In E.B White's masterpiece Charlotte's Web, the parents of Fern and Avery Arable watch nervously as the children charge off toward the Ferris wheel and frozen custard, the merry-go-round and wonderful music of a bustling fairground. "Well, they've got to grow up some time," Mr. Arable says to his wistful missus. "And a fair is a good place to start, I guess."
A fair is both a world apart and the world in miniature, sharply distilled (if slightly distorted), where the earnest industry of the 4-H pavilion exists alongside the low appetites of the funnel-cake stand and the thrill seeking at the Tilt-A-Whirl. Where the three stages of life are marked by a first sno-cone, a first French kiss and a first ribbon for baking Bundt cakes.
Where lessons are learned that reverberate beyond the midway: Too much of a good thing can be bad. Games of chance are rigged against you. Don't blow all your money on the first fun you see. And while it's one thing to win a giant stuffed dog, it's quite another thing to have to carry it around all night.
Fashions change, but less so at the fair. Alongside the elephant ears and corn dogs, we now find empanadas and tacos de carnitas. Kids now compete in robotics as well as rabbit husbandry. Grandma's red balloon, which became Dad's Snoopy balloon, is now Junior's SpongeBob balloon. And the carnies now wear uniform shirts (with collars!)--though they're still missing some teeth.
What endures is the underlying vitality of the fair, the unapologetic streak of real life. The actual dirt. Genuine food grilled by volunteer firefighters or the high school booster club. Wailing babies. Odd juxtapositions, like the sign on the pig racetrack extolling the love of Jesus. The smell of animal dung. Girls in tight jeans and the boys who ogle them as their fathers visit booths touting dry basements and power tools.
A day at the fair starts out rampant and eager and ends with balloons sagging and stomachs queasy--which is not a bad summary of life itself. This is why the fair survives, drawing an estimated 150 million visitors in counties and states across the country each summer, in spite of theme parks and arcades of infinitely greater sophistication, in spite of Orlando, in spite of Las Vegas.
At the Cumberland County Fair in New Jersey last week, a gray-haired fellow in a grouchy mood complained to his buddy, "We're walking in freakin' circles!" So true--bulb-blinking, sweet-and-sour circles of life.
FOR MORE STATE-FAIR PHOTOS by Greg Miller, like the one above of Blue Hill Fair in Maine, go to time.com/miller