4 days, 690 miles, countless stalls: Behold the 'World's Longest Yard Sale'
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4 days, 690 miles, countless stalls: Behold the 'World's Longest Yard Sale'
In an image provided by Kendall Waldman, a range of cookware in Stanford, Ky. The 127 Yard Sale, an annual four-day event known as the “world’s longest yard sale,” is a test of endurance and attention. (Kendall Waldman via The New York Times)

by Kendall Waldman

NEW YORK, NY.- To the visitor driving in from out of state, the 127 Yard Sale seems like a kind of Ironman for thrifters. The “world’s longest yard sale” is a test of endurance and attention. Spanning six states, 690 miles and thousands of stalls, it traverses dramatic landscapes, delicate cultural terrain and two time zones. Seeing it all in the four allotted days — Aug. 3-6 this year — is enough to induce vertigo in even the most stable-minded deal hunter. But some of us are foolish enough to try anyway.

The event was designed to promote cultural and economic exchange. In 1987, Mike Walker, then a 28-year-old county executive in Jamestown, Tennessee, conceived of it as a way to lure travelers off the Interstate and into the small towns along U.S. Route 127, from Jamestown to Covington, Kentucky. In the following decades, it spread south to Georgia and Alabama and inched north to Ohio and then Michigan.

The 127 Yard Sale is fluid, kinetic, alive. This makes it a bit hard to find its official beginning. Driving down 127, I started to see “yard sale” signs long before reaching its northernmost point in Addison, Michigan. We asked some guys at a gas station where they thought it started. They pointed to a nearby Baptist church, and soon we were standing in an orderly marketplace on a plot of pine and grass. Here I saw the first arrays of glassware, the first piles of free naked dolls, the dubbed VHS tapes, the loose silverware, the lines of floating dresses.

This couldn’t be a contiguous sale — or could it? The Facebook group I’d joined suggested that Michigan was the sparsest section. But even here, we could hardly drive a quarter mile without spying a Sharpied invitation to a “Barn Sale” a mile away, or “Thousands of Items, CHEAP, 4th House on Your Left.” A subtle terror began to take hold — a respect for the enormous scale of the thing.

“You’re never going to make it,” a gentleman in a chicken-patterned Havana shirt informed me, with his wife by his side, nodding. “You’re not even in Ohio yet and look how much time you spent talking to us.” I was ashamed to tell them that this was only our second stop. Tracy Tupman and Megan Mateer turned out to be co-owners of a prop rental company in Ohio — and veterans of the yard sale. They pull up here every year in an empty truck and trailer that they expect to fill up well before the last day. Intentional thrifters, they came prepared with a list of objects they hope to secure for future productions.

They showed me their DeLorme road atlas, dog-eared, with ballpoint asterisks. “That town around Carthagena has a big chicken,” Tupman said. “It’s about 20 feet tall. You can’t miss it.” We did miss it, but only because we ignored their parting advice: Don’t go off-road. “If you’ve ended up in a single household front yard, you’re off-track.”

Before too long, the 127 Yard Sale starts to seem like a survey of American manufacturing. Flotsam from Michigan’s automotive industry has made its way downstream into the gumline of nearby Appalachia, and every lawn seemed to bear the car companies’ merch: plaques, plates, paperweights, duffel bags, key fobs, deadstock stationery, promotional wrench sets, watches engraved with commemorations of forgotten journeymen.

That first morning, I bought an old cotton sweater. After watching me pay for it and immediately return for some Wedgwood dessert plates, a fellow thrifter warned my boyfriend to keep our money separate, lest I wipe him out by Ohio. At the edge of the parking lot a sign said, “The Lord Will Provide.”

One of the remarkable things about exploring America by car is that you can begin to feel the states change long before you see the signs. Mile by mile, the landscape changes imperceptibly — the grass slowly changes hues, the sky inches closer or begins to hold its clouds differently. As we crossed the state line into Ohio, corn gave way to sunflowers, low fruiting trees replaced pines. Yellow roadside diamonds urged respect toward horse-drawn carriages.

Mennonites became fixtures of the sale. They sold traditional items: dilly beans, horse-churned ice cream, fresh-cut flowers, wooden carvings and a heartbreaking number of puppies. Their children were shy but excitable in the face of so many nonbelievers. Among the piles of pilled Lycra blends and polyesters, their plain dress stood out. It read as luxury, utilitarian haute couture. I bought myself a bonnet at one of their stands. Nodding approvingly, the seller informed me: “Most of our customers are defiant women.”

Deep in farm country, the pull of northern industrial towns could still be felt. One couple had a baroque volume of German sausage recipes, published by the Oscar Mayer corporation. The owners knew it was one of their prize pieces. The husband grew up in Wisconsin near one of the sausage conglomerate’s biggest factories and told me that it shut down a few years back. There were only a few copies left, he said.

The number of sales increased in Kentucky. People were friendly, chatty, open about everything but their politics. The church may reign supreme here, but people don’t pretend to be purists. They’re frank about their lapses and relapses. I heard people telling their neighbors, friends and perfect strangers about treatment centers for opioid addiction, about loved ones struggling through it, about those who didn’t make it and where their graves are.

Sometimes the friendliness and good humored conversation masked an anxiety about making a sale. My boyfriend flirted with buying a chicken-shaped fan, discounted because of its missing tail. The two women selling it — good-humored friends who had helped each other through a series of hardships — were proud of the piece, and disappointed when we left without it. “We’ve only made $8 so far,” they said. They had a bunch of photo frames for sale, one of them containing a sign for a diaper raffle. A sign over another stall advertised “Old Bottles and Basset Hound Puppies.” The seller’s son held one of the fat-bellied puppies — $450 each — tenderly in his lap, sad to see them go. A nearby needlepoint wall hanging, listed for 50 cents, read: “Friends are the best collectibles.”

The dream of interstate exchange seems to be flagging these days. Vendors seemed surprised when they learned I’d come from New York, and could recall the handful of other tourists they’d encountered.

To the novice, the sales seemed to be buzzing, but almost every vendor told us otherwise. A number of people speculated that high gas prices and heat were keeping people away. It was better attended in 2020, when COVID was moving like brush fire.

Like many vendors I spoke to, Lisa Hardin said this would probably be her last time participating. At a little intersection in Junction Station, Kentucky, she was selling oval bowls made from buckeye, Ohio’s slender state tree with a signature steel-blue grain. They were exquisite pieces, at once natural and high design. Her grandfather started making these in the 1970s. He taught her brother and cousin the craft, but wood dust and working life got in the way. Once these 10 bowls on the table were gone, the tradition would be, too.

Heat-dumb and anxious to keep moving, I found the $50 price tag a bit rich for my blood. About 15 miles away, the bowl started to haunt me as only a great shopping mistake can. That was a special item, I told myself; it had sung to me. I could imagine children I don’t have fighting over it when I’m dead. I tried to find Hardin’s bowls on the internet, but like a lot of the treasure here it was painfully offline.

Soon the temperature became unbearable. Vendors took open-mouth naps in their stadium chairs or vans. “I don’t know why the sale has to happen in August,” Ashley Klette, a teacher’s aid in Owenton, Kentucky, told me. Buyers moved slowly, looking closely as they navigated bins, shelves and boxes, the hedge maze of tents. They had the soft gaze of bird watchers, coming into ponderous focus when they spotted something that piqued their interest.

Almost every major stop had a Trump-merch stall. Confederate flags were another reliable presence, often alongside switchblades, crossbows, weed-leaf bucket hats and pink rhinestoned T-shirts. Some 50 yard sales in, the repetition became hypnotic. And we had yet to reach its epicenter, where the whole thing started.

When we drove into Tennessee, it was all blue fog, green leaves and black stone rivers. The roads switch-backed up mountains, a collar of trees protecting motorists from the fact of their ascension till the sky suddenly split open onto a vista. One sale, wedged in the curve of a mountain pass, had a table filled with Fisher-Price and Mattel toys that hummingbirds were trying to pollinate.

In Tennessee, the 127 Yard Sale scales up. The whole thing is professionalized. There were major stops every few miles. People ate ribbon potatoes, pulled pork, funnel cakes and fried pies, drank sweet tea from food trucks and lemonade from children’s stands. Ice-cold water was sold from coolers for $1.

Neighbors brought each other potatoes and tomatoes and eggs, gossiped, complained about the heat, shared their finds.

I met a man in Pall Mall, Tennessee, minding his daughter’s yard sale and feeding her chickens the biscuit part of his breakfast sandwich. We introduced ourselves — “Joe Poor, spelled like the opposite of rich.” I gushed about how gothically pretty this part of the country is. “They say God waved his hand over Fentress County twice,” he replied.

Saturday, the third day of the sale, had a kind of euphoria to it. Sweaty and dirty, I’d snagged a hand-painted “Wizard of Oz” dish set for $20, a heavy cluster of silver Figaro chains with dice charms, a knockoff Gaultier dress, a silk handkerchief, a Victorian candy dish for my cat and a purse shaped like a bullfrog.

In the late afternoon, temperatures edged up toward 100. Deals happened fast. The objects on display, it seemed, were the last things worth buying; anything desirable would be snatched up this very hour, and it was only getting hotter, brighter and denser.

In Cumberland County, a Memphis-fever-dream dollhouse — aqua-glass brick exterior, heart-shaped Jacuzzi, a lacquered spiral staircase — caught my eye. The owner, Myra Ramsey, hadn’t missed the sale once in the past 35 years. I was curious to know how it’s changed. “The biggest change is less people,” she said. “A lot less people.”

In the early years, she told me, U.S. Route 127 was bumper-to-bumper traffic as far as the eye could see. Her husband had to perform makeshift crossing-guard duties to get their cows across the road for twice-a-day milking. Salegoers hung out in the backs of trucks with their van doors open, the road itself becoming a kind of event, even if it took an hour to go a mile.

On the last morning of the sale, a storm front announced itself, circling up from the Gulf. The southern tip of the sale had been hit a few days earlier. Extreme weather is the bane of all outdoor commerce. If vendors were checking their phones — a rare sight around here — it was to check the forecast, now so intimately intertwined with their fortunes.

The skies oscillated between drizzle and total downpour. It felt like the end of the party. What was left felt ragged, patchy, a mass grave of objects that failed to find their next home. Abandoning our end-to-end ambitions was unthinkable at this point, though, so despite the rain we sped south. There were another 100 miles and two states, after all.

On the short detour through northern Georgia, the sale departed from its eponymous route. The official website, which is charmingly early internet, gives turn-by-turn instructions, a throwback to the days of MapQuest, when you had to print out instructions and actually mind the road signs. It was a huge comfort to reach Alabama, where the sale returns to its one-road principle.

The day was still and loud, and the drizzle made steam rise off mulch piles and muddy fields. The sky was green, then gray. A full-blown tempest hit, the downpour overwhelming the wipers, wind shaking the car, lightning spraying horizontally across the sky. On this final stretch, the yard sales were plentiful but unmanned. Apparently, the sellers had warily rebuilt their displays after the storm had passed and abandoned them again at the first hint of recurrence.

Our hope flared up again during a short dry spell. We got out at a fairground and inspected a downed pole, twisted with a dozen sodden Trump flags, wrapped up like a crepe. As we neared the final stop, in Gadsden, Alabama, we saw what had driven everyone away. Stalls had been tossed like chip bags in the wind, trees were snapped in half, power lines were down, shards of goods were tossed to the woods like offerings. The temporariness of the yard sale had reasserted itself, now as calamity.

Stepping out of the car in Gadsden, with no more sales to look forward to, felt like getting off a treadmill. The movement of the sale was now within me. Every time I saw old stuff piled outside someone’s house, something in me jumped. I was surrounded by a version of the world I had known before: multistory buildings, paved parking lots, so many cars headed in all directions, big businesses, and the people and their lives that maintain all this commerce, and I started to see it wholesale, and then in parts. I could imagine all these buildings turned inside out and shaken like jeans pockets, all the stuff splayed on the lawn — relics, fossils, salvage.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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