-Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
I love the Ventura County Fair. It rolled in to town on August fourth and will be running through Sunday August fifteenth. The County Fair is one of my favorite events because I am a people watcher; by hobby and by profession. As a photojournalist I find people, their habits, mannerisms, and interests fascinating. I have attended events ranging from hot air balloon festivals to TEA Party protests, but the most intriguing event is a fair or a traveling carnival. Here you find people from every walk of life, of every creed and color, coming together to get in touch with their inner redneck and touch the fleeting void that is populated by thrill rides and funnel cake.
Fairs are an odd, annual occurrence that seems to mesmerize a part of our psyche that lays dormant the other 51 weeks of the year. During this short span the Ventura County Fair offers food, thrill rides, and entertainment of the most ridiculous nature, yet we attend in droves amassing on the midway in seething seas of sunscreen slathered flesh and hemorrhaging pocket books. I don’t know what motivates people to come to this expensive and sometimes frustratingly overpopulated event, but the crowds pour off busses and out of cars sitting in traffic forever just to get in and run amok like Templeton personified.
I quickly want to address the oddity that is the Carny. I know that the image of Carnies to the average American is a half-drunk warrant jumper with perpetual dry cough and eczema. Not the case here, though some might seem like unseemly characters it is not the industry it once was. But the one thing that fascinates me is the parenting lessons that can be undone in a single trip to the fair. Every parent I know teaches their children to not take presents, candy, or anything from strangers, but at the fair this is commonplace. Children are mentally unraveled by prizes, flashing lights, and cheap games put on by total strangers. This seems to run contradictory to what parents teach their kids about “stranger danger” and yet the whole industry is almost entirely supported by the minor demographic. I am not asserting that any Carnies are pedophiles, but a Carny with the promise of candy and prizes is one windowless van away from being on a public list. Hell, taking what kids learn from the fair, if a creepy guy in front of middle schools was charging five tickets for a ride in his van he would be snatching up kids by the baker’s dozen. I’m just saying as a non-parent it seems like a dangerous proposition.
With that out of my system, I still love the fair. It is amazing food for one. I have been to county fairs in Wisconsin and Oregon, and I can say the Ventura County Fair has the best food by far. If you judge by the lines then you cannot miss out on the roasted ears of corn, the tri-tip sandwiches, or the grilled turkey legs. In addition to this you have perennial SoCal favorites like Pink’s, Fish Tacos, and of course classics like churros, cotton candy, and bag of kettle corn so large I almost thought a four year old was dragging his brother around by the hair.
You can’t beat the food and drinks at the fair by any means, but we come for the rides more than anything else. Yeah, they’ve got the ferris wheel and all of the other classics, but they’ve got the bone jarring rides, too. It’s something visceral in our spirit, our core as human beings that we try and reach when we get on the hell rides. As a species we must be trying to connect with a baser instinct when we feel that adrenaline as g-forces shock our system and put in a careful balance between terror and excitement. It is just wild to see people on a ride with confused looks of shock turn to elation when they get off. There we are trying to recapture the thrill of the hunt on the open plains as early homo-sapiens gearing up for the chase. We never get that excitement of fear and fun in our daily lives often, and those fleeting moments of ecstasy on the appropriate ride, as we strap in knowing we signed up for something that we might not be able to handle. It’s the closest thing many people get to feeling that rush that many others literally live for in their cottage they call home on The Edge.
Outside of the rides are the parlor games. For two tickets try and make a basket with this basketball that is only 10% smaller than the rim you are shooting at. Here you get to race other fairgoers by shooting water in to the clown’s mouth to run a car up a wall to the finish line. Here you get to try and throw a ping pong ball in to glass of water to win a fish. They go on like this with knocking over the milk jugs with a fast ball or ringing the bell with a powerful swing of a mallet. We all enjoy the idea of getting one over on the Carny and winning a giant pink giraffe for our sweetheart; it’s the same feeling we have about gambling in Vegas, we just wanna get lucky and rake the house one time.
There is of course the 4-H competitions and horse competitions as well as judging rabbits and chickens and all that. I love the calf roping and the barrel racing, it makes for interesting watch and some great photography, but this year I found one of the most interesting things I had never seen before. Right next to the All-Alaskan Pig Races, which I saw last year, was something called Wool Warriors. This was a small dirt arena when small children 6 and under weighing less than 60 pounds were fitted with a vest and helmet and set on the backs of sheep to try and hold on for 6 seconds; like the bull riding minor leagues.
Here at the Wool Warriors show you could watch children, one I saw as young as three and a half hold on to a sheep for dear life until you watched them take a complete header into the dirt. This is another one of those things about the fair and traditional parenting that puzzled me. So you’re allowing your children to be drug and possibly trampled by a farm animal, which stands around in its own excrement, for the entertainment of the laughing and roaring crowd. This might as well have been an arena for the next great youTube viral video. I watched child after child slowly fall off a sheep and just eat it into the dirt as the crowd laughed and applauded. All I could see in that crowd were the faces of the cops in the crowd of the drug symposium in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I’m not saying I wasn’t laughing, but this spectacle and the reactions of the crowd would have been horrifying in any other venue, but this is the county fair, and we laugh openly at the exploitation of children for the amusement of the crowd; give the emcee Johnny G a toga and you’ve got a scene that could have easily have played out in the Colosseum.
The fair is an odd time for a city. It brings thrill seekers and citizens with redneck tendencies out of the surrounding areas to descend on the event. Here you can find nightly fireworks, concerts, rodeos, rides, animals, and every kind of food and drink imaginable; it’s gonna cost you an arm and a leg to go, but man will it be worth it. “It comes only once a year, so I go all out.” A fairgoer said this to me with a whole turkey leg in one hand and a pint of beer in another. His kids were running around jacked up on God knows what fair food and were playing with bubble blowing guns with custom hats on and covered in all sorts of drips from what they’d been eating. The fair may be a weird place where the cartoonish and ridiculous like clowns and carnies are accepted as the new condition of experience for a fleeting moment. Like a modern day Looking Glass we get to travel through and dance with the Mad Hatter for but a moment in the ether between euphoria and a diabetic coma. One thing’s for sure, you’ve just got to see a sheep dump a six year old in the dirt like a rag doll, it’s fucking hilarious.
All photos by Wesley Bauman
About the Author
Wesley is a writer/photojournalist originally from Oregon who makes his home in Ventura, CA. He is currently a contributing photographer for the VCReporter and maintains an active blog (http://www.wesleybauman.wordpress.com/) where he writes on political and social satire regularly.
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