The last thought I’d imagine swirling through my mind as I walked the midway at the Southwest Washington Fair Saturday was a phrase coined by French writer Jean-Baptist Alphonse Karr: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Navigating through crowds of people, smelling grease from onion rings and elephant ears and seeing the lights from the carnival rides creates an ambiance of timelessness. People have traversed the midway for 110 years, purchased fair food from booths, listened to musicians share their talents, and bumped into family and friends while standing in lines.
I spotted a couple holding hands in the dusk as they sauntered toward the carnival and it took me back to evenings of romance and young love as I visited the Clark County Fair with my first boyfriend. A generation ago, I first visited the Southwest Washington Fair, camera slung over my shoulder and notepad in hand to interview the man with the tiger, the owner of the alligator, Little Miss Friendly and Miss Lewis County as a young Daily Chronicle reporter. For several years we visited the Skamania County Fair where my son and his cousins entered 4-H projects, with my sister as their club leader. Lines for the rides proved practically nonexistent at the much smaller fair in Stevenson.
Last weekend my husband and I visited the Southwest Washington Fair with my stepdaughter, Amanda, her husband, and a grandson and granddaughter. This was the first fair experience for 8-year-old Brooke, who had never been on a carnival ride. Of course, bad Grandma that I am, I led her to one that turned upside down. She was smart enough to climb down from Footloose before the ride started although her 17-year-old brother, Colton, flashed a wide grin as he soared up and overhead enough to upset his stomach. Then they climbed aboard the Raptor, the swinger, the Century Wheel, and the Haywire (aka Scrambler). I snapped photos and found a bench, thinking back to all the years I brought my son and daughter to the fair with their cousins and friends, the hours I stood encouraging them on each ride, my eyes scanning everywhere, watching for predators who might steal our babies.
Those days are gone. My son is working 5,000 miles away in Finland, and we moved our daughter into a dorm room at Washington State University Aug. 10. It’s such an exciting chapter of her life, but the empty nest … is empty. Although my daughter was never loud, it’s quiet at home without her. As I sat on that bench, watching kids scramble into ride lines, I hoped and prayed my husband and I would have the energy in a decade or so to take our grandchildren to the fair.
The rodeo triggered more memories. The last time I watched a rodeo was about two decades ago at the Southwest Washington Fair. We attended with our son, Paul, who was a toddler, and Amanda, her husband and their little son, Cameron. He’ll soon be a father, my husband a great-grandfather, and me — just old.
Maybe age prompted me to feel sorry for the bucking broncos, thrashing bulls and wild horses as they trotted around the arena. I admired the skill of the resilient cowboys who rode those rampaging bulls because those beasts were angry. During the Wild Horse Racing event, when cowboys grabbed the horses’ necks and dragged their heads toward the ground, I felt so sorry for the animals. But then we saw two men injured, and when three girls in front of us rose from their seats, tears streaming from their faces, I figured they knew one of those cowboys lying on the ground with bruised or broken bones, unable to stand.
Local men, women, and beasts have been competing and entertaining people in that arena for more than a century, from the early days of harness racing through concerts and demolition derbies and rodeos. It’s part of the fair experience and one I hope generations will savor into the future.
A highlight for me was visiting the Lewis County Historical Museum’s building, which displayed a few of the books I helped write, edit, and publish. As we rode south toward Rambling Jack’s Ribeye for late but luscious, decadent desserts, I asked Brooke how she liked her first fair.
“Seeing your books was the best.”
I beamed over our budding author until the next day when Grandpa said she told him the rides were the best part of the fair. That’s probably more truthful, so perhaps instead we have a budding politician in our midst.
Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at email@example.com.