One With the Junk: On the Scene at "The World's Longest Yard Sale"
The World's Longest Yard Sale is 690 miles long. When we sent our reporter to western Ohio to drive 130 miles of it, he found more than he bargained for.
I am one with the junk.
I have beheld a toilet seat bedazzled in plastic rhinestones and a bobblehead of Gandhi. I have seen hammer pants and pants covered with pictures of hammers. I have witnessed a statue of McDonaldland’s Grimace sell to the highest bidder. I have seen more posters of Burt Reynolds naked than I care to admit.
For the first time in my life, I muttered, “I’ve seen it all” and actually meant it.
People here speak in hushed pseudo-religious tones. Like Zen Buddhists experiencing ego-death or Taoists whose selves have melted along The Way, the folks around me whisper about how this place makes you "lose yourself." They’ve lost track of the miles they’ve driven, the stops they’ve made, the minutes they’ve spent sorting through boxes of God-knows-what. This is their Straight Path: U.S. Route 127.
For four days every August, U.S. Route 127—a sleepy highway that needles four states, linking Michigan and Tennessee—transforms into the World’s Longest Yard Sale, what is arguably the planet’s greatest gathering of antiques, knickknacks, baubles, tchotchkes, bagatelles, trinkets, bric-a-brac, curios, gadgets, rummage, and every other polite synonym your nearest thesaurus can conjure for stuff.
The yard sale is long. So long, actually, that it extends past U.S. Route 127's southern terminus in Chattanooga and steams onto the Lookout Mountain Parkway and into Georgia and Alabama. In total, it stretches 690 miles.
In August 2017, on the sale’s third day, I visited the W.L.Y.S. with the vague hope that it might teach me something about America's relationship with stuff. After all, it’s from the disposed goods of bygone civilizations that archaeologists have learned about past cultures—and the W.L.Y.S. is, in a way, a thoroughly modern midden.
Could it say anything about who we are? I drove 130 miles of the sale's Ohio leg to find out.
Cornfields sweep endlessly across this slab of Ohio. The stalks bend in a motion that resembles ripples skiing across a pond, revealing the shape of the wind. Barns dappled in peeling paint and shining metal silos punctuate the horizon. Along the road, plastic folding tables sit shaded under canopy tents.
The W.L.Y.S. (formally called the 127 Corridor Sale) began as an attempt to lure drivers off the interstates and into this countryside, onto what travel writer William Least Heat-Moon called “blue highways,” the lacework of backroads crisscrossing the country's open spaces. Along this slice of U.S. 127, there’s a buffet of quirky cultural artifacts within reach: the Dum Dum Lollipops factory, the site of Annie Oakley's childhood home and her grave, a miniature Arc de Triomphe, a kitchen mixer factory that offers tours, one of the world’s finest mineral collections, a monument to the Hollow Earth movement, a Catholic shrine holding the relics of hundreds of saints, and the old Etch-a-Sketch factory.
But today, the only attractions are the bargains. Three miles south of Van Wert, Ohio, I stop at a bustling ranch house where faded road signs scarred with bullet holes and unopened glass Coca-Cola bottles predating the Truman administration are scattered on an emerald lawn. I approach two of the proprietors, a pair of button-downed fellas with their thumbs glued to the insides of their jean pockets. They proudly tell me that they've sold 60 percent of their stuff.
“The hard core people, they’re here before the third day of the sale. They want to have a pick of it,” the older man tells me. Behind him, car horns scream as a tractor-trailer jake brakes. He calmly nods to the road. “Yesterday’s traffic was real heavy. You’d have trouble making a left hand turn out of the driveway. Today is slower. You get more lookers.”
Saturday morning—what I mistook as the Holy Day of Haggling—is for amateurs.
Thankfully, I’m not here to add to my junk drawer. I'm here to test a theory. In the Houston Chronicle, Craig Hlavaty writes that “[Yard sales] offer a voyeuristic glimpse into other people’s lives. You can see their failed hobbies (lot of ex-bowlers in Houston), the fashion they discarded along the way (acid-washed overalls are coming back!), and even the trajectory of their children’s development. The first bicycles, the soccer pads, the stinky high school band uniform. You can track an entire life. Call it slacker anthropology.”
But it’s not slacker anthropology—it’s real anthropology. Before and after the sale, I consulted Gretchen Herrmann, one of the world's few yard sale anthropologists. Herrmann has attended thousands of sales and has published articles on everything from the peculiarities of American bargaining tactics to a typology describing the potpourri of people who attend sales (an academic ancestor to what could be a good internet listicle: “The 18 People You Will Always Meet at Yard Sales”).
But I’m most interested in research Herrmann presented in a 2011 issue of the journal Ethnology, where she argues that yard sales can function as a “secular rite of passage for Americans," which signal “a major shift in life orientation.” Like a wedding, graduation, or retirement party, a yard sale can help usher the end of one identity and the start of another.
The stuff you own is valuable to your identity. A diehard bowler’s game revolves around the personalized ball fitted to his or her hand. A gearhead can talk about the guts of their car engine in professorial detail. Our bromides about materialism—Do not let things define you! Treasure your relationships, not your possessions! You are what you do, not what you own!—neglect the truth that your possessions are essential to making your identity possible: Stuff says something about who you are and who you’re trying to become.
And Herrmann argues that the stuff you’re trying to discard says something too.
Yard sales, Herrmann writes, provide “a unique glimpse into the minor, but often transformative, life changes that punctuate our daily existence.” A yard sale is a tacit acknowledgment of changing times, changing identities. When you see a family selling a crib, bibs, and tiny shoes out of their garage on a Saturday morning, the subtext is clear: We are done having children! (When you see that same family buying a crib, bibs, and tiny shoes two years later, they’re announcing another personal transformation: Whoops, never mind!)
When life changes, so, too, does a person’s stuff: when the kids have grown out of their baby clothes, or when a child moves out of the house, or when your ex moves to the opposite coast, or when a loved one moves into a nursing home or dies. Look at downsizing sales: A couple moving in together may sell stuff to make room for their blended household. Decades later, when the stairs to the second floor become more intimidating, that same couple may hold another sale before they move to a smaller space.
Yard sales are unique because the general public is invited onto private property not only to witness these changes, but to take part in them. Many times, the most mundane belongings come attached with some type of story or sentiment. I dare you to visit Bed Bath & Beyond and find a sales associate who, with misty eyes, will stare longingly at a pair of oven mitts and tell a customer—with no regard for irony—that they deserve to be left in “good hands.”
That’s what I expect to find here.
When I ask the two salesmen in Van Wert if they are sad to sell anything, they look at me as if I had kindly requested they pull my finger.
“It’s for sale, isn’t it?” the older man says.
I realize most of the stuff isn't theirs. They go to auctions, buy whatever looks promising, and liquidate at the W.L.Y.S. I move on.
Two miles later, I stop at a sale littered with handmade jewelry, jars of marbles, and belt buckles shaped like cornhusks. If you can dream it, there’s a salt and pepper shaker here that resembles it. (Hand grenades? You bet. Nudist gnomes? A requirement. Turtles engaging in the unspeakable? Pass the salt, please!) Wedged between a rusty RV and rack of marionettes, an oil-stained gentleman inspects the sights of a hot pink .22 caliber rifle, aiming to the clouds.
Multiple vendors are here. Next to a beige 1971 camper stuffed with Jenga-like stacks of cardboard boxes, one of them—an older woman named Deb—holds court from a webbed lawn chair. She wears a wide-brimmed black sunhat and has an ear-to-ear smile. When I ask about her stuff, she shrugs. “We get all this at auctions. It’s to supplement a low income of social security.”
A young girl clutching a necklace of brown beads waddles toward Deb. Her father, a wiry man with a patchy pencil moustache and a baggy sleeveless t-shirt, leans and whispers, “Could you lower this down to $2?”
The price had been $3. Deb nods.
“We go to auctions and will buy a whole tableful for a dollar," Deb continues. "We throw some of it in the trash can before we leave, keep what we want, and then we sell the rest.” Last year, she made nearly $1500 at the W.L.Y.S.
Further down U.S. 127, the main street of Celina, Ohio, resembles a fairground. In front of a stately Victorian home, four middle-aged women and an older man bask under a shade tree, selling what's billed as “antiques.” My eye wanders to a black-and-white photo of Andy Griffith lookalikes dressed in drag.
This and everything else came from auctions.
I'm disappointed. One woman is kind enough to throw me a bone. “Sometimes you run into that, where someone died and they’re getting rid of their stuff,” she says. “But we got this stuff to get rid of it.” She nods sideways in the direction of the older man, who appears conked out in a lawn chair, his eyes masked by sunglasses. “We still have grandpa, so we don’t have anything to get rid of yet.”
“Hear that, grandpa?” she yells his way. “You’re not for sale.”
Grandpa, motionless, says nothing.
America loves big things like the W.L.Y.S. Just ask Teddy Roosevelt. In 1886, Roosevelt scanned a crowd in the Dakota Territory and bellowed, “Like all Americans, I like big things: big prairies, big forests and mountains, big wheat fields, railroads and herds of cattle too; big factories, steamboats and everything else.” Size, Roosevelt realized, resonated uniquely in America.
Americans today live in some of the world’s biggest homes, drive some of the world’s biggest vehicles, and eat some of the world’s biggest meals. And it's growing. American vehicles are 800 pounds heavier than they were in the 1980s. The televisions sold at hangar-like superstores would fail to fit inside most European cars. Homes in the United States are 1000 square feet larger today than they were in 1973. Our reputation for size is internationally recognized: In Israel, the largest burger in McDonald’s restaurants is called “The Mega Big America.”
Amid a collection of military canteens and clocks crafted from frying pans, a professional picker would revel in the yard sale’s size. “Right now, this road’s probably got 100 times the traffic on it than it usually has,” he says. (A hot tip for introverts: If you’re anxious about chatting with strangers at the W.L.Y.S., just bring up the traffic.) In his 40 years of picking, he’s seen nothing like this. “It’s just so darn BIG!”
To learn why bigness is so appealing, I spoke with Michael T. Clarke, an associate professor of English at the University of Calgary. Few people have thought about America’s admiration of size as much as Clarke, whose book on the topic, These Days of Large Things: The Culture of Size in America, attempts to pinpoint the origins of the obsession.
Clarke suggests the success of the W.L.Y.S roots back to a substantial attitude-shift that occurred during the late 19th century. Before the 1860s, Americans were relatively ambivalent about size. Approximately 80 percent of Americans lived in small villages, and they viewed America not as a single, giant, unified nation but as a hodgepodge of small, disjointed places. The United States was a “society of island communities,” writes historian Robert H. Wiebe. You see this attitude reflected in the newspapers and political speeches of the time, which commonly referred to the country as plural—these United States—instead of as a single large entity: the United States.
Those attitudes changed during a rapid technological boom between the 1870s and 1930s that saw train and telegraph lines connect the country. With mass communication came mass distribution, and with mass distribution came mass culture. America’s first chain stores, magazine ads, and national catalogues appeared. By the turn of the century, more Americans viewed themselves not as members of cloistered communities but as part of something bigger, a change that, according to Clarke, had a subtle yet profound effect on people’s expressions of patriotism. “The geography of a country influences the ways people think about national identity,” Clarke told me. “If you live in a very large country, elements like size will get celebrated in one way or another.”
The swelling American city was also a major influence. Millions of immigrants poured in. Technological improvements in farming machinery pushed millions of rural people out of agricultural communities and into urban areas. In 1870, only 14 cities had a population exceeding 100,000. By 1920, that list grew to more than 80 cities. As more Americans gravitated to dense urban cores, they also gravitated toward a consensus that big places were the best places to live.
Cities accommodated this growth by building bigger government buildings: bigger libraries, bigger courthouses, and bigger transit terminals. When the skyscraper made its debut, it was lauded as distinctly American; the architect William A. Starrett boasted that, “We Americans always like to think of things in terms of bigness; there is a romantic appeal in it, and into our national pride has somehow been woven the yardstick of bigness.”
In the span of just a few decades, “The cities in which [Americans] resided, the buildings they occupied, the vehicles in which they traveled, the stores in which they shopped, the businesses in which they worked, the machines that helped them complete their work, and the places they ventured for entertainment” had grown to sizes once unthinkable—a transformation that subtly altered how Americans saw their place in the world, writes Clarke. “Failing to explain their suddenly transformed world by any familiar values, people seized upon size and amount as a criterion of value.”
This shift is mirrored in the words of the era's newspapers and newsmakers. In 1909, The New York Times said, “Bigness in American industry and commerce is coming to be popularly associated with honest American progress.” Louis Brandeis, later a Supreme Court Justice, complained that, “Anything big, simply because it was big, seemed to be good and great.”
The “bigger is better” shtick has been an American siren song since. Want evidence? Get in the car. The American roadside hosts the world’s largest can of spinach, fork, purple spoon, Jolly Green Giant, blue ox, blue crayon, paint can, ham, hamster wheel, cuckoo clock, mailbox, brick, fire hydrant, chocolate waterfall, hairball, popcorn ball, crystal ball, Lucille Ball, Santa Claus, cantaloupe, stethoscope, and jackalope. The country is home to at least 35 exceptionally oversized chairs.
Nearly all of these attractions—where size and kitsch meld—are located in the countryside. And that's no accident, Clarke tells me. “Small towns are uniting to create a big event that will attract people from big towns back to the small towns. It uses the gimmick of bigness to try to preserve smallness.”
This scheme works brilliantly for the W.L.Y.S. No giant PR firm coordinates the event. It’s more or less independently executed by a necklace of small towns across six states. (It’s always held in early August to avoid traffic incidents with school buses.) In Fentress County, Tennessee—the sale's headquarters—the W.L.Y.S contributes “a great deal” of the county’s annual 12 million tourism dollars. In Ohio, the state Chamber of Commerce estimates that the typical W.L.Y.S. visitor pumps $150 into the local economy.
Nobody knows how many people visit the W.L.Y.S., but estimates suggest it draws enough people to pack a college football stadium or three. Hotels are booked weeks in advance. It’s not crazy to suggest that tens of millions of dollars change hands on this 690-mile ribbon of highway every August.
Gretchen Herrmann warned me about the dealers. Most genuine yard sales, she explained, are more spontaneous; planned events—especially one of this size—are easily commercialized and overtaken by vendors, antique dealers, and auction-going hobbyists. There's nothing wrong with this, it's just that the W.L.Y.S. might be more accurately billed as "The World's Longest Flea Market."
Over the first 40 miles, I chatted with more than two dozen salespeople, and none of them had stories or memories about their stuff. Even the most universal clichés crumble here: One person's trash is another person's treasure? Nah. It was never that person's trash to begin with.
The "treasure" bit is dubious, too. I’ve seen a lamp made out of ram’s feet, a used CPAP machine, chinaware emblazoned with Lyndon B. Johnson's face, the cracked shell of a gutted pipe organ, a novel that reimagines the results of the Civil War, a toy figurine of retired football quarterback Mark Brunell, broken fire hydrants, splintered bowling pins, tie-dye Bowie knives, cracked hubcaps, a cymbal-banging monkey (sans cymbals), Heineken-themed clogs, a Clint Eastwood puzzle missing half its pieces, an oversized poster of babies in bunny costumes, and the faded headshot of an unknown actor with the message scribbled “LONG LIVE THE BUBBLE ROOM.”
At mile 90, in North Star, Ohio, a table displays four gas weed-whackers and half a coconut shell. I swear this is the setup for a Zen koan.
In the town of Seven Mile, I purchase a yellowed newspaper, dated 1930, with the headline “HOOVER PLACES AN EMBARGO UPON PARROTS.” There is no good justification for buying this, but it cost one dollar, and when I ask the salesperson—a participant for the last decade—where he got it, he tilts back in his plastic chair and shrugs: “I don’t know. You just keep accumulating more!”
(As good an answer as any to that koan.)
In Eaton, Ohio, four campers, a school bus, and a gaggle of minivans park on the crumbling asphalt lot of an abandoned Big K-Mart. People sell stuff out of tubs or their trunks; one table is propped on cinder blocks. There are rusted wagons, an eyeless doll, and a faded bumblebee costume. One vendor hawks a hand-drawn sign with time-tested advice: “Pee not into the wind.”
And then I go junk blind.
I gaze over a campground of stuff and my mind goes blank. My brain activity resembles television static. Everything looks the same. I walk past the same table three times before I notice that somebody is trying to sell me melted candles.
Stumbling through the mindfog, I remember a quote from Robin Nagle, an anthropologist of trash, who told The Believer magazine that, “Every single thing you see is future trash.” I realize that nearly every object here will someday be compacted into the lasagna-like layers of a landfill.
Usually we can ignore this inconvenient truth because our system of trash disposal is so good at making junk disappear. But the W.L.Y.S. is a remedy to that cultural amnesia: You come face-to-face with 690 miles of stuff that could have been nonchalantly tossed into the garbage. You have no choice but to look.
It can be numbing. It can be disorienting. And it can make you feel hopeful.
The United States is among the most wasteful countries on the planet, explains Joshua Reno, an anthropologist specializing in waste. Every year, hundreds of millions of objects that still have potential for future use are mindlessly thrown away. “It’s not as if people throw things away because they are convinced that nobody could ever do anything with it,” Reno says. “It’s because throwing it away is all they know what to do with it.” Our mainstream system of waste disposal prioritizes personal expedience over the potential value of an object.
But what if we made alternative disposal methods—thrift shops, donation centers, “remakery” factories, Craigslist ads, recycling, and even gratuitously-long yard sales—just as common, convenient, and instinctual as tapping your toe on the pedal of a kitchen trash can? Would these systems, which do value the potential future of objects, help us become less wasteful?
The people at the W.L.Y.S believe so. Many of them have embraced this and other giant yard sales in the country: The US 11 Antique Alley and Yard Sale, which threads five states and stretches 502 miles through the back roads of Appalachia; the 400 Mile Sale along the Kentucky Scenic Byway; the twice-annual 392-mile-long Historic Highway 80 Garage Sale between Texas and Georgia; and the National Road Yard Sale on U.S. Route 40 between Baltimore and St. Louis, which spans 824 miles—134 miles longer than the "world's longest."
Herrmann estimates that these sales—combined with the hundreds of thousands of other small garage, yard, tag, barn, and rummage sales in the United States—contribute to roughly $3 billion in untaxed revenue every year. Think of it as $3 billion saved, if only temporarily, from the landfill.
The size of the W.L.Y.S. has turned the event into a veritable Hajj. Deal-hungry pilgrims travel across the country to be here: Long Island and Cape Cod, Dallas and El Paso, the Bahamas and Alaska. Some folks from the west coast reportedly fly to the W.L.Y.S., pick up rental cars, and drive all 690 miles. After reaching the finish line, they motor back toward the Pacific with their rental stuffed.
But after dozens of stops, I resign myself to failure. I have no stories about the life passages that brought those belongings into the public's gaze. It's bad enough that I am a fake anthropologist, but try being a terrible fake anthropologist.
Then I pass a solitary roadside sign with DOWNSIZING scribbled in thin sharpie. Still dazed, I travel a mile before what I saw registers.
Most of the placards along U.S. 127 make grandiose attempts to tug you off the road: Giant garage sale, next right! HUGE sale ahead! BIG ASS BARN SALE, one mile! (My favorite is fluorescent orange and painfully honest: Lots of Stuff That Ain’t Worth Fixin'.) These appeals to size work. All day I had stopped at these, believing that bigger places with bigger crowds would boost my chances of hearing something juicy. Instead, most led me to people who had no personal ties to the stuff they were selling.
It dawns on me that the unassuming sale in my rearview mirror might be different. I cut the wheel.
A woman named Cindy greets me. She holds a puppy, a mix between a Golden Retriever and what appears to be Snuggle Bear. There are board games, boxes of books, and a small gourd painted to depict a wintry scene. Cindy explains that her grandfather had died and that the family is moving her grandmother into a smaller house. The grandkids are helping make the move manageable with the sale. “She made square dancing dresses,” Cindy says, pulling a dress from a rack. It’s beautiful.
I never dreamed of having an epiphany on a gravel driveway in Darke County, Ohio. But it's here that the Ghost-of-Psychology-Professors-Past reminds me about a pesky thing called selection bias: I have wasted hours visiting places that coaxed oohs and ahhs, places with deep-fried Oreo vendors and port-a-potties and circus tents. Most genuine yard sales along U.S. 127 are modest and unflashy.
Stories of life passages would flood in. A woman sells a brown couch pocked with cigar holes because it stirs memories of a sour relationship. A man sells Merck manuals that belonged to his grandfather, a doctor, who is now a patient in a nursing home. An older couple, planning to downsize, sells fine china—a wedding gift they never used. A former cat lady sells all of her ceramic feline figurines.
At one stop, a young woman stands behind six long counters of rumpled baby clothes. Two toddlers wrestle in the grass near her bare feet. When I ask her if this indicates anything meaningful, she extends her arms à la Rocky Balboa and laughs.
“It means: To Hell with it! I’m getting my tubes tied!”
These brief glimpses into people's lives stretch on for hundreds of miles. As any seasoned yard sale treasure hunter knows, you just have to know where to look.