Growing up in Southwest Michigan, autumn was spent sinking my teeth into deliciously sweet, red apples and anxiously awaiting the arrival of what my young, dazed mind could only register as some form of utopia.
Every year my brother and I would chirp excitedly in the back of our Jeep Cherokee as we drove down the country roads and under aging covered bridges, to finally arrive at the St. Joseph County Grange Fair.
Dinner was fried, dessert was fluffed or covered in caramel and homework was replaced by fun houses and spinning rides of death, at least to an eight year old.
I would blindly follow my parent’s guiding hand while my head constantly swiveled around, eyes open as wide as possible so as not to miss anything.
As I grew older the hand that so willingly grasped my parents soon began to loosen, until I was running ahead to board the viking ship that swung as if on the waves of a hurricane and into the crowd of onlookers, and for a few courageous seconds I was invincible.
I was weightless and flying over their heads, screaming my head off in hopes that it might stop my stomach from changing its mind about that second corndog. This, however, wouldn’t come until several years later on my first and last passage on what appeared to be a spaceship that spun in place.
Though being that person hunched over a garbage can in a dark corner is not desirable, it somehow seems distinctly American. Afterall, how many generations of fairgoers have gone against their better instincts and joined the line to all those rickety rides that seem to wobble even as people get on and off.
The fair, which began over 160 years ago in 1851, has morphed from showcasing baseball games and hot air balloons to a midway draped with bright lights and the famous fried delicacies it is now known for.
Though the rides may not seem as tall and fierce as they did 30 years ago, they still hold the same draw over ticket holders: pure adrenaline.
That feeling of your stomach floating in midair before being violently kicked back down to meet your toes and the screams of the riders next to you being drown out by the rushing wind and pounding of your heart is hard to resist.
It’s not the Top Thrill Dragster, but man does it still give you the same buzz once you get off and stagger back to those not daring enough to ride.
The yearly trips to the fairground for my cheap adventure and fried food fix continued into my years at Western Michigan University, and by sophomore year I had convinced the boys that lived two floors above us in Ernest Burnham to join me in this exploit to another world.
I was anxious to show them the world they were unaware of, the smell of roasting nuts mixed with polish sausage and elephant ears, a scent so enticing it leaves me dreaming about it halfway through the summer.
I wanted them to feel the same contented joy I’ve felt walking through the midway after a few too many rides on the Ring of Fire, meandering to the Salt Water Taffy stand that’s been selling the same 25 cent candy next to the Olde Time photo booth since my Dad was a kid.
I somehow hoped they would have as much fun in one night as I did in the 19 years that I had attended the fair, complete with tractor pulls, light-as-air cotton candy and singing the final song of “Grease” in weird voices while walking through the fun houses.
This manic feat seemed so doable to me then, easy even, given the fair’s potential.
However, there are two things to know about this ill-fated trip before we begin. The first is that I am known for my complete lack of direction. I once went to pick up my little brother from summer camp and ended up on the wrong highway nearly 20 miles in the wrong direction, although I still claim that I was given faulty directions for that particular offense.
The second thing to know is that three of the four Ernie Bernie residents are over six feet tall, which would normally be overlooked, except for the fact that my car is a tiny 1995 Saturn SL. The unlucky three stuck in the backseat literally had to be pushed in and the door shut quickly to avoid them falling out like a slinky.
Once on the road, I was confident that this trip would be a success. Especially with one of the towering giants sitting in my car, whom I thought I was not-so-secretly in love with. My 19-year-old mind acutely aware that this was the first chance to show him how amazingly cool I was.
I figured a girl that knows where she’s going is very cool and therefore doesn’t need directions. Besides, it’s the St. Joe Fair, it obviously had to be in St. Joe.
The last thing to know about this somewhat disastrous trip, the end-all, be-all if you will, is that the St. Joe County Fair is more commonly known as the Centreville Fair, because of it’s location in Centreville, roughly 80 miles away from the city of St. Joseph.
After the first hour of driving my confidence was beginning to wane. Constant versions of the song I like to call “Are we there yet” were being sung in the back and the road seemed to stretch on and on without a sign of a cow or a ferris wheel and my stomach was beginning to rumble for a large batch of fries they sell right inside the gate.
By the time we got to Coloma, I broke down and called my mom, who quickly informed me that I was nowhere close to the fair and needed to go back I-94 and South on 131. That was the moment another chapter was added to the book I fondly call “Erin’s Inept Driving Ability,” which was already frequent conversation fodder at family gatherings.
When we finally got to the fairgrounds, a trip which usually takes about 30 minutes had turned into three hours and my passengers were already itching to leave before even getting out of the car. My mind raced with thoughts that any chances with the future love of my life were dashed and stories of the deplorable outing would be circulating the dorms soon.
Unable to let the mutinous group go back to Kalamazoo and tell anyone who might listen that the place I loved so much was simply an exaggerated hoax, I kept a smile on my face and bought a fried Milky Way quickly after meeting up with my family halfway down the midway.
With the gooey caramel and chocolate sticking to the corners of my lips I looked between the bored guys and my family, I realized that I no longer cared whether the newcomers felt the same magic I did.
My eyes traveled between the rows of games all advertising easy prizes and the rides that jutted out in the distance. The air smelled crisp and sweet as the sun sunk a little lower in the sky and eager ride operators played with the lights that would replace the sun with a circus of colors and light.
I took one more glance at the four, slowly chewing their fried candy delights while looking around, and let the rest of my self-consciousness free upon hearing the musical notes of laughing children running past, mixed with far off moos and the roar of tractors racing in the stadium behind us.
I knew that this place was special to me and 150,000 other people that came back every year to take part in the seven days of wonderment, which was good enough for me.
After a loop around the midway, I drove them back to campus. To this day I still don’t know how they tell the story of those few hours. The only thing that matters to me is what happened after I dropped them off and instantly returned to my piece of heaven, the correct way this time of course.
The rest of the night was spent laughing as my family and I walked through the many barns filled with crafts, animals and local vendors selling their wares, occasionally stopping to look at the displays and odd crafts. And although we ate enough fried foods and carbs to make Jenny Craig’s head spin, we still took a chance on some infamous fried butter, which isn’t as bad as one might think.
By the end of the night, as we pulled our sweaters a little tighter and sat down with a final cup of hot apple cider and a handful of warm and sugary mini cinnamon doughnuts I couldn’t help but think about the boys, who were most likely sitting on the couch playing on their XBox 360 just like any other night.
I rested my head on my Grandma’s shoulder while she rocked one of the swing chairs that dot the concession area and let the last bite of doughnut melt into my taste buds blissfully: this was heaven.
In the three years since that hilariously awful drive, I have only shared my kingdom with one other person, and it was one of the best visits yet. Especially watching his face as I ordered a fried s’more and asking for more chocolate to dip it in.
For those looking try something new or maybe even return to a tradition they’ve slowly let fade out, the Centreville Fair is a gateway to a traditional, old fashioned Midwestern fun time.
Just be sure to print off the directions before you go.
The Centreville Fair begins Sunday, Sept. 16, a few miles Southeast of Three Rivers.