36 countries later, returning home to the LaPorte County Fair

Part of a collection of my travel stories and other personal essays.

By Ron Reason

I’ve photographed all of the 36 countries I’ve visited, some quite extensively, and surely most if not all of the 48 States crossed off my list. From the towers of 5-star hotels in Dubai, to the shadows inside mud and sheet metal huts in the Africa slums. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to family, and longtime friends, that one of my favorite things to photograph, and experience, is the LaPorte (Ind.) County Fair, just a few miles from where I grew up. It’s Fair Week again, so let me wax a little nostalgic here.

Mom says, no thanks

“Why would you want to go there?” my mom asks incredulously, when I first tell her on a visit home in my 30s that it would be fun for us all to stop over at the fair, usually the second week each July. We could get some beef tips and noodles from the Methodist church food barn, maybe check out a grandstand show. But … nope. From her view, it’s a podunk circus, and she’d been there, done that, mostly as a chore while carting us kids to 4H events.

So I head to the fair by myself one day, probably on my drive back to Chicago and without even telling the folks. Not having traveled the world, they wouldn’t begin to understand the weird tug of nostalgia that might pull someone back to the simplicity of the smell of corn dogs and pig barns of their youth. I took a simple pocket camera and tried to blend in with the crowd.

LaPorte is a sort of moribund town of about 10,000. Bad heroin problems, unemployment. Trump country. But the yearly fair may be the one thing that brings everyone together.

 

Ah, Americana. Maybe one has to get lost in downtown Cairo, Egypt, as I had the month before while making my way back to the Talisman Hotel de Charme, to really appreciate this? Have your heart (ok, ego) broken in Buenos Aires not too long ago? Suffered through eating nearly raw goat, served with delight by clients a short hop from the Great Rift Valley in East Africa?

The more I wandered the midway, the exhibit halls, the commercial barns, the more I was hooked (again). Nothing, it seemed, had changed in decades. The livestock barns were still in the same place, probably the same old ancient structures. Pioneer Village was still churning butter and blacksmithing. The 4H Rabbit Exhibit Hall, delightfully, was right next to the Rabbit Cafe. (Yes, dear readers, it’s a short, final hop from one over to the other.)

With the exception of a cell phone in her back pocket, these young lovers hosing down their heifer could have been my classmates, way back when:

Johnny Cash and the Tilt-a-whirl 

The next year, a few friends from Chicago take the bait, and join me for various expeditions. I take my better cameras, linger a little bit longer. We marvel at a Johnny Cash impersonator who sounds like the real deal, crooning “Michigan City, Howdy-do.” (Cash’s brief stay in a state prison, upon which the song is based, was just about 10 miles to the northwest.) Even better? His cover of “Hurt,” by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. Enough of that. We hop on the Zipper. My friend Tim nearly throws up. We laugh and laugh.

The livestock judging is a never-ending source of fascination to me. I’m strangely touched by the animal-human bond shown by the exhibitors, such as this young girl with her mule:

I’m surprised and pleased to see diversity has, finally, made its way to our little pocket of Indiana. Joseph Seibert proudly showed off for me his champion ribbon and trophy in several horse-and-pony categories:

Wandering around, I encountered teachers I had not seen since high school (one serving up noodles for the Methodists). A high school classmate was there with her own daughters, who she said were wandering around “flirting with the boys” while she and dad hosed down the cattle and cleaned out the pens. (Par for the course for 4H parents, I would learn.)

The food, the entertainment, is mostly the same each year, with the main exception being the grandstand acts, which draw surprisingly big names for a small town affair. A real highlight from two years ago: dragging my dad, newly widowed, to see Willie Nelson and his band, $20 GA tickets, as the sun set over this weird little corner of the world. (The next night at Ravinia, in the suburbs of Chicago, tickets were $95, and the crowds, unbearable.)

Since moving West to Portland, I’ve visited a few local fairs, and they just aren’t the same. I didn’t seek ribbons with my bell peppers in their 4H halls, or help the neighbors spray DDT on their cows in these stalls. As Dorothy would have you believe, when it comes to county fairs, there really is no place like home.

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