Every year during the second weekend of July, around 45,000 of the West Coast’s crunchiest, eco-friendliest, peace crazed Deadheads and Phish Phreaks descend upon the tiny town of Veneta, Oregon for the Oregon Country Fair, a three day celebration of the withered remains of the 60s counterculture. On the surface, the Oregon Country Fair is an alternative craft fair, with more than 350 booths selling a cornucopia of new age hippy goodness. At its core, the fair is a 3 day exhibition of uninhibited weirdness. To wit, the first thing I saw upon walking into the fair proper was a bunch of old ladies dressed up like giant fuchsia birds dancing with some green lycra clad people pretending to be sunflowers and this was viewed as perfectly normal behavior by the denizens of the Oregon Country Fair. In fact, I think the most brazen and bizarre thing anyone could have done was to show up in Veneta wearing a freshly pressed dress shirt, some dockers and a pair of Topsiders.
The crowd at the festival was a decent mix of aged ex-flower children and their more nihilistic, pleasure seeking progeny. Any semblance of a political will or a wider social consciousness had long since evaporated among these people as was evidenced by the fact that no one I talked to seemed aware of or terribly interested in the not guilty verdict handed out to George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case just the day before. Most of the people I met were too busy getting baked and dancing around to conga music to be bothered to give a shit about the collapse of the last shred of our justice system’s credibility, but—to be fair—I don’t think I would’ve cared too much if I’d spent the past 60 hours dropping acid and smoking bowls in Oregon’s oppressive July heat.
The first festival-goer I talked to was Julie, a tomboyish college student who I found hovering around one of the many roadside stands that were selling various hippie-friendly crafts and doo-dads to people as they walked from their campsites to the fairgrounds. This particular stand specialized in selling acid blotter paper art, with most of the designs featuring head shop staples like the Grateful Dead Bears or Dark Side of the Moon album artwork. Appropriately enough, the tent holding all of the blotter art was pitched right beside the newly refurbished Further bus that was originally driven by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters and was immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.
Julie, who couldn’t have been much older than 19 or 20, was under the influence of a number of substances when I met her, most notably some psilocybin mushrooms she had just eaten about an hour earlier. One of her friends, Sarah, claimed to be babysitting her, but considering it was day 3 of a 3 day festival, I don’t know how much more lucid than Julie she actually was.
“You know what, Sarah?” Julie said as her friend was flipping through some of the acid blotter art on the table. “I’ve decided that, like, I’m just not growing up. Heh heh heh heh…I mean…I’m juuuussssttt not gonna do it. Cause, like, who wants to be serious, right? I don’t want to be serious, ’cause serious people are just…”
“Serious people are just what?” Sarah asked.
“Ho–ly shit!” Julie exclaimed as she reached over the desk and started pawing at a blotter paper with Calvin and Hobbes on it. “I need this Sare…I need it!”
“Julie,” Sarah said, visibly exhausted and weary of her babysitting duties, “you’ve said that about, like, 10 of these things since we got here.”
“I knooooow,” Julie moaned, “but I can’t decide.” Julie scooted over to Sarah’s side of the table and began looking through the book herself: “Oooh! I like that one…and that one, and….Ohhhh my god…” Julie said, pointing frantically at a piece of art on the table.
“What is it?” Sarah asked her.
“It’s Obama!” Julie squealed. “And he’s, like, that guy…that guy from Star Wars…the old dude.”
“You mean Obi-Wan Kenobi?” I asked.
“Yeah, Obi Wan whatever.” Julie said, turning her body away from the table. “That’s freaking me out. I gotta get away from that.”
In response, Sarah picked up the blotter paper off the table and began waving the Obama Wan Kenobi in Julie’s face. “Gaaahhhhh!!!” Sarah screamed. “Obama’s gonna cut your head off with a lightsaber!!!”
Julie jumped back a couple of feet, legitimately freaked out. “That’s not funny!” she yelled. “I swear if you don’t get that fucking thing out of my face right now I’m just gonna…scream or something.”
“Okay…okay…” Sarah said. “I’m putting Obama down now.”
“Good” Julie whispered as she pulled a ring pop out of the front pocket of her jean shorts and began sucking on it.
“So, Julie. What do you eventually want to do with your life?” I asked.
“What do I want to do?” Julie said, as if the thought had never crossed her mind. “Well, I consider myself to be…a, you know, a philosopher and stuff. I just wanna think about things. And then I wanna talk to people about those things. Like, I read all of those guys and I get like Socrates and Plato and all that. I wanna be like that when I grow up, you know?”
“But, I thought you just said you were never growing up.” said Sarah.
“Well, I mean, I guess I’m going to have to grow up eventually.”—Julie paused—“I just don’t wanna be a grown up is all. I’m okay with growing up, but I’m never gonna be a grown up. Never.”
Raul and Kyle
I started talking to Raul and Kyle over by one of the 50 or so food vendors that were scattered around the fairgrounds. Even though it was about 100 degrees out and I was about 2,000 miles away from anything resembling a bayou, I decided to buy a $7.00 bowl of shrimp gumbo from a place advertising themselves as having “the best Cajun food in Oregon,” a claim which may well have been true, but sounded about as impressive as touting a brothel as being the best whorehouse in Utah. Kyle saw me eating the gumbo and decided to get a bowl himself, a move driven more by the attractive brunette working the register than my lukewarm recommendation of their fare. Kyle was the West Coast’s version of a good ol’ boy: farm born and farm raised about 50 miles outside of Salem, he and two of his friends had made the trip to Veneta for a nice long weekend of recreational drug use, heavy drinking and extracurricular activities with females they hoped never to see again. Put another way, Kyle didn’t come to the Oregon Country Fair to buy shamanically blessed dreamcatchers and healing crystals.
From all appearances, Kyle’s friend Raul wasn’t at the fair for environmentally-friendly crafts and Buddhist meditation sessions either. Unlike the 99% of the crowd at the fairground who were made up like extras from a touring production of “Hair” or in some societally inappropriate state of undress, Raul was wearing a Phoenix Suns home jersey and a pair of athletic shorts that came down to the middle of his calves. Raul’s wardrobe, which would have been absolutely unremarkable on any city sidewalk in America, stuck out like a sore thumb at the fair. Well, his wardrobe and his skin color, as Raul was maybe the 10th Hispanic guy I had seen all day. After he had walked over to where Kyle and I were standing, a young woman with a clipboard and a bright yellow messenger bag came by and started talking to us.
“Excuse me,” the clipboard lady said, leaning into our conversation. “Are any of you guys registered voters in the State of Oregon?”
“Naw…I’m good man.” Raul told her. “I mean, who do you want me to vote for?”
“No, no, no” she said, clearly prepared for such misunderstandings to arise while canvassing. “Sir, I don’t want you to vote for anybody in particular. I just wanted to know if you’re registered to vote in Oregon.”
Raul thought about it for a moment. “Naw, I’m straight. I wouldn’t know who to vote for anyways, so I’m not gonna do it.”
“Sir, you don’t have to know who to vote for right now.” the woman told him. “We just want to have you registered to vote so that you are eligible to vote when election day comes around.”
Despite her best efforts, Raul still didn’t seem to know what the woman was getting on about, so Kyle tried his hand at explaining it to him:
“Dude, she just wants you to vote.” he told Raul. “She doesn’t give a fuck who for.”
“Oh, no shit?” Raul said, the lightbulb flicking on his head. “Well, I guess I’d do it for 15 bucks. You gonna give me 15 bucks? I’ll vote for whoever the fuck you want then.”
Now it was the registration worker’s turn to be confused. “I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t pay people to get registered to vote.” she told Raul. “We’re not working on behalf of any candidate or party or anything…we just want to make it so that everyone can be eligible to vote if they want to.”
“Okay, if there ain’t any money in it then I’m alright.” Raul told the worker before turning around to talk to Kyle. “Dude, the only way I’m gonna vote is if Obama let’s me see his house and shit. That’s the deal, man”
Kyle laughed and reached out to give Raul some dap. “Yeah, I would totally vote if Obama let me chill in The White House.” he said, before turning back towards the registration worker. “You gonna let me and him hang out at The White House if we sign up?”
“No, sir,” the woman said, trying to stay in her professional persona and not laugh. “I don’t think we can get you and your friend into The White House for signing up to vote.”
“No deal.” Raul told her. “I’ll only do it for either 15 bucks or a party at Barry’s house. That’s it.”
“Man, I don’t think you’ll be able to get 15 cents out of this woman, much less 15 bucks or a pool party at The White House.” I told him.
“Well gentlemen, it’s been nice talking to you,” the woman said while stuffing her clipboard back in her messenger bag. “I hope you have a nice day.” And with that, she turned around and melted into the crowd behind her.
Raul waited until she had disappeared from sight before saying anything. “That just figures. I mean, dude’s screwed us over with so much shit, I don’t even know. You know what I’m saying?”
Kyle was quiet for a few seconds, his eyes scanning the throngs of people around us. “I don’t know about that, but I know I wanna suck on those big ol’ titties over there.” Kyle finally said, pointing at a topless woman who was waiting in line at a food stand across from us. “Damn! I love these hippie bitches. Walking around with no shirt on, paint all over their nipples and shit. That’s where it’s at.”
Raul smiled and started pantomime scanning the crowd with his hand above his eyes like a visor. “Where’d that lady go?” he asked Kyle. “I’d definitely vote if she talked that girl over there into letting me motorboat those motherfuckers for 15 minutes. Hell, I’d vote twice.”