May 19, 2019 — After returning to Florence in 1996, I spent the next 20 years living in Old Town across from the Port of Siuslaw boardwalk.
We grew accustomed to the arrival of the Davis Carnival during the annual Rhododendron Festival and living so close that we could practically high-five riders on the Tilt-o-Whirl without leaving the couch.
The banging together of carnival rides late Tuesday night signaled the beginning of four days of craziness that transforms our quiet community of about 8,000 into a beautiful example of controlled chaos shared by upwards of 20,000 diverse visitors.
For those four days, I always marvel at how our community transforms into an unlikely concoction of flower enthusiasts, bikers and tourists, all co-mingling over beers, art, carnival rides, fast cars, corn dogs and cotton candy.
I’ve described it to others as Sturgis meets Mardi Gras, with a little Rose Festival thrown in — except even better since we have rhododendrons.
Last year was the first year we haven’t lived in Old Town during Rhody Days. It was also the first year I saw the festival as something more than just a few days of much-needed craziness after a winter of cabin fever.
Having the opportunity to travel the few miles from our home on the outskirts of town to the heart of the festival was like seeing it for the first time each day. It gave me a chance to step back and truly appreciate how, with each passing block, the crowds grew more diverse.
Baseball-capped Korean War veterans talking with bikers whose leathers were stitched with Vietnam War veteran patches; young families posing with owners of classic cars built decades before they were born; “Captain Jack Sparrow” sharing a laugh with an out-of-town policeman.
I watched, realizing that this annual bit of “craziness” wasn’t so crazy. In fact, it was the kind of sanity we could use a little more of nowadays. It’s an example of how easily we can find a connection with others, no matter how different, when we’re given an opportunity — or the right circumstance — to do so.
In the case of our annual Rhododendron Festival, as the carnival rides go up, people’s guards come down. Whether a biker or banker, policeman or pirate, there is an unspoken agreement and genuine interest in having that shared experience together — and an understanding that it wouldn’t work any other way.
Under normal circumstances, these same people would likely pass each other without a word, assuming they would even be in the same vicinity.
But it’s everyone’s willingness to participate in that little bit of “crazy” that becomes a common thread we all share for a few days each year.
Once it’s over tomorrow, I have to wonder:
Which days are crazier?