In the Texas Firsts series, old and new residents alike experience linchpins of Lone Star State life and culture.

When’s the last time I screamed? Not cheered, or squealed with excitement, but full-on, empty-your-lungs, bloody-murder screamed. The question popped into my head as I stumbled, giggling, off the Air Maxx ride at the State Fair of Texas. I’m still not sure—certainly I had screamed at some point pre-pandemic—but of all the stimuli of the state fair, I was mainly struck by the fact that, for $7 per person, I’d finally gotten the chance to yell my head off. And after the past nineteen months, couldn’t we all use that catharsis?

Every year my family dutifully attended the Howard County Fair in the Maryland suburbs where I grew up. As a kid, I’d marched in the fair parade in support of a local political candidate, and in my single year as a member of the local high school marching band, I’d worked a shift at its fundraising fried-dough stand. In all the years in between, I’d ride as many rides as my parents would let me and wander, slightly bored, with them through the contest pavilions, trying to see if I recognized any of the names on the labels for the crafts and baked goods. As much as we enjoyed the county fair, we didn’t once venture out to the Maryland State Fair. I never had the urge to: I figured it’d be too big, too overstimulating, and, as someone who considers herself allergic to waiting in lines for anything, too crowded. Besides, half the appeal of going to the county fair was the high probability of running into someone you knew—I wouldn’t have known how to articulate it then, but in retrospect, it provided a sense of community.

Despite my indifference to the Maryland State Fair, when a colleague suggested I go to the State Fair of Texas for the first time, I jumped at the opportunity. After spending so much of the past two years avoiding crowds, it was thrilling to think about being an anonymous face in a sea of attendees. But as my fiancé, Kevin, and I made the drive up Interstate 35 from Austin to Dallas on October 2, I had a moment of doubt: Is going to a crowded fair really a good idea right now? Once we’d parked at the fairgrounds and started walking toward the entrance, though, the spires of the tallest rides visible in the distance, any guilt or doubt was replaced by quivering excitement, and I could barely contain myself as we made our way toward the Midway. 

Here was the stimulation I’d been missing for months. Melodies blaring from the rides overlapped with one another; workers yelled into mics, luring passersby to try to win prizes; a carnival-ride operator shouted “I can’t hear you” and small children dutifully screamed in response; the snippets of conversations from other fair attendees drifted into my ears as we walked past them. Flags fluttered atop rides adorned with flashing lights and airbrushed portraits of overly sexualized women and, on one ride, Nicolas Cage. I couldn’t stop giddily grinning. I turned to Kevin about five minutes in and said, with my voice raised so he could hear me over the cacophony, “I’m vibrating!” At one point, I nearly choked on a cloud of sugar emanating from a cotton-candy vendor. 

Once my initial thrill from all the noises and sights and smells had waned a little, Kevin and I left the Midway and strolled through the other portions of the fair. We cheered on a pup in the All-Star Stunt Dog Show and power walked through some of the exhibit halls, dutifully yanking on our KN95s as we passed each reminder that masks had to worn indoors. Few of the goods on sale in the halls held our attention—we aren’t in the market for an electric Ford truck—but we eagerly huddled with a small crowd around a hatchery in the livestock-birthing barn and watched with awe as a chick dragged its way out of its shell for the first time. We wound our way through rows of show rabbits, trying to make reassuring sounds at the beautiful bunnies whose quick breathing seemed to indicate high stress at their circumstances. At one point, we each took a break in a Mattress Firm–provided massage chair that, as it enveloped my arms and tilted backward, reminded me a little too much of the hover-chairs in WALL-E

I’d never really gotten the appeal of the county fair’s arts and crafts exhibits when I was younger. As a hypercompetitive child with big musical ambitions, I couldn’t understand why an adult would bother pursuing, say, photography as a hobby on such an amateur level as a county fair contest. Plus, what was the appeal of staring at cakes and condiments that you weren’t allowed to eat? Now, as a hopefully less-obnoxious adult who has struggled to maintain hobbies outside of work, I had a new admiration for the entrants as I perused the walls of canned foods, photographs, quilts, crafts, and, yes, butter sculptures in the Creative Arts Building. Sure, some of the entries were perhaps not to my taste—I sped past many of the dolls, avoiding eye contact with them—but it was evident how much time and care had gone into creating them, not to mention the pride the makers must have felt in entering them in the state fair. I found myself getting caught up in the Texan pride emanating from so many of the crafts. One of my favorites was a quilt riffing on a Texas version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” including “Seven Dancehall Dreamers,” “Four Willie Nelson Albums,” “Three Alright Alright Alright,” and “Big Tex in a Pecan Tree.” 

As the afternoon started to fade into evening, I was beginning to come down from my soaring, extroverted high, but Kevin and I knew we couldn’t leave the fair without getting on some rides. We first decided upon the Texas Star Ferris wheel. The tightly snaking line to climb aboard gave me my first strong bout of COVID-19 anxiety since we’d arrived. But that faded once we stepped into the Ferris-wheel car with three younger fair attendees—a college-aged woman who looked to be with her boyfriend and younger sister—and I idly listened to their chatter as Kevin and I looked down at the Midway; at Big Tex, his back to us; and at the swan boats in the lagoon, which we hadn’t even realized was there.  

Kevin had requested that we also get on a ride that spun or went upside down, so after the Ferris wheel, we evaluated several different rides, gauging whether they were daredevilish enough to inspire adrenaline but not so aggressive as to be nauseating. We agreed upon the Air Maxx, and I could feel some of my giddiness coming back as we waited in line and watched the riders ahead of us scream as they were whipped through the air. Once it was our turn, we were holstered into seats and then swung up by a long, twisting ride arm into the air, which increased the span of its pendulum arc until it paused for a split second at the top before swinging back down and back and forth. I screamed shamelessly, reacting as much to the sensation of whipping around and being suspended upside down as to the pure joy of feeling the sound be torn away from me in the air. It had been a release I didn’t know I needed.