Being former Vermonters, we are inclined to believe in perennial traditions such as late winter harvesting of maple sap, April snowfall, and the fall county fair. Where in more urbane settings the county fair might be considered a hokey and archaic gathering of yokels and hooligans, Vermonters know that the county fair is one of those places where you can count on meeting your friends and seeing their children proudly displaying the heifers they raised from calves. Rather than being an opportunity to eat fried Twinkies and shop for hot tubs, the Vermont county fair is an occasion for adults to exchange sociable greetings between the display of New Holland tractors and the 4-H tent.
For kids, the attractions are more basic. Sugary sweets (cotton candy, funnel cakes, flavored ice) and rides that spin your head off are the reason to go. We adults pretend to tolerate this because we want our children to grow up to appreciate the finer aspects of the county fair later, but in reality we still wish to recapture the simple thrill of the midway and its colored lights, barkers, and rigged games as remember them from our own childhoods. By holding the hand of an excited child tugging our way to the Tilt-A-Whirl, we can at least touch the memory briefly.
So once in a while, we take Emma to the county fair. Here in Arizona, the season is upside down in an attempt to beat the heat, with the Pima County Fair happening in April rather than the traditional northern schedule of August or early September. This disconcerts us a bit, because we associate the fair with the coming of pick-your-own apple season, and the quickening of chill in the evenings. The ground should be damp from the last of the summer thunderstorms, and hearts should be bittersweet with the knowledge that the preponderance of summer is gone but a last thrill awaits.
Dusty air and a sense of intense sun are the hallmarks of an Arizona county fair; after all, the heat of summer is just around the corner. In a month we will hit 100 degrees for the first time and, as they say locally, the ice will melt in the Santa Cruz River. (That is definitely a tongue-in-cheek statement, since the Santa Cruz bears no surface water for much of its length and ice is only found in drinks around here.) So here the County Fair represents the impending turn of seasons, as snowbirds flee and Arizonans call for their annual air conditioning checkups.
County fairs come in all sizes and persuasions, from the tiny Stalwart County Fair (Michigan) that features agricultural exhibits and not much else, to the extra-large events in major urban areas that are primarily a mix of rock concert venue and carnival. A nearly-universal attraction of modern fairs, however, are the rides: slides, coasters/flumes, spinners, and drops are the basic tools of the amusement park ride developer, and once in a while you can mix up a few elements to come up with something like the “Disk-O” (above). There is little that can be called new, but then love is nothing new and yet people still practice it.
In the section of the park that is oriented to big kids and childish adults, the rides are almost always the same as I remember from my childhood but with louder music and stranger airbrushed graphics. The spinning “Himalayan” that Emma loves is called the “Rave” here, and it features a giant King Neptune as disk jockey wearing sunglasses and an audio headset. On a nearby ride I see airbrush art of clowns bearing machine guns. Nothing makes sense but it all somehow fits in an absurd, Alice-In-Wonderland sort of way.
The aluminum handrails of the “Moscow Circus” are sticky with thousands of hands that have recently been handling greasy corn dogs, gooey nachos slathered in cheese, pizza slices, turkey legs, funnel cakes, and deep-fried Snickers bars. I think about handwashing or applying Purell, Emma thinks, “Let’s go again!” — and the adult part of me fades away, the child wins out, and we go again, and then find another ride until the sun has long been behind us and the lights of the fair have come on to create a new world that bears exploring yet again. You can’t compete with that sort of magic, and pretending it isn’t there is a very “adult” thing to do, which in kid-speak means stupid. Just let it wash over you, because escapism is something most of us don’t practice often enough.
I think the best aspect of the county fair is its transience. It happens only a few days each year, and then it slinks away on trucks to find a home elsewhere. You have to participate when it is ready, like eating a chocolate chip cookie hot out of the oven. Wait a little while and the little chips aren’t melted anymore. Wait a few days, and they’re gone. This small window of opportunity forces you to rise up out whatever doldrum you may be feeling and taste the experience at its very peak, which is a good lesson for all of us. Life doesn’t wait, any more than the county fair does.