My Day At the Iowa State Trifecta, Er, Fair

On Friday night I said to The Husband “Let’s go to the fair tomorrow!” “Okay,” he replied. 

Most unusual behavior for our household, which consists of an off-the-chart introvert and a workaholic. Said decision was not only spur of the moment, but against the grain: My basic requirements for a trip to the Iowa State Fair include a) going on a weekday rather than the weekend; and b) choosing a day of relatively cool weather (of which, contrary to belief, August in Iowa usually offers plenty). 

Instead, spur of the moment, we were going on the first Saturday of the fair, historically the fair’s busiest day, and the weather promised blue skies and temperatures in the high eighties. Which meant that out there on the Grand Avenue Concourse amidst 100,000 or so other people, it would be more like low nineties). 

results at the "cast your kernel" booth as of 11 am August 15th

results at the "cast your kernel" booth as of 11 am August 15th

What prompted this outburst moment of impulsive behavior? A State-Fair, caucus-cycle trifecta: Clinton, Sanders, and Trump would all be there. (As would Santorum, but his visit was before noon, and he has nothing like the chops to lure me to the fair.)

What’s not to like? One hundred thousand people and The Donald! Arriving via private helicopter! Hillary eating pork on a stick! Bernie Sanders and, I hoped, his army. 

That last was the big draw, at least for me. He was scheduled to speak at the Des Moines Register Soapbox at 2 pm. (The Register offers candidates twenty minutes to make his/her case to anyone who wanders by. With approximately 100,000 people wandering by, few candidates reject the offer. For the record, in 2015, Clinton and Trump declined.)

“Let’s try to get there by 1 pm,” I told The Husband, calculating that if Sanders’s usual ten-thousand-plus showed up, the Grand Concourse, already a world-class zoo, would get real weird real fast. I wanted to see what happens a Big Crowd turns into a mob scene. (Full confession: I was hoping for a shouting match of some sort. Maybe even a mini-riot: Sanders’s Army battling Trump’s Troopers.) When he finished talking, we’d go look for Hillary and Donald.

One out of three ain’t bad. Especially at the State Fair which is a master of derailment: Arrive at the gate with a plan and you’re doomed to a day of frustration. Because the minute you hand over your ticket, your plan will fall apart.  


Our derailment began, as it so often does at the Iowa State Fair, with food. I was starving and I don’t do well with an empty stomach. Especially not in big crowds. But I’m also picky about my fair food: Most of it ranks in the inedible category. (Which, yes, makes me an outlier among Iowans. What can I say? Heat plus the aroma of fried foods doesn’t sit well with me or my stomach).

So we waded through the Grand Concourse to the hill, up where the crowds are smaller and the breezes stronger, to Farm Bureau Pioneer Hall (to give it its official name). 

the ackley little german band

the ackley little german band

There I chowed on a delicious burger, some of the best fries ever, and perfect lemonade. And reveled in the entertainment on the hall’s stage: The Ackley (Iowa) Little German Band playing polkas and waltzes.

Polkas, people, polkas! What’s not to like? Plus, there’s always room for dancing and plenty of folks seized the opportunity. 

I could have stayed there all day. (Two or three fair trips ago, we got derailed in same place by the joke-telling contest, seven and under age bracket. Folks, you ain’t been nowhere or seen nuthin’ till you’ve watched a collection of kids tell jokes that they don’t quite understand. Hilarity ensued.)

We stayed an hour and then headed down the hill, detouring to watch the tree-stump carvers making huge hawks and owls and to buy a mocha ice cream bar from Bauder’s. (A third of which, as usual, ended up in a trash can. Those babies are enormous. I can never eat the whole thing and The Husband always refuses to help on the grounds that melting cream will mar his beard.)

We stopped for a rest on the lovely veranda of the Administration Building. Mostly lovely: On this occasion, its shady expanse was clogged by a crew from The Today Show, which had set up shop and cameras right smack in the middle. Grrr. 

But Bill decided he’d rather find his lunch (a corn dog. Ugh) and then nap while I waited for Bernie. Per plan, then, I stationed myself in a slice of shade near the microphone to wait for Bernie’s Hordes. Trump’s helicopter circled above; he’d arranged to give‘copter rides to kids while he strolled the grounds. 

So much for my great plan. That was ninety minutes I’ll never get back. (We'dve been better off staying at Pioneer Hall to listen to the mandolin playing that followed the Ackley Little German Band.)

The crowd wasn’t much (according to the Register, Santorum, who spoke earlier, attracted about as many people as Sanders). And Sanders’ message is a snore. He thinks no one should be more wealthy than anyone else. Okey dokey. Let me know how that works out for you. (I’m always boggled by people who believe that it’s possible to change millennia of human nature.)

Sanders supporter and hay bale -- because hay bales = iowa. or so i'm told.

Sanders supporter and hay bale -- because hay bales = iowa. or so i'm told.

I did, however, enjoy eavesdropping while journalists interviewed some in the waiting crowd. A young woman nearby was wearing a hand-made “Fucking Bernie Sanders” t-shirt and that was enough to win her not one, not two, but three interviews. 



(One of the guys who interviewed her explained to her and her friends that once upon a time, Iowa consisted of miles of golden, native grasses, glittering in the summer sun. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Iowa is prairie, not plains, and he was confusing Iowa with Nebraska.) 


So Bernie proved a bust. No problem. We set out in search of Donald and Hillary. She, however, had long since left. It was rumored, however, that Trump was still at the Butter Cow, where he planned to do a meet-and-greet.

(I learned this from the “engagement editor” inside the Des Moines Register’s building, adjacent to the Soapbox. When I asked where the candidates were, he shrugged. No clue. “You mean you don’t have reporters following them and live-tweeting their location?,” I asked. He shook his head and shrugged again. So much for “engagement.”)

Off we went to the Ag Building and the Butter Cow. The Ag Building is always a mob scene — because who doesn’t like looking at butter cows and blue-ribbon gladiolas, green peppers, and melon? No Trump. Way too many people. I was glad to get outta there. 

(The next day I learned that Trump abandoned his Butter Cow plan: Too many people. WAY too many people. See what I mean about derailment? Even the presidential wannabes get derailed.) 

(I also learned that while we listened to polka music at the top of the hill, Clinton and Trump were at the bottom talking to cameras and eating pork on a stick.)

Photo borrowed from the des moines register

Photo borrowed from the des moines register

(Eating pork, on a stick or on a plate, is nearly mandatory for presidential candidates. The Iowa Pork Producers have a lotta clout.) (And yes, I plan to be there the day a Jewish, Muslim, or vegetarian candidate visits the fair.) 

(Personally, I think anyone who can wander the fair surrounded by cameras and microphones and devour pork on a stick or, as Jeb Bush had done the day before, a deep-fried Snickers bar, demonstrates the steely resolve needed to survived the White House.)


So much for politics and presidents. Whaddya gonna do? 

Drink beer, of course.

We headed to our favorite fairgrounds joint (adjacent to the livestock barns and relatively far from both the midway and the Grand Concourse), an open-air affair with lots of shade. There we sat for an hour, sipping a Budweiser (so sue me), enjoying the breeze. At the table next to us, a group of farmers told jokes and talked politics and weather. Out in the street, livestock handlers on horse awaited the arrival of livestock. They were all wearing “cowboy” hats, which are perfect in this weather and sun. 

I’d tried on several such hats up in Pioneer Hall, something I do whenever I visit the fair. “I need a cowboy hat,” I told The Husband, continuing a conversation begun during our last trip to the fair. 

“You don’t need a hat,” he replied. “You’ve got a dozen hats. And where would you wear it?” 

“Where do you think?” I replied. “Out in the yard. Same place I wear all my hats.” (Once again, and only because I forgot about it, I left the fair sans cowboy hat. Next time.)

Beers finished, time to decide: Livestock barns? Old Mill (aka tunnel of love)? Bumper cars (one of my favorite things in this entire, big world)? (Mercifully, bumper cars are at the edge of the midway, which I otherwise avoid. I’ve got that inner ear thing and my love affair with fair rides ended, definitively, when I was 35. So I avoid midways: They make me too sad to live, all those whirling rides that I can no longer enjoy.)

“The Giant Slide,” I said. “I'm not sure I've ever gone down it. Maybe once, when I was little? Let’s go!” Total blast for only $2.50. (But entirely too short. I think the fair needs a Giant Giant Slide. A Super-Sized Slide.)

We wandered the Master Gardeners’ garden. Visited, at The Husband’s insistence and as usual, the Big Boar. Men have this weird fascination for Big Boar. Well, okay . . .  given the size of BB’s testicles, perhaps it’s not weird. 

Dairy cattle. More hogs. The Cultural Building to ooh and ah over photography, painting, sculpture, and woodworking. (The woodworking always kills me. Extraordinary stuff.) (I fell in love with an owl painted by an eleven-year-old. Alas, it was marked NFS: Not For Sale.)

courtesy of nancy and jon turner. actually, i didn't ask for permission. but i bet they don't mind

courtesy of nancy and jon turner. actually, i didn't ask for permission. but i bet they don't mind

Walked back up the hill, but this time for pizza and more beer. Craft beer, this time, and wood-oven pizza at a stand operated by an old friend whose mid-life crisis consisted of building a portable pizza oven and taking his show on the road to fairs, farmers’ markets, and breweries. Killer pizza. Io parlo pizza.

Time to head to the car and home. Back down the hill and its usual spectacular view of the Grand Concourse: Tens of thousands of heads bobbing in the early evening sun. A sea of humanity. 

En route to the car, The Husband made his usual detour into the Varied Industries Building, where you can buy anything from a ladder to a wooden rocker to a washer and dryer. The joint is a perpetual madhouse, way too small for the exhibits it holds. You can’t pay me to go in there. 

I headed down the Concourse to the exit, detouring to buy a bucket of chocolate chip cookies for the road, which I doled out to the gate checkers and neighborhood folks who sell parking spaces in their yards. (A few years ago, the geniuses at the Iowa State Legislature decided that the temporary parking lot owners needed to pay taxes on this endeavor, an endeavor that was, at that time, well over a half century old. For the love of god . . . . )

My day at the fair. 

photo borrowed from cnn. 'cause i got nowhere near the combover.

photo borrowed from cnn. 'cause i got nowhere near the combover.

(If you were hoping for The Moral of The Story — got nuthin’ for ya. Except: Plan your trip to the Iowa State Fair at your own risk.) (Or: If your choices are Sanders, Clinton, and Trump, go for Trump. You’re gonna get the most bang for your entertainment buck.)