At the 2015 Arkansas State Fair, which ran Oct. 9-18, a visitor entering by the front gates and walking in a straight line down the midway would have witnessed many of our national bugaboos made into harmless entertainment. This is America's id on display. There were the shooting games, like Machine Gun Alley. The rides that simulate natural disasters (Typhoon, Tornado, Riptide). Games of chance masquerading as skill. Pop culture characters made into inexplicably desirable plush toys. The caloric excess and gluttony. And everywhere, fear — a manufactured fear stripped of any real danger by height requirements and safety harnesses.
At the far terminus of the midway, past the aging metal relics of earlier eras when space travel and the Cyrillic alphabet dominated the national subconscious, at the turning-around point for most fairgoers, squats a low tan-brick building with a metal roof. This is the swine barn.
Few people unintentionally ventured into the swine barn on the 90-plus degree day I was there. (This year's fair witnessed the hottest October day on record.) Those who did wander in quickly left. The smell of pig excrement and pine shavings hung in the air. Most of the competitors and their spectators didn't seem to notice. A woman ate a corndog, a baby suckled a bottle, pigs trotted underfoot from pen to show ring.
The swine barn felt like a different world from the one just outside. Out there was brilliant sunlight; in here, cavernous shade. The sounds were different, too. The barking gamesmen, the hydraulic grinding of fair rides, and the distorted hair-band music outside were replaced by the guttural grunts, the squeaking sty gates, and the rapid calls of the judge over the PA system, in his show-ring patois:
"There's one for me that serves as the top quite handily. ... Tall-shouldered, square-made, great shape down its top. ... Probably need to drive that hog, give it its head back just to make it more flexible on both ends of its skeleton. ... The young man's belted hog wins this class."
It is tempting to divide the State Fair into two distinct, separate events that merely happen at the same time — the midway carnival, with all of its excess and spectacle and calories and color and noise and faux danger; and the livestock barns that ring the midway, with their animal knowledge and quaint manners and belt buckles and tangy odors. But this is too easy a division, the type that politicians and advertisers exploit when they talk about makers vs. takers, rural vs. urban, real Americans vs. the rest of us. But what is the State Fair about? What is its true heart?
Leaving the swine barn, you could walk the entire perimeter of the fair while hardly leaving the livestock barns. I dipped briefly back into the sunlight before ducking into a cattle barn, where large fans hummed and the smell was sweeter somehow. A few cows lolled in their stalls under signs for 4-H and Future Farmers of America clubs from small Arkansas towns: Horatio, Fouke, Star City, Cedar Ridge.
The fairground's livestock office is a utilitarian hive made by enclosing a few stalls in the middle of Cattle Barn 3. This was where I found Sherman Lites, livestock director, sitting behind his desk in a small, windowless room. I expected Lites to defend his area as the most important, the real heart of the fair. But instead, he had a more nuanced view.
"They all mingle, they all feed off of each other," he said of the midway carnival and the livestock show. One without the other is only half a fair. Lites told me a story that one of his livestock judges told him last week. This year, Virginia's state fair was shut down early when Hurricane Joaquin blew through, but the livestock shows were still being held. And this judge had pulled up to the fairgrounds, only to find it almost empty. Without the midway to draw in fairgoers, there were just a few trucks clumped around the livestock barns, the judge had told Lites.
While he said this, Lites' phone rang and rang. When he was finished with his story, Lites lifted the receiver half an inch, set it back down without answering, and continued with our conversation.
I pressed the issue a bit further, asking what he thought the fair was really about. Lites conceded that the primary purpose of the State Fair is to promote agriculture. "All of this," he said, motioning to the carnival beyond his paneled walls, "is just bonus. That's the way it was set up years and years ago."
Lites is an apostle of the livestock program. He believes it teaches the participating kids, and the fairgoers, about where their food comes from. And he believes that programs like 4-H and FFA mold young people ("You're not going to find any better kids than what you find in here"). He is proud to have nieces and nephews and grandchildren all showing livestock at the fair. And yet, Lites said, when they are done showing, they will all head out onto the midway.
After I left Lites, I stuck to the outer ring of the fair as long as I could, through the other cattle barns and finally into the fluorescent calm of the Arts & Crafts building, with its display cases of inverted jars of jams and pickles, its oversized watermelons and pumpkins, its quilts and handmade clothes. Then I was forced to head back into the crush of the midway, for one last push back toward the front gate. I hurried past the fried Oreos, the ring toss and the $20 helicopter rides. But there at the geographical heart of the fair was the one ride against that I could not pass up — the Ferris wheel (though this one was called The Giant Wheel, I suppose for trademark reasons).
On that hot day, there was no line for the Ferris wheel. I climbed into a gondola and quickly swung above the midway games, the giant slide, even the smoke from the turkey legs. For just a moment at the top of each revolution, the noise from the speakers and generators died away, and I could see the midway for what it is — a parking lot full of transients, an RV park where we vacation for a few hours and let some neglected part of ourselves run free. In a few days, everything would be folded up and stowed in trailers and hauled away for another year. Everything except those low, nondescript livestock buildings that ring the midway.