Turn right for all the fun of the fair

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The Independent Online

Looking for Middle America in New York? Good luck. Everyone knows that this town stands apart from the rest of the country.

Looking for Middle America in New York? Good luck. Everyone knows that this town stands apart from the rest of the country. There's not a cornstalk in sight, unless you count the organic cobs on display at the farmers' market in Union Square. It is 30 miles to the nearest Wal-Mart, which dresses most of the nation, and pick-up trucks are as common a sight on Park Avenue as bumper stickers for George Bush.

Even its ubiquitous street fairs give little hint of Uncle Sam. From spring until autumn, long sections of the avenues in Manhattan are sealed off each Saturday and Sunday to accommodate stalls selling everything from hippie pendants to Lebanese kebabs and five-minute Chinese massages. True, there is usually a popcorn vendor or two, but the atmosphere is more souk than Stars and Stripes.

For that other America that is Mom and apple pie - which I know must exist somewhere - I will have to venture beyond the boundaries of Gotham. Take me, please, to a small-town rodeo where spectators sit on bails of straw, or - if that is too difficult this side of the Rocky Mountains - a country fair with wagon rides, tug-of-war contests and tables piled with homemade brownies and oatmeal cookies.

Finally, the Labor Day holiday arrives and my wish is granted. Staying for the weekend in Hudson, a historic town two hours north of the city, my daughter and I make haste to the annual Columbia County Fair in nearby Chatham. It's meant to be big, but, other than that, we don't know what to expect.

We arrive and, for certain, we're not in Manhattan any more. Perhaps it isn't quite Kansas either, but the hundred miles we have driven from the city seems even further. There is big hair, and there are big waists and, yes, big Wal-Mart wardrobes up here. Not a Starbucks in sight. Not even a brownie stand. But, in a snackish mood, we feel obliged to try what seems to be everyone's favourite, Oreo Fritters.

If you are wondering, they take the little twin-layer biscuits and deep-fry them in batter. Foul? Well, actually, they're really, really good. The biscuit inside becomes a melted mush. We decide it's almost on a par with another American delicacy we discovered earlier this summer, called the Fluffernutter. This is a sandwich of crackers with peanut butter and marshmallow spread inside.

For Polly, who is 11, the priority is the rides. They are like those at any fair from Iowa to St Ives; three Ferris wheels, bumper cars and a centrifugal torture ride called the Wipeout that turns my stomach. The soaring Ali Baba carpet has turned someone else's for real. We wait five extra minutes to get on while they sluice it down.

My curiosity is taken by the large grandstand on the fair's edge. By 6pm, it is crammed with perhaps 5,000 spectators. So we find a space on the benches and wait for whatever is coming. Horse-racing, I speculate, looking out at the stretch of dirt track before us. Or perhaps that tug-of-war.

Not quite. Polly and I are about to be introduced to the gentle sport of tractor-pulling. This, I now learn, is big business in America, even earning occasional television coverage. It has its followers in Britain, too. What we see involves the competing tractors and their drivers attempting to haul a huge rig on wheels as far as possible down the track until they can haul no more. As the tractors pull, a massive weight moves forward down the rig, making it progressively harder to drag.

My money is on a souped-up International Harvester clad in a sort of silver armour, christened "White Lightning". The driver seems to have a better grasp than his rivals of pumping his monster engine to maximum power before engaging the gears and lurching forward. More smoke comes out of its vertical exhaust than most power stations would produce in a whole winter. Flames shoot out, too.

When each tractor grinds to a halt, teams of officials rush out to mark the spot. This is a sort of Massey-Ferguson long jump, although I can't see it ever taking its place in the Olympics. Too much pollution, for one thing, as clouds of grey diesel smoke waft in our direction.

The deafening roar of the engines is not Polly's thing, so we soon head back into the fair attractions and eventually back to the car back and Hudson. I am not sure whether I have found what I was looking for in Columbia County. This is America all right, but it was less apple pie and more Oreo Fritters.

Stickers spell bad news for Kerry

I have seen the occasional Bush-Cheney bumper sticker in the city, and plenty of variations that appeal more to Democrats. Most common are "No More Bushit" and the less elegant "The only Bush I trust is my own". But if you can judge which way an election is going by the numbers of car stickers favouring each candidate, the outlook for John Kerry seems poor.

Back at the County Fair, I notice that, at a guess, almost one car in four parked outside has been decorated not with stickers from either of the campaigns, but rather yellow decals shaped like ribbons. They are looped in a circle with their two ends crossing over one another and words written along them declare "Support Our Troops". A scarier version is in patriotic colours of red and blue, and the message is "One Nation Under God". Millions of these must now be on American fenders all across the land.

This is hardly empirical science, but it seems somehow that most of these folk cheering America's soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are unlikely to be Kerry supporters. Are the ribbons giving us the political forecast: the Bush-Cheney duo for four more years?

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