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CANDY DENOUDEN: Loving purple cornrows and other things at the state fair

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I love the State Fair.

Where else can you eat fried pickles, cookie dough and funnel cake while wearing kneehigh socks with denim shorts and no shirt?

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OK, just kidding. I mean, people do that — and I’m torn between wishing they’d stop and considering it a piece of good old-fashioned Americana — but that’s not why I love the fair.

I grew up with the South Dakota State Fair being a mandatory part of my summer because of 4-H. Then I graduated and moved too far away to make it. I missed it.

So, last year, I went back for the first time in something like seven years. I went with Ashley, who has been one of my best 4-H buddies since I was 6. We spent most of the drive from Mitchell to Huron talking about what we wanted to eat and drink while there.

When you spend 18 consecutive summers living at the fairgrounds for a week, you sniff out the best fair fare. For us, it was a longstanding tradition each fair absolutely include two things: Fresh-squeezed lemonade and strawberry smoothies. But I don’t mean just any lemonade. I mean the lemonade. If you see one of those stands shaped like a lemon, you go toward the lemon-colored light. It will change your life.

The smoothies were almost as great. And the workers had the best strawberry-bedecked T-shirts. Ashley tried for years to get one of those shirts, but no luck.

Walking around the fairgrounds, we laughed through some of our favorite fair memories. There’s the time we dressed up in a giant bug suit one of the vendors had. Holly, the other member of our 4-H trio, made a little kid cry.

We toured the midway and scouted out friends’ static exhibits, secretly gloating when our ribbon placements were higher. We watched the performing arts troupe, and every year decided we should probably do that next year. (Never happened.)

We collected four or five different colored yardsticks — every year — and helped each other get ready for our events. Ashley, a “city” girl (she’s from Tyndall), once sat on a “cow” (actually one of my favorite steers, Barney).

One of my fondest memories is the time we decided to dye our hair. Ashley, Holly, Ashley’s little sister, Mallory, and I drove on down to Kmart — which was like being granted a passport at the time — and picked up some boxed hair dye. Ashley and Mallory, natural brunettes, opted for a bright red. Holly backed out, deciding matching her hair to the blue prom dress she would model the next day during the fashion revue competition might incur her mom’s wrath.

I am a natural blonde, but I was feeling adventurous. I went purple.

My mother did not like it.

She told me so for the next six months. Every. Day.

Now, in my defense, she approved it beforehand. I’m not sure if she thought I was kidding, or if reverse psychology — saying yes to subvert any rebellious desires — would work, but, I am in fact a very simple creature. You tell me “yes,” I assume that’s what you mean.

So there we were, the four of us, dying each other’s hair at 11 p.m., under the awning of a friend’s camper, using the light from the camper, flashlights and cell phones to see. (Side note: This could be why I had a fairly noticeable streak of blonde running through my bangs.) You see a lot of strange things at state fairs, but we still drew stares.

A couple of days later, Ashley braided my hair into cornrows. I wasn’t trying to be famous, but it seemed to draw attention. Even the ring announcer commented on it during one of my shows. Apparently, there aren’t many girls with purple cornrows who show Angus crossbreds. Who knew?

It makes me sad some parts of 4-H seem to be on the decline, but the fair certainly isn’t. Old favorites like the performing arts and the petting zoo are still there. New things, like pig races and jousting, also caught our interest.

Oh, and I rode an elephant. Once I got over my initial fear that I was about to plummet to my death, it ended up being one of my summer’s highlights.

So, thanks, State Fair, for all the memories. I’m always up for a shameless plug for 4-H — enroll your kids so they can make their own pine-cone-wreathed memories — but even now that I’m no longer part of the “head, heart, hands, health” crowd, I still plan on going to the fair, which starts today and continues through Monday.

I probably won’t dye my hair under a camper awning, but I’m sure there will be plenty of new memories to be made.

After I find that lemonade stand.

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