The Highway 127 Yard Sale is a six-hundred-mile junk extravaganza stretching from Alabama to Michigan.
Every August, hordes of people come from all over the U.S. to ride the rural route. It starts in the South, shoots through the Midwest, and finally ends in the Great Lake State.
My wife and I leave Birmingham early, heading for Gadsden, where the route begins. We haven’t done the Highway 127 Yard Sale since we were first married, back in the winter of 1912.
The traffic in Birmingham is nightmarish. People drive like they’ve just escaped from a psychiatric unit. Motorists in the left lane drive upward of a hundred miles per hour and honk at you if you travel slower than the sound barrier.
I do not drive fast enough for Birmingham. I know this because while I am driving, a man in a Land Rover rolls his window down and shows me the Universal Finger Gesture.
He actually takes the time to roll his window down, thereby interrupting his important text-message conversation.
But once we hit the rural parts, the world becomes more relaxed again. There is a feel to this part of Alabama that can’t be described. It’s like exhaling.
There is an epidemic of kudzu, and an exciting buzz in the air because of all the yard-salers. It’s the same kind of excitement that accompanies all major life-events such as weddings, baptisms, and the Winston Cup Series.
Soon, we see white canopy tents lining the highway. Miles of tents. Miles and miles. And I hear choirs of angels singing in the distance because I know that beneath each of these tents is:
I am a connoisseur of junk. A collector, if you will. Inside my garage are mountains of boxes containing rare antiques that—according to many well-respected experts—are worthless.
For instance, I have a collection of Englebert Humperdink records which I have never listened to because I do not care for Englebert Humperdink. But I found the records in Texas, years ago, and I bought them because they were only a dollar.
I also have boxes of antique kitchen utensils. When we first got married, I was really into old utensils because they reminded me of my granny.
I bought things like spring whisks, cookie cutters, spatulas, potato mashers, potato ricers, potato peelers, French-fry cutters, ice picks, egg beaters, and gravy ladles.
I collected hundreds of these until one day I had a harsh wake up call. I realized my collecting addiction was out of control when someone almost got hurt.
My cousin’s son was innocently horsing around in our kitchen and nearly injured himself with a melon-baller.
After that, I quit collecting utensils, cold turkey. Because there comes a time when enough is enough.
So I started collecting old tools instead. Also, mounted cattle horns.
Now we are in Tennessee. Dozens of tents are in an open field. There is a man sitting on an overturned bucket. He wears a cowboy hat and talks slow.
“Howdy,” he says.
“Howdy,” I say.
“Hot enough for ya?”
And this is pretty much how all yard sale conversations go.
Soon, I am browsing old tobacco pipes, oil cans, John Wayne memorabilia, and pocketknives.
I meet a man named Jerry, and his wife, Ellie. They are from Cincinnati.
“We do the yard sale every year,” says Jerry. “Fourteen years and counting.”
“This year,” says Ellie, “we brought a flatbed trailer so we can carry all our crap home.”
My wife and I keep driving, and hiking through more scalped corn fields. There are vendors selling things like Dale Earnhardt throw rugs, Bear Bryant oven mitts, and American flag thong bikinis.
I meet a man named “Bug” who is selling barbecue.
“How’d you get that name?” I ask Bug.
“Short for Taterbug,” he says.
Bug’s barbecue sandwiches are wrapped in foil, piled in a cooler. He is a large man, shirtless, wearing a John Deere cap.
“My son made the pork,” Bug says. “And I make the sauce.”
He hands me a bottle of barbecue sauce. The homemade label has artwork on it. It is a drawing of Bug, who is holding hands with a saintly bearded man in a white tunic.
“My niece drew the picture,” Bug says. “That’s me, and I’m holding hands with—”
“Let me guess,” I say. “Jesus?”
We shop for several hours. My wife buys an antique doorknob and a cheese-straw maker. I buy an old suitcase, three belt buckles, and a rusted license plate.
After a full day of walking across open fields, sweating, buying junk, we eat supper at a meat-and-three joint in Chattanooga. We are looking at menus, and I am remembering things. Lots of things.
Like the last time we did the Highway 127 Yard Sale. We were newlyweds. Two kids, driving across the United States. And it was one of the greatest thrills of my life. Being with her.
And I’m thinking about how we’re not kids anymore. Not even close.
My wife closes her menu. “What’re you going to order?”
“I don’t know.”
“I love you,” I say.
She smiles. “Me too.”
There is a lot more I could tell you about today, but it will have to wait. These Englebert Humperdink 8-track tapes aren’t going to play themselves.