Enjoying the ride

For carnies, nothing beats life on the road


It's about 30 minutes before the gates open at the Grand Olde West Days Carnival.

The Avalanche, Cliff Hanger and motorcycle merry-go-round stand still and vacant. In a half-hour those rides will be rocking, swooping and swinging -- the vacant seats filled with local residents looking for a quick fix of excitement.

Local fire and police officials are conducting last-minute inspections, while the manager scoots around the grounds on a golf cart, making sure everything is in place.

Bright, multi-colored flags flap in an intense wind blowing on the 80-degree afternoon.

Every now and then a big gust of wind sends a face-stinging cloud of dust flying through the midway.

But it doesn't phase Joe, seated in a lawn chair at the entrance to the Tornado ride.

The 12-hour process in which all of the rides are assembled is complete, and Joe, who offers no last name, now munches on chili cheese Fritos as he waits for the gates to open.

Joe has been travelling with different carnival outfits since 1984.

"After I graduated from high school, I wanted to travel," he says. "It was truck driving or this -- and I didn't want to drive a truck."

To say Joe has a passion for his job is an understatement.

He could talk all day about the business he says just "gets in your blood."

"It's hard to explain," he says of his reason for leading the carnival life. "You have to be a people person. You get to talk to people from different walks of life everyday and see the happiness they have when they come."

Joe isn't a person that wakes up everyday dreading work.

"If you like it, it ain't even work," he says. "That's why most of us are still out here. You get addicted to it. Everybody is fun. But you have to work though."

Pointing to other workers manning their rides, Joe says one can't be too soft in a business in which you're constructing and tearing down thousands of pounds of steel structures every few days year round.

"You don't see too many guys who are hefty," he says. "The ones who are hefty are like bulls."

A worker from a neighboring ride comes over and bums a smoke from Joe.

Another comes to share and compare stories with Joe about the rides in which they are in charge.

"Twenty eight people threw up on my ride last week," the other worker says, going back to make a few last-minute checks on his area.

"It's kind of like a souvenir," Joe says of the jokes about the number of people who lose their lunches on a ride.

As far as living life on the road 12 months out of the year, Joe, who has been to all of the lower 48 states, says he wouldn't want it any other way.

"I love it," he says. "Even when I ain't working with the carnival, I'm hitch hiking somewhere."

Next to the Tornado, Will Chowenit lights a Marlboro Red while relaxing in one of the seats in a row of more than 40 on the Avalanche ride.

"Ever rode this?" he asks over the loud hum of a generator in the background. "It makes you laugh and giggle."

Chowenit, who has worked on and off with Wright's Outdoor Amusements for five years, says the ride spins at two "Gs."

"I don't know that for a fact," he says.

Chowenit says he hooked up with the carnival because he was good at mechanical and electrical work.

"It's really a fun job," he says. "It's a lot of hard work but you meet a lot of interesting people."

While he's been all over the south with the carnival, this is his first trip to this area.

"I've never been to Colorado," he says, taking a puff off of his Marlboro, gazing to the south. "Isn't it so beautiful?"

The travelling doesn't bother Chowenit, and neither does setting up the large equipment in a community, then having to tear it down and do it all over again a few days later.

"A lot of people don't like working these hours," he says. "But when you're working, your mind is never idle."

As far as the pay?

"You survive," he says.

About 50 yards away, Jonathan Yocum rests in the mouth of one of the dragons on the "Dizzy Dragon" ride.

Yocum has been with Wright's Outdoor Amusements for almost two years.

"It beats fast food," says Yocum of his reasons for working for the carnival. He says he spent seven years in about every fast-food restaurant one can name, whether it was McDonald's or Taco Bell.

Yocum, in his mid 20s, represents a younger generation of carnival workers.

If he wasn't working for the carnival, he would probably be awaiting word to be shipped home from the war in Iraq, he says.

"I'd be in the military if I weren't here," he says.

He's glad he's here.

After expressing his political views and opposition to the war fought in Iraq, Yocum talks more about why he chose a life with the carnival.

"I've always loved carnivals," he says. "It's a great atmosphere and the people are good to work with. You get to meet a lot of people."

Towering over the rest of the carnival is the Century Wheel. At its base, a stout Max Cash relaxes for a few minutes before the visitors begin to arrive.

Cash has been working with carnivals, including the Barnum and Bailey Circus, for 46 years.

He comes from generations of carnival workers and travelers.

His great-great-grandfather, he says, was a peddler who roamed from town to town.

"It's just my life," he says of the carnival. "I've seen all the states and then some."

There's a camaraderie amongst the workers that can't be matched, he says. If one of the workers needs money or food, the other workers pitch in to help.

"We all consider ourselves family," he says. "When one of us gets in trouble, we're all in trouble."

Bradley, standing next to Cash at the entrance of the ride, was homeless up until this week when he joined up with Wright's Outdoor Amusements.

"I took him under my wing and said this is how it is," the veteran Cash says.

Cash, who says he has never touched alcohol in his life, says there is a misconception about the rowdy lives of carnival workers.

"The older days messed these days up," he says. "These days it's more family oriented. Politeness and cleanliness is stressed."

Mandatory drug tests are conducted on all of the workers, he says.

Like the others, Cash says the carnival business is not for those who are physically weak.

"If you're not physically fit when you come out here, you will be in six months," he says.

Perched in front of the giant Century Wheel almost like a king on his throne, Cash brags about the fact that five people are able to construct the 63,000-pound steel structure in less than 12-hours.

And in the same amount of time can fold down the structure like an erector set into the trailer on which it sits.

But he is in charge of the monstrous piece of equipment, and seems to take a certain pride in that. It's what he was meant to do.

"I graduated from college at 19 as a general practitioner," he says. "But it's not what I wanted to be. It's what 'they' wanted me to be."

Moving from place to place as king of the wheel is a much better fit for a man whose life is the carnival.

"Town to town to town," he says. "Free travel."

Josh Nichols can be reached at 824-7031 or jnichols@craigdailypress.com.

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