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GRAHAM YELTON
GRAHAM YELTON

Welcome to the Body Farm

GRAHAM YELTON
GRAHAM YELTON

By Rene Ebersole

Beyond the border of an ordinary parking lot lies the most cutting-edge graveyard in the world … and a hands-on lab for cops and forensic anthropologists.

It was Valentine's Day when the gravediggers finished. The crew stood there waiting, their long-sleeved shirts drenched from a mixture of cold rain and sweat. At their feet were the holes—four of them—dug deep into the heavy clay. Nearby, young women and men in rubber gloves and medical gowns prepared to haul the cadavers down the hill.

Picking their way through the barren woodland, they carried 10 bodies to the burial site. Into the first ditch, the widest, they placed six corpses. In the second, they arranged three more. Just one body went into the third grave. The last was left empty. Then the gravediggers picked up their shovels and filled the holes.

Nicknamed “the body farm,” the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center is the oldest and most established of only four such facilities in the country. Since its inception in the early ’80s, its three wooded acres have been rife with corpses: bodies stuffed inside cars, enshrouded in plastic, rotting in shallow graves. Among them, grad students dutifully clock hours combing corpses for insects, while law enforcement agents undergo crime-scene training exercises.

It’s here, using donated cadavers, that scientists have pioneered some of the most innovative techniques in forensic science, particularly practices that help investigators pinpoint time of death—that linchpin of criminal cases that so often determines whether a killer is charged or set free. “The research we do at the facility is predominantly based on decomposition,” says center director Dawnie Steadman, “but we’re expanding that tremendously.” Now, as the bodies rest in those four anonymous graves, the center is primed to undertake a cutting-edge three-year experiment that may help scientists uncover clandestine burial sites in the world’s most dangerous conflict zones. With the help of laser technology, the reach of the body farm is about to grow exponentially, and the findings will shed light on some of history’s most heinous unsolved crimes.

Plotting the Farm

Back in 1969, the director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation needed some advice. He had a dead cow on his hands and was trying to determine when it had died. At the time, cattle rustling was a local problem. Rustlers killed cows in the field, butchered them on the spot, hung up the meat in refrigerated trucks, and sped off. With thousands of acres to manage, ranchers rarely discovered the carcasses before several weeks had passed. Inevitably, they would call the police. But the cops were powerless—without knowing when the cows had died, there was no way to build a timeline and narrow the suspects.

The investigator figured that if anyone could age a bovine carcass, it was Bill Bass, a 41-year-old forensic anthropology professor at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Bass sometimes lent a hand identifying skeletal remains for the agency and local law enforcement. He could look at a pile of bones and read clues in them: who the person was, what had happened. Bass’s credentials were impeccable. He’d trained at the University of Pennsylvania under the internationally renowned bone detective Wilton Krogman, known as the “medical Sherlock Holmes.” Krogman had worked on hundreds of criminal cases: everyday homicides, mob victims dug from New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, even the kidnapped Lindbergh baby. One of the major things he’d taught Bass was how teeth can shed light on a murder victim’s age and identity.

But Bass didn’t have much experience studying the remains of large livestock. When he first got the request, he did what any scientist would do. “I looked in the literature,” says Bass, now 85. “There wasn’t much there. So I called him back and said, ‘We really don’t know this. But if you can find a rancher who would give us a cow, I will look at it every day to see what’s happening.’ I put a P.S. on that letter and said, ‘We really need the rancher to give us four cows. One in spring, one in summer, one in fall, and one in winter. Because the major factor in decay is temperature.' Well, nothing ever happened with that.”

A few years later, in the spring of 1971, Bass took a new job teaching at the University of Tennessee. He moved to Knoxville, where the Tennessee medical examiner asked whether he would serve as the state’s forensic anthropologist. Bass accepted and quickly realized he wasn’t in Kansas anymore. In the sparsely populated and relatively arid Midwest, police typically brought him boxes of dry bones. In Tennessee, which had twice as many people and significantly more rainfall, the corpses were “fresher, smellier, and infinitely buggier.” When agents asked how long the bodies had been stewing, Bass could hardly say; there was no scientific basis for an answer.

So he resolved to fill the void. “In 1980, I went to the dean and said ‘I need some land to put dead bodies on,’” he recalls. “Everybody says, ‘Well, what’d he say?’" Bass continues. “He didn’t say anything. He picked up the phone and called the man on the agriculture campus who handles land, and I went over to see him.” There were a couple of wasted acres behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center where the facility used to burn its trash, the ag man said. Bass could use those.

CSI: Farm

On his newly staked plot, Bass spearheaded the first organized effort to determine what happens when a body rots. He and his students re-created crime scenes, placing bodies in shallow graves and putting them in abandoned cars. The initial investigations were fairly basic: How long until the arms fall off? When does the skull start showing through? How long before all the flesh is gone?

They weren’t surprised to find that temperature figures heavily in the rate of decomposition. A body decays faster in summer than in the winter—therefore more quickly in Florida than in Wisconsin. Is the body in the sun or shade? What was the person wearing? Bodies rot faster in wool than in cotton because wool preserves heat. Gradually, the team developed timelines and statistical formulas that could help estimate, with incredible accuracy, how long a person had been dead based on atmospheric conditions.

There are also the bugs. One of Bass’s graduate students tracked the insects that feed on corpses. Blowflies are first on the scene, and they’re crucial in helping determine time of death. As soon as the flies land, they begin laying eggs in a body’s damp orifices (eyes, mouth, nose, open wounds), and the life cycle of the insects marks the hours since death occurred. The method proved highly accurate when atmospheric conditions were taken into account, and it put entomology at the forefront of forensic science.

As the anthropology program expanded to offer a Ph.D. degree, Bass started running field courses for cops and FBI agents. He became a star member of investigative teams working on tough criminal cases, from serial murders to celebrity plane crashes. Although he’s now retired, he still consults on tough cases. “The smell turns a lot of people off,” Bass says. “But I never see a forensic case as a dead body. I see it as a challenge to figure out who that individual is and what happened to them.”

In the three decades since the body farm began, it has schooled hundreds of graduate students, law enforcement agents, and scientists. “It is impressive,” says Frank McCauley, who has worked for 25 years as an agent with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. McCauley was a student under Bass, and he regularly attends a recurring week-long course for law enforcement covering the basics of forensic evidence collection. “It arms you with enough knowledge and enough resources to recognize and know what you may have,” he says. “I consider Dr. Bass a national treasure.”

Graham Yelton

With hundreds of people signing up every year to donate their remains to the body farm, the center continues to grow. And recently, it acquired a new piece of land that promises to take forensic research to a whole new level. In 2007, a Vancouver-based forensic anthropologist named Amy Mundorff was rock climbing in Squamish, British Columbia. Mundorff, who carries a Prada key chain emblazoned with a skull and crossbones, was a veteran of the New York medical examiner’s office. She’d been injured as a first responder at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and then spent years identifying the remains of victims before relocating to the West Coast. With her on the cliffs was an old friend, Michael Medler, a geographer at Western Washington University.

As the two scientists scaled the face of granite masiffs, they chatted about their research. Mundorff wanted to use her experience in New York to tackle global human rights issues, but she knew about the field’s frustrations. While attempting to recover a victim of the 1995 genocide in Bosnia, one of her colleagues had followed a tip and dug around the suspected grave site, only to come up empty-handed. All the known graves in Bosnia had been excavated, Mundorff told Medler, yet more than 7000 people were still missing. Where could they be? Without better technology, the mystery might never be solved. Forensic scientists working with human rights groups were trying to use satellite imaging and aerial photography, but those methods weren’t effective at finding unknown burial sites.

“Has anyone tried lidar?” Medler asked. Lidar is a remote sensing laser technology that analyzes light reflections to detect subtle changes in the topography of the land. Medler had been introduced to it while studying the effects of forest fires. Unlike satellite scans, lidar penetrates the tree canopy, making it possible to see where the ground has been disturbed. Mundorff and Medler realized that maybe they had found a solution. Excited by the possibilities, they wanted to team up on a study immediately, but lidar was expensive. To do real experiments they’d need funding and the support of a research facility. They looked for open grants but were unsuccessful.

Finally, in 2009, Mundorff took a job as a professor at the University of Tennessee’s anthropology department and moved to Knoxville. Now she had the resources, the land, and the support of an internationally renowned institution. She called Medler and told him that they were going to test their theory. Medler was thrilled; he would consult from afar.

As soon as Mundorff arrived in Tennessee, she began doing the spadework for the lidar project while also working on a study examining the DNA in skeletal remains. Six months in, she got an email from a prospective graduate student named Katie Corcoran who had been using lidar on archaeological sites; Corcoran wanted to apply the same technology to finding mass grave sites. “I was blown away because she literally pitched our idea right back at me,” Mundorff says.

To begin the study, Mundorff would need a fresh piece of land. The center had recently acquired an adjacent property, which was quickly designated for the project. Ten bodies were ready, gifts from donors who wanted to help advance forensic science. There was just one hurdle: The new property needed fences—one for privacy and a barbed-wire one for security. This didn’t prove so easy. For three years, approvals sat snagged in university red tape. Mundorff was frustrated. At last, in February 2013, the fences went up, and by Valentine’s Day, the burial site was ready to receive the bodies.

Mundorff and her team were primarily looking at how decomposition changes the chemical content of the soil and nearby vegetation. This is the reason it had been important to secure new land, away from where other cadavers had decayed. If the extra nitrogen emitting from the corpses went into the soil, theoretically it would fertilize plants, resulting in subtle cues over the burial site—the plants would be greener and taller than the surrounding vegetation because they’d thrive in the aerated nitrogen-rich soil. That fine contrast—potentially not discernible by people traveling through a jungle on foot—might be detectable with lidar.

Mundorff and her team have another theory they’re testing using thermal imaging technology. Because decomposition creates a lot of thermal energy, imaging equipment can help identify areas where “something warm is going on,” Mundorff says. Last fall, a partnering colleague from Oak Ridge National Laboratory set up $150,000 worth of thermal equipment on the property. With temperature probes in the ground, a giant camera took pictures at five-minute intervals, allowing researchers to see the changes in temperature overnight. On the first night, Mundorff and Corcoran camped out at the center, their sleeping bags spread out on desks. They didn’t want anything to happen to the equipment. (What if it rained?) They ordered takeout Mexican and set an alarm to go off every hour so they could stumble through the dark woods to check on the camera. “Katie carried the spider stick,” says Mundorff. “She has no fears.”

The Future of Forensic Science

Today, data from the experiment is just beginning to accumulate. But what Mundorff and Corcoran suspect—and hope the experiment confirms—is that graves with multiple bodies emit more heat than those with fewer. (The empty grave is the control, representing a place where there might be a hole but no bodies.) “There are hidden graves all over the world, and a good number of them are in areas that are still dangerous,” says Mundorff. “Being able to detect them remotely is a first step in recovering the bodies and returning them to the families—and in collecting evidence if there are going to be criminal prosecutions.”

Over the next three years, about a dozen researchers and graduate students will continue monitoring the four graves. If things go as planned, the project will assist countries trying to recover from the losses of hundreds, thousands, sometimes millions of people. Human rights investigators are searching for genocide victims in Argentina, Cyprus, Bolivia, Guatemala, Uganda, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and beyond. Steadman hopes the center can play a role in helping families find their loved ones. Bass, for his part, intends to remain part of the effort by donating his own remains to the body farm. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching, and I don’t see why I should stop when I die. If the students can learn something from my skeleton, well that’s OK with me.” He’s not alone in this hope. Nearly 3300 people from all 50 states and six different countries have registered to join him.

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

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NASA/JPL
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Space
The Secret Cold War History of the Missile That Launched America's First Satellite
NASA/JPL
NASA/JPL

In 1950, a group of scientists proposed the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a sort of "Science Olympics" in which nations of the world would embark on ambitious experiments and share results openly and in the spirit of friendship. The IGY, they decided, would be celebrated in 1957.

As part of the IGY, the Soviet Union vowed that it would launch an artificial satellite for space science. The U.S., not to be left behind, said that it, too, would launch a satellite. Both countries had ulterior motives, of course; the ostensibly friendly rivalry in the name of science allowed the two superpowers, already engaged in the Cold War, to quite openly develop and test long-range ballistic missiles under the guise of "friendship."

The Soviet Union aimed to develop missiles capable of reaching both western Europe and the continental United States. Such "intercontinental ballistic missiles," a.k.a. ICBMs, would, Nikita Khrushchev hoped, neutralize the overwhelming nuclear superiority of America, which had a $1 billion squadron of B-52 bombers. Their development would solve another of the Soviet Union's pressing issues: Military expenditures were gobbling up one-fifth of the economy, while agricultural output was in a severe decline. In short, there were too many bullets being produced, and not enough bread. Long-range rockets armed with nuclear weapons, already in the Soviet arsenal, could allow Khrushchev to slash the size and expense of the Red Army, forego a heavy long-range bomber fleet, and solve the food problems plaguing the country.

Meanwhile, in the United States, an Army major general named John Bruce Medaris saw a big opportunity in the International Geophysical Year: to use a missile designed for war—which the Army had been prohibited from developing further—to launch a satellite into space. But Medaris, who commanded the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, would need to be creative about selling it to the Department of Defense.

AN EDICT: NO ROCKETS OVER 200 MILES

Medaris was working under heavy restrictions against stiff competition. In 1956, the Secretary of Defense, Charlie Erwin Wilson, had issued an edict expressly forbidding the Army from even planning to build, let alone employ, long-range missiles "or for any other missiles with ranges beyond 200 miles." Land-based intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles were now to be the sole responsibility of the Air Force, while the Navy had authority for the sea-launched variety.

The idea was to avoid program redundancy and free up money to pay for the B-52 fleet, but the edict wound up having a catastrophic effect on the American missile program and its space ambitions, as author Matthew Brzezinski recounts in Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age.

At the time of Wilson's injunction, the Army's rocketry program was far ahead of the Air Force's or Navy's. The Army had just tested a rocket prototype called Jupiter that flew 3000 miles—but it was the new and flourishing Air Force that had the political backing of Washington. Moreover, few in the capital were worried about the Soviets developing long-range missile capability. Yes, they were trying, but they didn't have a prayer at developing one before the technically advanced United States, and in the meantime, the U.S. had overwhelming nuclear bomber superiority. When you got right down to it—the DOD reasoning went—who cared whether the Army, Air Force, or Navy developed our missiles?

Major General Medaris cared. He believed that, thanks to a German aerospace engineer named Wernher von Braun, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency had made too much progress on ballistic missile technology to just stop working on them now.

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States—and the Soviets—had scrambled to gather German missile technology. The U.S. lacked the ability to develop anything as powerful as Germany's lethal V-2 rocket and desperately wanted not only as much V-2 hardware as it could find but the V-2 designer himself, von Braun.

The U.S. succeeded in recruiting the engineer, ultimately assigning him to the Army's missile agency in 1950. There Von Braun and his team developed and deployed the Redstone, a short-range missile that could travel 200 miles. (This is where Wilson's 200-mile limitation came from.) Von Braun also began work on a research rocket (in parlance, a sounding rocket) based on the Redstone that could fly 1200 miles. It was not, technically, a missile—it wasn't designed to carry deadly ordnance. Its purpose was to test thermal nose-cone shields. This rocket was called the Jupiter C.

The 1956 injunction on Army missile development threatened the tremendous progress the Army had made. Both Medaris, who led the Army's missile program, and von Braun, who had now spent years trying to advance the rocket technology of the United States, were infuriated.

ARMY VS. NAVY (VS. THE SOVIETS)

With the IGY deadline looming, Medaris saw an opportunity to save the Army's role in rocket design. He had the genius German engineer and all the hardware necessary to do the job.

Medaris began to wage bitter bureaucratic warfare to protect the Army's missile program. The Air Force's program, he pointed out to defense officials, seemed not to be going anywhere—there was simply not much rush to replace bomber pilots with long-range missiles in a pilot-led organization. Worse yet, the Naval Research Laboratory, which had been given charge of the U.S. satellite entry for the IGY, was hopelessly behind schedule and underfunded. The Navy's Vanguard program, as it was called, would never succeed in its goal on time. (Why, then, did the Navy get the coveted assignment? In large measure because the Naval Research Laboratory was an essentially civilian organization, which just seemed more in the spirit of the International Geophysical Year.)

design plan of explorer 1 satellite
NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center Collection

Through all of this, it never occurred to Medaris that he was actually in a Space Race against the Soviet Union. To his mind, he was competing against the other branches of the U.S. military. To keep his missile program alive while he waged war in Washington, he allowed von Braun to continue work on ablative nose cone research using the Jupiter C research rocket. Not missile—Medaris could not emphasize that point enough to the Department of Defense. It was a research rocket, he stressed, and therefore exempt from the ban on Army missile development.

Medaris argued to Secretary Wilson that if they just gave the Jupiter C a fourth stage—that is, basically, a rocket on top of the rocket—it could reach orbital velocity of 18,000 miles per hour and get a satellite up there.

All of his arguments fell on deaf ears. "Not only were Medaris's pleas gruffly rebuffed," writes Brzezinski, but Wilson "spitefully ordered the general to personally inspect every Jupiter C launch to make sure the uppermost stage was a dud so that Von Braun did not launch a satellite 'by accident.'"

So instead, Medaris made sure that Jupiter C "nose-cone research" plunged ahead. It simulated everything about a long-range, satellite-capable ballistic missile, but it was not a missile. The Jupiter C kept the Army in the rocket development business. Just in case something went south with the Navy's Vanguard program, however, Medaris had two Jupiter C rockets put into storage. Just in case.

AND THEN CAME SPUTNIK

Two events would happen in 1957, the International Geophysical Year, that changed the trajectory of history. First: Secretary Wilson, who so vexed the Army missile program, retired. On October 4, 1957, his replacement, Neil McElroy, soon to be confirmed by the Senate, visited Huntsville to tour the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. Second: Later that same day, the Soviet Union stunned the world by launching Sputnik-1 into orbit and ushering humankind into the Space Age.

Von Braun was apoplectic. He'd devoted his life to rocketry. To be beaten by the Soviets! "For God's sake," he implored McElroy, "cut us loose and let us do something! We have the hardware on the shelf." He asked the incoming secretary for just 60 days to get a rocket ready.

McElroy couldn't make any decisions until he was confirmed, but that didn't faze Medaris, who was so certain that his group would get the go-ahead to launch a satellite that he ordered von Braun to get started on launch preparations.

What Medaris didn't anticipate was the Eisenhower White House's response to Sputnik. Rather than appear reactionary or spooked by the Soviet's sudden access to the skies over the U.S., the President assured the American people that there was a plan already in place, and everything was fine—really. The Navy's Vanguard program would soon launch a satellite as scheduled.

One month later, there was indeed another launch—by the Soviet Union. This time the satellite was a dog named Laika. In response, both Medaris and von Braun threatened to quit. To pacify them, the Defense Department promised that they could indeed launch a satellite in January, after the Vanguard's launch. von Braun, satisfied that he would get his shot, had a prediction to make: "Vanguard," he said, "will never make it."

And he was right. On December 6, 1957, the nation watched from television as the Vanguard launch vehicle began countdown from a virtually unknown expanse of Florida swampland called Cape Canaveral. At liftoff, the rocket rose a few feet—then blew up.

THE SECRET IDENTITY OF MISSILE NO. 29

After the Navy's failure, the Army was back in business. Medaris had his approval. The Jupiter C rocket would be allowed to carry a satellite called Explorer-1 to space.

Unlike the public outreach that accompanied the Vanguard launch, however, Medaris's rocket readying was done in total secrecy. The upper stages of the rocket were kept under canvas shrouds. The rocket was not to be acknowledged by Cape Canaveral personnel as the rocket, but rather, only as a workaday Redstone rocket. In official communications, it was simply called "Missile Number 29."

The Jupiter C destined to carry the spacecraft was one of the rockets placed in storage "just in case" after the Army was locked out of the long-range missile business. On the launch pad, however, it would be called "Juno." (The name change was in part an effort to conceal the rocket's V-2 and military lineage.) Explorer-1 was built by Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. JPL had worked with the Army "just in case" the Navy's Vanguard program failed. ("We bootlegged the whole job," said William Pickering, the then-director of the JPL lab.) The onboard scientific instrument, a Geiger counter developed by James Van Allen of the University of Iowa, had also been designed with the Army's rocket in mind … just in case.

Medaris wanted no publicity for his launch. No VIPs, no press, no distractions. Even the launch day was to be kept secret until the Explorer-1 team could confirm that the satellite had achieved orbit successfully.

And then 60 years ago today, Explorer-1 left Earth from launch pad 26 at the cape. The response is best captured by the breathless headline atop the front page of the New York Times [PDF] the following morning: "ARMY LAUNCHES U.S. SATELLITE INTO ORBIT; PRESIDENT PROMISES WORLD WILL GET DATA; 30-POUND DEVICE IS HURLED UP 2,000 MILES."


NASA/JPL

America's first satellite would go on to circle the Earth 58,000 times over the span of 12 years. The modest science payload was the first ever to go into space, and the discovery of the Van Allen belts—caused by the capture of the solar wind's charged particles by the Earth's magnetic field—established the scientific field of magnetospheric research.

Six months after the spacecraft launched, the U.S. would establish the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a.k.a. NASA. (For the next three years, however, the Soviet Union would continue to dominate the Space Race, establishing a long run of "firsts," including placing the first human in space.) Wernher von Braun became director of Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and was chief architect of the Saturn V rocket that powered the Moon missions. Jet Propulsion Laboratory has since launched more than 100 spacecraft across the solar system and beyond.

The unsung hero today, of course, is Major General Bruce Medaris, whose tenacity righted the U.S. rocket program. It is impossible to know how the Space Race might have ended without his contributions. We do know how his career ended, though. When at last he retired from the military, he rejected overtures to advise John F. Kennedy on space policy. Instead, he took a job as president of the Lionel Corporation, famed for its toy trains. He eventually set his sights on the heavens, literally, and entered the priesthood. He died in 1990 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, his legacy forever set among the stars.

For further reading, see Matthew Brzezinski's Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age.

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travel
One With the Junk: On the Scene at "The World's Longest Yard Sale"
Stephen Digges, Getty Images
Stephen Digges, Getty Images

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.


Lucas Reilly

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”).

yard sale map
The route of the Corridor 127 Sale, also known as "The World's Longest Yard Sale."
Lucy Quintanilla // Mental Floss

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.


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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.


Along the route, you can visit the world's largest handmade bass. (His name is Big Bob.)
Lucas Reilly

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.


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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.


U.S. 127 in Tennessee
Brian Stansberry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

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.

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