Fair Thee Well: A Trip to Walla Walla’s Frontier Days

Every Labor Day weekend, Walla Walla hosts “Frontier Days,” a combination of agricultural fair and a sanctioned rodeo. While the fairgrounds are mostly empty most of the year, in late August they begin filling up with hundreds of horse trailers, pickups filled with crafts and food, and truck after truck of carnival ride equipment. White fences are cleaned, exhibit halls swept out and dusted, food stalls prepped with supplies, and power cords dragged every which way to light up the evening hours with seasonal entertainment. Living here since the late summer of 2008, Susanne and I have never gone to Frontier Days, usually because that’s also when the national political science association’s conference is held, far from Walla Walla. But this year I stayed behind with Emile, and bought some passes for us to the see fair and the rodeo.

Walla Walla Frontier Days 2013 US flag and horsesNow then, before people balk at the idea of the city boy and his offspring venturing into such a rural experience, I am no noob to the rodeo. I went to Girl Scout horse camp in South Jersey twice, sleeping in two-week stints in an overgrown tent, and I’ve gone to at least a dozen rodeos in the Northeast—though truth be told, my favorite is the Atlantic Gay Rodeo, in which, among other events, cowboys and cowgirls chase goats around the arena to get pink underwear on their butts. I’ve gone to county fairs since I was a kid, some of them enormous, like the Montgomery County Fair in Maryland. Three hundred bunnies, all in competition for a blue ribbon.

But let’s get real; it’s been a long, long time since I’ve ventured into this kind of event. A decade, maybe? My benchmarks for country fairs and rodeos well, they are perhaps different in faded memory. Parking was easy, and only $4 (the Rotary should charge more), across the street from the fairgrounds. We strollered in around 5:30PM and Emile pointed to the things he found most interesting. I wheeled him over to the dairy building, checking out the cows (“udders!” “moo cows!”), then to the building with goats, all of which looked nonplussed at the stream of visitors. There were a lot of kids in cowboy hats and Wranglers.

I tried to see the fair through my former child’s eyes, and ignore the very large Republican Party tent (which was brimming with people) and the Walla Walla Democrats tent (which had one person at the counter). I also avoided showing Emile the various religious symbols we could peruse or buy, sticking to the animal exhibits and their associated 4-H awards. The sheep, for example, were bleating like this was their one lifetime opportunity to be heard outside of their requisite farms. The goats, on the other hand, were quiet cud-chewers.

We drifted over to one of many stables, and checked out the horses. Emile waved and said “Hi, horsey,” to most of them. Some of the horses acknowledged him, which was nice for him (not sure how the horses felt about it). I’d gotten it into my head before buckling Emile in the car that I wanted to get him a cowboy hat, so we started combing the fair for hats. There were plastic hats, baseball caps, foam cow udders that were extra weird because the teats pointed skyward, but no actual cowboy hats. What on earth?

Emile in cowboy hatA clump of aides to Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers and state GOP delegates blocked our way forward, and one of them noticed us and said we looked a little lost. I told her I was on the hunt for cowboy hats and she pointe behind us, and in that moment I marked the first helpful thing my Congresswoman’s office has done for my family. (Because hey, we don’t need another attempt at rolling back health care reform.) I thanked her and we made our way to the sole cowboy hat-seller on the grounds. I shelled out $15, and Emile wore his new hat for two minutes. Win some, lose some.

I rolled Emile around for another hour, looking for any cooking contests, like pie baking or canning. I’d heard there were photo contests, but I never discovered them. We saw a small pen with miniature ponies. They were all saddled up and ready to give rides, but Emile still seemed too small for such things. However, we dawdled and watched them for a while.

Time for the rodeo, so I dropped off the stroller in a little cage at the base of the grand stands—thank you little stroller cage at the base of the grand stands—and I climbed with Emile and his 20-pound diaper bag up to row O. With fifty extra pounds in my arms, the sweat started streaming down my head by row G. Emile pointed out all of the people who looked like other people he’d met before, so as I huffed and puffed up the stadium steps, he’d call out, “Uncle Jeanne, Grandma!” At least one of us was enjoying the ascent.

We turned around to face the rodeo field, taking in the rodeo clowns in on the ground, looking at the announcer’s tower, and marveling at the very large screen at the side of the field. The screen was new to me. The garrulous announcer (I mean, what else would he be) told us that it was “Tough Enough for Pink” night, which was some kind of breast cancer effort that employed sexism as a motivation for donations. Or something. I tried to ignore the message.

Next out came a real life wagon from the “pioneer” days of Walla Walla, and as part of the reenactment, the team of four horses got caught up in the hitch, with legs stuck in uncomfortable places and the whinny here and there of upset animals. And that was how the rodeo opened. I searched my recollections of rodeos for instances of animals in distress—other than the roping, bucking, and hogtying—and couldn’t come up with anything. The elected leaders in the area, all of them Republican, trotted by the stranded wagon as handlers tried to remedy the hitch, and then the County Commissioners, who were on the wagon itself, finally could circle the field and exit. It took ten minutes for the horses to get back in position.

Then the rodeo really started, with all of the racing around by this local queen and that local princess over. It was like watching a community near to us but that we’re not a part of, and my sense of alienation was nearing omnipresence status. I just wanted to enjoy the rodeo! But somehow I only saw reminders of my outsider status. Bucking broncos interested Emile, but he couldn’t understand why we were clapping for people falling down. I made a mental note to look out for sudden bouts of clapping the next time Daddy trips in front of him.

Next up was a roping competition. Three or four contestants in, the rider jumped off his horse to tie up the calf and his horse reared up and started running away, dragging the young animal by its neck. We watched for at least half a horrified minute as the contestant and the clowns tried to clutch at their knives to cut the line and free the calf. Was I supposed to let Emile see this or cover his eyes? What were we here for? Did he even notice?

I started feeling guilty. It’s one thing to see animals that have been raised by young people displayed for their prowess in nurturing animals (even if it’s for human consumption at the end of the process), but to see stressed animals in dire situations for our entertainment, well, maybe I wasn’t the Girl Scout at horse camp anymore. I mean, clearly I’m not. I want Emile to feel like he’s a part of his hometown, because I enjoyed knowing my town’s history growing up (Hightstown represent!). But I’m not sure the ethos of Walla Walla is its annual event. Perhaps I should focus more on the caring people we see in our community every day.

In other news, it turns out that Emile loves his cowboy hat.

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Categories: Family, transplanted


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