The Portland Rose Festival Is Decadent and Depraved

Our correspondent experiences the midway on mushrooms.

Rose Festival (Chris Nesseth)

I was on the No. 14 bus when the drugs began to take hold. I know that’s not quite as picturesque a location as Hunter S. Thompson’s “somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert,” but that’s how it happens. Also, in my case, instead of the sky suddenly being filled with screaming bats, there’s just a guy with a bad toupee.

In fairness to what I’m trying to present as a psychedelic war story, though, it’s really bad. Like, not just the worst toupee you’ve ever seen, but the worst toupee you can even imagine: a shiny, jet black mass perched on an otherwise wispily gray head, like a heavily varnished cow pie, or what would happen if you left one of those plastic Devo hair helmets in a hot car all day. I mean, how could someone be vain enough to wear a toupee, but not vain enough to give literally one single fuck what it looked like?

Anyway, I’m pretty sure this actually happened, and it’s not like that time when I took acid on Amtrak and became convinced that everyone in North Dakota was deformed.

Leapin' Louie Lichtenstein. He was not involved in the drug use of our journalist. (Chris Nesseth)

Many of my more questionable life and career choices can probably be traced, at least in part, to my having read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the first time at the impressionable age of 10. (My questionable romantic choices, by contrast, are probably due to the fact that my first childhood crush was on the bratty yet hot Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, but that’s another story.) It took many years after first embracing Fear and Loathing for me to learn the hard lesson that taking a lot of drugs does not, in and of itself, make someone a great writer: You also have to drink a lot.

Anyway, given this background it’s no great surprise that when the editors at WW were looking for someone stupid enough to load up on voter-approved psychedelics and experience CityFair (aka the Rose Festival midway) Fear and Loathing-style, I was willing.

Of course, this experiment would necessarily be a pale, low-stakes approximation of the wildly transgressive original. In 1971, smoking pot in Nevada was a felony that could get you 20 years; in Portland in 2023, it’s legal to the point of being practically a civic duty. Thompson’s attorney got adrenochrome from a murder suspect; I got psilocybin-infused chocolates handed to me by my boss* in a padded envelope labeled “Marty’s Drugs.”

Petra Delarocha, Florence Buddenbaum and Gerrin Mitchell of Prismagic Circus perform at CityFair. They were not involved with the drug use of our journalist. (Chris Nesseth)

Still, most of this wasn’t legal, strictly speaking. Oregon voters approved psilocybin therapy only in licensed facilities, where patients will pay $3,500 for 4 grams of shrooms and six hours of babysitting. I received 1.25 grams and nobody told me how much I’d taken until afterward. You get what you pay for.

In Thompson’s day, taking psychedelics was seen as a radical, possibly even depraved, attack on the status quo; nowadays (especially in light of recent research) it’s more like exercise—you know it would probably be good for you, but you keep putting it off because it seems like it’s gonna be a pain in the ass.

Rhys Thomas of Jugglemania. Also not involved in the drug use of our journalist. (Chris Nesseth)

My decision to go into this adventure alone—often a good idea for urban-plunge stories, since it forces you to talk to strangers—is starting to seem like a serious miscalculation. It’s not the strangers that worry me, though. It’s their children. I’m not sure what the default assumption is when you see a seedy-looking middle-aged man with a moderately unkempt beard by himself at a carnival, but let’s be honest: You’d prefer he stay far from kids.

There’s a little stage where kids are getting their pictures taken with adult actors dressed as the Super Mario Bros. and Princess Peach. Obviously, I want a picture with Mario and Peach as well—you have to admit it would be pretty adorable—but I can’t bring myself to shamble, probably drooling, into this crowd of delicious children like the monster I so clearly resemble. I’d be shot in seconds by quick-thinking security officers, and rightly so.

Rose Festival (Chris Nesseth)

I now remember that the key to psychedelics is to MAINTAIN. My ability to act normal—never my strong suit to begin with—has evaporated; now I have to painstakingly reconstruct what a normal person would do and try to simulate it. Or, perhaps, I just need to stop thinking so much. Sounds like a job for alcohol! For one terrifying second, it occurs to me that CityFair might be an alcohol-free zone (indeed, the part with the rides actually is), but a tent bearing the legend “Bloody Mary Workshop” assuages my fears. Soon I find an even more salubrious sign: Crown Royal. A shot and a beer are $20 plus tip. Jesus, I think, if I’d known they weren’t going to search my bag, I’d have brought a flask.

Unfortunately, now that my mind is all expanded and shit, I seem to be capable of directly feeling the fact that straight booze is actually not all that healthy for the body. It’s kind of a bummer, but for $20 I’m damned if I’m going to pour it out.

Rose Festival (Chris Nesseth)

Was I hoping that my heightened senses would reveal CityFair’s true decadence and depravity? That I’d be outraged by displays of naked greed and the tawdry trappings of crass capitalism? If so, I was disappointed. (Perhaps I should have gone to an event involving the Royal Rosarians; that would set the demons screaming—and you’ll never convince me those guys weren’t the model for the evil rich people in The Hunger Games.)

To be honest, the carnival midway is probably the most inoffensively banal part of the entire festival. It’s like I dropped acid for Black Friday, or got a head full of mescaline and went to the Toyota Sellathon. CityFair is fine. I don’t recommend staring at the 40-foot close-up photo of bacon cheese fries above its “Hog Daddy’s” fry-and-nacho stand for a full 10 minutes (or even at all), but it’s fine.

* Just kidding, officer! In fact, this whole story is fiction; I actually spent the weekend knitting sweaters for indigent pandas.

Hog Daddy's Fries at CityFair. (Chris Nesseth)

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