The 111th Kentucky State Fair sprawls out before ticket-holders across the 416 acres in Louisville. Entrants move in swarms across the vast lots, parting the wafts of manure scent carried on the breeze. They tunnel through the Exposition Center wings at a leisurely, summertime pace. A multicolored trail of balloons bobs along with the foot traffic at waist height, each attached to the wrist of some sticky-faced child.
These sights are more than amusement. In the Commonwealth, they're a sacred tradition.
Since 1902, Kentuckians have responded to the magnetic call of the State Fair, and trekked across hill and valley with their brats and grandfolk in tow to join the throng in cow gazing, crop speculating, and whiskey sipping.
"Aerial view of the Kentucky State Fair and Exposition Center, undated. From the Al Blunk Collection. 996PC13." Source: The Filson Historical Society
And it's no wonder. Just like every other year, the 2015 Kentucky State Fair offers moments inaccessible to us in everyday life. The whole ordeal seems to rise like a glittering hallucination out of the Ohio River. It presents its delights to us in congress for only a short time, momentarily greater than the sum of its parts, before disassembling itself, its pieces bound for other states on the backs of big rigs.
At least that's what I thought. This year was the first that I'd been to the State Fair. And I had no idea how quickly I'd lose my grasp on reality.
Turns out it's greasy. It's filthy. It is claustrophobically-packed endurance contest in the midst of an unbearable assault on the senses. In other words, it's basically perfect.
Beyond the frenetic midway rides and Doppler howls of delighted kids, the core of the Fair is still about one thing: the agricultural pride of the state. Squeeze between lanky white cowboys and their fluorescent green Mountain Dew bottles full of dip spit, and a whole wing of the Exposition Center opens itself up to your view.
Farmers from every county carefully cart and display their blue-ribbon produce in delicate arrangements. The fairgoers file past the table, fanning themselves with maps, gawking at the spread of beautiful abominations which often look more likely to eat than be eaten.
In the gruesome display below, for example, I can only assume a Machiavellian quest to dominate the produce contest has led one heartless farmer to bronze and paint his first-born child along with her cart, condemning her–bless her heart–to an eternity of Kentucky State Fair competitions.
Some guy in a lab coat told me that after brutally slaying hundreds of west-bound travelers in rural Nebraska, the Children of the Corn commemorated their victims with the rows upon rows of award-winning ears pictured below. Never forget.
Below, a competitor from what I imagine is the art therapy field has somehow managed to depict the last moments of my father's life on the open sea. RIP, pop-pop.
Mixed media: paint, pirates, Kentucky Proud green peppers.
"Ma'am, what are you taking a picture of?," I hear behind me. Still crouched at the table, I turn my head to the woman and reply that I'm shooting the baby Jesus.
"Well, another woman was taking pictures and she said she was gonna put it on her Christmas cards this year. And I don't think that's disrespectful."
In the event that you, too, want to share our tater Savior's birth this winter, I've captured the moment here.
Our state's champion vegetable this year, I'm told, was a once-small pumpkin, initially found rolling through his patch toward freedom when it was discovered by Kentucky farmer and fair exhibitor Dwight Stone who on that day carried only a single pitchfork in his hand. Unaware that the pitchfork had been siphoning radiation from the uranium-rich hills, Stone plunged it into the errant gourd. Like a radioactive spider bite, the tines of the implement flooded the pumpkin with painful, God-like powers and stretched his curbitious flesh to accommodate a new-found bulk of 875 lbs. (Dwight, if this is true, hit me up).
The Great Pumpkin has returned, Charlie Brown, and is on display at the Kentucky State Fair where you can probably oil down his enormous body if you palm $10 to his kennel guards.
If, like me, you're a blushing novice at this enterprise, it may interest you to find out that mutant pumpkins aren't the only attendees with unnatural prowess here. Kentucky is so galactically badass that actual superheroes, calling themselves the Chinese Acrobats of Hebei, flew in from across the universe to show an audience of about 60 people how to defy gravity.
One of them cast a spell on a bunch of chairs that made them come to life and stand on each other. To prove his powerful mastery of the spell, he did a handstand on top of them, a good 20-feet in the air. Two other space wizards used foot magic to make conga drums fly across the room.
If it's one thing the Fair is never short on, it's the arms-bearing crowd. Among the 1.2 million square feet of climate-controlled indoor crazy, the weapons booths dotting the vendor halls guarantee a uniquely Kentuckian display of Second Amendment might. This M1919 Browning .30 caliber machine gun draped in an enchanting shade of turquoise, for example, can be found perched beside a team of the state's most well-known armed gunmen who were promoting their television series Guntucky.
It's hard to ignore the fact that Kentucky really does have a problem with guns. Even the most avid armorist will tell you that Kentucky's main problem with guns, even Kentucky guns, is that sooner or later they do run out of bullets.
When that happens, Grandma Wesson has you covered over at the knife booth, although the band-aid across her knuckles says she might not be as accurate with a blade as she once was.
Has all this gun talk got you feeling a little patriotic? Then visit the Raptor Rehabilitation station a few tables over where Kentucky trainers are making America great again, one eyeball-snatching bird at a time.
You can try to stare down either the golden eagle who is shown below in front of a t-shirt with his face on it, or Aquila, the bald eagle shown on the right getting photobombed by his plush likeness.
I heard they have to put the eagles together for safety reasons. My grandpa posted a meme on Facebook that had a known scientific fact: if you don't give an eagle something it can majestically stare at, it will permanently transform into a vegan, which is legally considered treason in every state except New Hampshire. But my friend Mark told me they don't even pay taxes up there so I guess it's pretty much impossible to get them to do anything as badass as the Kentucky State Fair anyway.
Take a few steps away from the hypnotic gaze of these glorious skylords and you'll find a monument to their prehistoric cousin. Legend has it that Kentucky's own Sen. Henry Clay was responsible for shooting the last living stegosaurus on the planet. That very day he not only fried the entire thing but had its front right leg preserved in an enormous vat of Heaven Hill vodka.
Mark said in 1973, high on the state's first flurries of Bolivian marching powder, the state legislature also voted that the steg-leg (extra crispy) should be erected once annually at the state fair before being returned to storage for the remainder of the year, during which time it is never to touch the ground.
In the shadow of the Colossus lies the state's finest Snickers-covered funnel cake and the appetizer that probably killed Elvis, the famous Donut Burger.
Once you've packed your gullet full of fatty trashburgers and cheap beer, it's time to churn that acidic mash into an explosive stomach froth via one of the midway's dizzying rides. Just like this little guy.
He looks happy, but the truth is he's probably just realized his parents have finally abandoned him so they can live their lives sailing the Greek Isles. And they've done so by strapping him onto a horse tornado from which the only escape is death.
My recommendation, however, is that you get your centrifugally-induced hurling over with in the most efficient manner possible by mounting the Vomitron for a gut-wrenching 4-minute ride.
Once you regain some semblance of balance and motor skill, you can round out your midway tour by squaring up against your fellow sportsman. Warning to non-natives: just like every other Kentuckian, this guy emerged from the womb with near-perfect fade-away skills.
By the time you've sprayed a 4-foot arc of semi-digested carny fare from at least one orifice, you'll probably realize it's time to slink back to the air-conditioned paradise of your car, which is always exactly too far to walk to regardless of your current location. Somewhere in one of the lots (which the State Fair says can officially hold up to 19,000 cars) is your ticket out of here.
But before you collapse onto the cow patties and gravel, starting a last-ditch escape effort via a full-body crawl away from this manic spectacle, take heart and feast your bloodshot eyes on what may be the most gratifying sight of all: the Tractor Cab.
That's right. The smiling angel below is one of the 750 event employees, and he will miraculously ferry you and your friends right back to your car. No matter how bad you smell.
Y'all come back now. Ya hear?