LYNDEN, Washington — The owner of black mini schnauzer named Cowboy led him by the leash through a test run of the doggie obstacle course: clearing low hurdles, climbing over the footbridge, weaving around markers, and navigating the aboveground tunnel. The only rough patch came when it was time for Cowboy to lie down at the end, a signal to would-be judges to stop the clock. The schnauzer cocked his head and gave a thoughtful look to his owner, as if to say, “Look, I already did your obstacle course. Now you want me to lie down too?”
He’s got a point, I thought as I sat on the compact old bleachers in the Northeast corner of the Northwest Washington Fair. There were no events scheduled for a while, so people used the stands as spillover seating to eat barbecue sandwiches and corn on the cob or just to take a load off.
Benchwarmers traded advice and gossip about the fair. I found out that a rider was hospitalized Monday after he was trampled by a team of ponies, which had to be embarrassing. Screwups with the newfangled computerized ticketing system led to long lines at the front entrance that extended for several blocks. Fair management delayed the demolition derby rather than risk the crowd’s wrath.
It was fun to learn these things early, but I would have heard it all eventually. The fair is the one really big deal in Lynden. People from Canada, Bellingham, and more exotic locales — who would never otherwise bother to set foot in town — make it out during that brief window every August. Near as I can tell, they come for two reasons.
First, the spectacle is objectively impressive. The arena manages to draw reasonably popular acts or groups that used to be big. This year, crowds could watch Merle Haggard, Terri Clark, Mercy Me, and the ’70s megahit prog rock band Styx. Animal exhibition areas featured dogs, ducks, chickens, turkeys, peacocks, guinea hens, guinea pigs, rabbits, llamas, alpacas, goats, sheep, horses, pigs, and cattle — including the biggest bull I had ever seen. His name was Ben and he was fenced in behind large steel bars. But looking at him made me worry that he’d snap them like twigs and then flatten us.
Second, the atmospherics are hard to beat. Comic juggler Roberto the Magnificent tried to work the crowd up Wednesday afternoon, but he found it tough sledding because this is not a noisy fair. The barkers don’t bark so loud here. You can walk through the rides area and talk without shouting. No alcohol is served on the premises and people tend to behave themselves. Even teenagers.
Granted, we’re no longer allowed to use the phrase “good clean fun” without the ironic quotes, but that’s exactly what the fair is for out-of-towners. For Lyndeners, it has the added benefit of being the closest thing we have to a center of civic life.
Most everybody here goes to the fair and they spend money on food and rides and baubles. If you want to sell decorative wind chimes to Dutchmen who spend the rest of the year squeezing blood out of quarters, best to do it at the fair when they have a hamburger in one hand, an oversized stuffed animal in the other, and a young daughter pleading “Daddy, please!”
It’s also the place to gin up social capital. This year, as every other, Christian groups took out booths to hawk their Good News to the loping (mostly Reformed) masses. Various ministries and clubs staffed food booths with volunteers. Local Democrats attempted to garner attention by giving away a scooter and selling buttons with slogans such as “Arms Are for Hugging.” The Republicans responded with a riot of red, white, and blue. They gave out ribbons that told people to “Support Our Troops.”
So step right up, people. Come one, come all for the democracy, the elephant ears, and the tractor pulls! Something for everyone! The point here isn’t to praise the Northwest Washington Fair in all its particulars as to point out that it’s the only game in town, because, well, it is the town.