While I've mostly been enjoying some time off at home with my little one to look after, I took my turn manning the National Park Service booth at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson. It's been 10 years since I last went to a state fair. It turns out they haven't changed much.
I got to Fort Larned in time to retrieve the government car I was to take to Hutchinson. Unfortunately, the HHR (or, as we call it, the HURRRR) still smelled like the rawhide I had in there when I went to Oklahoma in July.
Now, it's probably my fault for not studying the map closer, but I got a little confused on the way into Hutchinson. I knew I wanted Main Street, but the exit I got off on was in South Hutchinson, which I was pretty sure wasn't the right thing. Long story short, when I finally got to a place where there was a sign for the State Fairgrounds, there was a guy directing traffic. By then, I was sufficiently distracted to miss the turn, so I went east a few more blocks looking for the tree-named street I was supposed to enter on. When the streets started being named after US Presidents, I turned around. I got back to the intersection where the cop was directing traffic and turned north.
There in front of me were other vehicles and, to my surprise, marching bands. Not wanting to bring up the rear of whatever parade I was about to be in, I did a U-turn and went through the cop's intersection a third time from a third direction and got the heck out of there. It turned out I was 20 blocks from where I needed to be.
When I did reach the parking area a few minutes later than I had planned for, the petty despot at the gate asked for my parking pass, which I had. "Tell me where to go!" He said he needed my ticket first. I thought about pointing at my badge and acting offended, but it was clear this guy was a little too zealous about his parking lot. I may have settled for a heavy sigh. I handed him my ticket, which perked him up and got me into the parking area.
I found my building relatively easily and found my booth. It wasn't hard to spot the cannon, limber, and plastic horses hitched up for transport. We were in a decent spot, but even though we had a howitzer, more people stopped for the plastic giveaways the US Army Corps of Engineers guys were giving away - and they had to take a test to get it! What a gyp! Down the way were the US Fish & Wildlife guys, and I talked to one of their people for a while. Once he found out I was into birds, he seemed to light up. On the back side of the building were the state game people and a collection of animals, some live, many dead and mounted, like that's all they're good for. I was nearest the instant ice cream stand, where they were freezing cream with liquid nitrogen, making a hell of a racket, and annoying the bejeezus out of me with their parakeet chatter, "Free samples! Free samples!"
Early, a patron asked about ammunition for the howitzer. When I reached into the ammo box for the fake round, the powder bag fell off the round and the fake powder - kitty litter - spilled everywhere. So I had to track down a broom and spent most of an hour reassembling that round and another that had ejected its contents. It was kind of like being back at Fort Larned, where each of us spends a good amount of time fixing things.
The whole day was a fun experience, like being thrust back into my days at Glacier when there were people lined up to talk to me, and interacting with those who came off as clinically insane. I had nearly lost my voice by the end of it.
One lady tried to convince me the cannon wheels were gauged for railroad tracks. They're not, and they aren't the right wheels for railroads, either. I was left with the "smile and nod" technique, or, more specifically, what one fellow student identified as "the Nathan face" based on a specific facial muscle we learned about in high school Anatomy class, a straight-across fake smile that says "I don't agree with you but obviously you aren't worth arguing with." It looks kind of like this (including the wild-eyed stare):
A third fellow got so into the discussion about the cannon, we had a really exciting discussion about western history. His wife was trying to get away for half an hour, but this guy kept leaving, then coming back to me with another question, which I enjoyed and found amusing. I recommended books and felt generally scholarly by the end of the discussion. It really beat talking to the crazies.
For the most part, I just told people about NPS sites in Kansas, directed them to the brochures, and talked about the cannon and Fort Larned. It's surprising how many people live within an hour and haven't seen it. I wondered why they'd drive to the big city, pay to get into the fair, then pay too much to eat funnel cakes, but would live their whole lives and not see the free national park in their back yard.
For lunch, I found some too-expensive nachos and washed it down with too-expensive soda. For supper, after our volunteer arrived to relieve me (and hopefully to get an earful of the Oak Ridge Boys concert down the street), I found the too-expensive cheese curds. Since I couldn't find cream puffs like you'd find at the Wisconsin State Fair, I had to settle for the next best thing. When my order was up, I was shocked and appalled by the portion they gave me. There must have been five pounds of cheese. I barely finished half of it, and even then, it felt like my heart was dying. I gave the rest to my buddy who had taken the helm at the booth. No word yet on what he did with them, but he appears to still be alive.
With the thrill of the fair coursing through my veins - or at least getting clogged in them - it was time to head home. I got back to Fort Larned after dark. Let me tell you, it's not a place to be without a flashlight. "Darker than a black steer's tuckus on a moonless prairie night," as they said in The Big Lebowski.
All in a day's work!