I came. I saw. I Koolickled. While Caesar uttered similar words after sacking a city in Turkey, I did so after conquering the land of turkey legs and so much more: the great Kern County Fair.
In a desire to further demonstrate Eye Street's devotion to the fair, I headed out for opening day Wednesday with the resolve to be there with the first diehards in line and shut the thing down nine hours later . I walked, observed and ate (and ate and ate) my way through much of what the annual 12-day event has to offer.
I learned a lot of things last week, including the problem with restroom stall door locks, the divisive power of clowns and where cowboys end the night. But mostly I found that although the fair is a personal experience, it is also about the people you share those 168 acres with for the hours you are there. So this is as much their story as it is mine.
After much planning, my day started around 12:45 p.m. with the idea of catching people lined up for the 1 o'clock opening. But, like predicting the due dates for the cows at the birthing station, official time seemed to be an arbitrary concept at the entrance gate. The woman in the ticket booth said that people had been trickling in since the gates opened at 8 (to check on livestock, head to concessions, booths, etc.) so now people were free to walk onto the grounds.
With that casual attitude about the posted hours in mind, it only made sense later that when my Timex rolled to 10 p.m. that night, nothing seemed to change. If I was expecting all the rides to go dark and a voice to come up on a loud speaker instructing us to head out, I was clearly not in touch with the fair's circadian rhythm.
Although the exhibit hall staff pushed people out (politely) before 9:30, no one else seemed in a rush to leave. Folks on Grand Avenue noshed on cinnamon rolls and funnel cakes while cowboys rode the mechanical bull and staff at the virtual adventure enjoyed their own virtual adventures.
After briefly considering sticking around until they really did close up shop, I left just after 10, deciding that the fair really closes when you do.
Time just moves differently at the fair. It's slow when you're crossing the grounds in a wash of people or walking the livestock area, and it flies when you're watching a stunt dog show or having a good time with family or friends.
Very first fair
With hundreds of thousands attending each year, the fair is bound to be a family affair. And for most locals, that starts at a young age.
Victor Aldaco, 20, showed up first thing opening day with his grandmother, two aunts and their children and one brand-new attendee: his 5-month-old daughter, Annabella.
"This is a perfect time to visit," the Shafter native said. "I just wanted to take my daughter out. To show her, let her see things, the colors."
Although this was the first year Aldaco came out on opening day, Rick Murillo makes it a habit to be among the first through the gate. I caught up with Murillo and his family, including daughter Jessica, in a commercial building as she tried on hats.
"I've been coming since I was a kid, all my life," said Murillo, 56, who usually attends with his wife (who was working Wednesday.
As a veteran fairgoer, Murillo has a routine.
"I gotta have a corn dog. And deep-pit sandwich. I come see the animals. My cousins showed animals, sheep and cattle."
Murillo was a man with a plan, but another family in the carnival area had made a surprise visit to opening day.
"We were supposed to go to Magic Mountain today," Neal Martin said of his party of five.
Boys Sebastien and Seth Escobedo didn't seem to mind the change in plans, having just departed Vertigo, the new ride that takes people up in swings 100 feet in the air.
"I felt like I left Earth," said 10-year-old Seth, whose mom, Cassandra Johnson, said he was happy to be tall enough to ride the rides.
Martin and Johnson agreed that it was worth it to have sprung for the $30 ride wristbands for the boys, who were off to the next attraction. Little brother Logan Martin looked on intently from his car-shaped stroller, seeming to will it to follow his siblings.
"He would ride if he could," Martin said of the 2-year-old. "We'll show him all the animals, let him experience that."
Taking stock of livestock
Speaking of the animals, proving what a small world Kern County can be, I ran into Zethan Hillberg, one of three 4-H members profiled by Californian columnist Herb Benham last week. I had wandered up to the livestock area during the judging for the pygmy goat junior showmanship
Egged on by a friend, the 16-year-old shared that Herb had misspelled his name, but the 16-year-old was more interested in talking about the day's events.
"Senior showmanship results were at 1:30. Anika (Parks) took first and I took second."
Not resting on his laurels, Hillberg was set to bring his pig Blue to the fair that night in advance of Saturday's swine competition.
The livestock routine at the fair is packed, starting every morning with feeding and cleaning animal pens, making sure no damage has occurred overnight. Then, if not showing, the youth watch peers compete.
This year, Hillberg is also working around his job at the Round-Up Feed & Pet Supply. But he hoped to head out for some fair food.
"Whenever I'm here and I get a chance to eat, out here on, I think, Main, there are those spiral fries. The fries and the cinnamon rolls, those are always good."
I talked fair food -- reportedly the No. 1 reason for attending -- with just about everyone I interviewed.
Even with a slow start opening day, I was able to catch one of the first customers headed to the De Molay corn dog concession.
"Are your corn dogs dipped?" fair staffer Jose Manny Rodriguez asked the guys at the window.
After finding out they are, in fact, hand-dipped, he modified his order: "Actually get me two."
Rodriguez, who has worked part time at the fair in VIP parking for three years, said he's got some must-eat items.
"I get a couple of items. The corn dogs, pink popcorn, cotton candy, candy apples. I will (buy all those) sometime during the run of the fair."
As for how many corn dogs he'll have this year, he said, "You don't want to know that. Maybe about a dozen, two a day.
"Everything else is junk food. These are filling," Rodriguez told me. He also said he might branch out to Philly cheesesteaks or ribs -- next year.
Matthew Drew, who was working the window with Marco Goodwin, said he also returns when he's off the clock.
"I always come here for corn dogs. They're the best."
The first and last days of the fair are busiest at De Molay, with a big rush the last weekend, Drew said.
Being situated across from the Budweiser Pavillion and its free nightly shows gives De Molay an edge, Goodwin said.
"Usually we get a lot of business before and after the show. (Location) helps with business. The path helps. We might be the first they see."
Location also helps Mac's Patio and Mary's Ice Cream, near the main gate on South P Street.
Sharon Parks, who runs Mac's, has made a name for the booth with adventurous menu items, leading fair concessions supervisor Jeannie Burton to refer to her as a "daredevil."
This year is no different with five new dishes: maple bacon sundae, chocolate strawberry waffle ball, roast beef sundae, torpedo dog and the Koolickle.
Fair officials had made a lot of noise about the juiced-up pickle, brined in Kool-Aid and sugar, but I didn't think it would make my list. What would it taste like? Did I really want to know?
Parks was surpised as well after soaking a jar of pickles with a pack of cherry Kool-Aid and nearly a cup of sugar for a week.
"I personally thought it would be a little sweeter. I put a little extra sugar in there than was called for."
Skeptical, I tried one and found it pleasant, puffed slightly beyond a standard pickle. There was a slight cherry essence, but, like Parks said, it wasn't sweet.
What was sweet was the chocolate strawberry waffle ball, a delicious combination of fried waffle dough surounding a strawberry covered in chocolate. Although served on a stick, it takes a few bites to finish, so its paper tray came in handy.
I also tried the torpedo dog, which also relied heavily (emphasis on heavily) on its plate. The fork-and-knife-required dish was bacon-wrapped heaven with the sausage also covered in chili beans, cheddar cheese, onions and jalapenos.
From a torpedo dog to stunt dogs, opening day was a blast, or as the Extreme Canines host said "doggone fun."
Having caught both the first and last stunt show of the day, I found I was in good company at the latter, spotting former state Sen. Roy Ashburn at the 7 p.m. show.
Rescued Australian cattle dogs, a border collie and more wowed us with flips, midair disc catches, a stunt triathalon (reportedly the only one for stunt dogs) and the final trick of Rocket Ruiz balancing on the feet of human pal Samantha Valle.
Also in the KC Loop, I enjoyed the All Alaskan Racing Pigs, as "conman" Soapy Smith and Sourdough Jack faced off against the residents of Hogwarts School of Swinecraft and Piggery. As luck would have it, I was standing in what became the designated cheering section for winning pig Hamione.
Meanwhile, at the Budweiser Pavilion, Uncle Kracker rocked concert-goers. The Luis Miguel show at the Grandstand -- the only musical performance this year that requires a separate ticket -- had been postponed late that day, but I didn't spot any disgruntled ticket holders. Maybe they just consoled themselves with Uncle Kracker, whose fans filled the bleachers and surrounding area, many swaying and singing along to songs I hadn't heard in years.
After the concert, I sat at the bench at the Disabled American Veterans Trench Rats booth, watching as a mix of 11 law enforcement officers questioned an agitated man and his companion. Two sheriff's gang unit officers followed him down Main Street at a distance.
When a guitar-carrying woman clad in a sequined dress and sunglasses (at 9:30 p.m.) walked by, it seemed time to edge closer to the exit.
Before walking on, I used one of those foot massagers -- twice -- which ended up being the best 50 cents I spent that day.
Surveying the fair for the last time that night, I considered what I had done (including accidentally locking myself in a restroom stall) and what I had left to do (buy a Works baked potato from the Boy Scouts). But I knew for sure that I would be back. It would be the best show in town for the next 11 days.