I don’t get out of the house much. Most of the time, I convince myself it’s by design, and most of the time, I’m kidding myself. It’s certainly easier to tell myself that I’m making a choice to stay home and write all day, or research markets for my writing, or continue binge-watching ‘Gilmore Girls.’
The reality is more nuanced than that. Actually, it’s not even a matter of nuance. The reality is that sometimes I simply feel too awkward to be out in public, due to what I’ve come to think of as a neurological quirk.
Technically, I have a spinal ‘condition’ — or is it an ‘issue’? No, that makes it sound like something I should just ‘talk out,’ and eventually resolve.
Is it a spinal ‘problem’? Well, that implies a solution, and there really isn’t one which doesn’t involve a risky neck surgery that only has a fifty-fifty chance of making a difference.
So let’s just stick with ‘quirk.’ It’s a quirk that, fortunately, rarely causes me pain, and almost never prevents me from doing my work. The awkward part — and this is the part that keeps me inside on beautiful days — is that this quirk causes me to walk funny.
Not ‘funny’ in that people might point at me and laugh, but ‘funny’ as in “Why does he walk so funny? Is he OK?” I’m so wobbly when I walk that it looks like, at any moment, I’m either going to veer into traffic or tumble, ass-over-Keurig, into a broken heap.
When I first started using a cane, I imagined I had something of a ‘pimp walk,’ which would be accurate, if you were talking about pimps with spinal problems (“I got 99 problems but stenosis ain’t one”).
Frankly, even with the aid of a walker, I am so clumsy that I often worry that, if I’m going downhill at all, my unresponsive feet will get tangled in my walker and I’ll start careening, toboggan style, eventually crashing ignominiously into a parked car.
Now, of course, I find myself in a new city yet again, and this time, I don’t know a soul here. Why am I here? Well, the liberal politics; the free-spirited vibe; and, I suppose, the fact that it was the only city where I could (barely) afford a room to rent within driving distance of the few friends I have in the entire state.
I used to move to cities without knowing anyone there all the time — for a gig, to avoid eviction, and once, to move in with a Hayley Mills lookalike in Florida who flirted with me after she saw me do a comedy show in Vero Beach. I vaguely remember a time when I was fearless.
Lately, though, the newly hobbled version of me comes with some handy, built-in fears. For instance, sometimes I’m afraid of ending up alone, with Facebook chats as my only conversation. Mostly, I’m just afraid of falling down, and I’ve tried to embrace a risk-averse lifestyle. So I don’t leave the house much.
Thankfully, my brooding never lasts long, because, like with a lot of my moods, I lack the commitment to really plunge in. True self-pity requires a real dedication to moping, and I’m too lazy for that.
Nurturing one’s depression takes real effort, what with the turning down of invitations, and the making of excuses, and the whining. Whining can be flat-out exhausting.
Over the last few years, I’ve had big plans to teach myself piano, study birds, and write an alternate history novel. At this point, I know where middle ‘C’ is, I might be able to identify a blue jay, and to be honest, I can’t remember the last novel I finished reading.
So, while I might have every intention to wallow in my dark place, I don’t have the kind of devotion necessary to take up permanent residence there. My point is, the hermit thing wasn’t going to stick, and it was time to move on.
Besides my own problems (quirks!), the world around me didn’t seem much better, at least based on the news I was reading. I’m online for hours a day, and lately, even my Twitter feed was starting to piss me off. I needed to escape. I needed to breathe. I needed to feel groovy again.
So, a week after arriving in the Eugene area, an online writer friend of mine connected me with a friend of his who lives here, and I scored a day pass to the Oregon Country Fair. It would involve a long bus ride, to an unfamiliar place, where I would be surrounded by thousands of people I didn’t know. Oh, and I would have to leave the house.
Picture nearly three hundred acres of Oregon Farmland.Naturally, there are crowds of young people there, because nothing about the place feels like anything your parents would endorse.
Now, add a mix of aging hippies — fifty-something men rocking gray ponytails and their wives, who wear a lot of purple and seem to be constantly twirling.
Finally, throw in a healthy contingent of people who have confused the 1960s with the 1690s, and who dress accordingly. It’s like a parallel universe where hippies hang out at Renaissance Faires, united by glass-blowing.
When I first got off the bus, I was so overwhelmed by the size of the crowd at the ‘will call’ tent that I gave some thought to just calmly walking back to the bus, taking my seat, and calling it a day. I figured, I saw a couple people wearing tie-dye, smelled some nag champa . . . we can go back now. But, primarily because I made such a big deal out of going to the fair when I spoke with friends this week, I forged ahead. Besides, the official website made the place seem like the exact opposite of the world I found so difficult.
According to its website, the Fair is “an annual three-day festival offering the finest in entertainment, hand-made crafts, delectable food and information sharing.” Spread across the fairgrounds are twelve stages with musicians, magicians, and jugglers. Thankfully, there was no mention of mimes.
The Fair started as a benefit for an alternative school almost fifty years ago, and for three days in July, becomes a fully functioning city with infrastructure like water, power, and in a delightful bit of cognitive dissonance, ATMs. Because you didn’t realize you would need a two-hundred-dollar hand-blown bong, did you?
I’m just grateful that counter-cultural jewelry makers are willing to accept my dirty establishment dollars for their wares. By the way, you’ll also need money for food, and it’s all amazing.
There were so many different aromas that, by a certain point, my nose actually got confused and gave up. The food quality is top-notch, well above your typical trying-too-hard-to-be-different State Fair concoction, with more variety than giant turkey drumsticks and unidentifiable-meat pasties you get at a Ren Fest.
An event this free-spirited and loose is, surprisingly, the work of an actual 501(c)(3) non-profit, educational, and charitable organization. Yet somehow, this official organization creates the illusion of a world where ‘scarf-maker’ and ‘troubadour’ are respected occupations.
The most surprising thing on the Fair’s official website is buried in the FAQs. It’s one line that clearly states “The Fair is a drug and alcohol free event.”
That’s like a sign at a concert venue that says, “No videotaping.” Sure, you can post it, but I will still be able to watch Springsteen from his most recent tour on YouTube within twenty-four hours of the show.
Don’t be shocked, but some people, despite explicitly stated policy, do indulge in herbal recreational endeavors. That’s not to say everyone does drugs at the Oregon Country Fair. Some people do drugs on the way to the Oregon Country Fair.
An altered mind is the only explanation for some of the fashion choices at the Fair. I only had empathy for one particular fellow, who seemed to be in the midst of realizing that wearing only a small burlap pouch tied around his junk with twine was not the best idea for walking through the woods.
The point was, I was outside! Now I needed to take pictures, if only to prove that I had, in fact, left my room. First, though, had to figure out how to get around the place.
I knew my cane would be a non-starter, since I could be easily toppled, and staff would find me at the end of the day, trampled by a thousand Birkenstocks.
I thought the walker would work, but on bumpy, branch-strewn trails, it felt like trying to go for a stroll while operating a jackhammer. Then I remembered two important things from the website:
“The crew can lend out wheelchairs” and “they also provide . . . teenagers to push wheelchairs.”
Feeling empowered, I weebled my way to the ‘alter-abled’ booth, prepared to ask the staff for my chair and my teenager.
The ‘crew’ at the fair are a close-knit collection of volunteers, most of them related to other volunteers, or friends of volunteers. I met staff members who first came to the fair as an infant, brought by their parents who were volunteers a generation ago. For a couple minutes I thought the ‘family nature’ of the staff was going to screw me out of my wheelchair.
That’s because I overheard one of the gals at the booth tell another staff member that her grandma told her they can’t have teenagers just “push somebody all around the fair anymore . . . we can have someone push him to a particular stage if he wants . . .”
And then what? Freaking leave me there? Assume that magically I’ll develop the arm strength to wheel myself somewhere else? So, you’ll take me to get some Indian food, but then I’d have to spend the rest of my day at the Indian food booth? That’s not very grandmotherly!
Also, I wasn’t exactly planning to force young Moonbeam or Suncloud to parade me, rickshaw-fashion, around three hundred acres for eight hours. I just thought you might help me get a little food, maybe hear a little music, and then maybe roll me over to where they sell those overpriced bongs.
Besides, if any demographic group is a natural for cripple duty, it’s teenagers. They’re freakishly strong for their size, they have limitless energy, and they need things to do, so that they don’t decide to build a meth lab, or get sucked in to playing Pokémon Go.
I didn’t have to tell them these things, because after a couple hushed conversations amongst the staff, one of the other adult staff members said, Mafioso-style, “We’ll take care of this for you.” The next thing I knew, I was relieved of my walker, my ass was in wheelchair #7, and the nicest kid in the world was asking me where I wanted to go first.
Which was Indian food, courtesy of the Golden Avatar. I got the sampler plate, which was a challenge to keep on my lap while Kalil kept using my wheelchair as a pothole detector.
Seriously, guys — I’m not saying I need smoothly paved asphalt paths, just level the dirt! The Fair only runs three days — you have three-hundred and sixty-two other days to fix the roads!
The wait in line gave me a chance to get to know my temporary chauffeur. Turns out, it was his first Fair as a staff member, but he’d been to several others.
He truly looked like he had the whole world in front of him, full of hope, nothing but potential. I really wanted to hate him, but I couldn’t. By the way, sorry my generation mucked up civilization, kids.
These were the two teen staff members who were tasked with helping me get around to see everything. Yeah, I’m pretty sure “pushing an old, crippled pothead on bumpy dirt roads for a couple hours” is exactly what they wanted to do on a Saturday afternoon. The weird ‘halos’ in the pictures were unintentional, but these two kids were definitely angels.
After an hour or so, I needed to stop looking at things for a bit. Have a cigarette, do some contemplating. That’s right–after an hour. Don’t judge me. Anyway, this is how cool young Kalil was–my helpful new friend rolled me over to the designated area and patiently waited for me to pollute myself. And it was there, on benches and on blankets on the ground; standing, sitting, sprawling; dressed or only barely, painted and glittered — that I found my people.
Don’t feel sad for the man in the wheelchair, smiling wistfully at his lost youth, wishing he could somehow be a part of all this…
Because a charming, skinny, androgynous dude handed me his vape, and I got very high. Then I was good with sitting. I can always dance on the inside.
It was as if I had wandered into a rehearsal for a staged mashup of Godspell and Rent, and I loved it. I felt more of a sense of place and belonging in those few minutes than I had for months. Still, I didn’t want my helper to have to deal with any more secondhand smoke, so we hit the road.
The woman in the left foreground of the shot looks to be reconsidering her plans for the day. “How could I have possibly thought that this was a good idea? You know what I like? Gin rummy. I like to play gin rummy. And bowling — bowling is fun. Not whatever this is.”
I was happy to have a guide with me, as it can be easy to get lost. You can only see so many hand-crafted dreamcatchers and tie-dyed bandanas before everything starts to blend together, making it hard to give directions.
“You’re gonna want to take a left at the ceramic peace signs, walk down the winding dirt path past the third juggler, then loop around that big tree and head toward the vegan panini booth. We’ll be on a blanket on the grass. If you get to the drum circle, you’ve gone too far.
Music was everywhere, and if I was in just the right place, I could hear the sounds from different stages in a peculiar mashup of marching bands, mariachi, and Elizabethan madrigals, like an odd but delicious audio casserole.
Because of the sheer scale of the event, and the fact that I was starting to feel sorry for the poor kids in charge of my transportation, I only stayed for a few hours, but it was enough time for me to take more random pictures.
Now, with my peripheral neuropathy (another quirk!), I have enough trouble taking pictures that aren’t blurry, so trying to capture a perfect shot while being pushed along less than flat roads is damned near impossible.
I took some excellent pictures of blurry dancers, out-of-focus minstrels, and at least one shot that seems to confirm the existence of Bigfoot. Fortunately, I also captured a few quintessential Fair moments, ending up with a photo album as delightfully random as the Fair itself.
In fact, the woman in this picture is a lovely grandmother I met, with her grandchild, in a stroller decorated to look like a jellyfish. However, to me, she LOOKS like an Eastern European arch-villain, about to detonate some sort of weird superbomb that will poison the entire planet, except she’ll survive because she has the only antidote.
There were several stages at the fair where people danced, and in front of them, there were always people sitting, and watching. I never saw one of the sitters join the dancers, though, and I’m not sure if there’s a life metaphor here involving dancers and sitters, but I will say the dancers seemed to be having the better time.
The picture here makes it look like this guy was just holding a crystal ball, but I assure you, he was doing really cool things with it. I’ll admit, I was also impressed with his muscle definition (“Get six-pack abs in just thirty days with this magic sorcery ball!”).
“I told you to put your baggy stilts pants on BEFORE we got here, didn’t I?”
Finally, I saw this character as I left the fairgrounds, and though the horns looked surprisingly realistic, I felt the rest of his costume reflected a lack of effort. You can see his wife, texting her friends, “I didn’t think Vikings wore cargo shorts either, but he insisted.”
All in all, my big adventure was precisely what I needed to shake myself out of my unproductive, stay-at-home funk. Just before I got back the bus, I was able to get one last picture, one that encapsulates the wackiness, relief, and joy of my Oregon Country Fair experience.
I may not have experienced everything at the Fair (next year, I’m bringing a jet pack so I can get around), and I may have spent more time in buses than I did at the Fair. But it was all worth it, every spine-jostling pothole.
That’s because, for a few hours, I wandered through a magical place, just outside of a small town in Oregon where, once a year for three days, you can completely escape the confines of your everyday life, and dress like a tree. That, my friends, is freedom. Rock on, tree dude.