State Fair Features A Tethered Trip To Outer Space

More than a million people `do the Puyallup' in Washington state - some of them can even pronounce it.

GO to the cinema, and you'll see a movie. Enter a stadium, and you'll see a game, or maybe a concert.

But walk through the gates of a fair, and prepare for the unexpected - a bounty of experiences pastoral and futuristic, animal and vegetable, mechanical and human.

At the Western Washington Fair, the sixth- largest in the United States, the variety seems endless.

Inside one building, a bale of the best alfalfa in the state has won the right to wear a blue ribbon. Outside, visitors pay handsomely for the privilege of being catapulted into the blue yonder.

The Ejection Seat, as it is called, is a giant slingshot. Something resembling a ski-lift chair is suspended between two 125-foot-tall poles by giant bungee cords.

Every couple of minutes, a new pair of riders is hauled into position and fired into the air. Riders accelerate from zero to 70 miles per hour in one second.

Up and down they bounce, traversing a path with an apogee of about 160 vertical feet that gradually gets smaller. The chair turns topsy-turvy now and then.

As one woman unleashes a lingering, shrill ``WheeeeEEEEEeeeee,'' the man strapped in next to her lets out slow, faltering laughter: ``Aah, hah, HAH!''

``It's a real trip.... Unbelievable,'' says one euphoric rider, Seattle resident Dick Hagen. His copilot, daughter Dawn, describes it simply as scary.

``Some come off shaking,'' says an Ejection Seat operator, but no riders have said they hated it.

Only four such devices exist at present, all less than two years old, says owner Ken Maier. The activity was inspired by bungee jumping.

While much stays the same year after year at this fair, each fall brings some new attractions. The Ejection Seat was one of the biggest newcomers this year, joined by a water ride called Kersplash and a wall with built-in handholds and footholds for climbing.

The fair is known locally as the Puyallup fair, for its location an hour's drive south of Seattle. True Washingtonians pronounce the town's name correctly (something like Pew-WALL-up), and others try their best.

Unlike state fairs in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Minnesota - all of which drew more people than Puyallup in 1993 - this event is run privately as a nonprofit operation with no state funding. Admission is $7 for adults, $4 for kids.

Like other fairs, once you are inside, some of the pleasures come free (watching things), while others (eating the famous fresh-baked scones) cost extra. The Ejection Seat costs a hefty $35 per person, more if riders want a video of themselves and T-shirts that say ``Excuse me ... while I kiss the sky!''

On the rock-climbing wall, the upwardly mobile can get about 30 feet off the ground for $3. As they near the top, the wall begins to slope outward in an overhang, so few actually reach the top. Climbers on a rope harness are belayed so they never fall.

As exciting as these activities are, the fair wouldn't be as stimulating without the events that hark back to its farming roots. The 527-pound squash, the odoriferous stalls occupied by horses and pigs, and the milking parlor are among the exhibits that connect the largely urban clientele to the agricultural activities that remain a prominent part of the state's economy.

Elmer Searls, who has come to the fair every year since 1960, says this year drew a lot more contestants than last year to the alfalfa-hay championship that he oversees. This year 46 bales of the sweet-smelling grain were entered (almost all from the drier, eastern side of the state), up from 28 last year. The winner is judged by lab tests of the hay's chemical properties, as well as by judges who rate the alfalfa's scent and appearance.

Another contest uses bales of hay as a backstop. Archers with high-tech bows that Robin Hood would hardly recognize shoot at targets mounted on bales at varying distances. As archers progress down the line, their targets get farther away.

Elsewhere on the 160-acre fairgrounds, children and their parents are involved in a cuddlier but equally intense competition: a dog show for 4-H members. Scores of sleepy-looking dogs of all shapes and sizes lie around waiting for their big moments. Then they parade with their masters in front of judges and an audience.

Eleven-year-old Stephanie Welsh and her dog are among the final 20 contestants in a novice class. Stephanie has worked her way through several shows prior to the fair to get to this stage with Alex, a combination black Labrador retriever, pointer, and Dalmatian.

``I think he did really, really good,'' she says after their turn in the spotlight.

Hurt by poor weather during the first five days, this year's fair fell short of a new attendance record, but a robust crowd of 1.36 million visitors turned out over 17 days. Next year's fair is Sept. 8-24.

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