The line of idling vehicles usually starts just after Roosevelt High School. Sitting through several lights waiting to turn left onto Kings Canyon Road, I’m hungry. I swear I can already smell Sonoran hot dogs and roasted corn on a stick. But inside an air-conditioned car while waiting impatiently to get to the Big Fresno Fair, it’s probably just a delicious figment of my imagination.
We park on the dry grass behind the horse races. I hear the starting bell ring. The ponies run again, and crowds cheer them down the track. The fair always comes at the peak of Indian summer, right before the weather changes. Mother Nature teases me with chilly nights when I need a blanket. I’ve been reminding my daughters to take sweaters to school on cool mornings.
But heading to the gate at high noon, Fresno’s sun is still scorching. We buy tickets, then walk through the entrance tunnel painted a startling acid green. Our girls race ahead of my husband and me, skipping and laughing.
They are so excited to be here. Tired, sweaty people leaving the fair pass us carrying boxes of cinnamon rolls and holding stuffed animals they won on the midway.
We always start with lunch at the same barbecue place by the concert amphitheatre. Heavy paper plates overflow with coleslaw, chili beans, and pulled pork sandwiches dripping sauce. I struggle to carry it all to an empty table in the shade behind the food vendors. The kids eat quickly so they have time to play on the giant pirate ship structure while my husband and I finish our food. Then we all walk over to the 4-H exhibits.
My suburban daughters are fascinated by the animals. Huge Holstein cows are led off to the Livestock Pavilion and sold. Sheep rest quietly underneath fans. There are cages of preening roosters and fluffy blue ribbon rabbits. For everyone in the Valley surrounded by agriculture but far removed from it in daily life, the Big Fresno Fair reminds us how close it really is. I love the community displays showcasing the best things grown in Fresno County. Selma grapes, Orange Cove citrus, and Sanger pumpkins are proudly arranged in the Agriculture Building.
Walking away from the air conditioning to see the next exhibit, the food smells make me hungry again. In the heat, the fair is a tempting mirage of delicious things to eat and drink. My husband and I chase our baby back ribs with plastic cups of beer. They’re icy cold, sweating bullets in the sun. The girls eat frozen bananas, share popcorn, and slurp snow cones. We laugh at the fried pickles and consider giant slices of pie topped with melting ice cream, but head to the midway instead.
I buy ride tickets for our daughters, and watch a group of teenagers hang out nearby, taking selfies. My girls shriek on roller coasters, and fly down huge slides, sitting on burlap bags. In a few years, they will want to come here with their friends instead of my husband and me. But I’m thankful that this year, we’re still here with them.
After cheering the Alaskan Racing Pigs, admiring the Best of Show paintings, and wandering through the Commerce building so my husband can buy another chamois for his car, it’s time to go home. My daughters and I always take pictures on our way out, so I dig up my last $5. The photo booth is miserably hot, and seems to grow smaller each year. The camera flashes. We smile, stick out our tongues, and make kissy faces, then wait impatiently for our pictures to print. When the strip with four images of us slips out of the machine, I stick it in my purse. I have a stack of these at home.
We’re hot and tired, and slowly head back to our car. My girls each clutch a pair of stuffed animals Daddy won them on the midway. I look at younger couples pushing babies in strollers like we used to, and remember fairs past. We walk by older parents with bored teenagers texting – I hope this is not a vision of our future. This year, I am grateful for another beautiful October afternoon spent together, enjoying each other and everything here.
In a few more days, the aroma of onion rings and funnel cakes drifting over Kings Canyon Road and Cedar Avenue will disappear. Rides and midway games will pack up and head off to the next town. Summer will hang on a little longer. Then we’ll all put flannel sheets on the beds, and pull out boots and sweaters. Those Sanger pumpkins will be carved up for Halloween jack-o’-lanterns, or made into Thanksgiving pies.
Soon I’ll be rummaging through a drawer looking for Christmas stamps. But instead, I’ll find all those photo booth pictures I’ve kept. It’s startling how quickly this coming year will pass – suddenly it will be October again. And the Big Fresno Fair will come back to town, bringing the sound of racing ponies, the smell of Sonoran hot dogs, and another strip of Indian summer memories with it.
Dawn Golik lives in Fresno with her husband and their two young daughters.