This week marks the beginning of the annual Iowa State Fair.
This is the Fair of fairs, at least in my mind. Nothing else I have witnessed quite so succinctly captures American culture and spirit. It is a marvel.
First there is the journey to Des Moines’ east side. The east-siders are proud of their fair, and the fair is proud of them. It hosts an East Side night every year, where the fashion du jour is ripped cut-offs and halter tops. Not that this outfit escapes the fair on the other nine days.
When we go to the fair, we park in the residential neighborhood to the west of the fairgrounds. We usually end up walking about five blocks to get to the main gate, and that walk provides us with a good amount of local scenery. Many of the east-siders close to the fairgrounds open up their lawns and yards for fair parking, charging fairgoers on average $5 to park for the day. It’s a bargain.
Once you’ve winded through the streets and arrived at the main fair gate, you pay the entrance fee (or give them your pre-paid discount ticket) and bam, you have entered the Mecca of Iowa summers.
Straight ahead is the main concourse, lined with food concessions as far as the eye can see. It literally stretches for a mile or so straight east. To the right is usually some commercial displays and a path that leads you to a massive display of John Deere farm equipment. Combines, tractors, other doo dads and big thingies I don’t know the names of, stand 10 to 12 feet and look like they would squish you if they could. To the left there are other things, but I never have made it that far. The food stands straight ahead usually get the better of me.
Walking through this main drag, you have your choice of walking tacos, fried Twinkies, Oreos and Snickers bars, frozen lemonade, corn dogs, pretzles, turkey legs, pork chops on a stick, and pretty much anything you can imagine that can be fried and put on a stick. Last year I tried the inaugural edition of the pineapple on a stick, which was deep fried in funnel cake batter, glazed and handed to you for about $4. Yum.
As you navigate through the many culinary delights on either side, you will come across the carnival ride section. The Iowa State Fair boasts a magnificent display of rides, including huge roaring roller coasters, little kiddie rides, bounce houses, super slides and things that go whish, whoosh and wham, tossing your body (strapped to a contraption, of course) through the air, upside down, backwards, sideways and any other way it can go. I seem to avoid this area, mostly because I’m too busy eating.
Once your belly is full, take a rest and grab a seat at one of the many entertainment pavilions, where live music, dancing and other acts are taking place all day. I have seen talent shows, Klezmer music, Karaoke, Choir and a dog show. I also saw Bob the Builder, which, I have to admit was a little scary.
The best part of the fair, though, is the animals. Iowa, of course is known for its dedication to agriculture, and its rich agricultural history. The state fair pays homage to this, and it hosts four animal barns where show animals reside as they wait their turn to be judged. There’s the cattle barn, which is filled with cows and calves of all breeds. Most impressive is the enormous bull, weighing over a ton, that is kept at one end, caged up and surrounded by gawking spectators.
The horse barn is my favorite, because I love horses, and because the horses are pretty accessible. They each have their own stall, and will come over and say hi, let you pet their noses and stroke their manes. Every year there is a showing of Clydesdales, which, in person are larger than any horse you could imagine. The Budweiser commercials do not do these mammoths justice.
The sheep barn is generally a snooze, but I have been intrigued by the sheep shearing contest that happens each year, though have never attended.
The swine barn is also interesting in that it houses the largest single pig I have ever seen or should be allowed to exist. The pig lies on its side, panting, and I watch it, wondering how any animal that should be one-tenth or one-fiftieth this size is able to grow to such immensity.
After all is said and done, it is time to people watch. Any shady spot will do—as temperatures generally hover around the low to mid-90s (plus lots of humidity). People come from all over the state and the country to attend the Iowa State Fair. They come in families, they stay for the week, they come for an hour. They are an attraction in themselves, and my words cannot do the crowd justice in any description. But the fair truly is a people-watcher’s paradise.
This year will be my fourth year attending the fair, and, sadly, I will only be able to go one time. But it will be a guaranteed good time, and will help solidify my Iowa experience.