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. 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.
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.)