Just how far will $20 take you after purchasing a ticket to this year’s Mother Lode Fair?
With so many people struggling through these tough economic times, finding entertaining things to do on the cheap can be a difficult task.
I set out Thursday to see what’s available to the casual fairgoer on a limited budget.
Gates opened at 4 p.m. with special half-price admission for the first day of the fair, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Admission prices Friday through Sunday are $8 for adults, $6 for seniors ages 62 and over, $4 for children ages 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and under.
Fairgoers are first funneled through the John Muir Building, which hosts dozens of booths ranging from mattress retailers to local nonprofit organizations.
Cynthia Reyes, of Sonora, was entering a free sweepstakes at one of the vendor booths with her 1-year-old grandson, Drew Johnson, in a stroller by her side.
She said it’s her second time going to the fair in the 10 years she’s lived off and on in the area and didn’t plan on spending much money, but rather simply taking in the sights with her grandson.
“I brought him to see the animals. That’s how I stay on budget, he doesn’t ask for anything,” she joked.
I went outside and found a ticket booth where a single ride ticket was $1, and most of the rides require four tickets for a spin.
After purchasing four tickets, I handed them to the attendant at the Super Shot, which takes riders 100-feet straight up and drops them down for a brief — but exciting — free fall.
Many of the local kids I talked to had purchased ride passes, which cost $25 for a full-day of unlimited rides.
Tara Dunlap, 14, of Sonora, said she comes to the Mother Lode Fair every year mainly for the rides. She had purchased a ride pass using $60 she saved up for the fair, but lamented that it would likely be her only day in attendance.
“It’ll go pretty fast,” she said about her savings. “I can’t come here everyday because it’s so expensive.”
However, there are plenty of other things to do at the fair that don’t cost a dime if you’re not focused on the rides or the $3 to $5 midway games.
At the end of the fairgrounds in the livestock area, proud 4-H and FFA members of varying ages were hoisting turkeys — some almost as big as the younger club members — by the legs so that judges could evaluate the birds.
Julia Tidball, whose son is in Foothill 4-H, said one of the goals is to sell the animals at auction to offset the costs of raising other livestock or even to save money for college.
Other animals that will be shown and auctioned throughout the weekend include cattle, pigs, chickens, sheep and goats.
I purchased a $1 small bottle of water while walking back through the midway in the triple-digit heat and stopped to chat with some carnival workers, who told me some of the secrets about the games that people often say are rigged.
“They’re not fixed, they’re just hard,” said Dan Adams, of Los Angeles, who has worked for the Paul Maurer Show for 18 years and was running a game where contestants throw a softball at stacks of milk bottles.
“It’s a mixture of being able to throw and being lucky,” he said.
Jesse Sandoval, 18, formerly of Oakhurst, was operating a basketball game and pointed to the sign that read: “Rims not regulation shape.”
“You need to hit the backboard the right way and it will go in,” said Sandoval, who has been working with the carnival for the past several weeks in hopes of saving up enough money to move to Texas, where he plans to finish his high school education at a school with an elite football program.
Knowing when to pick my battles, I kept my remaining $15 and went over to the grandstands to watch motocross riders race around the dirt track. The event was free Thursday, but all other arena events including the truck pulls and destruction derby will cost $5 on top of admission.
I met Modesto Rivera, of Bakersfield, who airbrushes T-shirts, keychains and other items, while looking for a souvenir at the vendor booths. He said it’s not unusual for people to spend $50 on a T-shirt with an airbrushed design of their choosing, but admitted business has been down in recent years.
“With the way things are, it’s been a little slower,” he said. “But morale is up this year and we’re hoping to do well.”
After buying a $6 keychain that he had designed, I took my remaining cash to the food stands for dinner.
The selections of food ranged from about $4 to more than $8 depending on whether you wanted traditional fare like a hamburger and corn dog or something more fancy like tri-tip or kielbasa sandwiches.
Classic carnival snacks like churros, candy or caramel apples and funnel cakes were $2.50, $4 and $5, respectively.
Some persuasive vendors convinced me to spend my remaining $9 on a spicy Polish corn dog and a lemonade from their booth, which I ate at a misted area near the John Muir Building while listening to local band Swing Gitane performing on a nearby stage.
Spending only $20 can get you a ride, a meal and a memento, but it’s safe to say there’s much more to the Mother Lode Fair than that.
There’s plenty of engaging activities and people to meet that make it a worthwhile experience even on a tight budget.