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Meet Me At The Fair

The shrieks of laughter draw me in. As the evening sun prepares to drop behind the pendulum tower I happen upon a park teeming with children and their families. Tunes, honks, and bells from different directions blend together to form a mellifluous song I think I have heard before. The aroma of smoking grills and sweets fills the air.

The shrieks of laughter take me back. I am knee-high in stature so everything looks gargantuan. The man on stilts soars up to the clouds; the leaping horses on the carousel are life-sized; the pink cotton candy I hold overtakes my head. It is a familiar scene and yet each year that my family brought me to the carnival a strange world unfolded.

fair adventureI have not been to a fair since those childhood years. Now, as an adult, when I visit, everything is…smaller. How had I imagined a scene peopled with giants? The man in stilts barely reaches the tip of the hot dog stand awning.

“The carousel, once loud and fierce, is now a miniature moving with molasses deliberation.”

Even the fairy floss can be consumed in two bites. I remember being fascinated by the crazy rides that twirl and hurtle their occupants. Clearly I was not alone as I listen to the shrill screams of delighted youngsters being tossed. I watch them line up to purchase caramel corn, eyes lit with anticipation. I deftly step aside as a large group of adolescents dart towards the tossing gallery. Others giggle and jostle against their parents eager to get on the various amusements.

My favorite device back then was always the Ferris wheel —its twinkling lights circling the sky, its gentle whir and clank as each pod remains upright all the way to the top. Sitting on that Ferris wheel as a child felt incredible: everything stopped being huge. For a few minutes, as my carriage rocked gently back and forth at the pinnacle, the landscape came under my dominion.

fair flyerWith fond reminisces of the Ferris wheel I decide it is the one ride I want to experience again. In the intervening years not much has varied: the same two-seaters, with fresh coats of paint, dangle from the same illuminated hoop. I shuffle forward in line between metal barriers. I instinctively glance at the invariable cardboard height requirement sign. I show my paper stub to an old weary man. I climb onto the metal seat, put the safety bar into position, and once again travel above the bustle of the fair, past the treetops until I am surveying the empty fields, the sleepy town, and a little corner which used to be my entire world. When my chair reaches the summit I am once again master over all.

While my feelings atop the observation wheel have not changed, everything else at the carnival has changed. Once the fair was colored in silver, gold, and glitter. Now the shine has faded. Once the fair injected adrenaline into my veins. Now it is a tame beast powered by sentimentality. Once the fair was a magical fantasy of sights and sounds.

“Now all that remains of that fantasy are music-box melodies and a few flickering bulbs.”

As the carousel spins and the lights wink, I grasp that time has altered me, not the fair. The years have wrought a difference in my perspective. I see everything with an adult’s understanding. Taking a turn on a bleached merry-go-round horse as my feet graze the floor I know that I have undergone more than a growth spurt. “Growing up” is such a subtle and complex transformation that goes beyond physical size. When does it happen, I wonder? How does it occur? Somewhere along my journey, process unknown, I got to where I am. My life turned into an old record player whose needle skipped ahead to the next groove. I put aside some childish hopes, I cast away certain juvenile fears, and I threw out a few infantile behaviors in order to mature. I am not completely grown-up, never that, because I know there are decades of learning and reworking ahead of me. Even so, I am grown-up enough to perceive the evolution as I tour the old haunts of the fairground. I am not the same self who ran through these carefree alleys long ago.

fair wheelA part of me grieves over the lapsed time, the yesteryears. Or is it nostalgia I feel filtering the scene with misremembered recollections? What am I actually mourning for? If there was a way to go back I would not want to reverse time. I have had more thrills since my days of falling inside the Gravity Defier. I have tasted foods more exotic since my days of devouring five-alarm chili. I have experienced more adventures since my days at the fair. I pass the big wheel for a third time and instantly detect a sense of longing. The capsules nod invitingly at me so I succumb to their summons and hop on for a final spin.

The great axle squeaks and my gondola creaks with a subdued murmur as we gradually climb. The seat sways, and automatically my feet move up and down to its rhythm. The carnival goers recede into dolls. Then the food stalls, the bumper cars, and the hurricane contraption ebb into toys. Finally, just as my chair reaches its peak, the treetops subside to grant me a view of the streets that surround the park.

“Promptly, every worry sheds me and I become sovereign over an entire domain.”

That is when the truth clobbers me like a giant hammer from the strongman game: it is this sense of boundless possibilities that I miss from my younger days at the fair. As a child, I thought the minute I turned into an adult the world would open and there would be no limits. It was a Cinderella story that never came true. But swinging up here in time to the wind I regain that sense of youthful optimism if only until the Ferris wheel begins its downward cycle.

fair viewGetting off the ride I promise myself I will keep a piece of that innocent hopefulness with me. The poet Elizabeth Bishop once asked, “Oh, must we dream our dreams and have them too?” Yes! These heartless times crush a dreamer with unrelenting storms and bitter seasons. I want to head into this maelström armed with the warmth of summertime fancies and the confidence that I am the captain of my life’s course. I want to believe that conditions are favorable for me no matter how unfavorable they are. Sometimes you have to return to your childhood haunt in order to move forward. Lately, I have been unsure in my travels and lost in my writing: an upcoming trekking expedition sounds impossible for my physical capabilities, and I have miles to go before perfecting what I mean to say. The fair recaptured a belief in my potential. I want to bottle that feeling and release it like a perfume during my arduous hike and before composing my next line. I want to be unstoppable wherever that may be.


Observation wheels were popular attractions in 15th century Persia and India during religious festivals. Modern variations of the wheel are named after George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., an American engineer who designed a 264 foot (80.4 meter) high wheel for the 1893 exposition in Chicago, Illinois.

Have you been to an unusual fair or returned to a childhood place as an adult? Do you have a favorite carnival amusement ride? What foods do you love to eat when you are at a fair, carnival, or festival?

27 replies »

  1. A beautifully written personal piece. I like the intentions that came out of this experience for you: “I am the captain of my life’s course. I want to believe that conditions are favorable for me no matter how unfavorable they are.” I believe those things are true, whether I can connect with them or not. Like you, if I don’t quite believe those things in a given moment, I do know that, at the very least, I want to try to shore up those beliefs. I love the feature video and the great photography too. Wonderful post. ~ Jeannie

    • Thank you for the wonderful compliment Jeannie! It is interesting you mention that the part that struck you most about this post is that I was struggling to believe I could achieve anything. Recently, on my Zion hike I learned there were some obstacles I couldn’t conquer and one of my readers, Sandi, mentioned that it was good for each of us to know that we have limitations as humans. There is this line I suppose we must all walk between being self-confident in our particular talents and knowing what is beyond our means, but it is a difficult and wavering line for me. What helps you believe in yourself when you have doubts?

    • Thanks Ellen. I have to agree with you on some of those rides! I loved them when I was young, but now just seeing other people being tossed around the air makes me nauseous. The carousel and the Ferris wheel are about as nostalgic as I can get.

  2. I want you to be that unstoppable force too! I’d like it for me as well, but that’s much less probable. 🙂 I love that shimmering Ferris Wheel shot! I was never good at riding to the top of that kind of thing though I can climb stairs for England! The carousel attracts me like a magnet every time. The one by the Eiffel Tower with the Paris scenes… you know it? And that Paris fairground by the Louvre had me all lit up like a kid at Christmas.
    Thanks for Linked In. 🙂

    • Thank you Jo. I think you are unstoppable in your own way, so don’t think that it isn’t probable for you as well! As for carousels: the one by the Eiffel Tower is one of my favorites, partly because there is an amazing little crepe hut next to it. 🙂 If you ever travel to the seaside town of Saint Raphael in southern France, there is also one there on the beach that you would love. I know you are not good at riding to the top of Ferris wheels, but have you ever been on the London Eye?

  3. Beautifully written piece filled with wistfulness and nostalgia. I think carnivals have that same effect on many adults. It certainly does on me when I visit. And the photos…wow.

  4. Ahh…a soulful post my friend. ‘A Cinderella story that never came true…’ Seeing the world again through the eyes of my children when they were little renewed that sense of childlike wonderment and magic in my world but at some point, no matter what age, we come to that place where a simple ride on a ferris wheel can take us back to a moment of pure freedom, a memory of a time when we were carefree, unhindered, living in that very moment and soaking it up for all its worth. I am so glad to read that you renewed your belief in your potential. I felt your energy and zest return as I read on, bringing me to your conclusion that you are now ready to take on the world again. Bravo to you, a wonderful post and I wish you only the very best in life 🙂

  5. Hi, it’s the first time for me stopping by here, and I admire your night photo shot.
    I have ever been to a big fair here in indonesiaand yea it placed me to my childood when I scared about the very high wheel 😀

  6. At our regional fair, I like to eat cotton candy (your candy floss) and funnel cakes–a fried waffle-type cake coated with confectioner’s sugar. When I was a little girl, I enjoyed the fair, but it was expensive: even though my parents gave me money, I felt bad that the rides cost so much. Now, children have so many more “magical” things that the fair has lost some of its allure? I still love taking the ski lift ride in the dark, looking down on all the whizzing rides and bright lights.

    I enjoyed your thoughtful consideration of the fair and how you have changed over the years.

    • Thank you Sandi for sharing your story. I have never had funnel cake but they sound sweet and decadent. I cannot go to the fair without buying cotton candy however! You raise a good point though: I wonder if the glitz of electronic gadgets makes the allure of the fair somewhat old-fashioned these days for many children.

  7. “you have to return to your childhood haunt in order to move forward” so true! Wonderful stories. Thank you so much for sharing!

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