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World's Longest Garage Sale

by Marcia Schonberg

 

I admit it: I don't habitually shop at garage sales like some people do. But combining a back roads tour through Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama while keeping an eye out for bargains along the way is an idea worth exploring and a must-do for true, bona fide shoppers. This year's event, dubbed the "World's Longest Outdoor Sale," runs August 2 - 10. It begins in Covington, Kentucky's historic German district called MainStrasse Village and then follows US Highway 127 for 450 miles before reaching Gadsden, Alabama. This trip is for those willing to drive in the slow lane — eager to explore the interesting towns and friendly people who have long been bypassed by modern freeways.

Even slowing down long enough to peruse the tables through one state was enough for me to find several Martha Stewart-style bargains, plenty of other unique finds that I passed up and a weekend's worth of treasured memories in northern Kentucky. It's a hilly region that dips into scenic bluegrass and horse farms near Lexington. Highway 127 runs into the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, a peaceful restored shaker community with authentic overnight lodging and a hearty dining room fare. One of my favorite inns, the Beaumont Inn, once an exclusive southern girl's school back in the mid 1800s, is also on the route in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.

So is the beautiful Ohio River which makes a lovely backdrop for tables stacked high with finds from vendors who arrive from all over to set up for free along the route. Last summer, first-time adventure seekers Joan Greenstein and Jane Stearns left home in the Cleveland area for a three-state, four-day journey with no idea what treasures or experiences they'd bring back. They found far more than I did, missing only a few of the 5,000 vendors. This year, this popular event (named one of the Southeast Tourism society's "Top 20 Events" for August) has expanded — from four to nine days, keeping travelers and dealers on the route until August 10. It's been growing steadily since its inception 16 years ago to spur travelers off the interstates and back onto the less-traveled route.

"Any collector can find what they're looking for: tools, books, records, bottles and tons of glass. You could tell the shoppers who did this trip before - some had trailers and they knew what they were looking for," Jane explains while Joan remembers one shopper who bought up the all the walking sticks a vendor had. "I'm still sorry I didn't buy one," she says."

Now that they're seasoned, they're changing their plans slightly for this year's excursion. One tip they'll heed from the suggestions on the website (www.127sale.com) is paying homage to the Deep South's August heat by packing hats, plenty of water and sunscreen. "It rained part of each day, switching from "hot, hot, hot to rain, rain, rain and then to steamy," recalls Jane who didn't have an umbrella before. "Water — we'll bring more water next time," agrees Joan.

Before beginning the road trip, they booked reservations, mainly at Comfort Inns where those 50 years and older can find substantial discounts. In Clearwater, Tennessee, they tried a Best Western with a 24-hour Denny's attached, in case they arrived too late for local restaurants. And they plotted a few nearby must-sees, for their leisurely return trip back. At the last minute they caught additional highlights of the garage sale from a HG-TV hour-long special touting the variety of stops.

Passersby offered tips as well as neighbors who were familiar with parts of the southern highway. Whenever Joan mentioned the upcoming event, neighbors and strangers alike gave her advice. "My neighbor suggested we try the barbecue at Walt's Hitching Post in Covington. It was delicious," she said as she recited little quips from her travel diary, a note-taking hobby she's had for many years. That was on day one.

"I bought my husband a T-shirt with the whole map of the garage sale route on it somewhere near the beginning of our trip from a man set up on the front lawn of his Kentucky home," she added. "Everybody along the way asked us where we bought it, but we couldn't remember exactly and never saw another. I hope he has them this year."

Once they got out in the country, locating restaurants and bathroom stops became more challenging. "We stopped at a little country store with wooden floors and asked to use the bathroom. The kind, but poor, owners gave us permission to use their facilities, but there was a sign that read, 'Donations welcome for water and toilet paper.' We were glad to oblige!" Joan remembers. "And we bought water-spraying fans to combat the heat," laughs Jane.

At times driving speeds slowed to a crawl and they'd find a traffic jam with cars stopped along side the road for one table "in the middle of no where." Other times, neighbors set up on a corner or professional dealers took over a scenic spot, like one stop overlooking the Ohio River.

"Starting about 8:30 a.m. each morning and hearing dozens of 'Hi, how are ya's' by 8:45 was amazing," adds spouse Roger Stearns. He says the yard sale gimmick was a great way to see 'real Americana' — along a forgotten highway that residents had to self-promote to get visitors to drive. Abandoned for faster, more direct interstates, the old route through small towns and rural countryside is part of the lure of the 21st century's mystique over scenic highways and byways, he observes, with more than enough examples to make a point.

After sharing the "adventure" of not knowing what they'd find around the next curve in the road, southern eats and hospitality, laughs and memories, and trips to some of the South's "bests," "firsts," and "most famous" destinations, I was dying to hear what other bargains they found. For Jane, they included a watercolor painting, a set of glasses with the department store tags (of $15 each) still affixed turned out to be a steal at $4 for all six, a nesting set of condiment jars for $1 and a crystal bowl. Joan was thrilled to discover a dealer, from of all places, Akron, willing to part with a 1964 Ohio license plate for only $5 — just what her husband Maury needed for his Corvair of the same vintage. He reluctantly passed up a Mustang for $4000 among a good assortment of classic and collectible cars, but did spend $2 on a rock for his wife that the seller said was a geode. Sure enough, when they opened it back in Cleveland, it was.

And they even met Elvis — alive and well, albeit sweaty. Then they were off to finish world's longest garage sale, winding to the top of Lookout Mountain overlooking Chattanooga and their final stop in Gadsden, Alabama. The trip home was almost as exciting as the shopping: stopping at Russell Cave National Monument (home at one time or another to all of the southern prehistoric cultures), the Scottsborough, Alabama courthouse where the story behind To Kill a Mockingbird took place, the Smoky Mountains National Park for a bear citing at Cade's Cove and the museum adjoining the Colonel's Original Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Corbin, Ky. They bought more at the garage sales than they did at pricier artist galleries in Berea, KY, a town famous for their arts and crafts, and dined on Sonic Burgers from the southern fast food chain before hitting the Ohio border.

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