#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 24
Back on the road, I realize a little too late that my vanilla cream soda has a cork rather than a screw cap. “This is why they offered to open it for me back at the candy store,” I say, showing Brent.
“Oh,” he says. “Look in the center consol. There’s a tool.”
I just blink at him for a moment and wonder what else he’s hidden away in the Jetta all this time. Sure enough, there’s a Swiss Army Knife-like tool, packed so Brent-like in its original packaging despite its use. I get my soda open and wash down my fudge as Brent says, “I’ve been thinking…”
This’ll be good.
“I think we can fit in the State Fair.”
“We have time?” I ask, savoring my soda.
“If we take the right roads from here, we’ll have a solid chunk of time to do it–unless you have things to do back at the apartment.”
“I’m pretty much packed,” I say, wondering if that’s true, and realizing that it wouldn’t be the first time I traveled with a variety of wet, clean-ish clothes.
We agree to our no-dawdling rule and arrive at the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, which is known for having the highest daily attendance in the U.S., and it’s also known, deliciously enough, for offering all kinds of food on a stick: corndogs, fried cheese, cheesecake, Twinkies, even beer.
In 1758, a fella named Elkanah Watson was born in Massachusetts. That was in the middle of the French & Indian War, which set up the colonists’ fight for independence in America. Well, in 1810, in order to promote better agricultural practices, Watson organized the first county fair in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He organized activities for men, women, and children so that the entire community could be included. Over the years, with industrialization, fairs have expanded to include carnival rides and the unveiling of new and innovative products. And today, the Minnesota State Fair is one of the largest in the world.
Brent and I strut down the main drag of the Fair in the intense Minnesota heat as zombie-like people wade passed us, looking wilted and some even appear to be wet. There aren’t any water rides, yet everyone looks drenched. We shrug it off, smelling the carnival-like aromas of sugar and fried food, and head immediately to our personal favorites—anything meaty for Brent, and for me, cheese curds with yellow mustard followed by the milk dispenser.
“That’s just gross,” Brent says, but he agrees to wait in the milk line with me.
“It’s the greatest booth since sliced bread,” I say and we laugh. I pay a dollar for a cup and I’m allowed to have it refilled as many times as I want.
“Two percent or four?” I’m asked. Yeah, I like this place.
We head into the Kemps Creamery exhibit, which is blissfully air conditioned, and proceed to learn some fast facts, milk a fabricated cow, and sidle up to the milk bar. For this adventure, we also get some ice cream on a stick. Score!
We round through a kiddie area where Brent finds Math on-a-Stick. Truly this state fair has everything on a stick. Math on-a-Stick encourages kids (of all ages, apparently) to play with math concepts through games and activities. I drag Brent away from the math and we find our way to the St. Paul’s own Summit booth with beer flights on a stick. And that’s when I hear a familiar voice over the loudspeaker. I can’t quite place the voice and, knowing that this fair is huge, I start to feel it’s improbable that I’ll track down its origin just by looking. It’s a woman’s voice, and I’m zeroing in on it in my mind and then it suddenly comes to me: It’s Mollie B.
“Mollie B!” I tell Brent, wide-eyed, and, knowing the voice, I now know where to look. We approach the stage nearest to Summit, and there she is, Mollie B herself.
“I don’t recognize her,” Brent says.
“You’ve never watched RFDTV?” I ask, and then I remember this is Brent. I start talking fast. “Okay, while you’re busy watching scifi all-the-time, there’s also a channel on TV called RFD-TV; it’s rural television. Mollie B does a Polka show on Saturday nights, the Mollie B Polka Party, that my parents are crazy about.” He frowns at me, so I go on. “Make that face all you want, but she’s our age; she sings, dances, plays a number of instruments—sometimes simultaneously–and she travels around filming polka dances for her show. She’s even got a Polka cruise. And that’s her! My parents are gonna flip. I’ve got to get them souvenirs.”
Brent guards our beer on a stick, which I know is disappearing as I stand in line to get t-shirts. Mollie’s on stage talking and I’m filming away with my trusty phone because my family is never going to believe I’m standing so close to her, and that’s when Mollie B suddenly looks my way. I wave like a crazed fanatic dufus, which I am, and she stops what she’s saying for a moment, catches a laugh before it can escape, and then gets back to her speech. It’s totally true; I have it all on film. T-shirts in hand and dignity mostly intact, I return to Brent and what’s left of the stick beers. And maybe it’s the heat, or our incredible brush with fame, but Brent and I soon realize the heat is getting to us.
“Where were those misters?” I ask.
“This way,” he says. We wander away from the music pavilion, zombielike, toward the open air shower heads we’d seen upon our entry. We find one and hop in, beer and all. The shower heads, for all the water they’re spraying at us, are just misters after all and aren’t cold or refreshing enough, not like the ones at the Minnesota Zoo, so we hop out and decide to track down some final cold items on a stick before leaving the fair. It occurs to us that we’ve now joined the ranks of the wilted, soggy zombies we’d seen upon our entry. We look at all the pretty new arrivals walking into the Fair, fresh as daisies, and Brent and I laugh at ourselves. “Get a good look,” we say to each other. “We’re your future.”
We make our exit and get back to Brent’s with just enough time for me to shower and change clothes before heading to the airport. As fun as it was to get this way, I can’t sit on a plane in this wilted, sticky, zombiefied condition.
With that done, and my belongings literally thrown back into my suitcase, we head out into rush hour traffic toward MSP. Just before the turn onto the highway, the Jetta’s check engine light turns on.
“Looks like 1908 miles,” I say, and we discuss sliced bread, the underground bar, Truckhenge, Trampled by Turtles, the Volkswagen spider, the giant cottonwood tree in the road, and all of our things done and things learned in these 1908 miles.
We arrive at the airport, somehow on time, and Brent stops the car outside my flight company. He sighs. Somehow, after all this, it just seems too early to be done.
“This just loops around, doesn’t it?” I ask after a moment, pointing to the airport road.
Understanding flashes across his face. “It does,” he confirms.
Even as I ask, “Do you think we could go around again?” Brent is already putting the Jetta back into gear for a victory lap.
And just like that, with goofy grins on our faces, Brent and I drive off into the loop.
My heartfelt thanks goes out to all of you for reading this saga, sending me comments, and for the encouragement to “write the next segment, ASAP!” I appreciate your excitement for this crazy road trip through the middle of our great country. And, of course, very special thanks to Brent for his enthusiasm, driving skills, photographs, and for thinking up this trip and asking me to tag along.
May all your adventures include joyous wonder. Go forth.
I’m thinking about salt and idioms. That is, I’m thinking, “This is where Brent earns his salt.” (Actually, the idiom is to be worth one’s salt, dating back to those good ole ancient times when Roman soldiers were either paid in salt or paid money specifically to buy salt. Historians have late-night arguments over this, while still more historians join the fray claiming that Greek slave traders in ancient times sold slaves for salt.) In any case, I’m thinking about salt as currency, historians in fisticuffs, and the curious way Brent greets each roadside stop with enthusiasm and gives each one its due exploration. Anyone else would quit while we’re ahead and would drive straight through to Rochester, or would cut out a stop or two in order to make good time. Anyone else—but then, anyone else would have been antsy about spending a week in the car in the first place. It takes a different kind of person to plan such a trip, a person of commitment and fortitude, and of those, few dare to stay the course.
So, here I sit in Iowa, knowing I’m in the company of someone with the right combination of patience, attention to logistics, determination, and sense of adventure–someone well suited to road exploration. I’m sitting in good company.