May 16, 2020 — This weekend, our little coastal town of around 8,000 normally welcomes about 500 bikers and another 15,000 visitors to have a little fun and celebrate, well … a flower.
A rhododendron, to be exact.
It’s been going on for 113 years and, for four days, our town becomes an unlikely concoction of flower enthusiasts, Free Souls bikers and tourists all co-mingling over beers, carnival rides, classic cars, cotton candy and bacon-wrapped hot dogs.
I describe it to others as “Sturgis meets Mardi Gras,” with a little Rose Festival thrown in (But better because, hey … rhodies).
This year, of course, is something different.
Under the necessary restrictions and guidelines we must follow to keep our community and one another healthy and safe, the normal tapestry and grandeur of Rhododendron Days is missing for the first time since World War II.
However, as a community, each of us carries the spirit of our beloved festival within us. On social media, folks are sharing memories and photos, staging their own mini parades and participating in tomorrow’s “virtual Grand Floral Parade” coordinated by the City of Florence and Florence Area Chamber of Commerce. There’s also the “virtual Rhody Run” today hosted by Habitat for Humanity.
Some restaurants are even serving carnival food like corn dogs and elephant ears (I’ll be calling in my order soon).
For my first 18 years here at Siuslaw News, I was always assigned to photograph the parade route along Bay Street, where the bikers congregate, lining their Harleys along both sides for several blocks.
I’ve had nightmares about tripping over a Fat Boy tire and sending a row of Harleys crashing like dominoes — and then being invited to the Olympics after setting a new sprint record.
I spent 20 years living in Old Town across from the Port of Siuslaw boardwalk. My family grew accustomed to the arrival of the Davis Shows NW Carnival and living so close that we could practically high-five riders on the Tilt-o-Whirl without leaving the porch.
The banging together of carnival rides late Wednesday nights signaled the beginning of four days of craziness that transforms our quiet community into a beautiful example of controlled chaos shared by upwards of 20,000 diverse visitors.
During this weekend, you can usually see 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; and “Captain Jack Sparrow” sharing a laugh with an out-of-town policeman.
It is always an example of how easily we can find a connection with others, no matter how different, when given an opportunity — or the right circumstance — to do so.
In the case of our annual festival, when 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.
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.
As a community, we are doing what we can to assure this year’s festival is not overlooked or forgotten as we also do what we must to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
I hope these few reflections will help illustrate to those visiting Florence this weekend what Rhododendron Days represents and means to our community. And also why we ask you to please respect and support the Phase One Reopening guidelines — so that, come next May, together we can once again share that common thread of some well-earned “crazy” for Rhody Days in 2021.