County Fairs in Context

On the morning that the term “total annihilation” was bandied about in a statement regarding North Korea, the day after the Bay Area’s temperatures hit an unnatural 105 degrees, and only several days after Houston was devastated by record-level floods, I went to the Coconino County Fair. On that day, it was truly the only thing to do.

Down-home fairs fascinate me. There were no state or county fairs where I grew up, in the metropolitan New York area. However, my parents owned a house in the Catskill Mountains, the rolling green hills two hours north of the city. That part of the world is farming and logging country, where folks are fond of their Fireman’s Fairs – festivals that celebrate local volunteer fire departments with parades, fish fries, and portable carnivals. The rides came in on tractor trailers, as did the unwinnable booth games that generally required skills such as shooting water into the mouths of clowns or pulling the right duck out of a kiddie pool in hopes of winning a stuffed polyester leopard or a Budweiser mirror.

Our family attended every one of those events over the course of the summer; after all, we had no television, and there weren’t a whole lot of other available diversions. Those weekends in upstate New York bred in me a love for all things cheesy and carnival-like, so I had no choice but to go to the Coconino County Fair when I saw it advertised in Flagstaff’s free paper.

As fairs go, I can’t say this one was that impressive. The ride selection was quite varied, but none of the options were exciting enough to pull me in. The standard selection of fair food was on display: burgers, barbeque, funnel cakes, donuts, and a new one for me – cheesecake in a cone. But compared to, say, the Eastern Idaho State Fair where I saw deep fried twinkies, deep fried cheese curds, and yes, deep fried butter, this fair didn’t rate all that well in the appalling edibles department. I liked the fairgrounds layout, with its multiple small buildings clearly designed to house the various 4H pursuits (which is to say, there was a rabbit building, a goat building, a chicken building, and two pig buildings). And I appreciated the fairgrounds’ location amidst a sea of ponderosa pine trees, making the site a lot less run-down and dusty than many fairgrounds are.

But what I was thinking about that day was not the uniqueness of this fair; instead, I was thinking about how it was just like all the others, and why that actually matters.

Attending a county fair is, in some ways, the activity most diametrically opposed to international diplomacy its responsibilities for negotiating the threat of nuclear war – the topics that NPR had drilled into my head every morning that week. These fairs are all about agriculture and animal husbandry – pursuits that occur on a local scale. Cultivating plants and raising animals are intensely personal activities, ones in which a human being forms a close relationship with a species of corn, a particular llama, or the composition of the soil on his or her land. In this reality, living things are being grown and cared for, not threatened or destroyed.

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People who attend fairs generally do so in search of connection, not division. Everyone goes to the same place to do the same meaningless but amusing activities – get scared on nausea-inducing rides, spend money to win tacky prizes, and eat food that will almost certainly shorten your life span. There’s no long-term global thinking going on here. On the contrary, there’s a lot of short-term, live for the moment fun on display, and it’s the kind of fun that brings people together instead of driving them apart.

You might regard the fair as a meaningless distraction – and it is one, no doubt.

But it’s a challenging and confusing world out there right now, with animosity and antagonism lurking around every corner. If the county fair is a place for people of all walks of life to come together and find shelter from the storm, then I’m all for plunking down eight dollars and screaming my way through the haunted house.

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