Aparade of hearses is snaking its way along Nederland’s main street. The waft of barbecued meat, craft beer and Colorado’s other legal mood enhancer of choice, marijuana, hang in the air. The dozen-or-so vintage Cadillacs and Buicks are customised liberally with studded steel plating, tinted windows, and undead paraphernalia. There are gladiators, ghost-busters, and the obligatory scary clowns. Zombie Elvis is dancing to the Bee Gee’s Stayin’ Alive, which is blasting out from a speaker over my head.
For most of the year, Nederland, Colorado, leads a fairly sleepy existence. Its elevation – 2,510 meters above sea level – and deep winter snow makes it a remote, if beautiful, location, studded with Aspen trees and colourful clapboard houses. It’s popular with hikers, climbers, and those who choose to live on the fringes.
But on the second weekend of March each year, thousands of people descend on this small Rocky Mountain town. A Wookie lumbers across the road, holding up traffic. A polar bear manages not to spill his pint as he stumbles on a patch of snow. They’re here for a three-day party known as Frozen Dead Guy Days – and things are about to get weird.
The festival has its origins in a real-life frozen dead guy named Bredo Morstøl. He was discovered in Nederland in a DIY cryogenic facility set up by his grandson, Trygve Bauge.
Trygve, a Norwegian who believes in the life-prolonging benefits of bathing in ice, was deported from the US in 1994 after overstaying his visa. It was only then that the body of Bredo, frozen in dry ice and housed in a shed, came to the attention of authorities. They swiftly passed an emergency decree making it a “nuisance” to keep dead bodies on private property.
But as Bredo was there before the law was passed, he was “grandfathered-in” and allowed to stay. And he’s still there, housed in a mountainside Tuff Shed and visited fortnightly by a caretaker who refreshes him with 900 pounds of dry ice.
In 2002, Nederland’s residents founded a small festival celebrating their claim to fame as the town with the “frozen dead guy”. Since then, the event has grown steadily, and there were more than 20,000 festival-goers this year.
Among the macabre festivities is the coffin race, where teams of six “pallbearers” lug a casket with a “corpse” through a snowy obstacle course. There’s also a polar plunge, though this year it was relocated from the frozen Barker Meadow reservoir to a rather more health-and-safety-friendly (yet still icy) swimming pool.
If that’s not enough to give you goosebumps, there’s a frozen T-shirt contest, where contestants race to don folded T-shirts that are frozen solid. Other activities include a frozen salmon toss and turkey bowling , where participants line up to lob a frosty bird at a bunch of skittles.
Depending on your preference, refreshment comes from Colorado craft breweries such as Upslope and Vail Brewing Co, or cannabis goods like “sweet grass cookies” and “stoned cold drinks”.
And as you’d expect from a mountain-west festival, the live music tents are crammed with more rock, gypsy swing, and bluegrass bands than you can shake a banjo at, with names like Gasoline Lollipops and Dead Floyd – a Grateful Dead / Pink Floyd mash-up act.
Many small festivals which start out under the radar suffer the fate of commercialisation, and Frozen Dead Guy Days is no exception; this year the corporate sponsorship is as notable as the significantly larger crowds. But as day turns to evening the frozen turkey bowling is still going strong, and people are spilling out of the Tuff Shed Tiny Disco to dance in the street.
• frozendeadguydays.org, 2017 dates tbc. The festival is free, but there is a $10 fee to enter the music tents; coffin race entry $70 per team; polar plunge $20 per person. Getting there: this year a free shuttle bus ran to Nederland from Denver (45 miles) and Boulder (17 miles) during the festival. The Magnuson Hotel Nederland has rooms from $146 a night
FIVE MORE ECCENTRIC US FESTIVALS
UFO Festival, Roswell, New Mexico
Ever since a mysterious object crashed near Roswell US air force base in 1947, the town has been a go-to destination for ufologists and believers in extraterrestrial beings. The UFO Festival sidesteps potential government conspiracies, with highlights including a costume contest, a 10K race, and a parade.
• Free, 30 June-3 July 2016, ufofestivalroswell.com
Testicle Festival, Clinton, Montana
Not for the fainthearted, the main attractions of Montana’s “Testy Festy” are the Undie 500 – where hundreds of people race in their underwear – and a contest to see who can eat the most Rocky Mountain oysters (bull testicles) in four minutes.
• General admission $17, tents $35, August 2016, testyfesty.com
San Fermin Festival, New Orleans
Like the traditional San Fermin running of the bulls festival in Spain, only without the bulls. Instead, visitors to this New Orleans event are chased by roller derby girls, who will whack you with a foam wiffle ball bat if they catch up with you.
• $40, July 8-10 2016, nolabulls.com
Roadkill Cook-off, Marlinton, West Virginia
Not one for vegetarians … With dishes such as squirrel gravy, teriyaki-marinated bear, and deer sausage on the menu, this is a foodie festival like no other. Among the winning dishes in last year’s cook-off competition were Busted Tailgate BBQ Macaroni and Cheese and Bear Butt Savory Stew.
• Free, 23-24 September 2016, pccocwv.com/roadkill
Wisconsin State Cow Chip Throw, Prairie du Sac
In case you didn’t know, cow chips are dried-up pieces of cow dung. Every year, 40,000 people gather in the village of Prairie du Sac to watch people throw them as far as they can. The current state record is an impressive 248 feet (75.5 metres).
• Free, 2-3 September 2016, wiscowchip.com