Friday, September 3, 2010

The Great Get Together

On Wednesday, I spent seven hours at the great Minnesotan get together. My closest friend, Laura, and I biked across along the Mississippi, through the University of Minnesota campus, behind full buses of fair goers, and arrived sweaty and eager at the Minnesota State Fair. We went just after lunch, hoping for a respite from the evening crowds, but were greeted by thousands of other people with the same great idea. After all, it was the perfect day for the fair. A little overcast, but still bright, low 80’s with an occasional, crisp wind and the promise of a cool evening.

There is something about get-togethers of that sort— block parties, reunions, fairs— that send me back to my roots. My childhood home of south eastern Kentucky was a place where a stranger waved on every road crest. Where every man was a cousin of his neighbor and if he wasn’t, he’d treat him just the same. It was a place into which I was transplanted during the most awkward time in anyone’s life: the middle school years. I came in a “yank” at the age of 9. Fifteen years later, after simply existing with those people— an open, loving, friendly accepting crowd with a blunt tongue and a taste for both adventure and stillness— I, too, walked away a full-blooded, cousin-of-her-neighbor Kentuckian.

There was a twinge of this Kentucky feeling at the fair. Each man meandering from his own corner of the state, his bag full of tools of his own kind: film, wool carder, flask, saddle, & fanny pack. Men and women and their children tossing their arms in excitement, noshing on fried bits shoved through with sticks. Hardly a square yard to stand alone. This is the Minnesota State Fair. It is a place where llamas and geese are judged & where alfalfa and timothy seed make art. There are jangling rides, invisible dogs on leashes and plenty else to toss money at. But before the tickets are purchased it is only 6 square blocks of buildings separated by dusty roads.

Each morning, as the 4H kids brush down their horses, it begins. A family walks through the gates, then a couple, then a man carrying a dufflebag of water bottles. Each body, a tick to the turnstyle, a new citizen in the biggest and most temporary small town anyone’s ever visited. People pour like grain through a spout. The place fills up, shoulder to shoulder on some paths. You can’t help but bump someone while walking, not sure where your eye should land with so many hats baubling in the sun.

In the heat of an afternoon, it’s hard to imagine a time when the crowds will thin. But they will leave— fingers still sticky from sweet cotton fluff, salty sweat caked to their foreheads, feet pulsing tired. And as they pass the gates one last time they might not know that they won’t ever come back. The populace gathered at one day at the fair is never to be duplicated. The people will never reunite in that order, in any location. And though the buildings stay standing, it’s as though the place has vanished.

I’ve been gone from Kentucky now for 4 years. In that time, I’ve re-learned the yankee tongue and all but forgotten the broken glass trickle of a mountain stream. I love the city, but I have thoughts that it’s still not too late to return to the hills for good. I could take a job at the school where I once etched in desks and meet a thick-necked mountain boy. I could hike the hill where I grew tall and scribble in journals about the flutter of leaves before a country storm. The hills, however, were merely the setting and the work the means of my life in Appalachia. The people made the place my home. Some have died, some moved on, but most have simply replaced me with a new smile, a new hand.

I visited once, a couple years ago. I was walking down a footpath near my old house— one on which I’d like to think my feet helped pack the dirt. A women watching from her porch lifted herself out of a wicker chair to ask me “Honey, are you lost?”. I didn’t know. I didn’t think I was until she asked. It turns out, when I left Kentucky, the turnstyle ticked behind me. I will go back, but I’ll never really return to that place.


  1. That brought tears welling up in pools threatening to spill across my cheeks and betray my sadness. So when do we visit girl?

  2. Sarah- This is so beautiful. I've recently been reading a Wendell Berry book (Imagination in Place) and so have Kentucky on my mind for maybe the first time ever. And then I read this, and it's beautiful, and you are beautiful. I love the connection between the place of the fair vanishing and the turnstyle of Kentucky clicking behind you. You describe how places can exist for a moment and feel concrete, but really they partially vanish as we knew them, as we were in and a part of them. I love how this writing hints at nostalgia but doesn't get lost there-- there's such a strength in all the reality realized here. I love all the details. "The broken glass trickle of a mountain stream..." :)


  3. This reminds me of going back to visit UK. I walked around campus and looked at things I remembered and new things that had been added to campus since I left. It was familiar but not the same. I realized that the people I was there with made it what it was to me. That time and that place can never be duplicated. It will never be the same again for me.

  4. By the way Kentucky will always have a place for you. You are always welcome on Thornton:)


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