I missed the entire State Fair for the first time in 23 years, and it’s not because it slipped my mind. I was out of town. Couldn’t be helped. But the summer felt incomplete without the exclamation point of the fair at the end. So one day last week, I went to the fair — or, at least, what was left of it.

I walked through the open gates. Decorative lighting was still strung over patios; flags rippled in the breeze; hundreds of empty commemorative benches sported the names of bygone fairgoers; baskets of dead flowers hung from hooks. The green crud on the DNR pool was thick enough to walk across.

Of course it felt off. The fair is really about the throngs of people. But what if was packed with people and there wasn’t any food? That wouldn’t be right. Or what if it had food, but only your favorites? No. So it’s the people you ordinarily wouldn’t see, plus the food you probably won’t eat. That’s it.

Plus the animals. The fair’s empty without them. The perfume of the barns was gone; the Poultry Barn was dark and silent. You wonder if any chickens thought, “Gosh, that was fun! I can’t wait to go back next year.”

Beyond the barns are the rides. They’re usually accompanied by the sounds of the midway — clanging bells, deafening music, screams from on high, chuffing generators. There’s just an empty lot now, and you feel like a kid looking at the trampled grass where the circus had been the night before.

On the way out, I passed the Star Tribune booth — “blocking your view of the grandstand for over 30 years” — and saw an open window. I stuck my head in and said, “Can I get some lip balm?” because that’s what you say here. It’s the fair, so you go to the large news organization and ask for wax to smear on your mouth.

There were two guys inside the booth, and one said, “Sure!” He started rustling around a box. “We have fresh-cut grass, mini doughnuts. … ”

“Stick,” I said. “Stick was this year’s flavor.” He handed over a tube of wood-flavored lip balm. I was grateful. I hadn’t missed the fair, after all.

You’re probably thinking: That wasn’t a real person. Some say that was the spirit of a reporter who died when lightning struck the booth in ’83, and still can be seen some days, handing out lip balm. Or so the legend goes.

Well, no. You’re thinking of the ghost who hands out yardsticks at the Farmers Union building.

He wasn’t in. A guy said I missed him by five minutes.