Being part of a working crew at the Oregon Country Fair comes with both privileges and responsibilities.
The privileges are obvious. Working crew get to stay past the Sweep and enjoy the Fair after the general public has gone home. Working crew generally camp at the various campgrounds on the periphery of the fairgrounds. After completing a shift, working crew are awarded Fair "scrip:" vouchers redeemable at the various food vendors in the Fair.
The responsibilities are that each member of a working crew must work during the Fair and must behave according to Fair decorum. (Trust me, people, it's minimal.)
|Watergate crew, assembled for deployment, 5:30am|
I'm part of Watergate crew, which is responsible for maintaining fairground perimeter security from 6am to 10am on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings. We are also obligated to help with Sweep on Thursday and Friday evenings.
Perimeter security involves sitting in a camping chair at some point on the fairground perimeter and guarding against people trying to sneak into the Fair from the surrounding fields and woods. Each point on the perimeter has a name: Chickadee Gate, the Y, Big Chair.
Big Chair is a mosquito-infested patch of ground that sits on the western bank of the Long Tom River, right at the edge of a mown field. The landowner rents out plots for outside campers (campers who are not part of the Fair). The site is so-named because, years ago, there was a tall, lifeguard chair that sat at the edge of the trees, made out of fence posts and odd planks of lumber. The chair has long since rotted away, but the post has kept its name over the years.
|Big Chair, back in 2003|
Every time I've sat Big Chair, I've caught people trying to sneak into the Fair. Every single time.
They use various techniques. One time (was it 2004?) a pretty young hippie girl came and sat down with Ed and I as we were guarding the perimeter. She initiated some friendly banter, told us about her recent experience at the Rainbow Family gathering and then innocently asked if she could have a peek in the Fair. "Sorry, sister," I said. "Even if you got past us, there are two more checkpoints you'd have to pass." She looked a little hurt.
Another time, four young men with long tangled hair and lanky, thin torsos tried to rush past me. They were walking very fast with long, purposeful strides. They waved at me as they passed. I could see that they didn't have wristbands, but they were moving full tilt for the path.
I said, "You guys aren't going to make me get out of my chair, are you?"
One of them hesitated, then stopped. And then they all stopped. Their shoulders slumped and they turned around and headed back the way they came. "Sorry, guys," I called after them. "Better luck next time."
Although I didn't sit Big Chair this year, others in my crew did, and they had an appalling tale. Apparently, some attractive young hippie women were camped nearby. Every morning they would rise and make a plea to be allowed entry. Of course, they didn't prevail. But they began to find creative ways to entice compliance.
|The black waters of the Long Tom|
On Sunday morning, the last day of the Fair, they thought that a little dip in the Long Tom River, in full view of the two security crew, might provide visual appeal and thus soften resolve. So, they disrobed and jumped into the Long Tom, whose waters consist of farm run-off and cow manure. Ed was one of the security personnel on-hand, and he tried to convince them that they were risking their health, but perhaps they deemed that the risk was worth free entry into the Fair. Alas, their ploy didn't work. I just hope they didn't get sick.
|Muster of the Sweep, Thursday night|
Anyone who has attended the Fair knows Sweep. It occurs at the end of the day when Fair security assembles at the top of the Magic 8 and forms a line and sweeps down through the fairgrounds. Fair-goers that brandish the all-important identification bracelet are allowed past the cordon. Those without are swept out the Fair entrance.
There can be hard feelings when people are informed that they must leave. But resistance is useless. Fair crew are effective in passively persuading people to comply. When a person protests, that person is surrounded by security staff who simply stand in the way and refuse to allow the person to go further into the Fair. Eventually, the person gets frustrated, turns around, and heads for the exits. Sometimes they cuss at you first, though.
The Sweep is what lends the Fair its mystique, I think. When I was a Fair tourist, before I became part of a crew, I was convinced that the bacchanalia and good-natured hedonism must surely be taken to a whole new level after hours, when the public was gone. But that's not really the way it is.
|Nighttime at the Fair|
After the Sweep, the Fair goes on as it has during the day (which is to say, there is a lot of excellent live music, great food, nudity, arts and crafts, and dope-smoking. It's just that it is less crowded. (Veteran Fair Folk will wait out the hot, dusty day in their campsites, then enter the Fair right behind the Sweep, when the evening starts to cool and the crowds are thinnest.)
For crazy party people, the new "scene" seems to be the off-site campgrounds that surround the Fair. Rumors swirled about a place called Darling camp, which is one of the off-site campgrounds. According to the "in" crowd, that was where the "real" party was raging. Enjoy, party people!
|Light of late afternoon striking the canopy|
The best part of the Fair, of course, is the people. Oregon Country Fair is one of the best places on the entire Pacific coast for people-watching. It's easy to make friends, to strike up conversations. Fair decorum urges that everyone put on their friendliest faces, that everyone be receptive to everyone else. That's my favorite part: encountering people along the way, whom you don't know from Adam, smiling at them, striking up a conversation, talking, sharing, laughing. That vibe is the heart of the Fair. And even though the Fair has grown (and become corrupted by growth), that essence of openness and friendliness is still alive.
Watergate crew this year consisted of some 2 dozen people, including S.O.P.s (please see Part I) and children. We're located in the trees that border an open field known as Far Side. Some of my crew have been part of the Fair since the late 80s. As one might expect, there are rivalries and disputes within the crew. This year was especially challenging because our crew had been allocated only 2 on-site parking permits instead of the usual 5. Any time a society, even a micro-society like our Fair crew, goes from a condition of resource plenitude to resource scarcity, frictions will arise. But my crew is blessed to have an imperturbable leader in Mark Freeman, whose calm demeanor keeps a damper on things.
And, I must say, there are many people in my crew whom I greatly enjoy. John Eliot and I talked for hours about movies, books, God, and philosophy. (But, tell me, John, does the coin have any say?) Ed Knoph is an astute observer of humanity, fully steeped in knowledge of Carlos Castaneda and Mesoamerican shamanism. The Nixons, Rick and Tracy, and their two sons, Cole and Luka, are charismatic and positive. Jim and Susie Dailey always set up a nice, communal area that provides a point of congregation. And there are few people I know who can approach Dave Zimmerman when it comes to constructing a well-organized, functional campsite.
|Camp-mate Tracy Kloster, sporting the tee-shirt she created as a tribute to her father|
One of the best camp experiences I had this year was playing guitar with young Nick Eliot. Nick is 15 now, but when I first joined Watergate crew, he was only 8 years old. Back in 2003, I had brought my guitar (of course) and I played in camp. Nick really seemed to enjoy it and he eventually started playing himself. Over the years, I've watched him develop, and he's become a really good guitar player. This year, Nick and I sat down together and worked out a few tunes. I haven't been playing much in recent years, but when Nick and I played, I found his enthusiasm contagious. It was the most fun I've had playing guitar in a good long while.
|Oncar (seated at left) and his marimba band|
Oncar's marimba band performed their annual concert for Far Side again. Oncar is another of the Fair's Very Important Persons. He leads the crew that is camped next to us.
An important thing to note, I believe, is that, despite the public perception, the Oregon Country Fair is not a crazy, drug-infested orgy. Yes, there is drinking. Yes, there is drug-use. Yes, there is nudity. And, yes, there is a lot of ganja smoking. But folks, it is no more than what you would find at any other campsite in America. And that's the truth, so far as I can discern it.
The only real distinction that I can make between the Oregon Country Fair and any other fair is that people are encouraged to make spectacles of themselves. It's the costumes and the personae that people adapt specifically for the Fair that give it flavor. But I'll write more about that later.
To be continued...