by syaffolee

And the Calves Eye the Rope, Resigned

“When you’re young,” said the married-with-children lab tech in a recent conversation, “you should take advantage of the opportunity to travel.”

I nodded and added, “I also like traveling alone because I don’t have to worry about what the other person wants to do.”

“I’d rather travel with somebody else,” another grad student disagreed. But then again, he’s a bit of a blabbermouth homeboy. He must have someone to talk to–to the point of following other annoyed grad students to the bathroom. And he’s deathly afraid of anything un-Idahoian, like Mississippi and hibachi grills.

Hills outside of Colfax, WashingtonA few days earlier, I overheard some undergrads on a walkway talking about a Palouse fair. Intrigued, I did a bit of Googling and found the Palouse Empire Fair. “Come and enjoy a fair-e-tail” the website proclaims. At first glance, I think most people would peg me as more of a suburban/city type person. Me and agriculture? It’s sort of like pickles and peanut butter. But heck, I’m here, and because the juxtaposition is so weird, it’s exactly why I wanted to go. I’ve been to a fair before, but this one had a rodeo and a sheep grooming contest scheduled. I am not used to the smell of livestock or country living, but unlike that grad student who shies away from anything outside of his comfort zone, anything new and different makes me want to jump in.

The fair itself was a couple miles east of Colfax, Washington, located in a dusty tract of rolling yellow hills, out in the middle of nowhere. It’s dry and hot with a cloudless sky. I parked near the back entrance to the fair on straw and mud. I’m reminded of the Three Little Pigs. Perhaps a wolf came by and blew their house down so that cars and RVs and trailers could park on the straw foundation. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see pigs or wolves–the swine barn had closed early and a kid with a white t-shirt that had a red X over a picture of a wolf made it abundantly clear what the people around those parts thought about that fairy tale.

PumpkinsI walked about looking at different vendors. I meandered about in the horticulture barn–skirting enormous pumpkins and wilting sunflower stalks, pondering the inscrutability of first prize zucchini and overripe tomatoes. A few old ladies nearby discussed in serious tones lagomorphian diarrhea as one of the rabbits I looked at ran across his cage and stood up on his hind legs to be photographed. In the poultry barn, I came across a black pigeon, beak buried in his chest feathers. His owner hand-wrote a note on a green index card and strung it up on his wire cage. It read: “Sad and Lonely: Last week a hawk took my mate of 6 years.”

Feisty rabbitAfter looking at some sleepy sheep and some cows (was that seething resentment I saw in their black, black eyes as the flash went off on my camera?), I bought a hot dog and ate it as a woman in a red shirt standing on the steps of a gazebo gave out prizes. Beside her sat three girls in blue dresses, fair princesses, smiling beatifically into the crowd. Beatifically because they didn’t have to recite some long speech about agriculture from memory like the other girl in a cowboy hat who had been called up on stage. They just had to wave to get any applause.

There were other buildings housing handicrafts. There were quilts and clothes and flowers and hand-made muffins, of course. But there were also strange things. Like Lego sculptures that were probably made by fifth graders and a gigantic mosaic made entirely of lentils. I also noticed that quite a few quilts, paintings, and even a stained glass wall hanging were made by the same woman. Prolific artist or merely someone who just emptied her house to maximize her chances at getting that blue ribbon?

Cinnamon and sugar funnel cakeI bought a funnel cake and munched it as I watched the sheep grooming contest on some shaded bleachers. The teams had one hour to beautify the recalcitrant animals (far more feisty than last year, claimed one woman) before judging. The contestants whipped out carding combs and shears, but toothbrushes and cotton swabs were also used. I saw a grooming instrument that suspiciously resembled a toilet cleaning brush make brief appearances. A husband-wife-daughter team went about the task in a methodical manner, churning out the ovine-equivalent of Audrey Hepburn. The team next to them fluffed their sheep out into a gigantic puff ball. Some kids had to frantically clean their platform in panic when their animal pooped a couple of minutes before the end in defiance. One of the sheep wore sunglasses–cool and slicked up. Another one had to have its head swathed in a towel because it was thrashing around like a victim of the Spanish Inquisition.

And the rodeo–the audience, sometimes, was as fascinating to watch. The seats were made of bleached gray wood underpinned with wire. It was at this point that the sun seemed most intense, rapidly melting the shaved ice pineapple-coconut concoction in my hands. The rodeo queen walked about the audience in her blinding shirt with magenta sequins and gigantic silver buckle. The sheriff took a seat on the bench in front of mine, glaring at some other person from behind his shades. “Are you making trouble?” he demanded. There was some embarrassed murmuring.

Sheep Grooming ContestCowboys on horses on the dimpled dirt of the arena. In the afternoon, I felt like I was looking through a photograph, blurry, faded. It wasn’t even like television or a movie–it seemed a bit surreal because I was swaddled in constant noise: of the people around me, the hawking of an old man trying to sell ice water, and Bob the announcer with his clown sidekick Ike. Bob and Ike constantly made fun of an absent, hairy-legged cowboy named Stan. “A candidate for Jenny Craig!” Bob exclaimed.

Palouse Empire Fair RodeoBob and Ike also made fun of the champion and runner-up buckaroos. The champion clung on his angry horse like a peacock in his bright blue chaps long after the eight seconds were up. His hat fell onto the ground at one point, and his hair rippled like a flag in an angry breeze as the horse kicked up his heels. “He needs a haircut,” Bob exclaimed. “But,” he added as a reluctant afterthought, “he’s single, ladies.” Behind me, the champion’s fangirls let out piercing screams. The runner-up, unfortunately, was compared to a law firm. And he barely clung onto his saddle as his mount went as crazy as a demon-possessed bumper car, slamming his hindquarters with all he was worth onto the fence that separated him and the audience sitting in the front row bleachers. People screamed then, too.

However, I left the rodeo puzzled. The winner of the women’s roping event was a young pre-adolescent boy. While it’s cool that the kid won with a time under 2.5 seconds, I’m not quite sure why the organizers thought it was a good idea to lump the boys with the women. What’s the point of having a women’s division if only the boys are winning?

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