Ululating pan flute melodies, the sloppy, succulent taste of charred turkey drumsticks, and the unmistakable aroma of 21st century mead and sweat-soaked linen: Welcome to the Minnesota Renaissance Festival!
For over 10 years I’ve avoided returning to the Ren Fest’s sprawling acres of woodchip-paved debauchery. For those who have not been, you must go. And for those who live for those six weeks at summer’s end, more power to you!
But for me, the Festival assails the senses and puts me ever on the defensive, sometimes literally. I once had to “defend the queen’s honor” with a (fake?) fencing sword against Bartholomew The Meek while a young woman with “As You Wish” tattooed on her ribcage spun giant oblong bubbles with a knit hula hoop.
It was all very unsettling. To this day, bubbles remind me of my failure to Her Majesty.
This year, I felt the Ren Fest might benefit from some of my Good Vibes. I figured as an adult, the tomfoolery and gratuitous hip shaking might seem a bit more playful and less like an erotic nightmare.
So I called up the only two people in this world who could see the humor in the perverse and play sidekick to my personal quest to conquer the land of absurdity, gluttony, and oh-my-god-so-much-patchouli: My mom and dad.
My mom, a.k.a. Cindy, is a Ren Fest virtuoso. She is on the varsity squad of Festival regulars, and she has the oddly shaped annual goblets and tasseled leather boots to prove it. My dad (Greg), by contrast, has all of the humor but none of the patience.
It was my hunch that between them, I would somehow gather the appropriate mix of attributes to not simply survive the festival, but embrace it!
And We’re Embracing…
I’ll admit, it’s difficult to get into the spirit of 16th Century England when you have to wait in a two-mile line of cars, weaving through haphazardly placed street cones , taking parking instructions from teenagers empowered by dayglow vests.
But once we found our grassy lot and locked the non-essentials in the vehicle, we could begin drifting into character. I went from casually nodding at fellow patrons to politely bowing, to proudly shouting “Ahoy! HUZZAH, M’LORD!”
I’ll admit, some drift into character a little better than others. Despite my best efforts, I simply could not compete with the guy in a leather vest and an eyepatch walking a sea turtle on a leash with one hand and carrying a hooded falcon in his other.
I introduced myself. His name is Rodney and he works at Comcast.
Mom and dad were soon losing themselves along memory lane, which is evidently a lot longer than the actual walking path we were on because I quickly I lost them in the sea of people flooding through the gates.
Of course, in the spirit of embracing the experience, we left our cell phones in the car. There were even signs encouraging visitors to “leave these silly contraptions behind” in the spirit of having a good time. This was strange, considering there were no such reminders to leave behind my Visa, driver’s license, or large bills.
Embrace It, Dammit
Confident I would find my parents without trouble, I entered the gates and dove headfirst into the melee of corsets, crystals, and seriously, way too much patchouli.
My first buy, a flagon of mead. It was delicio—oh my god, what is this? I immediately realized why all mankind stopped making this – it was simultaneously tooth-achingly sweet and horrendously bitter. It tasted like someone had strained wet cotton candy through an old, angry banjo player’s sock – a banjo player who regularly runs marathons in the bayou.
But it was strong. And at this rate, that’s what it would take to really get into character. I decided to peruse the wares and see if I couldn’t find something to fit in a little better. I looked at puffy shirts, lace-up vests, leather pants, even capes. There were so many combinations!Blog Image
As I waffled on how to find my character, I was taken aback at the spectacle of others’ personas. Rodney was just the tip of the iceberg. Full suits of armor with clanging chainmail were not unusual. I wondered, though, if it was worth it.
I had a difficult enough time not bumping into people at every turn. How did Lancelot maneuver the fairground without causing multiple concussions? I decided to ask.
“Hi there! Nice armor!” I shouted .
“Thanks!” came a tinny voice from within.
“Can you see OK out of that thing?” I inquired.
“No!” the voice returned. “Unless I flip this up.” The knight raised a gauntlet (an honest-to-god gauntlet) and pushed up the helmet’s visor. “Now I can see pretty OK straight ahea—“ but the visor promptly clanged shut.
The knight again lifted the visor. Again, it held for a moment, then dropped shut. This went on four more times while we tried to hash out what might be wrong.
“Dammit,” the voice eventually rang out, resigned. The knight took a half step backward, right onto a dog’s paw. The god yelped, the knight jerked his leg up, bent down, as much as he was able, and tried to pet the pooch.
The dog ducked away and wrapped its leash around its owner’s legs. The knight promptly began apologizing, occasionally lifting the visor, only to have it clang shut.
I decided to continue my search. Maybe just a hat.
Embraced. Let’s Go Home
I dove into the first hatter I could came across. The day was waning, I’d eaten some kind of meat pie that felt as though it disapproved of that decision, and the other patrons were quickly lubricating well past my limit.
The walls inside were decorated with floppy velvet hats, tricorner crier’s hats, and a smattering of Robin Hood knockoffs. All looked fine and good, but I wanted something unique. I turned into an inconspicuous alcove and froze. I’d found a lair of steampunk attire.
Leather, aviator hats, and sparkly welder’s goggles. All utterly impractical, but undeniably alluring. I’d never delved into the world of steampunk, so I wanted to pick the absolute perfect hat. I scanned left to right, up and down – reaching, then hesitating.
Finally, my eyes settled on one and I knew I had to try it on. It was eye-catching, gaudy, nasty, and not a little bit freaky. I instinctively knew that if I had this hat, I would have access to the sordid and carnal world of steampunk cosplay.
“Hey hon, what’cha doin?” my mom chimed from out of nowhere.
“WHAT THE–?!” I shouted. “Mom, hi. Yeah… I, uh, thought this hat looked silly.”
“Try it on, I’ll take a pic,” she cheered.
“You have your phone?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, I’ve been taking pictures of you all day. You hate it here, it’s hilarious,” she said gleefully.
Nonplussed, I put on the hat and struck a pose. My mom obliged by snapping away. This was fun.
“Oooohhh, LOVELY!” an unfamiliar voice rang from behind my mom. “ ‘andsome young mastah’ he is, idin’ee?” A short, old woman came around my mom and into view. She was ample-bodied and obviously not shy. Her corset had the same effect a tight rubber band would around a water balloon.
“Ha! Yeah, didn’t know steampunk was a Ren Fest Thing,” I said, seamlessly making my picture pose into a totally believable side stretch.
“Oh, we do, we do!” she said. “If you want to take a really good picture, you should pose over here.” She pointed to the side wall where a large, bright pink sign read “Absolutely No Photography!”
“Oh, sorry. I had no idea. Great hats though,” I said politely, standing upright from my totally natural side stretch.
“You’re a naughty one, boy – breaking me rules. I might like to teach you a lesson, eh?” she stepped toward me.
I backed into the wall, knocking over a hat. I picked it up, hanging it and my tester hat back on the wall.
“I think I’ll sleep on it,” I said as confidently as I could.
“Oye could give ye somehtin’ else to sleep on, boy.”
My jaw dropped. I looked at my mom. She stood with a proud, happy grin on her face, obviously receiving her full admission’s worth of entertainment right here.
“Linda! Can you ring this up,” a voice shouted from the front of the shop.
Oh thank god.
“Ooh, you got off easy this time, giblet,” Linda said with a wink before walking back to the register.
Our day at the Festival drew to a close. I had no new clothes, no exotic animals, and no bubbles. The day was unextraordinary in more ways than not. It was not the overload I once thought it was, but it was not the funfest everyone else seemed to enjoy.
But, as we pulled out of the parking field and onto the highway back home, my mom was still grinning ear to ear, my dad was playing a bird whistle in the backseat, and I was staring out the window, evening sun slipping through the car, wind rushing past, embracing it all.