You're standing in a crowd. Up ahead, three pirates are manhandling the town mayor. To your left, a couple of guys are wrestling in a pit of mashed potatoes. You've got a fried rattlesnake in your right hand and a potato sausage in your left. Two ladies beside you are discussing which bug won the roach race. And, out on the water, boats that look vaguely like bathtubs are racing toward some finish line.
OK. Maybe all of these things don't happen at once. But trust us, they happen. In the small towns and big cities of North America, throngs of people gather once a year to have at least one of the above-mentioned experiences. It's called a festival, and when we say throngs of people, we mean throngs and throngs. One of the festivals on our list attracts around 100,000 people every year. Generally speaking, each of these wacky events dances around one central, peculiar theme. And, you'd be surprised what contests can be spawned from a festival's wacky thesis statement.
Forget folk art and funnel cake. The eight festivals on our list will have you eating crickets and watching sock puppet movies, among other weird things. Where should you road trip to join in on these bizarre events?
Legend has it that buccaneer Jean Lafitte buried an enormous treasure somewhere along Lake Charles's sandy shoreline. Since 1958, Contraband Days Pirate Festival, which attracts more than 100,000 people, has been honoring the legend each May.
Perhaps one of the funniest sights of the festival is when the mayor is made to walk the plank after pirates take over the town. The plucky civic chief is naturally rescued quickly, then is free to enjoy the rest of the fest with its carnival, arm wrestling competition, sailboat regatta, and bed races. With an eclectic selection of nearly 100 different events, Contraband Days is frequently chosen by the American Bus Association as a Top 100 Event in North America.
For anyone who loves fake commercials or movie trailers, Portland's Faux Film Festival is the ticket to a surreal filmic never-never land. Mockumentaries and other celluloid spoofs are among the dozens of goofy entries shown in the historic 460-seat Hollywood Theatre. Past viewings have included the silly classic, It Came from the Lint Trap and the quirky The Lady from Sockholm, a film noir featuring sock puppets. The fest is usually staged at the end of March, with a packed house at each screening.
Up to 14,000 visitors head to west-central Minnesota for Barnesville Potato Days in late August when this small town celebrates the lowly spud with a great menu of activities. The Potato Salad Cook-off attracts onlookers eager to compare the year's winning recipe with how Grandma used to make this popular picnic dish. Things can get messy during mashed potato wrestling, but the Miss Tator Tot pageant is much more refined. Of course, there is plenty of food to sample, including Norwegian lefse, potato pancakes, potato sausage, potato soup, and traditional German potato dumplings. On Friday, there's even a free French Fry Feed. Barnesville, tucked away in the fertile Red River Valley, has been honoring the crop of choice of many nearby farmers with this festival since 1938.
Billed as the biggest party in Texas, the Freer Rattlesnake Roundup held each May features nationally known country and Tejano artists...and loads and loads of snakes. In addition to daredevil snake shows, snake twirling displays, a carnival, arts and crafts, and fried rattlesnake to chaw, prizes are given out for the longest and smallest rattlesnakes, and for the most nonvenomous snakes brought to the fest by one person.
Billed as the nation's largest single-day festival featuring insects, BugFest attracts around 25,000 people to Raleigh each September. The event started in 1997 and now covers beekeeping demonstrations, a flea circus, and roach races. The festival features many exhibits on insects, from live spiders and centipedes, to displays on how bugs see. At Café Insecta, festivalgoers can sample Buggy Bean Dip with Crackers, Quivering Wax Worm Quiche, Stir-fried Cantonese Crickets over rice, and Three Bug Salad, among other aptly named goodies that actually include worms, ants, and related critters raised for cooking.
At the Nanaimo Marine Festival held in mid-July, up to 200 "tubbers" compete in the Great International World Championship Bathtub Race across a 36-mile course. Using just about any conceivable watercraft, most of which at least vaguely resemble a bathtub, contestants must make it to Vancouver's Fisherman's Cove across the Straits of Georgia. The first race was held in 1967 and activities have expanded since to include a food fair, craft show, Kiddies' Karnival, and waiters' race.
The annual Secret City Festival highlights the important role Oak Ridge played in World War II. In the 1940s, researchers there developed the top secret atomic bomb -- hence the city's nickname -- and today visitors can tour Manhattan Project sites to see where the bomb was devised. One of the country's largest World War II reenactments is also a popular draw, with roaring tanks, motorcycles, and other vintage military gear. Each June, the event draws about 20,000 people to Oak Ridge, which is nestled between the picturesque Cumberland and Great Smoky Mountains.
The fun at the annual Frozen Dead Guy Days festival heats up Nederland during Colorado's typically frosty March. The fest commemorates a cryogenically-preserved Norwegian who has been kept in a shed by his grandson since 1994. Visitors are encouraged to come dressed as a frozen or dead character to a dance tagged "Grandpa's Blue Ball." Coffin races and a parade featuring antique hearses are among the liveliest attractions, along with salmon tossing and a frozen beach volleyball tournament. The event started in 2002 and annually attracts about 7,000 visitors.
Helen Davies, Marjorie Dorfman, Mary Fons, Deborah Hawkins, Martin Hintz, Linnea Lundgren, David Priess, Julia Clark Robinson, Paul Seaburn, Heidi Stevens, and Steve Theunissen
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