Escaping reality at Gemini Party



Brig·a·doon (noun):

bri-g-'dün: a place that is idyllic, unaffected by time, or remote from reality
Origin: A Scottish village in the eponymous 1947 musical that appears once every 100 years.

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It's over now. The tutus are crammed back in the closet. The dragon has transformed back into an RV and is parked somewhere in Stayton. The man in short jean cutoffs and clown makeup has returned to California, from whence he came. The ranch is just a ranch again, because Gemini Party has concluded.

Gemini Party is not everyone's cup of tea. Gemini Party is a strong, strong tea. But there are those who wait, patiently, all year to drink it.

Each June, a crew gathers at a ranch somewhere to the east of Salem. They number in the hundreds and only accurately can be described as motley — think fire dancers, bar owners, flower children, students, bouncers, a man who looks like the offspring of Captain Jack Sparrow and Bret Michaels except with more sexual assurance, and anyone else looking for this particular kind of good time.

You would recognize lots of them from their civilian lives here in town.

For three days, they live in an adult fairy tale (although kids come, too) in the woods. It has all the trappings of a regular camping trip — people sit around fires sipping beer; dudes jam on acoustic guitars; REI gear inspires envy in those without. 

 But there's one important difference: Everyone who shows up is expected to contribute their gift to the proceedings.

Maybe your gift is hula hooping while that hula hoop is on fire. Maybe it's making chicken and dumplings to feed anyone who shows up. Maybe it's making martinis. Maybe it's playing the accordion. Maybe it's combing thrift stores all year to set up The Bizarre Bazaar, where anyone can take anything they want as long as they stop and chat with Mama Sharon, of the aforementioned dragon-RV fame.

All of this happens in what becomes known as Twins City, with Justin Wright serving as the usually benevolent, occasional vengeful, Mayor. His wife, Shelley Wright, is Deputy Mayor. Then there's also a fire marshal who takes his job very, very seriously, a judge named Loki, who has an enormous staff that he can bang if court proceedings get out of hand (more on that later), lawyers who have passed the bar exam (drinking a beer with Loki and reciting phrases in Latin), and so on. 

On the way up, Jesus initiated a song that everyone joined in on that began, “Cigarettes, and whiskey, and wild, wild women — they’ll drive you crazy, they’ll drive you insane.”

Gemini Party, while not directly associated with Burning Man, has a lot of themes, principles and people in common. In fact, Shelley said, part of the reason she, Justin and their co-organizers, Nikki and David Brown, put it on is so people here can experience the same wild creativity and spirit of generosity that draws nearly 50,000 people to the Nevada desert each August.

Gemini Party is Justin's creation. It began 13 years ago as a camping trip in honor of his birthday party — just a low-key gathering at Silver Falls State Park involving bands, kegs and enough birthday cake to feed the 70-plus people that showed up. Everyone had a splendid enough time that they decided to make it an annual celebration.

Justin, whose day job is rigging, has a shaved head, a long goatee that spirals in two airy curls, and often wears kilts that he makes himself as a side project. Lots of people who come to the party have known him, and each other, for 10, 15 years through the Salem nightlife scene.

The center of the party is the theme camps; this year there were 10. You pick a theme, then enact that in a way that allows everyone to wander by and participate. This year, you could grab a corset if you forgot yours at Julia's Secret Lingerie on Loan, or grab a free beer from ƒ/Camp (ƒ/Stop Fitzgerald's relocated their bar to the woods for the occasion, leaving kegs in a stream to keep them cool), or even visit a recreation of the late, lamented Tahiti Restaurant & Lounge.

Two days prior, Justin and Shelley were loading the contents of their storage unit into a camper that already held generators, a 16-by-32 foot Army surplus tents and many sparkly signs.

A few hours later, Justin was sipping out of a cup that said The Mayor at Brown's Towne Lounge. The owners, Dee and Gary Brown, had a bar at Gemini Party before they had one in real life.

"We're known for our Sunday morning bloody Marys," Gary said, adding that this year, he was bringing vodkas he's infused himself, including habañero and fresh basil.

Justin said that there aren't that many rules at Gemini Party, but the ones they do have are rigidly enforced. First is Leave No Trace. In fact, he said, the group tries to leave the property in better condition than they found it in, and to that end, a group of volunteers will often show up during the year to clear brush or even help with more specialized tasks.

"We have carpenters, electricians, plumbers — it's a pretty diverse crowd," he said. "The youngest we've ever had was 3 months old, and we have 70-year-olds that come in their RV."

Other rules include fire safety — no one is allowed a fire without prior approval and no fires may be left unattended — and radical inclusiveness.


To get there, you head out of the city on Macleay Road SE. Jog to the left on Howell's Prairie, pass the vast fields of white flowers and scattered patches of migrant laborers. After the fields turn into woods, hang a left and follow the tire treads down the rabbit hole.

The dirt road to the site is 1.5 miles long, bumpy and peppered with sharp turns. The journey can take 30 minutes if you're a cautious driver in a small Japanese car, or seven minutes if you're the Mayor, driving a golf cart covered in neon tape and equipped with a silly horn that you honk frequently.

The day before the party officially began, those with theme camps were setting up, and Justin was attending to last-minute details, including nailing down the gate-manning schedule and Port-a-Potty placement. He rode up to High Gate — where people first enter the ranch from the road — with a man everyone called Jesus riding in the back of the golf cart. While frequent costume changes are de rigeur for Gemini, Jesus always wore the same thing: a white bathrobe, sunhat and an open, warm smile.

On the way up, Jesus initiated a song that everyone joined in on that began, "Cigarettes, and whiskey, and wild, wild women — they'll drive you crazy, they'll drive you insane." This led to a discussion of Sunday Morning Choir, and whether it would happen again this year.

Once up at the main entrance, Justin discussed gate logistics with a crew of seven people, none of whom were dressed in outfits that one sees often on the streets of Salem. An older gentleman pulled off a vivid tie-dyed T-shirt to reveal an even more vivid tie-dyed tank top underneath, a Russian nesting doll of orange and teal.

My mind was running around the whole weekend without pants on.
— "Foxfur"

Shelley and Justin are joined by David and Nikki Brown as the main event organizers, although all four emphasized that their role was just to make a space for the event itself, and that the specialness and fun comes courtesy of those running the theme camps.

David is a contractor and Nikki a popular bartender at ƒ/Stop with formidable hula-hooping abilities (hers was the one lighted on fire). While Nikki changed outfits frequently, there always was something bright enough — a furry magenta hat, say, or a red miniskirt — that you could pick her out across a meadow.

For those who came less prepared, she had a giant pile of vintage clothing next to the ƒ/Camp's pillow lounge.

"The rule is, you can take anything and you're not allowed to bring anything back," she said, nodding at two enormous garbage bags.


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Across the meadow, Mama Sharon was setting up her dragon RV, which is named The Dragon Wagon. It featured an enormous head, flashing eyes, and an attached casbah room outfitted with cushions and moon-shaped Christmas lights.

This, she said, was the dragon's second outing, the first being last year's Burning Man. Tragically, the head got separated from the body at the gates and wasn't recovered for several days, so she was delighted that the second opportunity that Gemini Party provided.

Justin had found her through a Burning Man discussion group online and issued a personal invitation. This was her first time at Gemini.

She lives in Stayton, she said, and loves to camp. When her daughter Katie turned 21 last year, she told Katie that she'd do anything for her 21st, and so the two went to Burning Man together.

After members of her immediate family passed away, Mama Sharon said, "I realized there wasn't anyone left to embarrass." She could be precisely the way she had always wanted to be.

"And then I got to Burning Man, and I saw 50,000 people at least as crazy as me."

This gathering, she said, was like a smaller, more pleasant Burning Man — so close to home, and no dust storms.

Which is the more comfortable role for him: a randy clown at Gemini Party, or a guy going to a grocery store and buying milk? How does it feel to be him, to live in a world where he’s not usually permitted to be so utterly and astonishingly himself?

Gemini Party starts on a Friday and runs through Sunday at 6 p.m., although most people leave mid-day. While those 57 hours are mostly unstructured, there are traditions.

Usually, Friday evening brings a fire show, although in the end it was delayed for a night for reasons not entirely clear. Sunday morning features the bloody Marys, plus sometimes a choir, and an event where everyone gets sausage with mustard.

But the big night is Saturday, which starts with a bellydancing show and ends with Night Court.

Justin sets up shop in City Hall — that would be the aforementioned Army tent — with an antique typewriter to type up permits. Throughout the party, people may get permits for any and everything, but you can also be issued a citation, and then must show up at Night Court. Last year, a friend was issued a citation for "shakin' that thing." The court ruled that she must continue to shake it, hopefully with even more enthusiasm.

By Saturday night, everyone was in high spirits for the dance performance. A drag queen named Alanna Roxx served as the emcee, while members of the Salem-based Zephyr troupe undulated. Shelley, one of the troupe's leaders, brought the house down with a veil dance, as did a young woman who did a lyrical dance to Adele and, Alanna said, almost brought tears to her drag queen eyes.

Everyone gathered in the pavilion, drinks in hand, ready to scream and holler and love on anyone who was willing to get up there and dance.

Afterward came Night Court, when everyone who had been issued a citation had to get up and plead their case with the help of a lawyer. Loki sat on a picnic table, banging his staff when things got too loud and wearing a set of ears that could read brain waves, and move accordingly. 

The most serious charge was that of sign-stealing (punishment: to spend four hours the next day helping clean up). While the defendants were presenting their case, someone shouted from the crowd: "He stoled signs! He stoled Gemini signs!," sounding genuinely distraught. 

Sitting close to me during Night Court was the guy in clown makeup and short shorts, who, it turned out, is active in the porn clown scene down in the Bay Area. Don't Google this unless you're ready for some realness. The day before, he'd gone with a unicorn-two-ways theme: First he was a rockercorn (rocker plus unicorn equals rockercorn), in a dark shaggy wig and silver horn. Then, he changed into a pornicorn, with a rainbow wig and horn that won't be described here.

What is Porn Clown's life is like on a Tuesday morning? Which is the more comfortable role for him: a randy clown at Gemini Party, or a guy going to a grocery store and buying milk? How does it feel to be him, to live in a world where he's not usually permitted to be so utterly and astonishingly himself?

This is such a fundamental part of the weekend, maybe even the heart of it: Be as much yourself (or not yourself) as you want. And as long as you're not judging other people for being themselves, you will be a hit. Nearly all behavior is accepted, so long as it's behavior that doesn't exist in the Chamber of Commerce world.

On Sunday, when asked about how she thought the weekend went, Shelley sighed happily.

"This year's been epic," she said. "It's the biggest party we've ever had — we were at 177 yesterday at 8 a.m. And the creativity that people have out here ... Mama Sharon brought the Dragon Wagon! She came out here for the first time, and just fit right in. It was like, 'Oh, hello! You belong here!'"

Just then Mama Sharon walked out of the dragon, and Shelley pointed out that today was her 60th birthday.

Elsewhere, a gentleman whose orange safety vest identified him as Foxfur (sample patch: "Safety Third") was enjoying a breakfast of bacon and bread toasted in bacon fat. Despite having to face the court the night before, he said that his first year at Gemini Party would most certainly not be his last.

"I absolutely loved it," he said. "My mind was running around the whole weekend without pants on. I'll be back next year, with cowbells on."

Originally published in the  Statesman Journal,  June 2012

Originally published in the Statesman Journal, June 2012