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Pedestrian 29: Midwestern Spirituality
Making the pilgrimage to the Iowa State Fair.
Last August the stars aligned and I finally flew home for the Iowa State Fair. I parked my father’s car in the middle of a grass field parking lot and caught a ride to the fairground entrance on a packed tram pulled by a John Deere tractor.
Before I can pull the ticket from my bag, I am wrapped in scents which I’ve never shaken from memory. Suntan lotion, body odor, cow shit, corn dogs, fried butter on a stick. I can feel my arteries tighten. I’m home.
At the gate, the guard scans my ticket, checks my bag, waves a metal detector wand all over my body, and asks me to pour out the water from my bottle. No outside beverages allowed, sir, he states, with a distinctly Midwestern politeness. It makes an asshole sound like a doll.
Welcome to the Iowa State Fair. This year’s sponsors: Meta, Google, John Deere, and Corteva Agriscience. It’s only 10am, but the temperature reads 85ºF and will keep rising with a possible thunderstorm in the afternoon. It hasn’t rained all summer and the humidity hugs me like wet cotton. It never rains in the summer anymore. 75% of the state’s land is abnormally dry or in a severe drought, seemingly becoming the norm around here. I know it’s getting worse because this is the first year my father gave up on the yard. It’s just not worth it, he says, staring from the back porch. What little green remains is shadowed by large patches the color of old bones.
My visit to the state fair could be characterized as an attempt to renew a certain Midwestern spirituality that has since declined after moving to the East Coast in 2016. It’s been seven years since my last visit to the fair and like a Catholic who only attends church on Christmas and Easter, I promised to return to the sacred grounds much, much sooner.
In my pocket is an ambitious schedule written on the back of an envelope. It lists the day’s attractions, like a 6,000 pound cow sculpted of butter, the highly anticipated hog calling competition, the tractor pull, and the mother daughter look-alike contest, among others. I know there’s too many things to see. I can’t be in two places at the same time after all, but I sure as hell will try.
Being here is sensory overload, rivaling that of Times Square. I remember why many Iowans skip the fair in the first place. They can’t stand crowds, complain of long lines, gripe that it’s too hot and far too expensive. They say it’s the same thing every year, but that’s why I’m here. It never stops over 1 million people from not just Iowa, but places as far as Idaho and Texas from attending. For the State of Iowa, this is the event of the year. Very few events, save for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Iowa in 1979, rival the people it gathers.
It’s possible to walk throughout the 445 acres of fairgrounds, but most choose to take the SkyGlide. Older attendees often rent scooters. To walk around is to be in constant shuffle. It’s a chaotic meeting of golf carts, trash, animal waste, and of course scooters. While riding the SkyGlide, I pretend I’m observing a massive colony of fair skinned ants wearing blue jeans that slowly bob from one place to another. To think, this is just a sliver – not even a sliver – but a minuscule fraction of the world’s population is daunting.
Living in the city, I’m used to lines, but that doesn’t mean I like them. The wait is over 30 minutes to bake in the sun, climb 71 stairs and glide down a 50ft slide on a burlap bag. The whole ride lasts five seconds. Microphones line the edge of the slide, amplifying the screams of those who had the patience to wait. It’s a rite of passage for those who grew up here and I’d like to ride the slide for old times’ sake, but chose a Manhattan priced Busch Light and a pork tenderloin sandwich the size of my face for lunch instead.
The fair exists for many reasons, one being to make money, and to really enjoy the fair, you must be comfortable getting ripped off. Whether it be paying too much for food, playing carnival games, or paying $20 to park your car in someone’s yard situated directly across from the fairground entrance.
Thrillville, where all the carnival rides and games are located, is likely the epicenter of the fair’s economic exploitation. It’s a lot like coming to a car lot wanting to buy a $5,000 car, but before you leave, you’ve bought a $20,000 car. I’ve been conned into trying my luck at the infamous ring toss. The game is rigged, but the carney behind the stand cheers me on anyway. His skin looks like tanned leather and the long braided ponytail behind his back looks like a rattlesnake.
I want you to win somethin’ this afternoon! I can see a winner right in your eyes! It don’t cost nothin’ to listen, now let me show ya. C’mon now, I got a deal for ya! Any size, any prize, your choice! Everybody wins, that’s the name of the game!
His job is to get as much money from me as possible and it’s working. This year’s prizes are stuffed bears with black plastic eyes. They watch and snicker each time I throw a ring and miss. Dollar bills vanish from my wallet faster than I can take them out. It’s no longer about winning a prize, but salvaging my own pride.
I gradually make my way to see the hogs in the swine barn. There’s got to be over 500 pigs in here and the sound of them all screeching in unison is both jarring and incredible. They bear names like Your Choice, The Grind, Forgiven, or Ruckus. Pee-Wee, a 6-year-old Hereford, is the champion of the Big Boar Contest this year and weighs 1,500 pounds, just 35 pounds shy of the fair record. He lays on his side and naps while an industrial grade fan blows over his body. People surround the pen and take photos.
There were only two big boar contestants this year, the smallest number in the last two decades. Corn and soybeans, two ingredients in pig feed, are at an all time high due to COVID disruptions and the war in Ukraine. The cost of fertilizer has skyrocketed. Such conditions will make one reconsider their commitment to feeding a pig 25-30 pounds of feed a day (or 15 pounds of donuts in some cases) for a blue ribbon and write-up in the local paper.
I couldn’t tell you what makes a champion show pig. I’ll leave that to the judge as the criteria is far more complex than weighing over 1,000 pounds. This is the 35th fair of his career and he’s got 1,400 pigs to judge during this show. Watching with attentive eyes, he holds his cards close to his chest, shows no emotion, and favors no swine. The freshly groomed pigs smile and follow teens with small whips gently tapping them on the face. It’s a synchronized dance. They don’t break eye contact with the judge until he declares a winner – a bright pink American Yorkshire. Handshakes are exchanged, the crowd claps, and another round of pigs enter the showgrounds.
For the average visitor, the swine barn is a giant petting zoo, but these hogs are not friends nor pets to the families who raised them. This is just agribusiness and these pigs are raised for profit. Later that afternoon I watched a grand champion market hog go for $22,500 – roughly the same price as a 2020 Honda Civic.
C’mere Piggy, Piggy, Piggy! SOOO-o-oeeeey!
I’m sitting in the old wooden pews of Pioneer Hall, the oldest surviving structure of the fairgrounds, beside a family of five, their eyes transfixed on the performance unfolding before us.
This is the Hog Calling Contest, one of the most anticipated events of the fair. Each participant takes the stage and performs their own interpretation. Some sound like pigs, while others scream for the pig to “c’mon home now dammit” and pepper in some supplementary sounds like sheep, crows, and goats.
The performance rivals that of a religious experience. A man in his early sixties, clearly possessed and speaking in tongues, screams into a microphone. Everyone sits on the edge of their seat. Not a person speaks. The silence is interrupted by a thunderous boom erupting outside, shaking the wooden walls of Pioneer Hall. A rain rivaling that of the Book of Genesis falls from the sky. The wind picks up and threatens to carry us all the way to the Quad Cities. Lightning cracks, filling the sky with white ribbons a mile long.
Here, piggy, piggy, piggy!
Precipitation slides like waterfalls from the surface of the tilted pivot windows. I’d expect nothing less from this Midwestern rain. It’s the kind of storm which caused me to park on the shoulder of the road in highschool or take refuge in the basement. As a child, these storms haunted my dreams and sent me crying for my mother.
The man's screams get louder and louder. I hold my breath. Red in the face, the man belts out one last call until he’s left red in the face. The rain continues to fall and the crowd erupts in applause. Skynyrd's “Free Bird” plays from the speakers. We’ve found our 2022 Hog Calling Champion. The fair is coming to an end.
I grew up believing the Iowa State Fair was the best in the States even though countless friends from Minnesota or Texas contested otherwise. It didn’t matter that Ohio was the first to display a butter cow or that pork tenderloin sandwiches originated in Indiana or that Iowa sweet corn tastes just like corn from Michigan or upstate New York. I wasn’t bothered when Neil, a traveling carney working his 24th season, said that all the fairs were the same and Iowa State was no exception. He was just “fucking pumped” Disturbed and Chevelle were playing the Grandstand tonight.
I’m aware the land here isn’t an environment, but a commodity and the fair is a celebration of that relationship.
“You are the stewards of some of the most important resources God has given the world. Conserve the land well,” said the Pope during his 1979 visit to Iowa, but that hasn’t stopped BigAg from completely polluting the water with some of the highest levels of nitrates in the nation or depleting some of the most fertile soil in the world of its nutrients. I know this, but I’ll continue romanticizing this place anyways.
On the far eastern edge of the State Fairgrounds, you can hear the clinking of horseshoes hitting stakes as they have for the last 100 years. The Iowa Hawkeye Horseshoe Pitching Association is playing a doubles tournament. The bleachers are vacant, but the group is tight knit and happy to compete. Vern Kolasch, a three time pitching champion from Iowa City, says horseshoe pitching will die out and be replaced by bag toss someday soon.
The last horseshoe is pitched and the grounds clear of visitors. Farmers usher their livestock home, the carneys dismantle and count their earnings. Kids with sharpened pencils will soon sit at desks and special teams will take the field.
The Register claims Des Moines is the fastest growing major metro area in the Midwest by percentage and I can feel it changing each time I come home, but the fair keeps me tethered in a world which continues to evolve beyond my recognition. I’m chasing after the semblance of something real. For a moment, I feel closer to this place I once left. The corn is harvested and winter comes. The ground will harden and in spring the seeds will grow once again.
Thanks for reading,