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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Monday, January 24, 2011

Food and fun at the Alaska State Fair

Radio DJs across the state provide regular updates to how the pregnant pig is fairing. She’s a couple days overdue. Mark and I saw her in her pen at the Alaska State Fair, looking lifeless and laid out—almost belly up—on a bed of straw. Swollen teets exposed in two neat rows, she was HUGE, seeming eight feet long.
The day at the state fair in September was perfect: clear skies and temps in the high 70s.

Our fist stop was at a small stage outside the grandstand. A juggler/comedian pull kids from the bleachers to be part of his tricks. State fair stuff, but it was funny.

Pigs racing through a maze sounded crazy fun. The event drew quite the crowd, however, Mark and I failed to see any entertainment in it. The pigs, after all, were not aware they were racing and did not seem interested in progressing around the first turn let alone finishing the maze. We walked off in search of fair fare (i.e, food).

Most everything seemed so expensive, like major-league ballpark prices. Between us we got a buffalo sausage dog with mustard and onions, corn on the cob, crab cakes and crab bisque for $23. We accepted a free bottle of water from a politician who was handing them out to would-be supporters then sat low in one of three sets of bleachers in a grassy area on the border of the fairgrounds and waited for the lumberjack show. While eating, we gazed at the mountain range visible in the distance on this clear day. What a setting for a fairgrounds! We bet Alaskans take the scenery for granted.

Though this was our second time in Alaska, we’d never seen a lumberjack show, and we were excited to see it. The MC, 23 years old at most, carrying a microphone, walked from behind the temporary stage wearing red-and-black checked flannel and suspenders. He welcomed us and set a false rivalry by assigning each set of bleachers a local town, Wasilla, Anchorage or Palmer, and warmed us up by seeing who could give the loudest lumberjack yell. Mark and I had no idea what the lumberjack yell was.

“Okay Wasilla, three-two-one,” and the MC threw his hand out at them like he was showing a contestant what’s behind door number 3.

Seeming as if they had practiced, everyone sitting in the assigned Wasilla bleachers resounded a deep “Yo-hooooooooe.” Mark and I looked at each other laughing. Then it was Anchorage’s turn. The MC counted down and motioned to us all to yell. Still unsure, Mark and I stayed quiet while all around us folks shouted “Yo-hoooooooooe.” Again, we laughed.

At their turn, people in the Palmer stands yo-hoed too, and by the end of the show, Mark and I were yo-hoing with everyone else, like we were Alaskan, born and bred.

The MC introduced three lumberjacks, all as young as he and also donning the Brawny Man attire, and assigned them to Wasilla, Anchorage or Palmer, as we in the stands had been assigned. We rooted for our guy and booed the others. The jacks threw hatchets at targets, chopped and sawed logs and rolled them in water, climbed poles, carved figures, splashed and played tricks on each other and generally misbehaved, all the while exasperating the MC, who tried keeping them in line. So entertaining was the show, I wished for more when it ended.

Of course Mark and I toured the barns where, besides the pregnant pig, we saw cows, goats, sheep, fowl and rabbits. Other exhibits included painting, sketching, photography, flowers, baked goods and, of course, what I was most looking forward to seeing, the Big Alaskan produce: cabbage, pumpkin and gourds. The winning cabbage was the size of an over-inflated basketball wrapped in a couple layers of bubble-wrap, resting on leaves the size of pillowcases.

We ended the day with an equestrian show. Horses ran in circles as acrobats artistically hopped on and off their backs. Or, one fellow stood balanced on a running horse’s back while a beautiful performer stood on the fellow’s shoulders. It was all interesting for 10 minutes. We watched for 20, hoping for something different, but something different never came.

Two days past the pig’s due date, hundreds of miles to the northeast, we heard an update on her health. Now, four days after our fun at the fair, as we head into Denali National Park, in another part of the state entirely, the DJ announces that the pig has had her piglets.

Only in Alaska does a pregnant pig hold state-wide interest. Despite its vastness, Alaska’s a small state.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Four years and 59 stories

I recently read Crossing the Gates of the Arctic by Dave Metz. The book details the author’s several-month trip on foot across northern Alaska. He faced cold, wetness and hunger. But the guy is an experienced all-weather camper and long-distance hiker so none of the hardships came as a surprise. I left a review of the book online and ended it this way: “The trip the author describes went off pretty much as planned, which makes for great travel and is a testament to the guy's intelligence and preparedness. However, it makes for a less than exciting book for us vicarious adventure junkies.”

I feel the same about my own travel writing: If I take a trip where everything goes off without a hitch, I wonder if I can squeeze an interesting article from it. I measure how exciting a trip I had by how many travel articles I get from it. My husband and I were in Texas for five days in 2009, and I wrote six stories from our experiences! That was a fun-filled vacation! On the other hand, we’ve been to more than 70 national parks/monuments/historic places, yet this is only my 59th travel story for the Chronicle, and less than half of those are about national park units.

Always our vacations are enjoyable. However, only sometimes are they exciting and worthy of writing about.

My favorite national park is Canyonlands in Utah. We visited in 2004. It was Mark’s favorite too until the next day when we drove into Arches. Later that week we crossed the state to Bryce Canyon National Park, and Mark changed his favorite again. But it doesn’t stop there: Mr. Wishy-washy could not resist the immense, unfathomable beauty of our final national park of that vacation and to this day calls the Grand Canyon his favorite.

We experienced more than 20 national parks on that 19-day adventure, and, despite the fact that many of the parks are our favorites and offered so much, I think I wrote only three articles: about Hubble Trading Post, Petrified Forest and a mule ride into the Grand Canyon. It was a great trip, full of beautiful things we’d never seen before, but besides scenery, not much out of the ordinary happened.

When vacations go perfectly as planned, there’s little to write about to keep readers’ interest. On trips, I physically push myself and test the line of safety because—as I mentioned in my review of the book—I’m a low-level-adventure junkie. And because I want to do something worth writing about.

If I weren’t writing this column, would I have jumped into the New River from a West Virginia rock three stories tall—which resulted in a huge bruise on the back of my thigh? Would I have gone on the jumpy kids’ ride at the festival in Atlanta—even though I’m frightened of falling? Would I have gone hiking in the spring rain in the rain forests of Washington state—when I knew the trails had not been maintained? And this is all within the past year!

In my 30s and younger I have no doubt that I would have attempted these stunts without provocation. Now that I’m in my 40s, it’s easy to bow out using age as an excuse. But, readers, I thank you for providing me the inspiration to keep challenging myself—in hopes that my experience will be worthy of words.

This month marks my four-year anniversary of writing this column. You can look forward to at least another 11 months—if I don’t crash and burn within the year.