A Tennessee Waltz Through the World's Longest Yard Sale

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Floto + Warner for TIME

This cat figurine, on sale in Dunlap, Tenn., was priced at $5

It's just a little past lunchtime in Dunlap, Tenn., and Patsy and Larry Hagood are already in heaven. Only a few hours into the first day of a four-day yard-sale extravaganza stretching from Michigan to Georgia, the trailer the Hagoods brought with them from their home in Canton, N.C., is already half-full of great finds: a love seat twined from wild grapevines, an antique wrought-iron plant hanger and a huge artificial Christmas tree. Rattling off purchases and their prices, Patsy happily points out that nearly $1,800 of the $2,000 cash she brought to spend remains. "I've wanted to do this all my life. It's my birthday present, but we're also shopping for our kids."

On the first weekend in August, tens of thousands of yard-sale fans from across the U.S. converged on Highway 127 between Hudson, Mich., and Gadsden, Ala., to pick through tables laden with junk in hopes of making incredible finds. Mountains of $1 designer blue jeans sprawl next to antique cars (a restored Model T: $8,000; the rusted chassis of another: $1,000), bins overflowing with costume jewelry, Avon bottles and ancient hardware. And then there's the sublimely ridiculous: only $1,000 for a huge chunk of driftwood pulled from the Sequatchie River a couple of nights before the sale; $300 for an "authentic Samurai sword" with a "Made in China" stamp. People plan vacations around the sale, and neither bumper-to-bumper traffic, temperatures hovering in the high 90s nor afternoon thunderstorms could dissuade sellers and shoppers alike from turning out for it.

There are professional sellers hawking antiques in rented yards and hay fields at the side of the road, with normal yard sales with handmade signs on poster board or cardboard pointing the way. Tim and Vanlicia Ferguson of Homestead, Fla., were visiting family in Dunlap and decided to take advantage of opportunity to get rid of the stuff overflowing their RV and Tim's mother's garage. "Our stuff is priced to sell because I don't have any desire to put it all away again," Vanlicia says, telling a woman to make an offer on one of three microwave ovens. Despite being several blocks away from the official yard-sale route, the Fergusons had a steady stream of traffic pulling into their driveway. "I think a lot of people have caught on to the pros setting up on the main drag and have taken to the back roads," Vanlicia says.

Farther south on 127, 6-year-old Callie Tate took advantage of the heat and traffic to sell 50 Kool-Aid while her mother Tara and assorted cousins, aunts and uncles filled a relative's front yard with clothes, old toys and furniture. "It's not something we do every year," Tara says. "This year I'm just selling my stuff and stuff people gave me to sell for them."

In a barn south of Crossville, Tenn., Barb and John Medema of South Kalamazoo, Mich., took in all of the offerings, from the 100-year-old oak mantel leaning against one wall to the lectern once used by the retired minister who owned the building. The Medemas had planned their trip for two years and intended to cover nearly all of the yard-sale route. "We just like to go to garage sales and thought it might be interesting, and it has been well worth the trip," John says.

It isn't about a faltering economy, the price of gas or concerns about flying. For Patsy Hagood, the annual trip is an adventure; it's about eating sandwiches made with tomatoes picked that morning and bought from a roadside stand, about four days of traveling with her husband and maybe making an incredible find. "It's the hunt," explains Edith Hardeman, who with her husband David manned two booths at a roadside spot near Mt. Airy, Tenn. While Edith was in charge of selling old advertising and Coke memorabilia, David kept up a running conversation with regular customers who seek him out every year for his vast offering of vintage records. "We're into it, buddy," Edith laughs. "We are into it."