A weekend at the Oregon Country Fair

How to describe the Country Fair? I’ve been struggling for days to figure out how to write this, and for weeks to find a way to describe it to friends. The closest I can come is something like this: Take a Renaissance Festival – with all of its food booths and artists and performances and costumes – but remove it from the 16th Century Renaissance Festival and fill it instead with an intergenerational mix of mostly hippies, a few Burning Man types, and some enthusiastic and curious tourists. Add an incredible amount of history, hard work, and creative energy, and a sprinkling of nudity here and there.  Throw in parades full of music and costumes and characters you’ve only dreamed of in your wildest imagination. Place it in the middle of the woods, add thousands of people (tens of thousands, actually), and you’ve got the Oregon Country Fair.

That’s at best a thin description of a place that seems to defy any sort of defining, but that’s about as good as I can get. The Fair has a decent website, and there’s a pretty good Wikipedia page about it, too. To even begin to get a sense of what it’s like in person, KLCC has a short little video about the Fair here, including an interview with George, a close family friend of Brett’s and the proprietor of the sauna and showers where we work. That’s a space and an experience that deserves an entire post of its own, really, but it’s also pretty difficult to describe. There’s some great footage of the complex in the video, and you can get a sense of how beautiful the space is. Wood and art and decades of hard work and love.  Just imagine it full of people, drying off and warming up at the fire pit, dancing and swaying with the band playing on the stage.

(Very important side story: Anyone can ask to sign up for a slot to play on the stage at the sauna/showers complex. One night a small three-person blues/country/bluegrass band came on-stage – including two members of The Decemberists, one of my favorite bands of all-time. NO BIG DEAL. Thankfully I was there and not wandering around eating my fourth Frisco sandwich, or something. Also I got to talk to them afterward, and continued to see them around the Fair all weekend, which was rad.)

You can buy anything at the Fair. Handmade knives? Absolutely. Tibetan momos? Yep. Oils and lotions and all possible types of body products. Handmade candles and brooms and salad bowls. Hempseed burgers, and healing crystals, and costume pieces of all possible types, styles, shapes, and sizes.

Want to know more about the food at the Fair? I wrote about it for Bowen Appêtit here and for Honest Cooking here (link coming soon). 

And if you work at the Fair, like we did this year and like much of Brett’s family has for over two decades, you stay overnight, camping behind your booth or in nearby campsites. Visitors are forced to leave the grounds at the end of open hours in a strict and well-formed “sweep” process, and the entire place transforms from a packed daytime marketplace and tourist attraction into what feels like something out of a movie – a woodland village with twisting dirt paths, lit only by strands of christmas lights, candles, and illuminated costumes, packed with moments of wonder and fantastical displays of creativity at every twist and turn of the paths.  One turn on the path leads you to a massive rave-like dance party full of brightly costumed dancers, and another to brilliantly decorated altar and prayer space, humming with low, private prayer chants.  A procession of all ages dressed up like gnomes, carrying paper mache “crystals” lighted with colored LEDs, singing gnome puns.  A family dressed all in black, with head, limbs, and butt cheeks (hilarious) outlined with strands of neon light, giving in the generally unlit nighttime Fair grounds the illusion of a group of futuristic stick people walking down the path.

It’s hippies, sure, but it’s also people who live out their daily lives as businesspeople, teachers, and unassuming folks, together creating a creative, expressive experience unlike anything else. And there are plenty of folks like us, who don’t paint our faces or dress up in costume but who come to have fun and to be a part of this big, crazy thing.  It’s impossible to be at the Fair for more than five minutes without experiencing both shock and delight. More than anything the Fair is a display of what can happen when people put hard work into something they truly love, adding detail and whimsy at every possible moment to make the Fair a truly otherworldly experience, unlike anything one can regularly experience elsewhere in the world.  It’s certainly not for everyone, and even the most patient, hippie-loving folks (including myself) can get a little exasperated at times, at all that talk of energy and spirit and chi and such. But that’s why we come for a few days, then go back to our more normal lives for the rest of the year.

This first photo below is of a piece carved by our lovely and very talented friend Jonah, who some of you may remember as the man who most fantastically read “The Owl and the Pussycat” in our wedding ceremony. 

A weekend at the Fair (and another two days catching up on sleep) was the best possible way to get this year of adventure started, and we’re happy we were able to work out the schedule this way. In two days we’re off for a week in the Bay Area to celebrate two weddings, to camp in the Redwoods, and to spend lots of time with friends. Then it’s back for a few days of preparation for our first big departure. More soon!

This post is dedicated to our friend Erin Noble, with whom we were excited to share the fun and wonder of the Fair. You will be greatly missed, dear friend.


4 responses to “A weekend at the Oregon Country Fair

  1. Wonderful . . .and thank you for the dedication to Erin . . . such a bright energy lost too soon!!!

  2. “A procession of all ages dressed up like gnomes, carrying paper mache “crystals” lighted with colored LEDs”

    That was us!!!
    Glad you enjoyed our little creative contribution to fair after hours.
    Most of us live in Marshall’s and are comprised of pre fair kitchen, construction, and quartermaster.

  3. And the dedication to Erin is really nice. He shared a lot of joy with many people.

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