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Roadtrips to Weirdness: Mapping out a summer’s worth of festival fandangos

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By  Tom Clynes

Done all the local festivals? Looking for an excuse to roadtrip? Within a day’s drive of Chicago, the Heartland summer is heaving with festivals and celebrations. Here’s a sample of Midwest happenings:

• Madison, Nebraska’s Days of Swine and Roses combines humbuggery and haute pork.  Highlights include a hog-calling contest—and the related husband-calling event—as well as the challenging Farm Olympics and the breathtaking Women’s Chore Outfit Fashion Show. Stay downwind of the Smelly Boot Competition, but line up for the mouth-watering pork BBQ and the new Kiss a Pig Contest. Madison lies about 100 miles northwest of Omaha on U.S. 81; for information call 402.454.2251.

• You wouldn’t expect Mozart to show up at a Mozart festival, or Robert Johnson to come sauntering into a blues festival. Yet each year at the Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, music lovers expect the Almighty Creator of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe. Bean Blossom’s annual shindig will bring the genre’s top pickers and grinners (as well as thousands of amateur musicians) to Monroe’s 100-acre park. Bean Blossom is five miles north of Nashville, Indiana, about halfway between Bloomington and Columbus. From I-65 exit at Route 46 and head west to Nashville, then north on Route 135. For information, call 615.868.3333.

• The Lumberjack World Championships brings muscle-bound sawyers, speedchoppers, chainsaw racers and axe-tossers to Hayward, Wisconsin. A red-flanneled, suspendered crowd will choose the world’s best lumberjack amid the hearty smells of red cedar, roast pork and turkey drumsticks. The logrolling competition is a bit like love, in that all’s fair except crossing the line or throwing a punch. Rollers—some of the best are women—can rock the log, jump up and down, kick water in an opponent’s face, or spin the log so quickly that it whirls across the water. Hayward is about 100 miles north of Eau Claire, on U.S. 63. For information, call 715.634.2484.

• The early-eighties sighting of a UFO in Elmwood, Wisconsin has caused celebration for more than a decade. Dances, parades, sporting events and self-directed tours of UFO sighting spots loom among the highlights of UFO Days. The town promotes itself as the ideal landing site for otherworldly vacationers—so far, their efforts seem to have drawn mostly humans, but you never can be sure that the old man standing next to you is exactly what he seems. Elmwood is about 35 miles west of Eau Claire, just off I-94. For information call 715.639.4132.

• The Black Hills thunder with the sound of “hogs” as thousands of Harley-riders roar into Sturgis, South Dakota each August for the Sturgis Rally and Races. The top Harley-Davidson gathering in the world is a great place to see great bikes and great parts —both mechanical and human. Main Street teems with tens of thousands of motorcycles, and the outskirts of town host concerts, hill climbs, races, short-track and 1/2-mile sprints, and national-level drag racing events. Sturgis is just off I-90, about 30 miles west of Rapid City. For information, call 605.347.6570.

• Britt, Iowa celebrates the carefree life of the freewheeling freight-jumper at the annual National Hobo Convention. Though the numbers of bona-fide depression-era drifters get fewer every year (a memorial service is held at the town’s Hobo Cemetery), about 20,000 people participate in hobo contests, parades, flea markets and classic car shows. Britt’s Hobo Jungle hosts story-swapping and poetry readings, and the town provides 500 gallons of Mulligan stew—the classic hobo meal made from whatever happens to be at hand—free of charge. Britt is in north-central Iowa; from I-35 take exit 194 and go west on U.S. 18. For information call 515.843.3867.

Tom Clynes wrote “Wild Planet! 1,001 Extraordinary Events for the Inspired Traveler” and “Music Festivals from Bach to Blues” (both Visible Ink Press, $18.95).

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