The World's Longest Yard Sale

At this flea market over six states, one person's junk is another's treasure

  • Floto + Warner for TIME

    Along highway 127

    America has a genius for filling needs that no one feels. The pet rock. Deep-fried Twinkies. Diapers that look like denim.

    Until the folks along Route 127 through heartland America dreamed up the World's Longest Yard Sale 23 years ago, no one realized the need for a multistate flea market, a Silk Road of surplus and salvage, an odyssey of odds and ends. And yet the event has grown to cover 675 miles (1,086 km), from the Michigan Rust Belt to the humid hills of Alabama, turning a bypassed seam of small towns and rolling fields into a grand and gaudy four-day bazaar starting the first Thursday of every August.

    It's a mashup of cultural quirks: our love of stuff, our love of a bargain, our road-tripping, our tailgating. And in times like these, it can be a barometer of the economic weather. At the northern end, Gretchen Lauffer, 68, of Hudson, Mich., covered the lawn of her foreclosed home with all things expendable. "Why do we have all this stuff out here? Because we're broke," she says. Farther south, in Tennessee, there was a chunk of driftwood from the Sequatchie River with a $1,000 price tag on it. One veteran of these sales noted rampant inflation in the cost of lamps. On the other hand, a $2 sofa is surely a sign of deflationary pressure. Here as elsewhere: mixed signals.

    Altogether, it's a panoply worthy of Walt Whitman, poet of American abundance and sorrow. Walt would surely sing the collectors of Pez dispensers, the seeker of peacock-painted plates (Cheryl Durham of Trion, Ga.), the bold soul asking $300 for an "authentic Samurai sword" marked "Made in China." And no one knew better than the lush-bearded bard that sometimes in the U.S.A., the truest picture is a list: andirons, butter churns, doilies, eggbeaters, fondue forks, garden gnomes, hammers, iceboxes, jammies, kerosene lanterns, magazines, night-lights, ottomans, paperbacks, quilts, rockers, sweaters, Tupperware, upholstery vacuums, wicker, Xboxes, yardsticks, Zippos.

    We hear America haggling beside the narrow blacktop--lazy cousin of purposeful I-75--striking deals near log cabins and horse farms, ponds fringed with cattails, rows of yellowing tobacco leaves. We hear notes of laughter and notes of fear amid the birdhouses, the vinyl records, the used George Foreman grills and the unused abdominal exercisers. It's hard to say which notes are growing louder.

    We hear Lauffer as a woman clutches a pair of slippers and digs into her purse for a $5 bill: "Oh, hallelujah! She's going to buy."