I look up…up…up at the Ferris wheel and get a creak in my neck. Is it just me, or is that unusually tall? I’m no expert on fair rides—in fact, I’ve only been on slow moving carousels and county fair Ferris wheels a handful of times. A tidbit from the local news pricks my memory and I Google on my phone. Yep, the traveling Ferris wheel is unusually tall at 156 feet and the tallest in North America.
Since I’m not a roller-coaster-bungee-jumping-giant-slide thrill seeker I continue on my annual pilgrimage of the Minnesota State Fair. Branded as the Great Minnesota Get Together, the 10-day extravaganza is THE event of the summer in the state. Almost two million people flock to the fair, which is spread over 320-acres straddling St. Paul and Minneapolis.
To say the fair is overwhelming is an understatement.
Getting there is an adventure
The fair has developed a sophisticated Park and Ride network where people can ride one of dozens of city and charter buses in air-conditioned comfort for free. IF you get to the parking lots before they’re filled. The key to success is getting there early—before 9 a.m.
Passengers are squeezed in the seats and aisles; strollers are stuffed in the luggage compartment. The drivers are adept at carrying hyped-up fair-goers through city traffic. Who needs to go to the Midway after swerving from lane to lane, speeding up interstate ramps, and rounding curves at break-neck speed?
Walking. And walking. And walking.
This year, after spending seven hours at the fair, my pedometer registered 7.5 miles and 18,000 steps. Walking an even space is impossible as you’re dodging strollers, garbage haulers, groups of people moving at different speeds, tripping up and down curbs, navigating through people sitting on the ground eating roasted corn on the cob, trolleys, and an ambulance crawling along through the masses to aid someone probably overwhelmed by the heat.
Seating is hard to come by even though there are plenty of benches, picnic tables, stairs, curbs, grassy spots, bleachers that edge the local TV and radio stations that air live newscasts, and benches at amphitheaters scattered around the grounds. Usually, when I’m balancing a cup of pop filled to the brim (no cover), a bucket stuffed to overflowing with hot French fries and a tiny cup of ketchup perched precariously on top, I see a spot at the end of a bench 10 feet away. A split second later a kid chomping on a mustard-slathered corndog plops himself down. I find a spot on a curb and hope I can get up in 15 minutes.
Speaking of the food
The legend is true. The Minnesota State Fair is noted for its vast menu. With 300 vendors, the selection is wide, plentiful and often, odd. Here are a few newer ones:
- Duck-Bacon Wontons
- Brown Ale and Onion-Gouda Tipsy Pie
- Bacon-Maple Doughnuts
- Sweetcorn Chocolates
- Itty Bitty Skewer — This takes a description “Peeps make their fair debut, cruelly (and hilariously) skewered between three sanely sized marshmallow/cold-cereal (Froot Loops, Cocoa Krispies) treats.”
The culinary standbys are fried Snicker bars, gyros, falafel, fried green tomatoes, lefse, fried pickles, SPAM curds (Remember, this IS Minnesota), and bacon-wrapped-bacon.
Then there’s Chicken on a Stick, Cheese on a Stick, Walleye on a Stick, Peach Glazed Pig Cheeks On-A-Stick (really!), and 70 other foods on a stick.
Two’s company, two million is a crowd
From the sky ride above the fairgrounds, the 156-ft. Ferris wheel, and even from a slight crest of terrain, a colorful slow-moving mass of people smothers the streets. A dozen semi-organized lines to the Mouse Trap (cheese curds) in the food building and the home of Sweet Martha’s Cookies progress at a snail’s pace. Lines to most midway rides wind around and around the turnstiles, and even the men’s restrooms have lines.
Yet people don’t mind the walking, lines and crowd as I rarely hear complaints. It’s all part of the charm of the experience. (Then again, the whiney five-year-old impatient for the bus to arrive didn’t find the delay charming, and neither did those standing next to him!) Instead, they brag how they conquered the pushing, shoving, tripping, and sweaty procession to reach their destination.
People-watching is an attraction in itself. A wide-eyed toddler dares to reach his hand out to touch a new-born lamb. A teenage girl hugs a giant stuffed purple teddy bear with one hand, the other holding her boyfriend’s hand. Her face registers love. His registers the reality of how much that teddy bear cost. People motor deftly along in mobility scooters. A trio of older gentlemen stand at attention and salute as the American flag is raised heralding the beginning of the fair. A dad carries a toddler boy on his shoulders. The boy is using his dad’s head as a drum.
On the Road
Over the years, I’ve developed a basic route based on attractions in relation to the foods I like.
- Area One: Creative Arts Building to Merchandise Mart to World’s Greatest French Fries
- Area Two: Agriculture Building to International Bazaar to Wild Rice Hamburger
- Area Three: Coliseum to Miracle of Birth Barn to ice cream in the Dairy Building
- Area Four: DNR building to Grandstand to Sweet Martha’s cookies
Within those areas I meander through the John Deere exhibit (once a farm girl, always a farm girl), the Minnesota Newspaper Museum (once a journalist, always a journalist), and peek inside elaborate ice houses (yep, this is the land of 10,000 lakes). I sit in briefly on horse shows and dairy judging; listen to Patsy Cline sound-alikes singers in the amphitheater; and sail above the fairgrounds on the sky ride.
When the long, hot, crowd-pressing day comes to an end, I make one final stop at the About a Foot-Long Hotdog stand near the fairgrounds exit. I buy two with fried onions, wrap them in extra paper and stuff them in a plastic bag I brought from home expressly for this purpose. My husband has no interest in the fair, except for the hotdogs. Since I’m in no physical shape and stuffed from the fair food to cook his supper, I gladly honor his request. Surprisingly, the hotdogs are actually still warm 45 minutes later. They’re also squishy and soggy, but he doesn’t mind—it’s all part of the charm of the Minnesota State Fair.