Friday, September 4, 2009

Reppin' Columbia County (Chatham, NY)

Upstate New York seems to have a corner on the market for county fairs. I've lived in six counties in the US for any extended period of time: Washington County, NY (West Hebron); Montgomery, Chester and Lehigh Counties in PA; Los Angeles County in California and New York County, which is essentially Manhattan. Only in West Hebron do I ever remember a) knowing about a county fair, b) anticipating said fair and c) attending it. Some of those other counties probably had them, but it wasn't central to the area's identity.

Today I walked through the heart of Columbia County, lunching in Valatie (Va-lay-sha for the uninitiated) on my way to Chatham, where the annual county fair is held. I was on my way to meet the Nedwells who were already at the fair. When I arrived, somewhat staggered as usual from a long afternoon walk in the unrelenting sun, they immediately went about lightening my load. Maura Nedwell met me at the gate with a ticket.I met her husband Peter and her kids Missy, Dan and Cari, the latter two having already graduated from college but were back to enjoy the county fair.

They put my bag in the 4H office, hydrated me with a cold bottle of water and then we went about the business of soaking up some Columbia County flavor. I have vague memories of the Washington County fair as a kid, but this seemed to be a bulked up version. The Barry Bonds version of Washington County's fair if you will. You have your standards - the prize winning goats, pigs, cows and rabbits. You have your regular amusement rides of debatable safety. You have colorful kiosks running games of skill just in case that one missing piece that will bring your living room decor together is a 13-foot blue stuffed animal.

But then there were the things I don't remember from the county fairs of my youth. How about a pig race? I'm game. Might I interest you in a pork chop on a stick? I would say so. How about a Miss Columbia County pageant where the winner takes home the title of Miss Columbia county and, ah, nothing else? Yes please. Lastly, how about a country music concert? Sign me up.

All joking aside, there was a ton of things to do and see and the Nedwells were amazing hosts. Pete and Maura insisted on buying me dinner (and no, I didn't opt for the pork chop on a stick) and a handmade strawberry shake from their 4H Milk Bar. They introduced me to friends and neighbors and co-workers and it became quickly apparent why everyone loves county fairs so much. It is the place where once a year a sense of community - the sense of belonging in a larger sense - is cemented. It is a collective act of unity and shared interest and as human beings, we need that.

The Nedwells were the second family I have stayed with who I had not known before this trip . And once again, they managed to make me go from 0 to feeling like I was part of the family in about 4.7 seconds. A Mercedes S Class has nothing on them. I find it a singularly beautiful experience to be on the receiving end of that welcome.

Communities of people - be they family based, religious or geographic - have not always been so willing to open their arms to a stranger. This trip started in my mind with the premise that I could fashion a diffuse community of people together, unbounded by a specific geography or a unifying statement of faith or common surname, who would open their homes and hearts to me and pass me along from one town to the next until I reached New Orleans. After about a week on the road, I am already convinced that my premise was right. I don't have to believe it anymore. I have already experienced it.

We capped our night at the fair with a Chuck Hicks concert. For all you Mozart fans, Chuck Hicks is a country music singer. I didn't know any of his songs, but his music was easy to enjoy. He rocked Columbia County for an hour and a half and then was back on his bus to continue what must be an endless tour of new faces and adoring fans. Yet something tells me that being in front of thousands of people each night doesn't make him feel near as welcome or as part of a community as I did sitting in the bleachers with the Nedwells. Nor did he get a fresh breakfast and a ham sandwich wrapped in wax paper when he left the next morning. Chuck can have the fame. I'll take the friendship.


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