out after our shift and cruise the booths. Peachy the Dragon must have the same idea, since the Fair's mascot leaves Community Village just as we do. Our first stop is Enchantment Wear, where the flowing dresses and robes are almost all in the Fair's honorary color, tie dye. The Oregon Country Fair is truly the most colorful place on earth, a stunning display of eye-popping, mind-bending shades which grace every shirt, shoe and head. Fen keeps me a safe distance from the clothing racks at Enchantment and points me toward Village Glasserie, where Rosemary Brookshier sells stained glass she's been creating for over 25 years. Rosemary presses wildflowers she collects into the glass, making the designs that much more personal. At Kevin Fulton's booth we find blown glass peaches, which are the Fair's emblem. Seventh Heaven is a heavenly place for me since Fen buys me a sweetly romantic bracelet made by Oregon artist Laurie Bridget Turner. Our last stop is Heaven on Earth, where John Taylor offers up harps, lovingly made. The level of craftsmanship at the fair is truly overwhelming, a collection of found objects sparkling in the afternoon sunlight as if kissed by fairy dust. Perhaps they have been.
* * * * *
Our mission on Saturday morning is to stake out some real estate in front of the Main Stage for the Midnight Show. This spectacle of revels is reserved for fair volunteers and mercifully begins at 9:30 PM, since it's a three-hour-plus affair. During the Show, most of the Fair's entertainers do a quick five minutes of their routine, just enough to give attendees a taste of the entertainment they may well have missed as a result of working the Fair. Among the vaudeville-style fare we are treated to on Saturday night is a fellow on a fake horse daring to jump over gates which are all of twelve inches high, another guy who parodies Egypt in a Steve Martin-like skit, eight Carmen Miranda wannabes dancing alongside giant bananas and a fellow who eats fire and swallows swords, but not all at once. Oh, and Reverend Chumleigh walks on knives. Last up are The Flying Karamazov Brothers, who juggle and play musical instruments -- all at once. Fen and I return to our tent well past midnight and find once again, to our mutual amazement, that tent sex is as good as it gets.
* * * * *
We pay a visit to the Du Caniveaux Vaudeville Palace on Sunday afternoon to take in the troupe's show. This year the players are in search of the Book of Time, and they employ every cliche in the book in order to find it. Costumes, accents and musical riffs are hurled at us at warp speed and we find ourselves loving every minute of it. Near the end of the performance, one of the players momentarily steps out of character and tells the audience that "a lot of people keep asking us what this show is about."
"About an hour," someone shouts.
Luckily, the good vibes from the Oregon Country Fair will last us about a lifetime.
The Oregon Country Fair is held annually outside of Eugene, Oregon on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday in early July. Hours are 11 AM-7 PM and the price is $15. For suggestions on where to stay in the Eugene area read the accompanying 5 Minute City.
© 1999 Elaine Sosa
San Francisco, California
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