More popularity for llamas and loopy rides

State fairs report record attendance this year, as Americans forgo expensive Labor Day vacations.

At first glance, it seems almost like a regular theme park. There is the mechanical clack-clack of roller coasters, the dull hum of a passing monorail, the rows of kitschy stands offering every conceivable food on a stick.

Then, there is the sign: "Goat Mountain. The odd, unusual, and curious about goats." A few dozen yards away, Wally Baker leads his llama through an obstacle course of hurdles and a water hazard. And, of course, there are the pigs. Hundreds of them.

So it is with the California State Fair - part rodeo, part Disneyland, part flea market.

As summer nears its end, the scene is similar across the United States, with millions of Americans attending the nation's state fairs. For many, they are remnants of a simpler America - a place for all families where the raciest thing on display is the odd Britney Spears poster.

But this year, something more is also drawing people to state fairgrounds throughout America. With the economy slowing, many families are saving their money and going to fairs, instead of taking big Labor Day vacations.

"If you have a down year economically, fairs do pretty well," says Jim Tucker of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions in Springfield, Mo. "People stay closer to home."

The Iowa State Fair, for one, set an attendance record this year, as did the Orange County Fair in southern California. The California State Fair, which started Aug. 17 and ended yesterday, was on pace to break attendance records. Going into its final weekend, paid attendance was up 4 percent from last year, which was also a record.

Mike Miller can certainly see it. He's come here the past five or six years, and the difference between now and then is "more people," he says.

On this weekday evening, the crowds are healthy, but certainly not overwhelming, as Mr. Miller sits in the shade and waits for his daughter.

"She likes the scary rides," Miller says. The ride she has chosen, the "Hard Rock," is a contraption of twisting yellow steel with the sole purpose of turning its riders upside-down as often as possible. That's a common theme here. Gone are the days when the scrambler and tilt-a-whirl sent shudders though every fairgoer. Now, rides suspend, jostle, and hurl people with feats of physics that make the Space Shuttle seem like Stonehenge.

Extremism is everywhere. One crane drops people 80 feet into safety netting. Another drag- racing simulator claims to accelerate riders from 0 m.p.h. to 60 m.p.h. in one second. There's even a halfpipe for a touring group of skaters and bikers fresh out of ESPN's annual "X Games" in Philadelphia.

Each of those events draws well, but for Miller and others, the soul of the fair lies elsewhere. At the far end of the grounds, it rises from horses' hooves in plumes of mustard dust, coating cowboy boots and the fringes of well-worn jeans. It comes in the crackle of the microphone at the cattle show, and the contending scents of cotton candy and cow chips.

In the livestock pavilion, as the "Roll of Victory" argus cattle show brings the finest black-coated cows to the main stage, a smaller group of contestants huddle around a smaller show area. One banner reads: "Hooked on llamas."

In the ring, trainers try to get their shaggy-necked subjects to leap three hurdles, walk a balance beam, and negotiate a slalom course. In more than 50 years of coming to the California State Fair, Irene Creek has never seen anything like it, and she's enthralled.

Seated by her husband, she continually cranes her head to see around him, and breaks into rapturous applause when a llama completes the course perfectly. "I really like animals," she says, still focused on the competition. "I could spend all day here."

Rose Houston isn't prepared to spend the whole day in one spot, but she and her husband are the first people seated for the first showing of Goat Mountain - a one-man act by a goat herder from Oklahoma. The reason is simple.

"I love goats," she says. "I fell in love with them in seventh grade, when I was taking care of some for my neighbors who went on vacation."

Living and working in Sacramento, Ms. Houston says she has neither the time nor the money to get a herd going herself. "But sometime in the nebulous future, I'll get one," she says.

Until then, she'll keep coming to the fair.

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