PALMER — On the best late-summer days, the ones with no wind and rain, light from the setting sun morphs into an electric glow at the Alaska State Fair. Side-lit pedestrians cast long shadows on the pathways, then color creeps in. With it comes new energy, a second wind that seems to lift spirits and make experiences more vivid.
I love evenings at the fair. It's the best time to watch people. And the light after, say, 5 p.m. gives shapes to the mood in a way that you can't get at high noon.
On Wednesday, farm-fresh kids gave orders to pigs three times their size as evening sun spilled in from the west. Another youngster snuggled her sheep, a time-honored slice of Americana on a bed of straw. They rested in a sunbeam before she noticed I was there and stirred.
Gary Sloan bellowed blues in the early evening. He drew a few people to the plywood dance floor in the Sluice Box, but most sipped their beers in the shadows. Perhaps more people would've danced under better cover of darkness, but daytime bled in from the side door.
It's the rides and games of the carnival midway that seems most sprinkled with the fairy dust of dusk. The flashing lights of rides brightened faces that were already lit up by amusement as parents watched their screaming kids blur by. Teen sweethearts clasped each other with one hand, leaving the other one free to hold treats or their phones as they strolled.
It's in these moments that it's hard to remember what the Alaska State Fairgrounds look like on the other 353 days of the year. But a clear picture of it in my mind would do nothing for the hundreds I made with my camera. I walked miles and miles, back and forth, through Alaska's land of make-believe, watching people watch other people. Everyone embraced the neon fantasy land.
Where else is the term "expensive" so relative as when our nose is intoxicated by options? When else does it seem like a reasonable choice to wait in line for donuts at 9:45 p.m.? And what time is bedtime on a school night? Fairgoers aren't looking for those answers as they weave through each other making the most of it before closing time.
Eventually, the rides stopped twirling, clapboard booths were latched, and a Rat Races gerbil named Repeat chose a color one last time (green). It doesn't take long for people to drain out of the Alaska State Fair, leaving the grounds still brightly lit, but eerily calm.
That's when I saw the fair in it's least appealing light. It came from the headlights of a long line of cars in the dusty lot as they waited to turn onto the Glenn Highway for the ride back to the real world.