[All photos from the 2018 Oregon Country Fair]
The first time I went to the Oregon Country Fair was in 1997. I was living in a car, traveling the country. The thought was we would just keep driving until some place spoke to us. We had just come through Seattle and were traveling south on I-5 when we started seeing VW busses loaded with hippies. Several. We were debating a stop in Eugene, OR and decided we’d follow one of these vans off the highway and see what was going on. At the gas station I queried said hippy and he replied, “Oregon Country Fair, man! You have to come to the fair!” And so we did.
When I set out earlier that summer, I had no idea what I was looking for. The possibility for something new. A place I fit. A couple of nights earlier I was sleeping on a picnic table in the Olympic National Rain Forest surrounded by the richest , greenest life I had ever seen. An almost religious magic that called to me. Now walking into the fair that same feeling came rushing back. The moss drenched forest. The joyful hand created world of enormous dragons and quirky organic benches and structures. A mad mix of weirdos with a single purpose. To create their own perfect world, if only for a few days. I had been reading Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone. And this seemed to be a working model.
After wandering the forests surrounded by faerie girls and Tolkien creatures, I arrive at the fair’s drum circle, much larger in those days with bleachers and drummers 4 tiers deep. A thunderous rhythm. A circle full of dancers, the dust underneath rising up into the beams of sunlight. I was pulled forward, surrounded by it. And maybe for the first time felt completely at peace. Connected. Unselfconscious. I consider it one of the transformative experiences of my life.
Less than 2 years later I’m living in Seattle where I’ve been for almost 20 years.
I’ve been back to the fair maybe 10 times. Nothing is ever as transformative as your first experience but there’s still magic in spades. If you’re open to it.
I later traded in my fair trips for Burning Man trips which suited me even better. But if you’re looking for an honest and joyful hippy gathering to recharge your batteries, the Oregon Country Fair is there for you.
The fair is a 3 day event so the local farmers open up their fields to become campgrounds. The first few times I came I stayed at the places closest to the fair. But these, over time, became more rowdy, essentially a slog through hooting 20 somethings. I just got too old. And one year, the first year I took Katy, we paid for one of these sites but immediately left because of the bad vibes. Katy’s friend had saved us a small space in a campground in the Zumwalt park on the Fern Ridge lake.
As it turns out this campground has a long standing community of fair-goers who have been returning year after year. A little tribe. We had such a great time there that we will only stay there. There are no police at all so the environment is much more chill than burning man. Each night they have a large bonfire and a drum circle that I think rivals the fair circle. Katy and I both love to play drums so we look forward to drumming each night. I think we actually enjoy Zumwalt more than the fair now, spending only one day at the fair and 4 days in the campground. But you can’t have one without the other.
There’s also a large enclave of Canadians that make the pilgrimage each year and form Canada Camp complete with a bar and live music late into the night. This year we had the good fortune to be close neighbors and I really enjoyed the lively atmosphere.
On Saturday night, at maybe 4am, Katy and I were standing around Canada Camp watching things wind down. As a late encore the group of musicians played a long sad version of Ripple by the Dead as the crowd sang along. It felt very meaningful.
It’s a 6 hour drive from Seattle to the fair and it’s no secret that I have a love for truck stops and family run diners. We stopped at this little gem on the way down. Country Cousins. I love it’s casual incest theme. Well at least that’s how I interpreted it.