What keeps us coming back is the art, the animals, the informative nature exhibits, the crafts, the ingenious household gadgets, the agricultural displays, and the random encounters with the people who tend the booths.
And the colors everywhere.
It's fun to negotiate a familiar landscape that nevertheless changes year by year—a landscape unlike any other in the world, with so many wildly heterogeneous options that no two visits end up being the same. A band might start playing, a parade might go by. One line might be too long, another might be conveniently short. The log-rolling contest or the Pheasants Unlimited booth might catch your eye.
Someone in the education building will hand you a fan with a picture of the Pope on it. Someone in the Eco-building will give you a plastic device to time how long you spend in the shower. (Try to keep it under five minutes, please.)
All seasoned fair-goers have a strategy. Some make long journeys to the fairgrounds from the suburbs by bus, others know about secret parking stalls on the nearby St. Paul campus.
We usually approach from the west on East Hennepin, coming across Northeast Minneapolis on city streets past Surdyk's, Brasa, Eli's, the Cream of Wheat building, FinnSisu ski-sauna shop, and the old Gibbs Farm. We park in the Camel Lot (making sure not to get in the lane that gets sent down to the grandstand parking) and walk into the fairgrounds from the north, where the atmosphere is mellow and we meet up with many of the things that interest us most before our legs get too worn out.
I don't know much about tractors, but I like to see the antique models on display on the fringes of the kiddy farm. They evoke that era when anyone who wanted to work and had some land could give farming a try.
Across the way are the hot tubs and the miniature cabins for sale.
I volunteered this year to tend the Citizen Science kiosk for an hour in the Eco-building, on the strength of having monitored the water clarity in Bassett Creek, which runs near our house, for the DNR all summer. During my sixty-minute stint I met a woman from Virginia, MN, whose mother might have taken a civics class from my grandfather. Her husband happened to a microbiologist and former president of the Minnesota Academy of Science. I also met a young man whose mother monitors the water quality on the St. Croix from the Stillwater bridge once a week. One middle-aged man I talked to, after learning about how the Viceroy and the Monarch butterflies relate to one another, asked me to explain why we only have one hummingbird species in Minnesota, while in Arizona they have ten. And a woman from Wisconsin asked me to explain why she found a gray tree frog in her Weber grill the other day.
I'm pretty good at making things up, but that one put me to the test!
Several visitors asked me where they could buy milkweed seeds to support the migration of the monarchs.(Prairie Restorations?) By the time my hour was up, I was thoroughly impressed by the levels of curiosity and awareness exhibited by passers-by.
During all this time, Hilary was at the Handicraft Building, looking at quilts and mittens and rag rugs and architecturally designed furniture. This was a good thing, because that meant I didn't have to look at them so much later.
Once my shift was over, we spent a few minutes examining the other displays in the Eco-barn, which included a stand offering samples of an organic hot mustard dip for corn chips, and displays promoting the virtues of rain barrels and LED lights. In the lawn in front of the building we scrutinized a locally manufactured Vistabule teardrop trailer similar to one that our friends Jim and Debbie bought recently. It's a cute little trailer—basically a bed on wheels with a kitchen out back—and a Prius pulling it will still get 29 miles per gallon.
We sat on a bench in the sun eating some mid-morning snacks—a foot long hotdog and a pronto pup— and then wandered into the art building, which was a little hotter, a little more crowded ... a little less exciting than usual? Or was I just a little more tired from having stood around for the last hour talking to strangers.
The image just inside the door, commanding an entire wall, was a lithograph of a tank. Not a good choice.
But by the time we'd finished our circuit I'd identified a number of favorites. The works by people I know where uniformly stellar—Craig Lassig's photo of a very tired Obama, Clara Euland's intaglio print of the moon rising above a highway, Fay Passow's lithograph of a forest in crepuscular light, Mike Hazard's photo of a Hmong woman harvesting carnations.
Other works that caught my eye in a special way included a painting/collage that reminded me of William de Kooning:
A huge black-and-white photograph of a man getting a haircut while sitting amid the roadside rubble of a village in India; a print with an animistic flavor done in the Northwest Coast style:
A painting with German Expressionist overtones probably had the most gravity of any piece in the show:
A delicate rendering of ice fishing seemed to capture the allure and also the boredom of that winter sport:
I was intrigued by a lovely photograph of a little girl with binoculars standing on a big rock look off at something beyond the edge of the picture, while a huge body of water vanishes into the distance right in front of her; I also liked a tall, thin, stylized rendering of some teepees and horses; and a delightful musical score covered not with notes or words, but with scribbles.
We spent the rest of the morning fighting our way to the carousel area in front of the grandstand, where a panel of local chefs underscored the importance of using fresh ingredients--for the ten-thousandth time. We bought some crab cakes and gumbo at a Caribbean restaurant/bar offering live Peruvian music, and watched a video of some iron ore being blasted out of an open-pit mine in the DNR building.