In Simon and Garfunkel’s classic road trip song, “America,” the lyrics express a longing to “look for America” from the windows of a bus. Andrew Owen and Ross McDermott, two National Geographic Young Explorer grantees, did just that in fall of 2008, only instead of a bus they had a diesel truck powered by vegetable oil. Their aim was to document the odd, wonderful, and otherwise unknown small-town festivals that bring people together. Their American Festivals Project, which includes a series of photo galleries and videos, launches today, and Owen fills us in on how it all happened.
Hello Intelligent Travel readers! It’s such a pleasure to bring our work from the American Festivals Project to National Geographic. We hope our photographs and videos will shed a bit of light on a side of America you never knew existed (but may have been under your nose the whole time). My partner Ross McDermott and I had a simple but ambitious plan: to spend a year photographing America’s hidden and bizarre small town festivals. But we would do it entirely in a veggie-powered diesel truck, we would never get a hotel, and we would blog about our adventures from start to finish.
With a grant from National Geographic, we set out in the fall of 2008 and traveled more than 40,000 miles over 14 months, recording and documenting pockets of American subculture that we feared might be on the verge of being lost forever. We knew we had our work cut out for us in order to archive some of the last remaining quirky traditions in America, but we had no idea what we were getting into and who we would meet along the way.
In total we attended 37 festivals from Georgia to California and even Alaska. We ran five miles in a shopping cart race through the streets of Brooklyn. We were kicked out of frat parties at Dartmouth College. We chased chickens thrown off rooftops in central Louisiana on Mardi Gras. The Hells Angels ran us out of a hotel parking lot in Duluth, Minnesota. We drove the length of the Mississippi River in one night to attend a cheerleading competition. We did a sweat with Lakota Sioux Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation. We even took pictures of people warming up their caterpillars for the annual Wooly Worm Race.
When we talk about the American Festivals Project, the first question people usually ask is: “What was the most bizarre festival you went to?” The Sweetwater, Texas Rattlesnake Roundup where they butcher 5,000 pounds of live rattlesnakes is usually near the top of the list. Or even the Machine Gun Shootout in West Point, Kentucky, where they blow up cars and washing machines for a weekend of target practice. But, of course, what is bizarre to me and Ross can be pretty normal to others.
This was certainly the case when we were halted at the entrance to the Lexington Horse Park for Breyerfest. A festival for collecting model toy horses seemed like just the kind of subculture event perfect for the AFP. But the organizers wanted no part of being associated with the words “hidden, small, or bizarre.” So it’s relative really. Is it bizarre to catch a 50-pound catfish using your bare hand? Not in Oklahoma. Is it crazy to spend all day tracking and videotaping locomotives passing by? Not if you’re a train watcher. Is it wildly out of the ordinary to boom-run, log-roll, and pole-climb your whole childhood? Well, not if your family are fourth generation lumberjacks.
The other question everyone wants to know is “how did you find out about these festivals?” The short answer is Google (with a bit of luck too). If you dig around enough on the Internet you are bound to find what you’re looking for. What we uncovered in our research and our travels is that there are festivals and competitions on every weekend of every season in every community. We are a country that loves to party and celebrate almost anything, like sledding, motorcycles, rattlesnakes, exotic weaponry, and wood chopping. But there’s also a much deeper level at play in these festivals. They connect us to our history, to our landscape, to our neighbors, and to the traditions and customs that shape our individual identities. In a sense they connect us back to our tribes. And technology, playing a major role by connecting people at unprecedented speeds, serves to both help preserve old traditions as quickly as it might undermine them.
We went into the AFP with lots of questions: Are all these idiosyncratic cultural events which make America so distinct in peril? Is the pull towards homogenization in our daily lives overpowering American regionalism and individual identity? And we got answers in many forms. One the one hand, it was obvious in our travels that the stamp of franchised convenience is firmly printed on the nation’s landscape. All the major corridors of America feature the same chain stores, and cities from Atlanta to Anchorage have more in common now than ever before. But the AFP reveals that we’re a long way from a country programmed on auto-culture. If the prevalence of festival life in America is any indication, the USA must certainly be one of the most peculiar places on Earth.
Photos: Andrew Owen