Alas, Clark County. There’ll be no communal Fourth of July fireworks display at Fort Vancouver this year, and no Clark County Fair either. No wine and jazz, no tunes and brews, no recycled wonders in Esther Short Park.
Precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have canceled all those signature events this year. What we’re losing goes beyond a bit of fun. Laughing and crying together, cheering and dancing together, eating and drinking together, riding roller coasters and applauding explosions in the sky together — that’s a lot of what makes us human.
It’s definitely a lot of what makes us Clark County.
“Gatherings have been a really central part of our culture,” said Brad Richardson, the executive director of the Clark County Historical Museum.
We know that human beings are social beings, but Richardson thinks there’s something special about Clark County’s ongoing tradition of big gatherings that celebrate exactly who we are — from the proud Prune Harvest Festivals of a century ago to recent summers’ fledgling yet already overrun Washougal Tamale Festivals.
“I do think it’s a bit different here than in other places,” Richardson said.
That’s thanks to Clark County’s ever-emerging identity as a traditional, agrarian community that’s gone hipster around the edges. For every pancake breakfast served, monster truck crushed or superb sheep beribboned at the fair in recent years, there’s been a bottle of new local wine uncorked at the Wine & Jazz Festival, a dancer showing off moves from Mexico or India at the Fourth Plain Multicultural Festival, a rainbow flag unfurled at Saturday in the Park Pride.
The pandemic has cleared all those events from the calendar. We’re living in a weirdly interrupted, atomized world, with many people isolated at home and without anything much to look forward to.
“It’s the loss of companionship, the interaction with people, the ability to touch,” said Richard Burrows, whose job as community outreach and engagement director for The Historic Trust means bringing people together for walking tours and special events that delve into local history.
Now, Burrows works at home, leads no tours and sees nobody.
“It’s like living in a bunker,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll get a phone call and realize it’s the first time I’ve said any words all day long. My big moment is when they deliver groceries.”
When we do venture outside to stroll or jog or cycle the neighborhood, as we’re encouraged to do for both physical and mental health, we still steer wide circles around one another. The thing we’re hungriest to do is the thing we can’t do: be together.
When he was a painfully superior teenager growing up in east county, Richardson once shrugged off a trip to the Fourth of July fireworks display at Fort Vancouver. He was too cool for that, he’d decided. His family and friends went without him.
“Honest to God it was the loneliest Fourth of July,” he said. “I just sat at home and felt so bad. I lamented my decision and I never refused another trip to the fireworks.”
Why does sitting at home feel so lonely? What’s behind our need to gather?
“It’s too easy to say it’s in our genes, but I guess it must be,” said Clark County Fair executive director John Morrison. “As hectic as our lives get, as technologically advanced as things get, we need to enjoy the basic things — like families coming together to have a good time.”
Morrison still loves the ribbon he won for exhibiting a Black Angus cow at the Monroe County Fair in upstate New York. It was one of the great moments of his life, he said.
“Fairs have been important to me since I was 9 years old and I’m 76 now,” he said with a laugh.
Life’s normal routines, while comforting, can become terribly monotonous too, Richardson said.
“We rinse and repeat a lot,” he said. “A gathering creates a peak in the valley of sameness.”
It also connects us.
“People want to be part of something bigger than they are,” said Burrows. He recalled that when he went on a summer solstice pilgrimage to enjoy a meaningful moment of reflection at Stonehenge, the ancient and mysterious site in England, about 5,000 other people turned up too.
“People want to make meaning and purpose in our lives,” he said. “Coming together in community is an outward manifestation of all those inward journeys.”
Cruising for meaning
In Clark County, many of us make those meaningful journeys by car, now seen as a vehicle for pandemic-era social distancing as well as getting around and even speaking out.
About 1,000 cars turned out to cruise Vancouver’s Main Street in May after an 18-year-old’s off-the-cuff Facebook post.
“Some people just wanted to get out and show off their cars, because that’s a normal part of their life,” said Bryan Shull, owner of Trap Door Brewing on Main Street.
A fraction seemed to be protesting pandemic restrictions, but most just wanted to throw off their isolation and party, Shull said. Unfortunately, that involved drinking alcohol on the sidewalks, leaving trash on the street and urinating in alleys, he said.
“I get it — the irresistible urge to gather,” Shull said. “We’re humans.”
When racism and police brutality compelled people all over America to gather and demonstrate in the streets despite the danger of COVID-19, progressive Portlanders made their statement in signature style: They occupied the Burnside Bridge and stopped traffic there.
Here in Vancouver, demonstrators revved their motors and cruised across town. The Vancouver NAACP organized a carefully controlled, registration-only car cruise as a way of joining the movement while maintaining proper social distance. Upwards of 3,000 people joined, riding in 1,500 vehicles, organizers said.
“People are sad and angry and they need connection,” said Jasmine Tolbert, vice president of the Vancouver NAACP. “They need to express themselves, even if — let’s be honest — it means risking their lives.”
The NAACP cruise provided a safer opportunity for those who might otherwise avoid a public protest because of disability or fear of catching the virus, Tolbert pointed out. And, it happened to fit Vancouver’s car-cruisin’ style.
“Even if we had to sit in our cars and be socially distant, it was still a sea of cars,” she said. “People need each other.”
Too much social activism has migrated online and become “clicktivism” these days, Tolbert said, but that’s not really where it belongs.
“You can post things, you can hashtag all you want, you can make Facebook comments and get into Facebook arguments,” she said. “But to physically get out of the house and express yourself, it brings a level of fulfillment.”
The following week saw a string of racial-justice demonstrations break out all over Clark County. While pandemic social distancing was attempted, many demonstrators had other priorities.
Short pause, big change?
As for our annual entertainment and cultural gatherings, we’re only in a holding pattern, some event managers say. This summer may be a goner, but give us a vaccine and time to regroup and we’ll be back.
“Fairs have been in the fabric of this country since the early 1800s,” Morrison said. “Even given the unbelievable changes we’ve seen societally, culturally, technologically, fairs have adapted and people still love them.”
The Clark County Fair has only been canceled twice in its entire history: once in 1942 during an outbreak of global war, and again this year for an outbreak of COVID-19.
“In both cases it was because of a nationwide challenge, when the whole country had to rally,” Morrison said.
He said he’s viewing this season as an extra-long planning opportunity for the 2021 fair.
“We can’t say it will be ‘bigger and better’ because we don’t know what kinds of physical limitations we’ll have, but it can get better,” he said. “That’s my pledge. A one-year absence … it’s just a drop in the bucket.”
Burrows at The Historic Trust sees bigger challenges ahead. In addition to hosting the annual Fourth of July fireworks spectacular, The Historic Trust has developed extensive public programming including parades, tours and an annual educational summer chautauqua.
It’s all aimed at raising historical awareness and building Vancouver’s unique sense of place, he said. Now Burrows is looking for creative ways to move all that online, but he’s not happy about it.
“We’ve worked hard to get people engaged,” he said. “To do a 180 and develop a technology experience … it’s not as appealing to people and it’s not a moneymaker. Lots of organizations, from the Smithsonian on down, they’re all creating mechanisms to provide online social media content, but I don’t think social media is a replacement for the live experience.”
Burrows worries that the pandemic has frozen Vancouver’s efforts to keep building its unique identity — that combination of tradition and innovation, historical and hipster.
“We were just beginning to come to the top of the hill in terms of creating an expressive identity for the city,” he said. “Downtown was really starting to figure itself out. Our cultural communities and organizations were getting more stable. Vancouver was really becoming a place unto itself.
“I really feel like, in just a few months it’s all slid backwards,” he said. “We were on a trajectory … now our trajectory is going to be very different.”