Already people are crowded into the arena, thigh-to-thigh on aluminum bleachers, holding collective breath as cowboys rope horn-wrapped steers; horses puff and grunt and gallop. Light glitters off bits and buckles and the rhinestones on barrel racers' fannies. Cowboys stride by in that one-leg-at-a-time way they have, spurs clinking, arena dust much in evidence.
At the demolition derby, mangled cars rival a thunderstorm. Noisy, blatting, pipes and snarls of tangled fenders and trunks rule. They are skeleton cars, zombie cars, mad metal sculptures, two weeks after the apocalypse, tributes to trauma, and not exactly what Detroit engineers envisioned when they rolled out the blueprints. Fans love them though and the grandstand is packed.
We wander beneath it, scoping out Hall's Fudge for future reference, and investigating this summer's crop of politicians and t-shirt salesmen.
Next, down the midway, past sausage and peppers and onions, funnel cakes, and lemonade, to our true destination all along. At the back of the fairgrounds is its heartbeat -- barns full of animals, rows of tractors and wagons, and all the other agricultural stuff that has always given the fair a reason.
It is satisfying to stroll behind perfectly turned out Holsteins, Swiss, Jerseys and Milking shorthorns, reading the signs over their heads to see which are the hottest sires of summer. Cows are belly deep in straw and shavings, the whole barn redolent of pine and new-made hay.
The horse barn is crammed with horses and ponies of every color and persuasion. Liz's little pony shares a stable row with horses that could step over her back without much effort. She doesn't let it bother her, though. With last year's fair under her halter this is all old hat to her. When the kids are done walking her around to show her the sights and settle her mind for the next day's show, she lies down in her stall and goes to sleep.
Bit chains jingle and saddles squeak, as people ride horses in every direction and in every sort of tack. In the outside ring, pony carts whirl by, drawn by miniature horses that are pretty sure that they are as big as all that and not taking a back seat to anybody. I try for some photos, but dark is descending fast and flash is probably not a good idea among so many wired up equines.
The best part is meeting friends. The backstretch is teeming with folks we have known for decades, since the days when all of us were young and spry and just as eager as the kids with their first ponies. I can remember lying awake on the nights before truck in, tolling over the things I needed to remember the next day. Halters, harnesses and hay, plus a hammer to hang the signs. Straw and shampoo and shavings; don't forget the water buckets. Hoof picks and ribbons for braiding ponies' manes and rubber bands and hoof polish. Back when I was showing I started every fair already tired to the bone from lack of sleep. By the end of this fair, the year's exhibitors will be nearly comatose with it, but they are having fun right now.
Too many of those good old friends know that, along with enjoying the fair, I am stalking content for this missive. I come in for some heckling. One of my oldest friends suggests that I write about how I ran into a particularly handsome friend of 40 years' duration and that he looks just as youthful as he did 20 years ago.
I am not sure if that is exactly true, but all the familiar faces look wonderful to me, even if we are all getting a little gray around the edges. We talk horses and farming and family until he is called away by horsey business.
For tonight we skip the chicken barn. It is getting late and I like to have time to peruse all the beautiful birds one by one. A couple of years ago I fell for some button quail and have never been quite the same since. We will be back another time or two, and I will take the poultry tour then, alone so no one else has to wait for me to ooh and ah over cochins and araucanas and the like.
Pretty soon we nab some fudge and hit the highway. There will still be cows to milk in the morning and we are not twentysomething any more.
Remember when fair week felt about a month long? When you knew that you had better savor every minute and hour because as soon as it was over it was back to the grind? A painful transition loomed, from cotton candy to classroom, from the all-important fair book with your classes and your schedule, to the far less welcome math book, not to mention English and history.
Now the week flies by in a blink and the dreaded transition is a little different. No classrooms of any description lurk, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting students, dragging them from shorts and t-shirts to gym clothes and backpacks. However, what awaits us older fairgoers is equally dreaded and the signs are importuning.
Some things never change, though. Around the kitchen table, folks who have long outgrown back-to-school, spent hours glitter-gluing rainbow letters, "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend." Although the pony's official name is McCall's KL Crimson, she is black and white. Tired of answering questions about her unlikely moniker, Liz calls her Diamond. We hope she will glitter in her setting at the fair, but even if she doesn't the memories surely will.
Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS
is a regular columnist. She blogs