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Young Explorers Savor Obscure Festivals

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Some of the freshest faces at National Geographic are here at headquarters this weekend for a Young Explorers Grant workshop.

Last night, NG Live hosted an event titled “Exploration: The Next Generation” with four up-and-coming Society grantees: Katherine Amato, a biologist studying howler monkeys in Mexico’s tropical forest; Pat Walters, a journalist who’s documented the havoc wreaked by invasive flying Asian carp on U.S. rivers; Trip Jennings, a conservationist who caves and paddles through unexplored regions in Papua New Guinea; and Ross McDermott, a photographer and filmmaker who—with colleague and fellow photographer Andrew Owen—is documenting America’s small-town festivals, from the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa to the Middle of Nowhere celebration in Ainsworth, Nebraska.

I joined NG Weekend host Boyd Matson in our studio this morning for an interview with Ross and Andrew (pictured above on a woodpile at the 50th annual Lumberjack World Championships in Hayward, Wisconsin). They describe themselves as “people who go off to odd places in America and find pockets of culture that the rest of us ignore in our daily lives.”

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So far, their American Festivals Project—”The search for America’s small, hidden, and bizarre festivals”—has kept them on the road for most of the last 14 months. “Traveling in a truck powered by waste vegetable oil, and living in a 1964 truck camper,” they’ve commemorated, well, something or other in all but three U.S. states. Such as, for instance, North Conway, New Hampshire’s Mud Bowl Championships.

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Ross and Andrew have good news for fans of quirky, offbeat hometown celebrations: Of the 40 festivals they’ve experienced to date, only “one or two felt like they were on the way out.” The rest? “Going strong.”

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Some festivals are photogenic, rich with visual potential, says Andrew. Others, such as Louisiana’s Cajun Mardi Gras festival, are so exhilarating that it’s hard to focus on taking pictures. “The music and traditions are so infectious—nearly everyone was a participant. You’re walking through crawfish farm fields and along some of the back roads of central Louisiana.” There’s a “trick-or-treat feel,” he says, as people travel from home to home, gathering ingredients to make a community gumbo. “Folks throw roosters and chickens. We chased a pig!”

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“For me,” says Ross, “the greatest time I’ve had was at Fasnacht, a small German festival in Helvetia, West Virginia. It’s a celebration or carnival to mark the end of winter. It starts with a parade through town, and everyone makes paper maché masks.

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“They converge on the town hall, dance until midnight, tear down an effigy of old man winter and burn it in a bonfire.”

“Speed Week was a highlight for me,” says Andrew. “It’s on the ethereal landscape of the Bonneville Salt Flats, so you feel like you’re on a different planet with a bunch of mad scientists.

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“There’s no prize money: They all just want to go as fast as possible. This is a vacation for the folks who come out for it. There’s no head-to-head racing. They all just want to break a miles-per-hour number, reach a personal limit. They love to go fast.”

View more photos from the American Festival Project in our National Geographic News gallery. Follow the project on Facebook and Twitter. Or watch videos from the project, including this one from Bonneville Speed Week:

If you’re between 18 and 25 years old and have a research, conservation, or exploration project in mind that would help inspire people to care about the planet, consider applying for a National Geographic Young Explorers grant.

Photographs courtesy Ross Mcdermott and Andrew Owen, the American Festivals Project