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Raining fail at the fair

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With not a day’s rest after returning from the Dalton Highway, I head to the Alaska State Fair with my family. Thursday is opening day, and we walk about the grounds enjoying the heavily discounted entry fee and catching free performances. Oversize pumpkins, squash, and cucumbers sit on display, thumbing their invisible vegetable noses at the world of starving children. Other, non-starving children run about and pose for silly fair portraits, oblivious to the political strife beyond the walls of this box.

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Mike and I watch the lumberjack show rerun, skip the topsy-turvey cage ride with Mom and Dad, and eat very fair food. On our way back to the truck to leave for the day, we pass a political protester and his sign. What starts as a rather dull protest turns into what some later call a violent impeachment of free speech and others call a successful exercise of private property rights. I follow the scene from start to finish, capturing on video a mess of security guards detaining the protester with force.

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In the video, security approach Sidney Hill, a lone man displaying an “Impeach Obama” sign near Pioneer Plaza on the Alaska State Fairgrounds in Palmer. I stand aside to video Sid and his sign. Minutes later, a crowd assembles and additional security arrive to remove Sid from the grounds. After Sid refuses to leave, they physically grab Sid and his sign. I eagerly move closer with my camera as he’s detained and led away. An ever growing crowd shouts angry taunts at security, nearly rioting as I crouch to ground level feet away from Sid as he’s tackled and cuffed by two giant guards. An unidentified Alaska State Trooper arrives to physically disperse the crowd while security find a concealed firearm on Sid and usher it away as deftly as possible amid the chaos. Security hold Sid captive until Palmer police arrive to escort him to jail.

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The video goes viral on the Internet overnight. Hits in the thousands soar to tens of thousands. Within three days, the video brakes a hundred thousand views and reaches a worldwide audience. The comment thread follows closely behind, earning notable recognition on YouTube as the most discussed video of the day and second most discussed video of the week in News and Politics. News media email and call by phone asking for more. I decline on-camera interviews but do answer questions telephonically and by email of my first hand experience at the fair.

Sid is later charged with Assault 4-Cause Fear Of Injury, Disorderly Conduct-Challenge To Fight, and Criminal Trespass 2- Upon Premises. However, the District Attorney’s office drops the charge that Sid assaulted the guards — after watching the video, I’m sure. NBC, CBS, the Anchorage Daily News, the Frontiersman (1, 2), the Newsminer, and the AnchoragePress all syndicate versions of the story across the state and the Internet. Comment threads on all of the articles buzz for days with angry Alaskans debating freedom of speech against the personal property rights of the Alaska State Fair, Inc., the non-profit organization responsible for staging the fair and title holder to the private property on which it stages it. The fair’s marketing director wisely allows comments to flow freely and uncensored on the fair’s Facebook wall and website while he and the organization’s board of directors formulate responses (1, 2) to the event. That this occurred on the very first day of the fair doesn’t help attendance — many commenters on the fair’s website, Facebook wall, and in the YouTube video comments proclaim a boycott.

I spend the next several days watching and participating in the ruckus, playing devil’s advocate in the debate, updating the video description as facts emerge, and fighting accusations that Sid planted me as photographer and videographer for his staged protest. This is all just another day at the job for Sid. He awaits trial in September and October for the remaining two charges as well as a similar, pending charge on his record from the week prior. The YouTube video still sees a thousand visitors a day and is about to break 200 thousand views.

While Sid rides the attention and continues to protest on the streets of Palmer, the brief moment of celebrity for me ebbs as the days pass. I realize by the weekend that my motorbike and gear still sit packed in the garage and covered in Dalton filth and bug carcasses. Moreover, the parents and Mike are preparing for a road trip to Fairbanks. Mike leaves tomorrow to start his second year of engineering school at UAF. His leaving is the first permanent separation of our family, a realization I try not to let get me down. We have different lives, and he deserves the freedom to pursue his own path just as I am doing by touring and our parents are doing by sailing. Monday morning, we take the last family photo together as a family. Our smiles hide that none of us knows when we’ll be together again and instead show our excitement to start the new adventures that await us separately.

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I work hard during my week alone to rest and clean. An empty house lets me catch up on journal entries and watch several weeks of missed TV shows. I finish a tricky programming issue that was the last step before launching a [intlink id=”227″ type=”page”]new mapping feature[/intlink] on my website, and I also home in on the makings of my mobile lifestyle by culling extra clothes in exchange for more food. The gear I packed and used on the first leg of my tour will stay. Everything served a purpose and stood the grimy abuse of road travel.

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I know now more than before that my tour must include stops to clean and maintain gear, but this chore is no different from the needs of a car or motorbike. Miles of road eat through tires and oil faster than I’ve ever known. Encouraged by a need to make maintenance routine, I don rubber gloves and prepare to empty four liters of dirty oil into a trash bag lined medium size USPS flat rate box. In drains the oil, and in goes the dirty filter, gloves, and a wad of paper towels — the entire mess contained by two layers of plastic and ready to go to the last person to comment on this post. Actually, it’s the local dump that takes used oil for free. Lucky you.

Returning home, I pause to watch traffic and etch the various roadways, buildings, and landmarks of the Mat-Su Valley into my mind. Temporary lights at the Trunk Road intersection cycle green, yellow, and red, allowing cars and their people to travel the daily grind. The people at least seem to coexist, though I know the light forces them to acknowledge each other, pause, and take turns. Separate from each other but so much the same, I think. Each person who passes has or has had a family and friends, most of them likely went to the fair, and some maybe even watched the YouTube video. Yet, while they’re all uniquely involved in their own lives, each lives and breathes no differently than the other, vying for life and a chance at happiness.

While tomorrow they’ll travel these streets again, I know this may be the last time I notice the particular shape of the land, a building, or a certain unique house along the roads I’ve ignored for nine years — ignored in the same way these people do now. Tomorrow, I’ll head for the Kenai Peninsula to take a complimentary boat ride into Resurrection Bay and then travel the tunnel to Whittier. After that, I’ll return here for a few days and then leave for good. This pause tonight is important, and it’s one of many mental snapshots I’ll carry with me to foreign places and cultures. Ironically, I imagine someone standing at a similar juncture in life on the other side of the world, savoring a similar memory in preparation for an equally amazing adventure. And I wonder if we’ll meet somewhere in the middle to say hello and acknowledge each other without the need for a traffic light. Inspired by happiness and pleased to be on the road and actively pursuing what it means to live among people, I hope we do.

I realize now that it’s not the road and the destinations that will make my tour successful. The line on the map, the miles, the photo at the end — this “stuff” does not truly matter. Instead, it’s the people I meet and the experiences we share that stand to affect me in the most lasting and memorable manner. Don’t get me wrong — the tools are important; the technology I use to capture and share my journey with others and the journal I keep will one day remind me of seemingly forgotten days. However, I know with certainty that I want to share in the lives of others and explore the diversity of their cultures more now than ever before. I know with certainty that these are the experiences that will mark the true success of the adventure before me.

Brian

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