The Circus Is Coming; on Wheels

The New York Times Travel Essay

June 30, 2002 - By Karin Winegar

I CRAVE a front row seat at passing spectacles, be it the Carnival dance parade called Ra Ra in the streets of Haiti, the parade-pilgrimage of El Rocio in Andalusia, Spain, where women in ruffled skirts ride in ox carts with men in bolero jackets, or the Halloween parade through Greenwich Village with floats bearing the ice cream moguls Ben and Jerry in cow costumes.

African-American drum corps? Bagpipe bands? Torchlight parades of sled dogs and snow queens? I'll be there.

I'm a devotee of the Minneapolis MayDay Parade with its gaudy pagan puppets and participants like Chinese dragon dancers, painted and pierced contingents of the Revolutionary Anarchist Bowling League and counterculture locals with their dogs and children in flower-filled strollers.

The essence of a parade for me, however, is horses, my appetite for them all the keener because they are fated to appear last. In the 1950's and 60's, watching the Rose Bowl parade on black-and-white TV, I waited impatiently for the palominos in fabulous silver-studded black saddles, bridles and breastplates, their creamy manes and tails sweeping the hot tarmac, garlands of roses on their necks. My imagination supplied the color.

I tried it a couple of times -- being part of the show, that is -- and found it disappointing. When I rode my own horse in parades, both as a child and recently as an adult, the ratio of time/stage fright/effort to fun was not favorable -- and worst, while the tourists were enjoying my horse and me in costume, I missed out on the show myself.

So I went back to seeking out parades and savoring them from the sidelines, perfecting the art by traveling with a folding chair, sunbrella, cooler, sunblock and camera in the trunk of my car.

Roaming the Midwest by myself a few years ago, I found my quintessential American summer parade, which has the bonus of starting from the shore of Lake Michigan with an old-time circus under a big top. At the Great Circus Parade each July in Milwaukee, 50 wagons from the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis., original home of the Ringling brothers, roll out on the street just as they did in their heyday, pulled by more than 700 mighty draft horses, mules and ponies.

In addition to glorious horses, the parade has cyclists in knickers riding high-wheel bikes, a stilt-walking Uncle Sam, military marching bands and -- except for a fleet of tin lizzies and other antique cars -- not a single motor. It's ''The Music Man'' meets the Ziegfeld Follies, the summer diversion of my grandparents' era.

I have raced down to Milwaukee from St. Paul for the past three years. I almost prefer to travel there and watch the parade alone, since it frees me to be the totally entranced kid on the curb.

A joyful spirit seizes Milwaukee for a whole week before the parade, during which spectators stake out spots on the sidewalk. A tent city erupts in an orderly fashion along the parade route. The tents of Camp Barkinville -- named in honor of the parade's founder, Ben Barkin, a Milwaukee public relations man -- holds down the corner of Prospect Avenue and Mason Street, where the parade arrives from Veterans Park at the top of Lincoln Memorial Drive and swings south through the city.

No tents for me, thanks. On Saturday morning, I check into a room in the Knickerbocker on the Lake, an Art Deco-era hotel a few blocks from the park; an updraft carries the aroma of summer grass, the lake, sawdust, bratwurst, buttered popcorn and the haunting music of calliopes.

I hike down to the show grounds, wander through open-sided tents where huge draft horses champ and doze, tethered row upon elephantine row. Farm families camp alongside their horses on cots, snoozing in an alley of thick necks and coarse manes. We talk horses, and I follow them to the wardrobe wagons, where they swap feed caps and overalls for some of the 1,500 costumes from the Baraboo museum.

''This is the first time in years I've had hair,'' said Keith Stainer, a teamster from Menomonie, Wis., as the wardrobe mistress adjusted his tunic, which had enormous gold lamé sleeves, and slipped a wig over his head. ''Just so it don't tickle my ears, I can't stand that,'' Mr. Stainer grumbled.

I leave him to his fitting session and stroll on to peek into the works of whistling calliopes and thrumming circus band organs, and marvel at circus wagons displayed like so many folk-art sculptures: tableaus of Pocahontas saving John Smith, Mother Goose and her shoe, Columbus claiming the New World.

I buy popcorn and squeeze into bleachers to catch the ''Wild West Revue,'' which features cowboys and Indians, stagecoach holdups, trick roping and sharpshooting. In the big top I watch the Royal Hanneford Circus, with dancing white Arabian horses, lion tamers, trapeze artists and tightrope walkers.

As the stars come out over the lake, I savor the tinkle and rasp of the calliopes swinging into ''Can Can'' and ''Lady of Spain.'' Near midnight, I stagger to bed; fortunately the parade doesn't begin until 2 p.m. on Sunday.

At last it starts, massive horses driven by men decked out in red jackets with epaulets topped by pith helmets and caps. The ground shakes with the impact of hooves: sleek black Percherons, big blond Belgians, shaggy legged Clydesdales and Shires.

Round the corner, goggling gently as the crowd squeals and goggles back, rides a giraffe, and other cages contain a lion, a pygmy hippo, lemon pythons. A brindle-coated longhorn ox rides placidly in his own shaded wagon. The local corps de ballet in harem pants, veils and bare midriffs, waves from the backs of dromedaries.

I wave back and cheer. What's to cheer? Them (the 2,500 volunteers), me, us: I find this red, white, blue and gold vintage Americana acutely moving, an event from a lost and more innocent time when the tattooed lady was a sideshow feature, not the kid waiting on you at the Gap.

I hold my breath as a real daredevil act pounds up the hill: the Forty, a 40-horse hitch organized and driven by the Sparrow family of Zearing, Iowa. As a recreational buggy driver myself, I am in weak-legged awe of this feat. In the 1972 parade Dick Sparrow became the first to drive the hitch, consisting of four stout Belgian horses abreast, 10 rows long. Now his sons Tim, Paul and Rob join him at the reins of this herd, towing a circus wagon called the Two Hemispheres, two blue globes framed with the flags and seals of 14 nations amid a welter of gilded lions, tigers and eagles.

As I watched last year's Forty, something snagged and then snapped deep in the maze of leather, chain and horseflesh. The driver yelled ''Whoa!, whoa!,'' the brakeman struggled, the crowd froze and hushed, sensing the peril. Outriders leapt from their saddles, waded between plunging horses and untangled the fouled line. A runaway was averted!

In minutes, the show went on, horse people, wagons, horses and me, all of us bigger and better than life for one day. I'll be there again on the 14th when the antique circus parade wagons and glorious horses roll on, propelled by grace, nostalgia and help from friends.