A man drives a tractor past the Ferris wheel at the county fair
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
The Here & Now

With the return of the county fair comes a return to some normalcy in this world of ours gone mad

It’s too easy to dismiss the fair as corny or cheesy, Wallace Baine writes in welcoming it back from its pandemic layoff. Sure enough, there’s plenty of corn and cheese, literal and figurative, to be found here. But that’s not a bug. That’s a feature.

Twenty years ago, it was a tragic coincidence that the Santa Cruz County Fair happened to open the very day of the shocking 9/11 terrorist attacks. In the anguished days that followed, I remember finding myself at the fair, trying to determine, like so many others, if gnawing on giant turkey legs and admiring 400-pound pumpkins was a form of infantile denial of a world in peril, or a way to take solace and stay grounded in what was real and meaningful.

This year, the contrast between the appealingly predictable environment of the county fair and the frightening world outside its gates isn’t quite as dramatic as it was in 2001, thankfully. But it’s as close as it’s been since then, thanks to a seemingly endless pandemic. Yet, 20 years older, this time I’m no longer ambivalent: The fair is definitely a reminder of what is real and meaningful.

The vibe of the 2021 fair, which opened Wednesday, is pretty much what it’s always been, a celebration of the county’s (and, writ large, America’s) agricultural heritage.

After a year in hibernation — the 2020 fair didn’t happen for reasons we all know about — it’s comforting to know that most everything has returned to its customary place at the fairgrounds near Watsonville, from the Alaskan racing pigs to the showcase dahlias. The nutritionally apocalyptic food, the clanging and brightly colored rides, the hard-working magicians and musicians, and the not-so-hard-working livestock, they’re all there on the familiar fairgrounds midway, with the only concession to the changing world being ubiquitous face masks.

Pig races at the Santa Cruz County Fair
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s too easy to dismiss the fair as corny or cheesy. Sure enough, there’s plenty of corn and cheese, literal and figurative, to be found here. But that’s not a bug. That’s a feature. The magic of the fair is that, just as a corn dog tastes better here than anywhere else in the known universe, dumb dad jokes and lame puns land on the ear more naturally at the fair.

When the chatty host of the pig races bragged that one of his piggies made the cover of “Snorts Illustrated” while standing in front of a sign that said “You never sausage a show!,” I took actual, not ironic, pleasure in it. If I ran across the same thing on, say, Pacific Avenue, I would have pulled a muscle rolling my eyes.

What I’ve always found most poignant about the fair is still very much in force in 2021. And that’s the hundreds of names attached to everything from paintings to pumpkins to jars of pickled beets, each one a testament to a real accomplishment, a tangible result of talent or passion or cultivation or commitment (or all of the above). The vast majority of us will never hang a painting in a gallery or museum. But at the fair, a 9-year-old artist can score a first-place ribbon. And what if my talents are not in art, but instead in producing the perfect petunia, or the perfect peach pie? This is my forum.

Prize flowers at the Santa Cruz County Fair
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Those names belong not to big-shot competitors, but neighbors who want to show you what’s meaningful to them and what they love, including Iris Wallace’s dahlias, Glen O’Neil’s collages of horses, Caitlyn Bayaca’s portraits, Joe Shreve’s tiki memorabilia, Maura Blackburn’s red velvet cake and, of course, Erin Stoker’s 499-pound pumpkin.

Years ago, when my wife’s yellow-smiley-face memorabilia collection made it into a display case at the fair, we got a kick out of watching how people interacted with it. Ever since then, the collections area has always been my favorite part of the fair. It’s like peeking into people’s private spaces, and experiencing their private obsessions. Thanks, for example, to Jim Healey of Aptos for showing us all his impressive collection of stuff devoted to the old vaudeville comedian W.C. Fields. Now I know a battery tester in the shape of W.C. Fields is an actual thing. My world has expanded just a bit.

Monster trucks at the county fair
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

This year’s fair retains its famously comfortable familiarity, though it feels as if there’s a bit less of it than in years past (I was dismayed not to see the citrus-crate-label dealer in his customary spot). The theme this year is “Cool Shades and Tractor Parades,” and, sure enough, opening day featured a tractor parade.

Somewhere outside these grounds, a world is going mad. But as long as there’s a place where a hypnotist entertains crowds chewing on garlic soft pretzels the size of a Frisbee, where the 4-H can still show off its best dairy goats, where Iris Wallace can wow us with her magnificent dahlias, then something still makes sense in the universe.

A boy rides a pony at the county fair
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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