Supposing The Last Day on Earth to be a festival -- and why not? -- it could look like the Maryland state fairgrounds in Timonium at the end of a blue and perfect afternoon. There's a quarter moon over the Ferris wheel. Flags snap above the racetrack. There's a chill in the air, which makes the smoke from the pit barbecues smell good. There's a lot of noise -- the crowd, the barkers, the industrial clatter of the Tilt-a-Whirl, the sheep bleating like strangled cynics.

Things have a suspended quality -- is it the noise? the wind? A horse skitters sideways in the horse ring, and dust streams from each hoof. An old woman waits for the guess-your-age man to guess her age, knowing that he's going to be right. Things seem to be culminating: harvest, blue ribbons, the horribly delicate sashay of a Duroc pig whose last stop before the slaughterhouse is the swine judging. There's a glory to it all.

Then faces all over the fairgrounds start lifting. "Look," people say, until everybody is looking up past the Ferris wheel.

They are looking at hot-air balloons, which are rising over the fairgrounds. There are more than a dozen of them, and they shine in the evening sky like ornaments in search of a Christmas tree, silent and final. They make you think that if humankind were coming to an end, and we could be reborn on some other planet by sending out seeds the way a dandelion or a milkweed does, those seeds would look like hot-air balloons. Marvelous.

It's so lovely it hurts, like a great many things at the Maryland state fair: the dwarf Hotot rabbits with their mascara eyes, the Worcester County Farm Queen with her quick, sad smile like the smile of a woman who has to say no but is sorry she can't say yes, or 2,000 Maryland farmers and spectators rising to applaud the 4H choir after they sing Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA."

Every year more than half of Americans go to state, county or local fairs. The Texas and Ohio state fairs drew about 3 million each last year, and 1 million went to the Minnesota fair. About 590,000 went to the Maryland fair, which places it about 40th on a list of 400 of the biggest fairs in the country -- this in a state with only 30,000 farmers, though it's worth keeping in mind that the state government estimates that these farmers generate 14 to 17 percent of Maryland's gross product, when you throw in food processing and the work done by 280,000 more workers in jobs related to agriculture. The fair is important to Maryland. It's been going on for 106 years.

Ever since the first agricultural competitions, such as the Berkshire cattle shows organized by Elkanah Watson in the early 1800s, fairs have been one of the great institutions of American life, a medium in themselves like television or print -- they educate, they entertain, they make us think we've seen truths of sorts.

"I come here to get away from the garbahhhge of Pennsylvania Avenue," says Arlene Pike, who sits with her sister Joyce in the grandstand of the race track. She comes from Presque Isle, Maine, but she lives in Bethesda now, and she is a GS-13. She is working on the racing form and a draft beer. She is glad to see the end of a long, hot summer full of Reagan and Col. North. "You can smell fall in the air. Goodbye Ollie, goodbye Prez. It's time to move on."

Down on the track, the thoroughbreds pace through the soft dirt. The Maryland State Fair has no auto racing, demolition derbies or country-and-western superstars, but it has a lot of horse racing. The horses move with the heavy twitch of legs meant only to run, not amble -- they are sleek but awkward, like aristocrats roused by revolutionaries in the middle of the night.

"God, they're pretty," Arlene Pike keeps saying as she counts her losses. "But it takes more than pretty."

This is one of the truths that fairs bring home: It takes more than pretty.

There's a reality to fairs. This is why they seem a little strange in America, nowadays. In the Land of Secondhand Man, where reality is a theme park and life is a beach, when everything is shrink-wrapped and sanitized for our protection, the state fair is a throwback. Right here, standing in front of you, mooing, this is an Ayrshire cow. That is comb honey, these are farmers and your horse just lost. Your strawberry jam just won a blue ribbon. Your age has just been guessed, precisely. Your pig fetched 56 cents a pound at auction. Reality.

A lot of us aren't used to firsthand experience, this being a country where people will drive 3,000 miles past 10,000 American small towns so they can tour the small-town Main Street at Disneyland, a country where the word "authentic" means "reproduced," as in the World War II bomber jackets that get sold to our educated elite in catalogues. We have a hard time telling the real thing when it gets put right in front of our noses.

"Are those real?" says Brian Pinsky, 17, of Pikesville. He is not a farmer -- you can tell because he has an earring shaped like a lightning bolt in his left earlobe, and not many of the farm boys at this fair wear earrings. Also, he is asking his question about fruit and vegetables. He seems to be in considerable distress about this. Are they real? Why does he ask? What's in front of him are not Believe-It-Or-Not muskmelons shaped like the Statue of Liberty, or Guinness-Book-of-World-Records walnuts the size of shrunken heads.

It's just fruit and vegetables on white paper plates. They are laid out on long tables ... home-grown red bartlett pears, blackberries, Chinese chestnuts, tomatoes, Stayman apples, cushaw melons, patty pan squash, sugar baby watermelons, Katahdin potatoes, eggplant, okra, banana peppers, kale, cantaloupe, hubbard squash, butternut squash, crookneck squash, pecans and hickory nuts, cobbler potatoes, endive, zucchini, Rome apples, Jonathan apples, nectarines, red cabbage ...

"I didn't think any of these things were real. They look ... like in pictures."

Of course, if Brian Pinsky had walked into the Farm & Garden Building and seen full-color computer-enhanced photographs of bush lima beans or cayenne peppers, he wouldn't have gotten so confused. He would have known exactly what he was looking at. But here, first hand, with no Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, no Sunkist or Chiquita Banana stamped on a plasti-rapped serv-u pak, all these fruits of the Maryland earth look so real they look fake -- it seems that only an illusion could look so authentic, like the Disneyland Main Street or the bomber jackets in the catalogues.

The organizers of the fair understand this. Next to the vegetables is a display of firewood, a cord of firewood, 128 cubic feet. That's all. It is there not to compete for a blue ribbon but to educate the city dwellers who have never seen a cord of wood. They may think they've seen one, they may even think they bought a cord of wood from that lean-faced guy in the pickup truck last fall, the guy with the USS Coral Sea baseball hat and the T-shirt that said "The More I Know About Women, the More I Love My Truck." This guy stood next to his truck and pointed to the wood in the back and said: "It's about a cord." Except the memory of that cord seems about half as big as the cord of wood stacked up at the state fair.

Educating the city people: At the Maryland Farm Queen contest, the ignorance of people about farming seems to be driving the contestants crazy. It's the last event before the judges pick the queen. They have to answer questions, as in the Miss America contest, except the questions aren't about world peace, they're about farming. The girls walk down a runway while a woman plays "Someone to Watch Over Me" on the piano. They wear formal gowns -- some of them have made the gowns themselves. A guy in a tuxedo asks them questions about how to teach children about agriculture, how to educate urban dwellers, and girl after girl keeps making a speech that winds up in a tone of peeved wonderment: "We feed America!" It takes more than pretty to win here too.

Originally, American agricultural fairs took urban modernity to the farmer.

"Their 18th century founders believed that science could elevate farming along with every other human endeavor, and they tried to diffuse its light among the folk who worked the land. Fairs were a means of diffusion, supposedly one of the more effective, because they combined practical demonstrations of new methods, displays of improved livestock, and competition for premiums," writes Donald B. Marti in his definitive "Historical Directory of American Agricultural Fairs."

Fairs are ancient and nearly ubiquitous -- it's possible that the only country with no tradition of fairs was Japan, before it was opened to the West. The church sponsored religious fairs until about the 15th century, then abandoned them because they had grown too tawdry and commercial. Market fairs replaced them, though they declined toward the end of the 18th century. It took Americans, who have always understood the necessary bond between self-improvement and capitalism, to come up with the modern fair, where farmers could be fed the fruits of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

The secret was competition -- contests and prizes for everything farmers produced, from hay to homespun. Some of the first American fairs of this kind were held in the District of Columbia by the Columbia Agricultural Society, a group of local gentry. James Madison attended one in his homespun inaugural suit.

The first state fair on the modern model was in Syracuse in 1841. By 1858 about 900 agricultural societies were holding fairs, and by 1913 there were more than 2,500 fairs in America. "They're probably not an awful lot different today if you take the electric lights away," says Lynne Belluscio, of the Genesee Country Museum near Rochester, N.Y.

Like the 15th-century churchmen, Americans have been troubled by moral decay and honkytonkery at the fairs. Newspapers of the 1840s and 1850s feature letters decrying the evils of horse racing and, worse, of "female equestrianism" -- women racing sidesaddle. The Boston Cultivator wrote in 1858 that if "one of the fair contestants" knew "what was witnessed by thousands of rude men, unless we have greatly mistaken her character, she would blush for shame."

The trouble was, it was hard to get the farmers in to be educated without the bait of fun.

"We poll people at the fair and ask them what they like," says Howard A. (Max) Mosner Jr., general manager of the Timonium Fairgrounds since 1973. "One half say the animals are their favorite, but we have two other shows a year for livestock and nobody comes, without a midway."

On the other hand, Mosner doesn't let in strippers or the ever-popular freak shows featuring such favorites as the lobster people or the Man from Borneo who eats money (no slugs or Canadian currency, please).

"I don't like them," Mosner says. "I don't think it's family entertainment."

Anybodyanybodyanybodyanybodyanybody don't walk on by, give it a try, when the balloon pops you win a prize, one thin dime, one tenth of a dollar, slip it in, slide it in, how 'bout you now, two rings wins, we got a winner, right here, anybodyanybodyanybody, guess your weight, guess your age, I miss a few and I get a few, nobody's easy ...

For all the fat clouds of smell from the fried dough stands, and the flashing lights and screams from the Zipper or the Pirate ride, or the winners wandering around carrying huge stuffed animals, there's a starkness to the midway, to any midway.

"High and dry! High and dry!" says Bozo the Clown, with a maddening cackle of a laugh -- he is laughing at the people who try to dunk him in the water by hitting a target with a baseball, and that's why they pay to try, because he's laughing at them. Dimes ring on the glass ashtrays and beer mugs at the dime-toss games, a cool glitter of noise while the barker leans against a pole, crosses his arms and stares into space. There are winners but no surprises. At the High Striker, the men line up to try to drive a piece of metal to the top of a pole with a big wooden mallet.

"C'mon, Wayne," the crowd yells.

Wayne takes off his shirt to reveal an assortment of tattoos and flesh the color of fluorescent light with muscle drifting somewhere beneath. Wayne takes up the mallet, taps the spot he's supposed to hit. Taking charge. In a moment the world will know whether he rates as MOMMA'S BOY, SISSY, HUFF 'N' PUFF, WHAT A WHIMP, LIVER LIPS, SWEET PEA, OLIVE OIL, POPEYE, HULK, ALMOST A MAN or SUPER OCK. It's supposed to be SUPER JOCK, but the J fell off, up there on top of the pole. Wayne spits on his hands, puts his tongue between his teeth, turns his hat around backward, checks his wallet, which has a chain on it, linked at the other end to at least 47 keys that hang next to his knife holster, and he tries to dig his feet into the asphalt -- all the voodoo of male might.

"C'mon, Wayne."

He brings the mallet around in a terrible swift circle. It describes a trajectory that passes about two inches to the right of the spot he's supposed to hit, and hits the ground. A clean miss. None of his friends says a word. They know Wayne, and they know better. He'll swing again, of course, and ring the SUPER OCK bell on both tries. He'll even win a cigar, but it's that first swing he'll remember.

It takes more than pretty. This is the message of the fair, from the intimations of sausage among the squinty splendor of the Yorkshire Crosses and Chesters sprawled in their stalls in the hog shed to the losing tickets scattered at the race track like the confetti of a parade you hold when your army is defeated.

One look at a cow tells you that, too.

Dairy cows in particular look like elk that held their breath and then melted -- the gothic height and narrowness of their hipbones, the dropsical collapse of their bellies, and the way their hooves seem to lag when they walk, and leave the ground a second too late, and then they lift their heads and offer up a wildly pointless moo. Pigs, on the other hand, have a ballistic precision to them, like projectiles in some stop-action photograph in which they have just touched the target, which accounts for their flattened noses. (Think of it! A strategic defense weapon armed with hog warheads! Soviet missiles rise from the silos to find themselves stuck all over with Durocs!)

Lambs come very close to getting by on pretty, especially in the judging of the Shepherd's Lead, in which little girls in wool dresses they made themselves lead their lambs around a ring -- lambs they have sheared and carded until they get perfectly smooth and start to glitter a little, like those blankets you get in cheap motels.

But when you ask Erika Rupp, 12, of Howard County, if she knew she was going to win with her Hampshire wether, her lavender plaid wool dress, and the flowers in her hair, the answer is simply: "Yep."

What kind of flowers are those?

"Fake."

These kids look you in the eye, size you up, talk straight. It's as if they haven't gotten the word from Phil Donahue, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Ann Landers and the Amalgamated Psychologists and Magazine Pundits of America that adolescence is a stormy and alienated time of when the best you can hope for is pretty.

"You can usually pick out the farm kids," says Rhonda Long, who is 15, and the daughter of a Black Angus breeder on the Eastern Shore. "They have a lot of responsibility. My brother Rance is 16 and we drive all over the country showing cattle. He dropped me off here and I'll stay in a motel for the next 10 days."

She wears a red knit shirt and pearl earrings. She is brushing two cows that have been collecting championships so fast she can't count them. "I'm bringing the hair up, bringing it forward to make her look longer, and show off the bone structure. These'll never get slaughtered. We breed them by embryo-transplanting them. This one here, Lively Lady, say, she'll come in heat 12 times a year and produce eight to 15 embryos every time. We buy the best quality semen, inseminate them, and nine days later you give them a spinal block and you go in and you flush them with 500cc of saline solution. You filter that, and search it, then plant the fertilized eggs in recipient cows -- lesser cows that have good milk for feeding the calves. You don't flush every month, you only do it two or three times a year, and sometimes the heat goes off regular -- the weather, or they'll get sick. They'll be with us a long time. They get rinsed off twice a day. They stay in a heated barn in the winter, sometimes an air-conditioned barn in the summer. It's hard to give you a price on them because farmers always make a deal, it might be $20,000 and the first flush, that kind of thing."

The question is, how do we breed more Rhonda Longs? How is it possible not to think that if it were, in fact, the Last Day on Earth and those hot air balloons were leaving for another planet, and you had to pick people to go on them, and start the world all over again somewhere else, you would probably have Rhonda Long very high on your list of candidates.

The fair goes on through Labor Day.