For those of us living in deep-blue states, it can often seem like the Real America of our childhoods is a thing of the past. That’s why reports from small out-of-the-way places can be so refreshing. I’m happy to report that Real America not only still exists, but it’s also thriving in Banner Elk, North Carolina.
Banner Elk is a small village in the High Country of Avery County. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s known across the Southeast for its world-class skiing, top-ranked Lees-McRae College, and its annual Woolly Worm Festival. Since 1978, the Banner Elk community has opened each Woolly Worm Festival with a rousing rendition of the National Anthem, and you won’t find any of the 15,000-20,000 attendees kneeling.
On the third weekend in October, both children and adults alike enthusiastically encourage their favorite woolly worms to climb up a three-foot-long string. These “indisputably ridiculous” races are held not just for the $1,000 top prize, but also to earn the honor of having their woolly worm proclaimed the official winter-forecasting worm. The festival is the best of Americana.
Much like the lore surrounding the groundhog and its shadow, the woolly bear caterpillar is also a creature of American lore. According to legend, the woolly bear caterpillar has thirteen brown and black segments corresponding to the thirteen weeks of winter. The lighter in color a brown segment is, the milder that week of winter will be. Conversely, the darker in color a segment is, the colder and snowier the corresponding week will be. Festival organizers say the winning woolly worm has around an 86% accuracy rate.
In addition to the races, the festival features crafts, merchandise, and food vendors, as well as live entertainment. Part of that live entertainment is in the names chosen for the woolly worms themselves. Each year the names tend to be whimsical or topical: Speedster, Wormy McWormface, Merryweather, Patsy Climb, Dale Wormhardt, and Gummybear to name a few of the “clever monikers” that have been used over the years.
So you can imagine my delight upon learning the 2021 grand-prize-winning woolly worm was none other than Let’s Go, Brandon! Yes, have no fear fellow blue-state dwellers, there are still Real Americans out there in Real America and they are standing up any way they can and they’re having fun doing it.
Here’s a peek at the festivities from a few years ago: