PALMER — Enter the Alaska State Fair through the green gate and there’s no avoiding the instant assault on your senses. Even before the flashing lights of the rides and games fan out in front of you, the scents of sugar and barbecue smoke smack you headlong. Yet on this grim gray afternoon, it took the stunningly loud pop of the Mash-a-Mouse game’s oversized balloons to snap me out of what had become an overwhelming desire to take a nap.
Even a Monday at the fair can feel very Monday.
Gray day or not, I maintain that any adult in need of a one-day pre-winter vacation from reality should head out to Palmer on the second Monday of the fair season. Solo.
The fairgrounds will be loud but not all that crowded. You won’t get elbowed when browsing the tiny shops. Also, there’s a better-than-good chance that the exceptionally long lines for Talkeetna Spinach Bread or Pepe’s Paella will just be two people deep.
And you won’t have any children or adults pulling or whining at you to stop looking at whatever it is you’re looking at in favor of something they want to see. This time? The fair is all yours.
While I have some specific fair goals in mind, I spend the first 90 minutes just wandering. Other state fairs may thrive on new new new but the Alaska State Fair feels supercharged by ritual. Vendors tend to favor the same spot year after year. Unlike fairs that tout a new odd fried food annually, you know what you’re going to get in Palmer. After a busy summer, that consistency is a relief.
It seems we’ve even settled into a regular winner on the giant pumpkin front.
I walked into the ag competition area shortly after Dale Marshall collected another win. He’s standing with “2023,” the year’s winner, his fluorescent yellow hoodie a sharp contrast to the pumpkin’s pale orange. The Pumpkin Fairies are milling around. I can feel the energy calming in the room. It takes some time after all that buildup to the announcement.
Fair-goers have moved on to scratching the necks of the grateful pigs and sheep, to look at the bees, the chicks warming under heat lamps, the massive zucchini, the delicate peonies.
Handlers walk past with a gaggle of baby goats followed closely by two costumed stilt-walkers.
I leave the oversized barn, finally ready to put the swirl of activity behind in favor of my favorite transition to fall: the arts and crafts exhibits.
It’s pouring again but nobody is racing around to take cover. We’ve all just given in. One guy walks by with a bread bowl in hand, rain cooling the chowder as he goes.
Inside the Hoskins Exhibits hall, it’s the warmest I’ve been all day. The room hosts the entries to the art and photography contests, as well as the baked goods, canning and other food categories.
The competition categories offer a place for artists of every ilk, no matter their favorite medium or topic. Every age too. One of the reasons I find great joy here is that the Seuss-inspired work of toddlers is mixed in with paintings by working professionals.
“It looks like a painting.” The voice comes from a small group behind me. They’re staring at a prize-winning painting of a lynx by JoJean Beller. I join their conversation for a moment to agree. There’s so much light in the painting. These conversations with strangers come easy at the fair.
One in the group is beaming. She’s the one who encouraged her friends to tear away from the rides in favor of an art break.
She did good. I’m forever surprised how quiet the arts exhibits can be. This is where I see how Alaskans spend their quieter hours doing the activities we don’t talk up quite as much.
The lynx painting sits a few feet away from what turns out to be my favorite in the hall, “Blue Sky Summer Day” by Elijah Oudin, entered in the 9- to 13-year-olds category. Three clouds. A bright blue sky. One bird and some trees. I want to walk right into that scene.
I wish I had a blue ribbon I could pin up next to it. But, even if it wasn’t a winner in the judge’s eyes, I hope Elijah got a chance to see his work hanging there.
With the day slipping away and reality calling for my return, I make one more stop. This one, two buildings down in the Irwin Exhibits hall, will be my longest of the day. I’m a longtime knitter and maker of all sorts of things. I know what goes into the work I’m about to see and I need to give it time.
As I reach the hall, a roar goes up from a crowd gathered around the Alaskan Soda Jerk stand on the other side of the walkway. I step inside the building as a loud bell clangs.
The hall, separated into two long aisles, offers its own kind of sensory overload. The Irwin hosts fiber arts, woodworking, clay art, silversmithing, yard art and more. The list of categories is long. If an Alaskan wants to create an object, there’s probably a place for it here.
Lattice panels and some shelving cover the walls on the fiber arts aisle. They’re peppered with handmade stuffed animals, black and white pajamas, renaissance fair-worthy costumes, knit cowls and blankets and dolls, and a massive crocheted dragon watching over it all. Barbie has made it to the fair this year, too, in the form of a small quilt and a not-so-small dream castle completely covered in cross-stitched panels.
There’s quiet here, too. Even with people demonstrating wood turning and yarn spinning, it’s so peaceful. Get a few feet away from the door and all the quilts and other creations buffer the room against the loudest of clanging bells and music.
I am, for the moment, happy that the hall isn’t packed, that the woman who looked in and said “oh, it’s quilts,” and walked out chose to do just that. Because when I stand in the center of the aisle, looking up at the intricate works hanging overhead, there’s not much of a chance anybody will bump into me and break my focus.
The Alaska State Fair continues Thursday, Aug. 31 and runs through Monday, Sept. 4. Find information about exhibits, vendors and more at alaskastatefair.org.