I’ve heard of the travel goal of visiting every state capital. That’s fine, but let me suggest another way to experience the 50 states—visit their state fairs.
After making it to two of the Travel Channel’s Top 10 State Fairs (Iowa and Wisconsin) last week, I’d say I have a better feel of those states than treks to domed buildings in downtown Madison and Des Moines.
There’s nothing more Iowa than standing in the swine barn at the state fair looking at a kid in a 4-H shirt preparing his Berkshire pig for show.
That’s the tag line for the Iowa State Fair, a crème de la crème celebration of agriculture (and politics in recent years). There’s more than 900 classes of food judging and 550 pounds of butter sculpted into a cow. And this year, the butter sculptures included Rich Uncle Pennybags and all of the Monopoly pieces. Just as impressive but less famous was a grocery bag and produce sculpted out of 50 tons of sand. This ultimate experience is why the Iowa State Fair is in the book, “1,000 Places to Go Before You Die” and was the inspiration for the novel and later musical, State Fair.
As it turned out, we were there on record attendance for the fair, which included visits from Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton and other 2016 presidential hopefuls.
Strolling along the Iowa State Fairgrounds was, in its own way, as iconic a picture as walking in Times Square.
Wisconsin’s State Fair in Milwaukee was almost as spectacular with its House of Moo, fried cheese curds and record-setting high-wire act by Nik Wallenda. Coming from a dairy family, I had always wanted to visit the state nicknamed America’s Dairyland.
Gotta say the $11 admission to the Iowa State Fair and $12 to the Wisconsin fair were great values even when you figure in smoked pork chops on a stick, crème puffs and all of the other fair food staples.
Visits to those state fairs reminded me that every state has something to be proud of, and I returned learning more about their people and land. For example I’ve been reading the travel writing of native Iowan Bill Bryson, whose hilarious book on hiking the Appalachian Trail is soon to be released as a movie, A Walk in the Woods. I’m enjoying the food blog, Iowa Girl Eats.
So if you really want a reason to visit every state, reroute from the capital and plan a stop at the state fair. Here are some side trips while we were in the Des Moines for the Iowa State Fair.
High Trestle Trail Bridge Trail: This 25-mile rails to trails conversion has a 13-story, half-mile bridge over the Des Moines River, one of the largest trail bridges in the world. It lights up at night, creating the effect of bicycling/walking through a mine shaft. You’ll want to make sure your bike has a headlight and good tail lights. And, you’ll want bug spray if you are visiting in summer and stopping to view the scenery during those twilight rides. www.inhf.org/trails/high-trestle.cfm
Madison County Bridges: if you’ve read the book, you’ll want to see them for yourself. There are six covered bridges, five of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Madison County is just southwest of Des Moines and also is the birthplace of John Wayne. www.madisoncounty.com/pages/world-famouscoveredbridges.com
And since Des Moines is the state capital, you can visit that too.