9 of the Strangest Festivals in America

Photo courtesy Trailing of the Sheep Festival

Photo courtesy Trailing of the Sheep Festival

Above photo courtesy of Trailing of the Sheep Festival


Story by Igor Guryashkin

Igor's work has appeared in The New Yorker, Salon and ESPN The Magazine. He lives in Louisville with his cats.

If you haven’t been to one of these truly unique events, then you just haven’t lived.

Festivals by their nature are designed to bring people together — they are the great equalizer. Whatever your culture or background, they allow you to gather around a common idea or shared interest. So what might make them even better? Well, throwing some weirdness into the mix, of course. When an event is a little out in left field, it can help create memories that last a lifetime. Here are some of the best offbeat festivals.


National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Nevada

Acting as an ode to life in the rural West, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, might be one of the more poignant selections on our list. Poetry, song and storytelling act as vessels, through which cowboys from around the country gather and explain the reality of life on the ranch. Every winter, this unique phenomenon welcomes thousands of cowpokes and city slickers alike.


Frozen Dead Guy Days, Colorado

Back in 1989, Norwegian Trygve Bauge arrived in the United States with the frozen body of his grandfather, looking for a permanent resting location. Originally housed in a California cryogenic facility, his grandfather Bredo eventually found his way into a Colorado shed where his daughter started preserving him with dry ice. There, Bredo has remained, assisted by various caretakers over the years. In honor of their esteemed frozen resident, the town of Nederland, Colorado, has hosted Frozen Dead Guy Days every March since 2002. What do they offer? Icy pond plunges, coffin races, turkey bowling, a frozen T-shirt contest and other assorted zaniness for thousands of attendees each year. For people who crave comfort, there’s also a “Bacon, Bourbon and Brews” tent.


Contraband Days, Louisiana

Now, you can dress like a pirate along with 100,000 other people who want to have swashbuckling fun. Contraband Days on Louisiana’s Lake Charles, now celebrating its 60th year, offers just that and more. It’s almost two weeks of pirate parades, live music, firing cannons and even a regatta.


Nola Bulls, Louisiana

Ever wanted to tap into your inner Hemingway and run with the bulls? Well, there’s no need to fly to Spain for that kind of adrenaline rush. In fact, you don’t even need bulls. That’s because, for over a decade, New Orleans has been playing host to its own version of Pamplona’s famous “Running of the Bulls.” The catch? Instead of frightening bulls, runners have to contend with some of the fiercest roller derby women from around the nation, all who happen to be wielding wiffle ball bats. Enter and run at your peril.


Roadkill Cook-Off, West Virginia

Take a drive along many of our nation’s highways, and you’ll see an assortment of wildlife — crows, opossums, deer, rabbits, squirrels and turkeys. Most of these critters have one thing in common: they’re dead. Well, a festival in Marlinton, West Virginia, has been putting these animals on a pedestal and cooking them for years. At the Roadkill Festival, teams compete to cook the best dish — like the recent winners who made a delicious Hillbilly Burgoo out of bear, chicken, rabbit and venison.


Fantasy Fest, Florida

If you’re looking to mix things up a little from New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, then perhaps Key West should be your next party destination. Is Fantasy Fest made for the whole family? Well, not quite — in the same way Mardi Gras isn’t. But this raunchy alternative to the Big Easy’s festivities should not be overlooked — 60,000 annual revelers at this eccentric, 10-day masquerade ball can’t be wrong. Oh, and if you simply can’t find child care, there are parades and arts and crafts events geared toward the whole family.


Trailing of the Sheep, Idaho

Speaking of life in the West, at one time, sheep outnumbered people almost six to one in Idaho. While that's not the case today, the traditions and culture of sheep herding are still strong. Around the towns of Hailey and Ketchum, tens of thousands gather every year. The main attraction is watching 1,500 sheep being marched between the small towns on their way to new pastures as part of the Trailing of the Sheep parade. There are also side events, like cooking classes, sheepdog trials, storytelling and a Sheepherder’s Ball. The festival just celebrated its 20th anniversary.


North American Wife Carrying Championship, Maine

Since 1999, Sunday River, a ski resort one hour outside of Portland, Maine, has hosted the annual North American Wife Carrying Championship. What’s that you ask? With origins tracing back to Finland, wife carrying is a fairly simple sport — you grab your wife, carry her over your shoulder and race. Now in its 18th year, this annual event will likely be as popular as ever. And why not? It’s hard to turn down the chance to win the prize of your wife’s weight in beer and five times her weight in cash.


Texas Renaissance Festival Texas

If you’re missing your weekly "Game of Thrones" fix, fear not. They do everything bigger in Texas, and that includes the nation’s largest Renaissance Festival. Around 50 miles outside of Houston is a 16th-century village, with all the prerequisite jousting, jugglers, fire-breathers and damsels in distress. Oh, and there are of course elves, trolls, kings and queens. Some weekends have outrageous themes — such as "Barbarian Invasion" and "Roman Bacchanal" — so stop by this fall and lose yourself in another age.

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