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Know the West

Impressions of a county fair: heifer rituals, deep-fried pickles and all


It's so noisy at the fair
But all your friends are there
And the candy floss you had
And your mother and your dad.

-- Neil Young, Sugar Mountain.

His face was like leather, so much so that the only expression that showed up behind the utterly opaque mirrored sunglasses was a sort of perma-smirk that reminded me of the guy in high school who used to slam geeks’ heads into lockers as nonchalantly as he waved to his friends. From the back of his worn baseball cap, a tiny rat-tail braid protruded, dyed red. He wore black, fingerless gloves with which he gripped a plastic barrel that apparently contained well over a gallon of soda. And I stood helplessly behind the thin metal rope as he loaded my wife and daughter into a tiny metal cage-pod, locked the door, and sent them hurtling in vomit-inducing circles through space even as a dark thunderhead ominously approached.

The Hammer. Photo: Jonathan Thompson.

Welcome to the La Plata County fair, 2013. Organizers say it “celebrates our community’s rural southwestern lifestyle,” so I figured a visit might help me get a sense of what that lifestyle entails as the rural gets gobbled up by quasi-suburban, amenity-driven development. The county fair of my day -- I grew up visiting this very same fair every summer, and my grandmother always won the grand prize for her gladiolas -- was focused on livestock and produce and greased pig chases, with a few rides on the side. If my impressions are accurate, today’s fair seems to be reversed. Rides like The Hammer* -- the giant metal contraption that my wife and daughter insisted on subjecting themselves to as a condition of accompanying me to the fair -- are the stars, rather than the prize-winning bulls.

We were, I confess, a bit late. It was the last day of the fair and, judging by the general energy level, we had arrived in the thick of the post-climax stupor, hours after the “carcass animals” had been shipped away. But there was still plenty to see in the exhibit halls: A yellow cake shaped like a coiled python, jars of home-canned peaches and apricots, a humble Democratic Party booth crammed in next to the “One Nation Under God” table, and an oversized Republican Party booth -- nay, entire corner of the hall -- where popcorn was exchanged for registering to vote (the Republicans were apparently working what they assumed was their base after some big blows in recent elections: Obama carried the county, and two of three commissioners are Democrats).

Officially, there are almost twice as many more farms in La Plata County than there were in 1969, which might suggest that the local food/organic farm craze has led to an agricultural renaissance in the region and significantly altered the culture and land-use. But it might also suggest that those 1969 farms were sliced up by developers into many more smaller lots, lots that they continue to call farms -- leaving one field for hay, or letting the neighbor’s sheep graze the lawn -- in order to get Colorado’s property tax exemption for agricultural land. That would explain how the county has added farms even as 100,000 acres of land was taken out of agriculture; how all those extra farms collectively house about half the number of cattle and sheep as they did in 1969 and bring in half the revenue. There may not be money in farming, but there is money in declaring one’s land a farm, especially in these days of God-awfully high property values.

The "Peoples Choice." Photo: Jonathan Thompson.

We saw chickens that looked as if they had been through a cartoon explosion, their eyes blown off their face and feathers poofed out around their head a la Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx circa 1983. We saw unbearably cute rabbits and a few geese. We saw two teenage cowboys with matching shirts and sun-baked faces not-so-playfully lasso one another: The torchbearers of the rural southwestern lifestyle, I presume. We saw pigs wallowing around in little pens, and followed the crowd to what I hoped was mutton-busting (miniature rodeo of sorts in which tiny children ride sheep), but was actually some ritual in which teenagers handed heifers down to pre-teens. It had something to do with breeding. It’s all about breeding here, really, unless it’s about bacon-wrapped sausage on-a-stick or deep-fried pickles. But I’ll get to that.

The fair, without a doubt, is smaller now than it used to be. What was once a grand fairgrounds with horse-racing track and stadium and stone stables built by the Works Progress Administration that dominated this side of town, is now a paved parking lot, sports fields and recreation center. Back then there was a lot more dust at the fair, the lunar kind of dust that adds a certain thickness and warmth to the light. It’s now gone. And where once there was a greased-pig chase and greased-pole climb (I have little doubt that these events and others continue to take place in some underground, "shadow fair"), there is now the demolition derby. It’s a new addition, and has nothing to do with the traditional rural lifestyle in these parts, but it’s the fair’s climax, for sure.

The Derby’s popularity is half sincere and half ironic. It is flocked to not only by those who truly get an erotic charge out of the skull-numbing roar of unmuffled engines and steel-on-steel violence, but also by those aging hipsters who find some sort of humor in the unabashed patriotism and high-horsepower bloodlust, going so far as to hold pre- and post-derby Pabst Blue Ribbon-saturated parties in which they attempt to resemble the cast of the Dukes of Hazzard for reasons I simply cannot parse. I suspect it all gets a bit confusing. After all, are they mocking the sincere derby fans or are they mocking the hipsters that mock the sincere derby fans? Or do they just like the Daisy Duke look? (For which I can't blame them.)

Ummm... if you don't let big people on The Hammer, then maybe you should stop feeding them bacon wrapped sausage on a stick? Maybe?

I’m not sure that these ironists can muster the same enthusiasm for the culinary offerings at the fair, clearly designed to clog arteries and induce cardiac arrest in as short a time as possible. After all, this is a town where one local coffee shop doesn’t even offer whole milk for its espresso drinks (keeping its clientele skeletal), where the Paleo diet and Strava segments are a regular subject of dinner parties, and something called Cross-Fit is considered to be an intellectual activity. But then, the pickles are locally fried, the giant turkey legs seem tailor-made for Paleo-eaters and the bacon-wrapped sausages are gluten free. So, who knows, they just might catch on.

When my wife was finally released from The Hammer’s cage, she had taken on a greenish pallor, muttering something about how she would never do that again. A nearly black thunderhead loomed overhead, and I didn’t want to be around when the lightning started flying and The Hammer's pods became convection ovens, so we headed home.

I probably should conclude by waxing romantically about how I came to be smitten with the vanishing slow rural life at the fair and bought my own 40-acre spread (with ag tax exemption, of course) on which I farm purslane and thistle that I sell to overpriced local restaurants while writing a food-porn cookbook replete with misty photographs of myself drinking fine wine with my angora goats. If not that, I should at least wax nostalgically about all that has been lost at the county fair. But then, I’m not really that nostalgic: Back in the day, I was terrified of being roped into participating in the greased pig chase or pole climb. I'm no less frightened of canned fruit and vegetables. And I have a hard time finding romance in the livestock shows, which are no more than unjust beauty pageants for pigs in which both winner and loser await the same dismal fate: bacon.

The southwest rural lifestyle is clearly changing. And I think I’m okay with that.

* The Hammer resembles a sort of siamese-twin, oil-and-gas well pumpjack gone berzerk, which actually does reflect the rural landscape and economy and lifestyle here more accurately than, say, cows or sheep.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. Follow him on Twitter @jonnypeace.