By the time I joined my mom on the road, she had visited over sixty county fairs. Over dinner, at the end of long days of driving, she would recount her travels. We would listen dutifully as she recalled tales of lamb leads and horse shows, pie contests and parades, often teasing her about bringing barnyard perfume to our table. Appreciative but skeptical, none of us could imagine what it was that kept her wanting to go to new counties week after week, or what fueled her desire to experience every fair in the state of Minnesota. What ever happened to “you’ve seen one, you’ve seen em’ all?” It was not until I glimpsed my mom at work on her photos that I became determined to answer this question for myself.

This past year, over the first weeks of summer, I began to notice that no matter what county she had visited on any given day, or how hot or rainy the weather, Mom always came home with a light in her eyes. It was the kind of expression usually found only on the face of a child:  an inexplicable mix of awe and wonder, playfulness and knowing. Despite fatigue, she seemed renewed and enlivened after a day at the fair. Late one evening, as I passed through the hallway outside her workroom, I caught sight of Mom sitting in front of her computer, looking at that day’s collection of fair photos. I don’t know how long I stood outside her door, but I remember feeling like I couldn’t move for fear that I would miss the chance to appreciate quietly the joy I could feel pouring over her body as she smiled forth at the screen. Looking at the images seemed to take her to that same place she discovered out in those barns and fields. On subsequent nights, I began to tiptoe down to Mom’s space, creating my own ritual out of secretly watching her appreciate her own. Sometimes I would hear her giggle softly as an image filled the screen, so obviously recalling a story, a smell, a taste, or a touch. It was as if she remained at the celebration even from far away. Why, I wondered, couldn’t my own mind take me there too? But as I tried to paint myself into the scene, I realized that before I could bring a fair to me, I would have to go to a fair.

The first morning we headed out together felt like little more than a typical July day. Even in the early hours, it the air was thick and humid, and already I felt thirsty and tired. Part of me wanted to tell her I would pass, that I would ride along to the next fair, or perhaps the one after that. But as I looked over at her as she readied her camera, again I glimpsed that whisper of magic, and I settled into my seat in the car. We rode along without much talk; happy to watch the city fade and the fields grow wider. Occasionally Mom would point out a landmark of note, but mostly we just rode, waiting for the water tower to appear on the horizon and welcome us to our destination.

When finally we arrived at the fair, I waited for Mom to assign a direction and lead us into the collection of buildings ahead, but she declined the position of guide. Instead she encouraged me to wander on my own, following my senses and seeing what appealed. As I watched her walk off, I closed my eyes for a moment in an attempt to ask myself where I wanted to go. And then I heard it: standing there, with eyes shut I began to hear the noises of the barn to my right. A horse whinnied loudly and what sounded like a chorus of chickens began to cluck and cackle in reply. Without a thought, I headed in the direction of the barn. Once inside I was greeted by the smell of hay and the squish of mud beneath my feet. Morning light streamed through the windows above each animal’s stall, casting shadows and highlighting feathers and hides. I lost track of time as I meandered through the horse barn, stopping in front of each animal to note its name and admire the care, craft, and playfulness that had gone into decorating each stall: Princess housed behind a gate sparkling with jewels and glitter, Jasmine poking her nose through rows of grass skirts and Hawaiian leis.  In front of a few were posted tales of how owner and horse came to be partners. Children and teenagers wrote with love and affection about learning to groom, ride, and show. A young boy in chaps and a wide-brimmed hat swaggered through the barn in my direction. He invited me over to his horse and watched with content as I stroked Sylvester’s velvety nose. I could feel an enormous smile spread across my face as I felt my hand brush slowly up toward the horse’s forehead.

Thanking Sylvester and his rider, I continued on to the barns ahead. Everywhere I turned there were sights to see: children curled up alongside a cow five times their size, men trimming sheep with gusto and flair, pigs lying one atop the other in a mountain of twitching pink snoots and protruding curled tails, rabbits sipping water from old bottles of Mountain Dew, newborn chicks huddling together beneath the warmth of a hovering heat lamp, llamas chewing hay through giant buck teeth. But it wasn’t just what I saw. I was as captivated by what I heard as I listened to parents and children teach each other about the animals, what I felt as I touched floppy-eared rabbits and shirt-eating goats, and even the smell of manure started to have a strange sweetness to it. One moment fed instantly into the next, and suddenly I noticed that my body was swaying to the sound of a guitar playing somewhere to my left.

I followed the music out of the barn and found myself standing in front of a small stage. As a twentysomething guy filled the air with notes of Johnny Cash, a quartet of seniors tuned up just behind him and the few rows of bleachers began to fill with seniors, seemingly happy to enjoy the music of one generation as they anticipated that of another. Not far from where I stood, an older couple began to dance, laughing together as they invented the steps. My stomach began to growl as I watched the coming crowd lick ice creams cones, share popcorn, and savor that last bite of corndog, and I headed in the direction of the food stands.

As I stood in line for an ear of sweet corn a sign for the 4-H food building caught my eye. With corn in hand, I made my way across the gravel path and through the screen door of the old green building. Immediately upon entering I felt warm and welcome. A hand waved to me from behind the counter and familiar aromas of brownies and shortbreads drew me forward. Sitting down at one of the tables inside, I once again found myself listening as I tasted, watching as I touched, and inhaling the whole scene. Grandmothers and young boys served customers as teenagers, aunts and uncles stirred soups and slung sloppy joes; a group of young girls were nestled closely in one corner, planning their day over cupcakes; neighbors compared fair stories and looked around for newcomers to town. Everywhere was evidence of community, camaraderie, and pleasure.

Finished with the first of several food detours, I headed back out to into the sun. The day had grown even warmer, but I no longer seemed to mind. Speakers somewhere overhead announced the start of a talent show and I made my way in the direction of a group of picnic tables where kids were gathering. I watched as gymnasts and rock stars, comedians and magicians dazzled with turns and tricks. My ears delighted to the tunes as colorful scarves, bright boas, and long wands danced in front of me. No performance went unnoticed, and cheers were heard for all. Turning to my side, I noticed a small redheaded boy clutching a rabbit to his chest. They stood together in stillness until suddenly the rabbit, spooked by the bark of a nearby dog leapt to the ground and initiated a frenzied game of tag. Without a moment’s hesitation, dancers and wizards alike took off after the escaped pet. Although the rabbit escaped from two arms, the children seemed to know that it might take twenty to catch it. Around the tables and under the tractors they went until finally the rabbit came to a stop at a young girl’s feet. Quietly she picked up the trembling animal and carried it to the arms of its tearful owner, whose small frame uttered a deep sigh of relief as he accepted the outstretched rabbit.

As boy and pet ambled off together, I too began to work my way through the remainder of the fair. A large poster on the side of a large brick building advertised 4-H exhibits, and I slipped through the door to investigate the displays. What I found inside was an experience of touch: it touched my heart. I saw science projects, evidence of cooking skills, creative fashions that paired fabrics and styles new and old, and celebrations of the tradition of 4-H. Although I had no sense of what 4-H even meant prior to my arrival at the fair, as I read the mission statement sewn on large felt banners hung above my head, I was overwhelmed by the spirit of generosity and the belief in the power of “learning by doing.” Perhaps the force of my reaction was the result of the fact that standing there in the 4-H building, I too was doing just that; I was learning by walking, looking, smelling, tasting, laughing and listening. Reading the descriptions attached to inventions, experiments, and reports, I was reminded of projects I had done not all that long ago, and started to think of questions that I still have about events big and small.

I still was entertaining myself with memories and thoughts as I left the 4-H building and entered a second building nearby. Inside I found rows of photographs, drawings, paper mache masks, and clay pots. Snowflakes made from paper hung above houses made of sticks and plaster pigs with long, flirty eyelashes. Images of family vacations and graduations were displayed across from pencil drawings of strange creatures and imagined lands. On one side of the room, large ribbons hung from quilts hand-stitched and proudly hung. As I wandered along a table of scrapbooks, I could smell the faint scent of old newspaper clippings and I ran my fingers gently along the names and titles that decorated each cover. I smiled as I passed a pair of woven booties no larger than my palm, and laughed as I ogled the winning baked goods that aligned shelves near the door. What fun it must be to take that first perfect bite out of each cookie or cake before deciding which entry wins the day. Suddenly aware of the scent of roses, I turned to notice adjoining shelves brimming with flowers. The roses and iris even made room for venus fly traps and the tiniest of daisies. A woman beside me began to talk to me about her garden and showed me her prize lilies before inviting me to another table to see her sister’s award-winning vegetables.

Thanking my kind guide, I found my way out to the midway. After spending a few minutes watching groups of kids, and a few adults, try their hand at catching fish, shooting targets, and sinking baskets, I tried my own luck at a number of games. Clutching a small stuffed monkey who came to me by way of a wiffle ball toss, I held my breath as a man and his daughter bounced down a huge yellow slide and enjoyed the sight of a small girl taking her even smaller brother for a ride on a mini rollercoaster. I was about to stand in line for a temporary tattoo when I spotted Mom. Eagerly I ran to her side and began to tell her the stories of my day. She too had much to share: tales of donkeys and baby calves, equestrian victories and tractor demos. I loved discovering that we had seen so many of the same things but also could detail events and experiences the other had missed. In this spirit we made a second trip across the fair grounds together, taking turns pointing out attractions and destinations. Even as retraced my steps, sharing the experience made wandering the buildings even more fun. Together we watched a llama fashion show, rode in a covered wagon, and devoured a warm funnel cake. It was not until a group of dark storm clouds suddenly blew in that we finally headed for the car.

On the ride home, the car again was quiet. But this time, it was evident that we both were reflecting on the joys of the day. As I watched the water tower fade from the side-view mirror, I vowed to ride along again as soon as possible. I too was hooked. I wanted to experience the big fairs and the tiny. I couldn’t wait to hear the roar of trucks at my first demo derby, to try the cheese curds down South, or to see another blue ribbon handed out.  Over dinner that night, Mom and I looked at fliers and maps, planning our route to fairs yet to come. Like so many nights before, the kitchen was filled with the smell of the barnyard and Mom had a light in her eyes, but this time the smell was coming from my t-shirt and I too felt tired but content. Late in the evening, I faithfully tiptoed down the hall to catch Mom at work. Sure enough, she sat smiling in front of her computer screen. Rather than standing long in the hall, I walked up and took a seat beside her. Together we looked at the growing collection of fair photos. I delighted in the way each image offered itself as a keepsake of the fair while also prompting my own memories and experiences. Now I knew the sound of the rooster’s call, the smell of fresh milk, and the feel of a mane. The fair seemed to wake up my senses, making everything seem fresh and new.

Over the remaining weeks of summer as I traveled with Mom, I continued to feel with my nose, my hands, my eyes, my tongue, my ears, and, perhaps most importantly, with my imagination. After each fair, I could envision what had been and dream of the next time I would get to spend a day wandering between barns. Each time I climbed back into the car, I couldn’t help but note how much generosity of spirit you can find wherever people still take the time to come together and celebrate each other and the place they call home. As I sit here now, I am so grateful to have this book of photos that helps remind where to go when I need to remember just how exciting it is to get out and “learn by doing.”


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