At least the 40-minute drive from Newberg to Portland mimicked the 40-minute drive I’d taken every year across my home county, from El Cajon to Del Mar. That was how we got to the San Diego County Fair, my family’s yearly pilgrimage to a collection of art, shops, concerts, livestock, fried food and all the sketch carnival rides I could handle. A “reward” for good grades, my dad called it. A family tradition all three of us were attached to, more accurately. My grades could’ve tanked and it wouldn’t have made a difference. Every summer school ended, and every summer we went to the fair.
Except this year.
This year I decided to stay in Oregon when the spring semester ended. The steady work, a bed (not couch) to sleep on and Jordan’s continued presence were enough to entice me not to return to California, at least not for now. It’d been a good decision, so far. But missing out on the rhythms and routines back home was beginning to take its toll, whether I wanted to admit it or not. And now I was having my fair day at the wrong fair.
At least the drive tricked my brain into thinking it was an event, albeit an event in a city I visited often as opposed to once a summer. And at least I had my unlimited ride wristband to drum up some anticipation. It’d been a while since I’d had my brains scrambled on a ride. I was looking forward to the feeling again.
This wristband wasn’t a reward from my dad, though.
“So here’s the plan. We’ll go on some rides, and then we’ll eat some food, and then we’ll go on some more rides, and then we’ll eat some more food.”
Jordan’s advice distracted me from my comparisons. There was no point in wallowing. I was there to enjoy the day and experience a summertime staple with my boyfriend, a staple a little less giant but otherwise similar to the one in my hometown. Focus on what’s familiar. Focus on what’s fun.
Arriving at the waterfront and walking into the actual festival upped my optimism a bit. The Festival had businesses, vendors, junk food, and rides just like back home. The atmosphere was familiar, though much less crowded than seemed appropriate for a summer fair. Everything was the same—and everything was not quite right.
The entire festival took up a single waterfront instead of a 370-acre fairground. It had an exotic cat exhibit instead of farm animals raised by FFH students from my high school. It only had one bathtub salesman, not 20, trying to distract me from one tent of homemade jewelry.
Nothing’s different. Nothing’s the same.
Well forget the bathtub salesman, forget the shopping, I wasn’t there for the shopping anyway. Time for some rides.
The brain-scrambling worked its usual magic. As my adrenaline started pumping and hints of a headache started to take root, I found myself cheering up and enjoying the sights and sounds a little more easily than when I’d first arrived. Jordan and I ran around and hopped on whatever rides caught our eye, no real strategy besides trying to move in a somewhat straight line and work our way up to the biggest ride there.
A 131-foot freefall. The highest ride on the waterfront. And the biggest of the handful of rides I recognized as staples of the carnival section of San Diego’s fair. The only thrill ride both my parents still enjoyed going on (when I was home to drag them along, that is). The ride that had served as the end of our day at Del Mar. The last “reward” for my grades, a tower that gave us a magnificent, parting view of the Pacific Ocean before hurtling us towards the ground at 50 miles per hour.
Jordan and I ate lunch, then ran to the line. As our wristbands were scanned, I looked around MegaDrop’s seats. Twelve in total, arranged in a circle around the ride’s center column.
Sit on the west side. So we can see the ocean.
But even from 131 feet above Portland, the ocean isn’t exactly part of the view.
“Uh, sit over here,” I recovered. “The waterfront side.”
It was close. I guess.
But my brain didn’t buy my recovery as nicely as my boyfriend had. The anxiety and anticipation was still there as the attendant strapped us in, but it was tempered by homesickness. Another tradition not quite right.
So I moped and kicked my feet and thought of home—and then my seat started rising. As it turns out, being suspended 150 feet in the air is a pretty good way to knock a lot of distractions out of your head. It’s also a good way to get a really good view of the Willamette River and its city.
And its city, from 150 feet, is not so bad.
I saw the bridge I’d crossed with 600 GFU freshman during Mystery Bus Tour. I saw the blocks I’d walked up and down one weekend, seeking out the perfect skateboard shop with a high school pal who’d made a road trip from his own university in California. I saw the waterfront edge with its tiny people, laughing and chatting and pacing and hugging the same way I’d done with my friends. My friends I’d made up here, in and around this city I’d grown familiar with. Grown comfortable with, even, for excursions and shopping trips and swing dancing and late night donut runs.
The Willamette was no Pacific, but it could be home. It may have become home already, with or without my consent. It was where I headed to get out of my little college town, to enjoy the weekend with friends and classmates. For donuts, for science, for dancing, for fun. Oregon and its inhabitants had been pretty good to me. Taking it all in from so high helped me remember that.
Different, maybe, but home nonetheless. I watched the river’s current from 150 feet in the air and started to smile. Something familiar. Something fun.
The platform dropped. I screamed.
We went on that ride three more times that day.