The Oregon Country Fair
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In 2002, I discovered the Oregon Country Fair. That was about the same time as I started attending Ren Faires, so it probably came to my attention as a result of a web search for fairs in the Pacific Northwest. Although, the Oregon Country Fair started out as a Ren Faire some 36 years ago as of this writing, over the years it has morphed into something far more strange (and wonderful). The Oregon Country Fair, or OCF, is a mixture of hippies, pagans, free-thinkers, exhibitionist, families, vendors, artists, performers and just about every other label you can think off. People wear costumes (elaborate and/or skimpy) , body paint, fancy jewelry, and are apt to break into spontaneous parades. Stilt walkers abound, as do jugglers, magicians and story tellers. The OCF is the perfect place for people watchers and those that liked to be watched. So, I’m going to tell you about my experiences at the fair over the last 4 years in pictures!
The fair is located in
The fair has only 4 permanent employees, but thousands of volunteers. When you get close to the fair site, there are lots of people to direct you and get you parked in the grassy fields adjacent to the fair site. The pungent smell of crushed grasses and weeds key memories of fairs past, and I always take a deep breath upon exiting my car. Although there is extensive parking available, it's still quite the walk to the Dragon Gate where admissions are located. The buses come in from a different direction and actually drop passengers off much closer to the gate. Before you even get to the gate, though, you have to pass through a security check point which is manned by even more volunteers.
At the security check point your bags will be quickly examined to ensure you're not bringing in glass bottles, alcohol, drugs or video cameras. Still cameras and digital cameras are allowed, and the bag searches are not very intrusive, so the line moves with good speed. There are no body searches at all, so if you have something in your pockets, it's pretty certain you'll be able to get it into the fair. That would help to explain the very heavy herbal smells you'll find as you wander through the fair grounds.
As soon as you get out of your car and start your walk toward the security check, you will begin to see the costumes and characters that make the fair such a vivid experience. There's an excellent chance that the security checkpoint volunteers will be dressed in funny and elaborate costumes, and certainly many of the people with whom you'll be standing with in line will be dressed in interesting attire (or lack thereof). During one fair, we watched a small ultra-light flying low about the crowd as they made their way to the gates and usually there are plenty of volunteers in great costumes out entertaining the crowds.
The gates don't open until 11 am, but it's best to get to the fair about an hour early which will give you plenty of time to park, pass through security, and get in line to get into the fair. It's always good to bring some bottled water with you, along with a blanket and a couple of backpacks for your purchases. Food is plentiful, but not cheap, within the fair, so plan accordingly. Healthy foods abound, so you're not going to find soda pop or packaged candy or treats. There aren't many tables at the fair, so expect to eat standing up or on the blanket you packed. Most people eat and drink while they're on the move absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of the fair. One of my favorite treats is the Philly Cheese Steak sandwiches which are loaded with beef, cheese, onions and peppers. They're not very healthy, but they're definitely delicious. In the meadow surrounding the main stage, there are often ice cream vendors selling treats such as ice cream cones, frozen chocolate-covered bananas and snow cones. You can buy bottled water from wandering vendors, and in 2005 the fair introduced a biodegradable bottle made from corn, called the Bio-Bottle.
There are numerous stages throughout the fair that feature many different forms of entertainment. On the main stage, bands rotate throughout the day. You can also find spoken political speech, demonstrations of fire-making using primitive methods, children's tales, puppet shows, belly dancing at the Gypsy Stage, free-form musical performances, buskers, energy exhibits, and a plethora of other entertainments. It's possible, we suppose, to get bored at the fair, but you have to work at it. When you turn in your ticket and get your arm stamped with colorful ink, you'll receive a fair guide that contains a map and a list of all the performers along with where and when they'll be conducting their show. Additionally, there are many map boards posted throughout the fair grounds.
And, of course, there are vendors galore. You can buy UtiliKilts for the men, a fair favorite; carved staves; jewelry; bowls; glassware; stained glass; fair adornments such as ribbons, garlands, fairy wings, costumes and tie-dyed clothing of all sorts. And that's just a start. You could spend an entire day at the fair just shopping. I've always found the prices to be a bit steep for the quality of the merchandise, but you can certainly find a few bargains if you're willing to search.
What usually strikes most people at their first fair is the exuberance and energy of the crowds. People are quite friendly and talkative, and if you ask politely they will usually pose for photos. Parades break out spontaneously, and marching bands form and dissolve as required. Chinese dragons often form the core of the parade, while numerous dancers, cheerleaders and clowns precede or follow the sinuous creature.
Finally, there are the painted ladies. There are several talented body painters at the fair. They will paint your face, your arms, your stomach, your breasts, your back or all of the above. Some use airbrushes and stencils, while others like Kathleen, a fair favorite, simply uses brushes and acrylic body paint. You don't have to be painted to shed your clothes though. Many ladies take advantage of the warm July weather and the body acceptance at the fair and simply shed their tops and spend the day enjoying their freedom. I have, on occasion, overhead some disparaging remarks but those are rare and you often need to consider the source.
Many of the ladies get painted on site by Kathleen or Diana or some of the other body painters, but lots of others chose to have their body paintings done by friends or family. Sometimes the results are quite elaborate and beautiful. Usually these ladies will come together and pose for the many photographers visiting the fair. They are very accommodating when it comes to posing, and most of them will happily oblige if asked - and they loved to be asked. They wouldn't have gotten painted if they didn't want to show off a bit and get attention from the other fairgoers. It is, however, considered bad form to take photos of the ladies without their permission. Most ladies are quick to point this out to the photographers who gather around the painting cart hoping to capture photos of the ladies being photographed. Most of the body painting customers s are happy to pose, but they do prefer to be asked.
Ladies, if you do choose to get painted, be prepared to be one of the centers of attention at the fair. You will be asked again and again if you mind having your photo taken. Often, other painted ladies will ask to join you for a photograph, and fair virgins just love having their photo taken with a painted lady. So, if you're shy about interacting with other people, you'll probably want to think twice about this. Nonetheless, it's a great way to get into the spirit of the fair. There's no age requirement either, as we've seen painted ladies from the age of about twelve to seventy-two.
Complex and colorful costumes are another wonderful mainstay of the fair. The stilt-walkers are always elaborately made up with wonderful clothing and face-painting. They tower above the fair crowds and move regally from place to place. They love to interact with the crowds and are always willing to be photographed. Sometimes you can find them in soft silks or in brocades and satins. On occasion, you'll find them in leather and fishnet. And those are just the men.
While most of the fair staff and performers dress up for the fair in their best costumes, many of the fair visitors strive to be even more flamboyantly dressed than anyone working at the fair. Over the years I have seen numerous fairies, the Green Man and Mother Nature, a half-nude angel, a silver woman, a mirror man, Jesus (in a loin cloth and not much else), Uncle Sam (he was the spitting image and he wore a sign saying "I want my country back") as well as a number of sprites, pixies, head hunters, elves and gypsies. The fair if just full of colorful and beautiful eye candy for the people watchers. Wearing a costume is a great way of getting into the spirit of the fair, and greatly increases the interactivity with the crowd.
For some reason, the fair seems to be a gender-bending event. It's quite possible, and even likely, you will see big, burly men in dresses, skirts and halter tops, cheerleader outfits, or in stockings and boots. These outfits may include glittery makeup, bright red lipstick, and body jewelry right out of an S/M dungeon. It some cases, this is quite amusing and that's the intent of the costume. In all cases, though, people are having fun by challenging the norms.
The Oregon Country Fair is a unique celebration
that attracts thousands of visitors and participants each year. It's
a non-profit event, and the proceeds benefit schools and programs
throughout the local area. As we mentioned before, it's held Friday
through Sunday during the second weekend in July in
Memorable Photos from Past Fairs
©2005 Mark Cohran, All Rights Reserved
Latest Revision: Thursday, March 11, 2010