Fair rides and traffic dizzying

Not far from the Evergreen State Fair frenzy, 87-year-old Muriel Clark was playing a friendly game of pinochle at the Monroe Senior Center.

She’d driven from her Monroe home to the center Wednesday. For the fair’s run, Clark plans to stay far from crowds and traffic.

“I haven’t been to the fair in years and years,” said Clark, who’s lived in Monroe all her life. “I’ve seen so much change. It was just a small town, but 20 years ago it boomed. And U.S. 2, it’s terrible.”

The 99th annual Evergreen State Fair that opened Thursday is largely a celebration of the area’s agricultural roots. Last year, dizzying rides, ribbon-winning livestock and big-name music acts drew more than 901,000 fair visitors.

Not so long ago, Monroe seemed far from city life. It’s now bustling with a drive-through Starbucks, big-box stores and droves of urban-oriented commuters. In my 1996 world atlas, Monroe’s population is listed as about 4,000. A brochure I picked up Wednesday at Monroe’s Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Information Center estimates today’s population, “not including unincorporated Monroe,” as 16,000.

Anyone doubting that transformation has only to witness — or get stuck in — afternoon traffic coming into town on U.S. 2 or Highway 522. Much as the city relishes hosting the fair, it’s a 12-day challenge for many residents. Some steer clear of it entirely.

“I watch the parade, then hide in my house while the fair is on,” said Judy Frost, 67, one of Clark’s card-playing friends. The Fair Days Parade starts at 11 a.m. Saturday on Main Street in downtown Monroe.

Clark was born in 1919 in a house her father built near what’s now Chain Lake Road. She remembers when the whole fair was downtown.

“The fair was just a little thing in town, on Main Street. It was mostly canned foods, fruits and vegetables,” she said. In the Monroe of her childhood, Clark said roads were mostly gravel and the only place to buy ice cream was a pool hall downtown.

It’s not just old-timers who avoid fair gridlock.

Christina Smith graduated from Monroe High School in 1991 and now lives in Snohomish. On Wednesday, she watched as her three children climbed on play equipment at Monroe’s Sky River Park.

Her parents still live in Monroe, but Smith will either avoid visits or carefully time them in the days ahead. During the fair, she said, it can take 45 minutes to drive from one end of town to the other on U.S. 2.

“We love the fair, but I avoid town and all the traffic,” said Smith, who as a girl competed in the fair’s equestrian events.

In 2004, Smith said she was stopped at a red light on U.S. 2 near the fairgrounds, with a dozen cars in front of her, when another driver slammed into her going 35 miles an hour.

“The accidents are awful,” she said.

She’s seen astonishing changes since her family moved to Monroe when she was in fifth grade. “I grew up on the East Coast, my dad was in the Coast Guard. When we came here, we lived off Woods Creek Road. I thought I was way out in the boondocks,” Smith said. “Now, Albertsons is where a cow farm used to be.”

Mari Davis moved to Monroe from Snohomish a dozen years ago to find affordable housing. She now runs Hidden Gifts &Collectibles, a Main Street gift shop. Her fair strategy is using backroads and traveling early in the day. “Weekends are packed no matter what you do,” she said.

Her children can’t wait to get to the fair. “We’ll go once, and they’ll probably go back again,” Davis said.

“I love the fair,” said Andrew Abt, owner of Sky River Bakery on Monroe’s Main Street. Abt moved to Monroe 20 years ago from Seattle. The city he escaped seems to have found him. “It’s experienced tremendous growth,” he said. He’s noticed, though, that fair crowds don’t usually come downtown to shop.

Too tired, maybe. Or stuck in traffic.

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlsteinjulie@heraldnet.com.

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