Oregon: A music festival with real bite

By Sam Wetherell

The US' Pacific Northwest lights up in ardour for medicinal weed, writes Sam Wetherell.
Savannah Hughes, of Rainbow Girls, performs at the 'charming and communal' Apple Jam festival.
Savannah Hughes, of Rainbow Girls, performs at the 'charming and communal' Apple Jam festival.

The Provolt General Store, a dusty wooden shack at the intersection of two minor backcountry roads in Oregon, is usually, I would imagine, a rather quiet place. With its creaking porch and stale coffee, I can imagine a fugitive - avoiding main thoroughfares - stopping here to buy sweets.

Today, however, the queue for icecream, beer, lukewarm hot dogs and firelighters stretches out the front door and into a neighbouring field. A few thousand people have gathered in this remote corner of America for the annual Apple Jam Festival, a weekend of music, brotherly love and unreconstructed hippie fun.

Apple Jam is sponsored and part-run by The Greenery, a local marijuana "dispensary" in the town of Phoenix nearby.

In California and Oregon, marijuana is legal for medical purposes. In practice, this means that almost anyone can partake.

An American friend of mine got a prescription by going to a shady doctor in Oakland's Chinatown near San Francisco.

After queueing for 30 minutes and paying the $50 fee, he told the doctor his leg "hurts a bit". The doctor, yanking his leg suddenly and violently to one side, asked: "Does it hurt when I do this?" The answer, of course, was yes.

The dispensaries themselves are mini-supermarkets. An incredible amount of technological expertise goes into designing the sophisticated pipes and bongs that are sold in Berkeley's and San Francisco's "head shops".

Apple Jam is part of this enormous marijuana-industrial complex, which defines the economy of huge swathes of northern California and southern Oregon. To get there we drove six hours from San Francisco to Ashland, a remote, cutesy town with a thriving and somewhat inexplicable Shakespeare festival. We stayed overnight, catching a very competent, yet extremely surreal, production of My Fair Lady, complete with amusingly awful English accents.

From Ashland we drove an hour or two on back roads towards the coast into Josephine County. Although Josephine County is only 161km from the Pacific in liberal Oregon, it's the kind of place where farmers vote Republican and keep guns. We saw Humvees with wheels the size of dinner tables, dead skunks and desolate houses sporting giant American flags.

We were there because my girlfriend's band, The Rainbow Girls, were one of Apple Jam's headline acts. Usually, in other venues I've seen the band play, beer is provided for the band backstage.

At Apple Jam, the organisers provided a tray of neatly rolled joints for the musicians. As we were not smoking, my girlfriend and I felt at times sober and detached from this world of tie-dyed flags, dreadlocks, constant hoola-hooping, henna tattoos and hours-long drum circles (why these seemingly disparate activities were so ubiquitously part of this subculture is something we spent all weekend wondering).

The bands mostly were cheerful up-tempo rock outfits belonging to the "stoner rock" subculture. They had names like Buckle Rash and The Mutherload. At one point during The Mutherload's set I had to cower behind an amp while an obese, middle-aged couple kept trying to include me in a bizarre gyrating waltz.

More interesting than the bands were the stalls selling food and a bizarre assortment of local crafts, usually weed pipes made out of any material you could imagine.

Generally, the proprietors were evangelists for the healing qualities of marijuana and earnestly told me about their campaigns with differing degrees of political sophistication and precision, saying things that varied from "the government's refusal to extend the provision of medicinal marijuana to returning veterans across America is inhumane" to "this new stuff from Canada will get you crazy high!"

The festival's atmosphere, however, was charming and communal. There were a surprising number of families and even pensioners who had brought deck chairs, barbecues and icecreams. Dogs roamed happily free of their owners and the feeling was generally one of tolerance and mutual wonder.

A few years ago I went to Reading Festival in the UK, and saw on the last evening drunken hordes of teenagers setting fire to other people's tents and throwing bottles at security guards. There was a real sense of fear and mutual hostility.

Apple Jam's attendees were nothing but charming and jovial. The biggest danger here was that a guitar solo may go on for a few minutes longer than necessary, or, more worryingly, that the Provolt local store may sell out of hot dogs.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Los Angeles, with local carriers connecting to Oregon.

Festival information: See Apple Jam Festival. This year's festival runs from May 16-18.

Further details: See DiscoverAmerica.com for more on visiting Oregon.

- NZ Herald

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