Your Ticket to Good, Old-Fashioned Fun
It’s hard to discount the down home aesthetic of the county fair: the smell of deep-fried everything, the rapid-fire bark of the auctioneer’s patter, the ridiculously overpriced everything. The fancy chickens fascinate me, as do the playful goat kids, the long-eared rabbits, and the fact that people raise pigeons on purpose. For the price of an admission ticket, and whatever additional cash you’re able to muster, you can venture into a magical, colorful, candy-coated fantasy.
After years of being too busy or broke to hit the Pima County Fair, I ended up going twice this year in order to accommodate the desires of friends and family. We didn’t get to see any concerts (Alas, Bret Michaels, will I ever experience your silky, sultry, buttery voice in person?) or buy any overpriced trinkets (never been big on bedazzling my clothes, or airbrushing them, or dangling licensed characters from them) but we got to experience what is, to me, the quintessence of the event: the carnival midway, the greasy food, and the livestock barn.
Take a Chance on the Midway
Depending on the landscape, you usually see it from a long way off. As your car bumps over the country road, the Ferris wheel and the tallest rides tower over the scene, painted green and blue and red. With your windows down and the wind just right, you can hear teenagers screaming as they’re shaken, tossed, dropped, spun, and flipped in apparent disregard for the laws of physics and safety.
In between the rows of kinetic amusements—the zipper, the roller coaster, the thing that spins you around until you stick to the wall—are the games. They all seem fixed to me: you can see that the basketball hoop is ovoid, not round, and it doesn’t even appear possible to circle a soda bottle with a tiny ring. Nonetheless, kids toting giant stuffed animal prizes indicate that someone, somewhere, has beaten the odds.
The Pima County Fair has a second midway of tiny, kid-sized rides that don’t go too fast, or upside down, along with games where everyone wins. For failing to throw a beanbag into a bucket, my stepdaughter came away with a plush purple lobster, and she had the sense to quit while she was ahead.
My husband and I rode all the rides that go upside down, along with the swings that hurl you in a circle a hundred feet above the ground. Later, he remarked that, for the money he spent treating our family of four, he could have driven us all to California and bought tickets at a real amusement park. But of course, a real amusement park would lack many of this event’s enchantments.
It’s All Fried
Someone told my stepdaughter about deep-fried Oreos, and the first thing she did was sniff her way directly to the deep-fried Oreo booth. She delicately nibbled at the doughy confection with rapturous delight, completely oblivious to the fact that while she lingered over one, her father rapidly consumed the other four. About an hour later, she asked for the rest; I reminded her what happens when you let Daddy carry your goodies. Then I bought more deep-fried Oreos. My friends also tried deep-fried Twinkies and deep-fried Snickers.
If it’s artery-clogging fair food, you’ll find it here: greasy pizza and goopy nachos and fluffed-up cotton candy and corn dogs and egg rolls and fried potatoes on sticks. Funnel cakes, of course, along with mini doughnuts. Did it ever occur to you that you might want deep-fried Coca-Cola? Your need has been anticipated. There’s ice cream, regular, soft-serve, and Dippin’ Dots; and cookies, all kinds; and old-fashioned candy: peanut brittle and caramel apples, plus updated versions of these treats (cashew brittle and M&M studded apples). You can have a frozen chocolate-dipped banana, or a chocolate-drizzled strawberry, or plain chocolate.
In the southwest, we enjoy the perfect marriage of deep-fried dough and easy protein, the Navajo taco. Fry bread, that classic staple of native cuisine, is topped with meat or beans, lettuce, tomato, and cheese, and then for flavor, hot sauce. It is delicious. If you don’t want the protein, you can eat the fry bread with honey and powdered sugar. Don’t think about the US Department of Agriculture’s warning that a single plain piece of fry bread contains 700 calories and 27 grams of fat, because this is the county fair, not the real world, and there’s no diabetes in fantasyland.
If you’re concerned about your health, you should avoid eating at the fair. Aside from the candy-covered fruit, your best options will likely be a piece of grilled meat, and you don’t even want to think about what carcinogenic dangers might lurk in your charred steak skewer or giant turkey drumstick.
All the Animals
The true purpose of the fair is to showcase animal husbandry, along with domestic arts, plus some more modern pursuits. I enjoyed learning about lapidary while my husband amused himself with a model airplane simulation. We were both amazed at some of the children’s talents in cake decorating and confused by the prizes offered for table setting. But we lingered longest with the animals.
There’s a carnival sideshow element to a few displays. For a dollar extra, we were able to view a tank full of large yellow boa constrictors, who seemed dulcet and content on their heat rocks, and for another dollar we saw a similar tank full of listless and discontented monkeys, one of whom seemed intent on breaking out through a skylight. We skipped the fee to have our photo taken with live parrots, but enjoyed the sea lion display, and would have paid for that photo if we had the time.
The livestock barn offers the true draw. Outside, auctioneers engage the crowd in a lively exchange as America’s future farmers sell their precious projects to the highest bidder, all for charity. Inside, the air is full of bleating, mooing, and dust, the floor is covered with straw, and rows of cages and pens stretch as far as you can see. There are chickens of every description: huge and white, small and black, phoenix roosters reflecting myriad colors in their fancy tails. There are pigeons, too: shimmering common pigeons with oil-slick necks, delicate white doves cooing with their heads tucked in.
To one side, you’ll find cavies and rabbits, long and short haired, long and short-eared. Some hide in old tissue boxes while others press themselves close to sniff your fingers. Cows and calves chew their cuds or get led around by denim-clad women, while goats and sheep gambol or rest, nurse their babies, or try to nibble on anything near the pen. If you’re lucky, an owner will invite you to pet their prize milker or cuddle a newborn kid. The action never stops in the livestock barn.
I’m not the least bit country myself. Growing up in the suburbs, I read about children in books—Charlotte’s Web or A Day No Pigs Would Die—visiting the county fair with high expectations and prize-winning animals in tow, but I didn’t realize until adulthood that this was something people still actually did. It’s a different, and wonderful world. Provided you aren’t afflicted by allergies or generally opposed to the raising of animals for protein, it’s a delightful way to experience a little country, only a short drive out of town.