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The Vortex Baptism

I expected to make Oregon literary history that day, August 22, 2004. A couple thousand people would travel to McIver Park just outside of Estacada, Oregon, to commemorate Vortex I, the only state-sponsored rock festival in American history. And they would gather there only because my lifelong dream of becoming an Oregon writer of merit had recently come true after so many years of procrastination and immaturity.

Vortex I unfolded in all its Beaver State counterculture glory the last weekend of August 1970 and this week marks the 40th anniversary of this incredible, unprecedented event.this week marks the 40th anniversary of this incredible, unprecedented event. It was a story practically undocumented and lost to history forever until it seized hold of me in 2000 and revolutionized my life. It took four years of travel, research, writing and spending $40,000, but in June of 2004 my self-published book, The Far Out Story of Vortex I, came out. One reviewer called it a "hash brownie" of a book, which was interesting and fitting praise indeed. It also hit the top of the Powell's bestseller charts. (Unfortunately, the press run of 2,000 sold out long ago and I have no plans to reprint. Yet.)

What exactly was Vortex 1: A Biodegradable Festival of Life?

So that what you have in effect is a Charlie Manson-Jerry Rubin-Angela Davis-Jonathan Jackson-Bernadette Dohrn-Huey Newton-Timothy Leary-Rolling Stone-monster heading directly for downtown Portland where the American Legion is planning this year's Victory in Vietnam Parade.

Some radical wrote that in a San Francisco underground newspaper. It was a few months after Kent State, the police riot at Portland State University, and to keep the peace in the Rose City that summer, Oregon Governor Tom McCall and a group of hippies collaborated to stage the festival August 27-September 2, 1970, in a state park roughly 30 miles southeast of Portland.

In late August 1970, President Nixon was scheduled to speak at the American Legion National Convention in Portland. The Portland-based People's Army Jamboree announced it would hold a concurrent event to protest the Vietnam War. The FBI told McCall he should expect 25,000 Legionnaires and 50,000 anti-war demonstrators to clash in Portland and top the mayhem of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Fearing that radicals might foment violence against the Legionnaires, a few Portland hippies proposed a free rock festival outside of Portland as an alternative. The hippies asked McCall for a place to hold it. He gave them McIver State Park and told local and state law enforcement officials to lay off. Did they ever.

After interviewing close to 400 people, examining hundreds of photographs, and reading about a thousand pages of primary source documents related to Vortex I, I've compiled my list of favorite stories:

  • McCall, a Republican, was facing a tough a re-election vote later that fall. When he approved the festival, he said, "I've just committed political suicide." He won a second term in a landslide.
  • The Portland Red Cross, headed by a US Bank vice president named Jack Mills, purchased illegal drugs and hired people to give them away inside McIver Park hoping to keep revelers there.
  • The doctor supervising Vortex I's medical center, Cameron Bangs, kept a 25,000-word in-the-moment diary of his experiences. It's probably the best in-the-moment observation of the '60/'70s-era counterculture in American history. According to Dr. Bangs, the Oregon National Guard's first emergency helicopter airlift was a young man suffering from an LSD overdose at the festival.
  • The Oregon National Guard was instructed to drop rose petals from a helicopter on potential rioters as a signal to disperse or tear gas would follow.
  • Oregon State Parks employees and the festival's hippie administrators worked in perfect concord despite, or because, the latter were totally under the influence of peyote.
  • Someone brought a pet cougar on a leash. Someone brought a pet anaconda. The anaconda escaped.
  • A band played naked on stage.
  • Nude hippies canoed in the Clackamas River.
  • A boiler from a decommissioned battleship powered dozens of steam cookers that cooked a vegetarian mush served free to the partiers. Volunteers stirred the mush with canoe paddles.
  • Not one permit was issued to hold the event nor was any liability insurance taken out.
  • One of the state's most powerful corporate executives of that era, the Cascade Corporation's Robert Warren, drove a pickup truck full of licorice out to the park.
  • At least 20 people reported seeing a naked vendor cruising the park wearing nothing but a string of hot dogs around his neck and a red balloon.
  • Vortex I's cast of characters, in the flesh and at the edges of the story, include: Spiro Agnew, Red Skelton, the Rainbow Family, Matt Groening, John Kerry, Donald Rumsfeld, and current NY Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, who was a cub reporter at the Oregonian.
  • At the festival's end, McCall visited the park, hugged some hippies, then joined them holding hands in a circle. They chanted "oms" for a few minutes and then recited the Lord's Prayer and a few lines from William Blake.

Top that, Woodstock! Only in Oregon and never to be repeated again.Top that, Woodstock! Only in Oregon and never to be repeated again.

During the summer of 2004, I'd relentlessly gigged all over the state to promote the book, delivering 30 presentations in 60 days, some to very large crowds, others to three people. The tour was to culminate at McIver Park where I would give a presentation on the festival and sell out my entire press run and make $20,000. No other Oregon writer had even conceived of pulling something off like this. State park officials had built me a stage. They'd given me free use of a group camp site and 40 of us intended to camp out and ride the magic carpet back in time.

My triumph was set for August 22nd, traditionally the hottest day of Oregon's summer. The evening before, the heavens opened up all across Western Oregon and began to rain and rain and rain. I'd spent the night with my Rose, my girlfriend at the time, and in the morning, standing in the rain outside her house, I took a call from a state park official. The event was cancelled. Later I read that three inches of rain fell in Estacada during a 24-hour time period, shattering the previous record much like Bob Beamon did to the long jump record in 1968 at the Mexico City Summer Olympics.

My first thought upon hearing the news was to get to the beach as fast as possible because I find rambling Oregon's publicly-owned beaches ranks as my favorite tonic for disappointment, or in this case, calamity. Back in 2004, I lived near Nestucca Spit in Bob Straub State Park and went there all the time in all kinds of weather. I knew if anything could help me, it was this special Oregon beach.

I asked Rose to go with me and she agreed. I drove us to Pacific City, not far from where Rose lived, in a rain so hard the windshield wipers proved utterly useless. I couldn't see much of Highway 101 and navigated from memory.

Rose and I barely spoke during the drive. I parked the truck and we walked out to the beach and a half mile down the Spit until we sat down in the dunes. No one else was around, which made perfect sense since a monsoon was in effect. I still couldn't talk. I wanted to quit this absurd and exhausting literary hustling. It was time to grow up and find an agent or quit.

Suddenly, the rain stopped as if a deity had turned off a spigot. The sun came out almost directly over us. Instantly, a course of action became lucid to me. I heard the Spirit of Vortex commanding me to journey back to 1970 and I had no choice but to obey. I stripped off all my clothes and sprinted 75 yards toward the ocean. I plunged in, went completely underwater, swam a few strokes, felt the rush of cold, tasted salt, looked west, saw a harbor seal watching me, let my feet find the sand, stood up, turned around, and saw Rose in the dunes. I sprinted back to her and she had her clothes off by the time I returned.

I was reborn and the defeat was behind me. I never looked back and have kept the spirit of Vortex within me at all times. It often comes in handy in precarious moments of important decision-making when I am about ready to take a clichéd course of action. When the situation calls for bucking all conventional wisdom in life — the real lesson of Vortex — it always seems to work out for me.

(I am still collecting Vortex stories and photographs. Feel free to comment here and I'll find you.)

÷ ÷ ÷

Matt Love is the author/editor of 10 books about Oregon. He lives in South Beach and teaches creative writing and journalism at Newport High School. His latest book is Of Walking in Rain.

Books mentioned in this post

Matt Love is the author of Of Walking in Rain

11 Responses to "The Vortex Baptism"

    salemite September 2nd, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Best. Blogpost. Ever!

    LOVED the part about Tom McCall chanting "ohhmm" and holding hands w/a bunch of dirty hippies. I would've voted for him too!

    toyser22 September 3rd, 2010 at 7:13 am


    move that word "YET" to the top of your to do list.

    Tina September 3rd, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    Great post-I'm kind of sad the book is out of print...I would buy it.

    mikgobel September 4th, 2010 at 12:56 am

    Certainly one of the best blogs ever. Tom McCall needs to be hailed as one of the wisest statesman in American history. Today this would seem corrupt. But in 1970, this was the winning chess move. I doubt today's politicians would be smart enough delegate power so smoothly, so smooth it escaped notice. If Tom was alive today, he would be a presidential candidate for sure, a smart one indeed. And he was a Republican. Republicans today need to study Tom McCall like Lincoln, not uneducated trailer-trash and Tea Party morons. It takes intelligence...and respect for diversity to make a great nation. He chanted a mantra followed by prayer. In the end, everyone was happy and the event slipped into history. Well done. Keep it coming.

    Rose September 4th, 2010 at 9:51 am

    You made literaty history in my book. That was an incredible day, all true.

    Luckygrrlz September 5th, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    I remember older concert goers telling me about the wonders of Vortex 1 back-in-the-day. Sadly, I was far too young, in my early single digits, to attend. Luckily, I did get to experience the KGON raft race on the Clackamas. Wall to wall rafts of party people from McIver to Clackamette park.

    goin home September 6th, 2010 at 8:21 am

    the finest gentleman of politics.....endowed with integrity.ethics, and a lovin sense of humor.

    CARL October 6th, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    Forty years, the stories realty take me back. The all those photos, I recognize most.
    And I can still see many scenes where there are no photos.
    Matt, Thank you very much.

    Mike October 28th, 2011 at 8:14 am

    I was there at Vortex and had some really great experiences. The free food and mud saunas and steam saunas, which I helped in constructing, and the great music. I think it was the YELLOW ACID that was bad at that time. What a memory! Thanks for the post!

    People’s Army foot soldier December 23rd, 2014 at 10:27 am

    All these reminiscences waxing nostalgic for Vortex leave some of us feeling the same way we felt when its success was evident in the paltry turnout for the march in the city. What did it say about our "movement", our "counterculture", our "revolution"? It said the straight, conservative folk hit the nail on head—we really were a generation of spoiled brats, gone soft from growing up coddled, watching TV and munching Frosted Flakes in history's most prosperous and permissive society. At an age when our fathers were struggling through the Great Depression or getting ripped apart by fascist fire on the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima, we were splashing around in mud puddles like five-year-olds at an out-of-control birthday party, and expecting to be admired for our liberated behavior, The winners write the history books (the internet histories in this case), so I guess congratulations are in order. You won, fair and square. You won by surrendering, by chickening out in the face of National Guard troops massed and ready for action in Portland, just months after their Ohio colleagues had shot four antiwar protestors dead. You won by having fun, in fact government-sponsored fun, feigning innocence, pretending to be oblivious of the government-sponsored warfare raging hotter than ever on the other side of the world. McCall's brilliant stratagem was just a more imaginative variation on the theme of neutralizing antiwar actions by making would-be protestors feel safe and comfortable, out of harm's way, notably in Nixon's decision to end the draft. The other side of the coin was stepped-up attacks on the diehard opposition. I witnessed an FBI agent (who I much later recognized as Bob Gaffney when he became a politician on my home turf) turning a People's Army Jamboree planning meeting into a foul-tempered fiasco by smugly enraging women participants. His covert operation was part of the same domestic warfare that included the FBI-coordinated assassinations of 30-odd Black Panther leaders—and included, too, the Vortex festivities. You chose sides, and your side won. My side lost. So I'll shut ip now and let you-all get on with writing your version of history. I guess you can keep my comment off your site if you think it might exude bad vibes.

    Kathleen Stoughton-Trahan June 20th, 2015 at 5:40 pm

    The first band on the main stage to open Vortex was my brothers band Strongheart....they played on a smaller stage as well. There story was on the front page of the Milwakie Oregon newspaper either the day they played or the next. I worked for Denny's Music and was there with a sound crew and got to see most of the main stage acts...fun times. We then did the Bull Frog events later.

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