The Global Barfly’s Companion #19 by Benjamin Toche
Venue: The Alaska State Fair
Location: 2075 Glenn Highway, Palmer, AK 99645
Alaska recently breached headlines, not for the inane blathering of one time vice presidential candidate and local doofus Sarah Palin, but for President Obama’s visit to the state to discuss boring old climate change. Few outside of the region’s press affiliates bothered to care. Instead, the residents of the 49th state busied their faceholes with one of their favored yearly indulgences: the Alaska State Fair. I set forth into the madness: the crowds and lights and rides and greasy, flash-fried things and, obviously, strong drink.
The fairgrounds occupy a chunk of appropriated farmland next to the railroad tracks that run through Palmer, a sleepy-ish farm town reminiscent of the upper Midwest. Some would call the place idyllic: ringed by jagged mountains, cut by glacial rivers, choked with wildlife. There’s a reason visiting the state is one of those bucket list items. Palmer has a certain charm and for the occasion of the fair, she dons her best act of being true, salt of the earth Americana.
Each time I go to the Alaska State Fair, I’m floored anew by the powerful need for alcohol in order to cope with the enormity of everything here. A 70-pound rutabaga. Pumpkins weighing a half-ton. Llamas. Clanky rides administered by stereotypical carnies. Who can soberly face osuch terror?
The fair does not disappoint.
The fair is home to seven watering holes. In the early afternoon, after a rousing set of pig races wherein the combatants were named after fictional characters (e.g., Lord Voldepork), I visit the swankiest of the AK fair’s booze-marts: a log style building that once upon a time was a church. A sign draped over the entrance proclaims the joint, Wine Bar.
The setting is gussied up with gauzy drapes and “art” strung with Christmas lights as if outside it was already descending into evening. Round tables with votive candles in cut-glass jars clutter the center of the main room. Love seats and low coffee tables crowd along the left hand wall. The bar sits to the right and offers a selection of wines from around the globe: Malbecs from Argentina, Riojas from Spain, Chardonnays from Napa, a wholly unexpected Veuve Clicquot – available for only $80 per bottle. Patrons hunch along the bar with long stemmed glasses, swirling and nosing and muttering about their drinks before taking small, appreciative sips. Truly, Wine Bar is not the typical image people conjure when confronted with the scale of Alaska. It’s a strange place, an attempt at culture at an event otherwise devoid of any such pretension.
I take a seat outside. Wrought iron chairs and tables with fat umbrellas sprouting from their centers offer a view of a nearby stage where dancers cavort: flamenco performed by real, and sveltely beautiful Latin Americans followed by pounding cloggers, daughters of hearty farm stock, who jiggle in not an altogether unbeautiful way themselves. The flamenco you’d expect as you nibble at $11/plate dips (white bean, olive tapenade, feta pepper served with warm, sliced baguette), but the cloggers call for an appropriately local microbrew. There are several on tap, along with your characteristically terrible macros, and the Twister Creek IPA from the Denali Brewing Company matches the cloggers’ kitsch perfectly in its crispness. Later, a local lady from Fairbanks seats herself at my table and eats a weird open-face-and-cheese-covered sandwich before she attempts a conversation, which makes me excuse myself in favor of another of my favorite fair boozeries: the beer garden.
Housed tabernacle-style in vinyl sheeting, the Oasis Beer Garden offers inside and outside seating. Rigged with green picnic tables and awash with an ambience of frat-boy charm, this place is not antithetical to what Wine Bar strives for, but it’s certainly a leap down the cultural ladder. Patrons mug for photos behind a board painted to resemble a crab fisherman from the “Deadliest Catch” series. There is a gigantic Jenga game, with 2x4s for pieces, operated by some hipsters who stumbled in from the rides that abut Oasis. A lady with a stroller arrives while a busker serenades the crowd with a washboard strapped to his chest.
I take my refuge within the tent. Shrieks issue from the rides, punctuating the general hubbub of machinery and children and their milling parents, shelling out so many dollars for rigged carnival games offering cheaply-made Chinese prizes. In Oasis, all of us drink beers. Coors Light is a popular choice. The clients are studious drinkers, bracing themselves before heading out again.
If Wine Bar was an attempt at culture, Oasis is a filling station. I have a few drinks here: Pumpkin Ale seasonal from the Alaskan Brewing Company and a couple more Twister Creeks. As I start to feel buzzed, the Jenga tower falls for the fifteenth time, startling me anew. I head out into the fair before a stop at the day’s ultimate destination.
The Sluice Box. Aptly named for that is what happens to bodies here. If Wine Bar was upscale and Oasis was too bro-tier, Sluice Box is the incarnation of what people perceive as real Alaska. Everything here screams ragamuffin and jury rig. The building is squat, ugly: a longhouse with rude wooden columns supporting open A-frame rafters; clapboard exterior but nothing to hide the place’s snaking electrical conduits. A sign above the bar proclaims, IN DOG BEERS I HAVE ONLY HAD ONE.
The barkeeps dress motley, one of them sporting a camouflage blouse about three sizes too large. She dances with her fellow keep, a slow turning step, up and down the bar back, as she waits for the head of my beer to settle. The floor is gravel and a stage at the far end holds a local act, The Voodoo Blues, whose youngish lead singer sports a floral print push-up dress as she belts out soulful tunes to the accompaniment of her crew. She’s either pretty good or passable enough due to the beers I’ve ingested. Doesn’t matter. She’s here. She’s giving it her damnedest.
The Sluice Box is the place where people end up at the fair. It’s where the true believers of Dionysus aggregate at the end of their day. It’s beer on tap and they’re running a special, Heineken $5 a bottle, the cheapest you can get on the grounds. Beverage Enforcement men, stern looking beefy dudes in polos and cargo pants and boots, make sure none of the riff-raff get out of line. A palsied man enters, carrying a cheeseburger, and sits by himself at one of the low picnic tables near the live music. He eats. I watch. Later, he’s joined by an older lady who brings him a beer. He dresses in touristy clothes and an LL Bean hat, but he’s right where he belongs. This is it, and maybe it’s the beer or the dying sun or the lead singer whose pipes just can’t quite reach Robert Plant in “Whole Lotta Love” or the guitarist who doesn’t even try to imitate Page’s signature slide on the same song, but I’m swept with the feeling that this, of all the low down places of the world, is the one to visit at the Alaska State Fair.
Outside is sunset, 10PM-ish. The sky is golden and terrible. The fair begins its rumbling closing activities. I head for home.
Benjamin Toche is an author living in Palmer, Alaska. He reads and writes when not suffering from self-induced psychological and/or interpersonal relationship problems.