Most of us remember our first visit to the county fair.
We were little.
Holding on tightly to our mom or dad’s hands as we looked up at all of the whirling lights. The smell of cotton candy swirling with a dash of salty popcorn, a bit of corn dog and maybe even a trace of your uncle’s farm all mixed together. Then there was that surprisingly pleasant way the baby calf felt as you petted her – with both of you being more than a little nervous about the entire encounter.
All of the laughs and screams from the rides, with music coming from every place imaginable. The people on the midway telling us the only way to win that huge stuffed animal – which was literally bigger than we were – was to play. And there was a winner every time!
There were few places that made all of our senses feel so electric.
As we got older, our views of the fair changed. But mostly, we still wanted to go. Especially with friends.
Holding hands with our first sweetheart. Eating things we knew were bad for us … yet tasted so darn good. Finally getting a chance to see that old band we used to love when we were just kids. Buying that amazing “chip clip” that we swear might be our most practical and important worldly possession.
But what about right now? You heard about the Spokane County Interstate Fair opening this week and wondered to yourself if it’s still relevant.
Seriously, does it mean as much to our community as it once did? How, in a world filled with PlayStations, virtual-reality headsets, iPhones, Facebook and Netflix, does a county fair still matter?
It does. Maybe now more than ever.
All of those feelings of wonderment from my childhood returned Thursday while walking the fairgrounds as workers set things up, packed coolers, unloaded animals and set out the biggest pumpkins you’ve ever seen.
It’s hard not to see a roller coaster being built right in front of you and not ask yourself at least four questions:
How is this thing possibly safe?
Are the guys at the top totally crazy?
Is this the coolest Erector Set on the planet?
Will anybody ride that thing with me if I bought the tickets for all of us?
For most people, the most important answer would be that the roller coaster is inspected and deemed safe by all sorts of people with that sort of authority. For me, the most important answer is that at least a couple of people have said they would ride it with me as long as they still sell beer at the fair.
And that’s part of why the fair is still important.
Some will tell you that it’s relevant because of the educational experiences, especially related to understanding agriculture. As our population has become more urban, walking through all of those livestock barns is totally powerful – especially for children who think food comes from Yoke’s or Rosauers.
Seeing all of the projects worked on by the kids in FFA and 4-H is fun. Who doesn’t enjoy looking at all of those homemade quilts and wondering just how much work went into them?
Those things are all lovely.
They just aren’t why the county fair is more essential now than ever before.
Fairs are a communal experience based around all of our senses. Sure, going to a ballgame or a concert can be communal, but you’re basically sitting there. You’re taking it in.
A fair is participatory.
To use the latest new-generation buzzword, a fair is all about engagement. You taste things, behave impulsively, maybe learn a few things, pet a goat, have your palm read, make fun of the band that probably should have retired in 1979 … and likely experience it together.
In a world increasingly absent of real interactions – like having a “Facebook friend” – a fair is where we get to be a part of real things. With real friends.
Or family. Or your sweetheart. But really, with your community.
Most years, the Spokane fair will draw somewhere between 190,000 and 250,000 people. That’s basically half of those who live here.
Name another local event that brings in those sorts of numbers over a week and half.
Who knows what the attendance will look like this year, especially with all of this smoke that knows how to ruin a good party. Last year, going into the final days of the fair, attendance was up nearly 10 percent from the previous year. Then the rains came.
The point is our local fair wasn’t just relevant, it was growing.
Historically, county fairs were all about coming together to celebrate. We celebrated a great harvest, that super-tasty pie that the next-door neighbor’s kid baked and our local football team’s superiority over the next town over’s scrawny squad.
Fairs also gave us the perfect excuse to finally wear those new boots we bought back in the spring.
You layer in some musicians, entertainers and a bunch of things we wouldn’t normally get to see, then you basically have a Chautauqua.
Theodore Roosevelt once said a Chautauqua was “the most American thing in America.”
Because we came together and did things together.
That’s what we all need a healthy dose of at this exact moment. We need the fair.
So let’s all agree to get together and share an elephant ear with a scoop of huckleberry ice cream sometime over the next 10 days or so.
Just the thought of it takes me back to when I was little.
And it feels just like the first time I saw all of those amazing carnival lights and couldn’t quit smiling.
A previous version of this story was corrected to update fair admission prices.