Sunday, October 18, 2009

Welcome to the Woolly Worm!

     "Welcome to the Woolly Worm!" 
      The banners lined each side of the winding road that headed down to Banner Elk, NC and the annual Woolly Worm Festival. We sat in a long line of traffic on a snowy Saturday morning, trying to be one of the 23,000 people determined to claim the $1000 prize at the annual worm race, a charity event sponsored each October by the Kiwanis Club and the Avery County Chamber of Commerce. According to legend, and with an 80% accuracy rate, the intensity of the winter cold is predicted by the furry bands of black and brown on the Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar, affectionately known as the woolly worm. More black than brown forecasts a severe winter, and the winning worm has the honor each year of making that prediction based on the stripes he proudly displays on his champion's body.
     Sissey was so confident of winning that she had already spent the prize money, and only needed to show up at the race for the minor technicality of actually racing the winning worm. That was when we had our only stroke of luck for the entire day.  An officer directing traffic saw Sissey's handicap parking placard and motioned us out of the creeping line of cars. We drove past a yellow police banner, onto a side street, and slipped into a parking spot two cars down from the admission gate.  Thank you, Sissey!
      We paid the $5.00 fee, grabbed our tickets, and entered the festival amid flurries of snow. The tent-lined field was covered in straw, which did little to stop the melting snow from creating a mud bowl as we pushed Sissey's wheelchair through the muck. She and Gans headed to the registration line while I ran to the worm corral to select the winning racers.  I searched through the sawdust, bypassing the tightly curled balls of sleeping worms, and found two perky fellows crawling around the corral.  They looked like winners to me, so I invested $2.00, and scooped them up in a pile of sawdust. For an additional $5.00, you could purchase a nicely constructed cage for your woms to live in, but I have been known to be a tightwad, and bypassed the worm condos. I grabbed an empty cellophane wrapper that had contained hot, roasted pecans from a nearby trash can, sprinkled the sawdust into the bottom,  plopped the two worms on top, and  ran back to the registration line, hoping we had not missed the entry time.  Our last bit of luck occurred when Sissey and Gans were able to secure a slot in the last heat of the day, Race #42. Our worms, Clarence and Booger, were in!
     It didn't take long for Sissey to notice the brightly painted cages the other entrants were toting around the festival, proudly displaying their worms nestled comfortably in fluffy piles of sawdust.   She was clinging tightly to the cellophane wrapper containing our worms, which we would occassionally open and blow air into so they didn't suffocate before the race.
     "Mom, why do those worms have cages?" she asked, "and why are our worms in plastic?"
      I had to confess that I refused to invest in the declining worm condo market, realizing there would be no investment return on that venture.
     "So we are racing homeless worms?" she snarled back at me, completely disgusted that I had forraged through the trash dumpster to create their tent city. I knew she would much more appreciate the steaming hot chocolate I planned to purchase after the race, but delayed gratification is a slow lesson to learn.
   Since this was our first venture into worm racing, we watched a few races and some of the waiting entrants in order  to pick up racing tips.  To race a woolly worm, you place the critter on a vertical string attached to a racing wall and encourage him to crawl up. There are 25 worms per heat, and the first fellow to inch up to the top of the string is the winner.  Racers have various techniques: clapping, yelling, snapping fingers, but the one that seemed the most effective was to blow through a straw to gently "puff" the worm up the string.  So off I raced to the nearest food vendor to grab a handful of straws. 
     A couple from Charlotte, NC had wandered over to stand beside us, and the husband struck up a conversation.  I realized he was doing exactly what I had been doing, fishing for information.  I also discovered they were in the same heat as we were, and would be racing their worm on the lane right beside ours.  He casually asked where I had gotten the straws.
      "I'm not telling you that"! I laughed, realizing I had a bargaining tool.
      The race took place on a raised platform, with six metal steps leading up to the track. I had been trying to figure out how I was going to get Sissey, Gans, and the worms up those steps without somebody getting squished in the process.  I had found my answer.
   "OK, I'll make a deal with you," I told the fellow. "I'll show you where I got the straws if you'll help us get up those steps."
      "Deal," he quickly answered, and we rushed off to the food tent to grab the straws.
       When it came time for our race, we lifted Sissey out of her chair and up to the platform, intending to hold her up while she raced the worm. The woolly worm volunteers knew we couldn't race a worm while trying to hold Sissey, so they lifted her wheelchair up onto the platform and helped get her situated before the race. 
      We were ready; unfortunately, our worms were not.  Gans had decided prior to the race that our worms needed to be warmed up, so she had taken them out of the bag and gently puffed and prodded them into action, making them crawl up and down her hand.  I think that had used up all their energy. They refused to uncurl and hop on the string when we placed them in the starting position.  Clarence fell off and landed in a crack on the platform. Gans started hollering, "Help! I've lost my worm!"  while I was struggling to get Booger to latch on.  When I let go of Booger to look for Clarence, he plopped off the string and landed in a ball on the ground. We fished both of them out of the cracks and coaxed them back onto the string.
     No one had told us that worms have a front end and a back end.  I had placed Booger upside down on the string, but didn't notice until he started to crawl in the wrong direction. When I tried to turn him around, he fell off.  Gans had finally managed to get Clarence going, and she was puffing away using Lamaze breathing that got Sissey and me so tickled we knocked Booger off again. It was all downhill from there.  We'd put Booger on the string, he'd plop off. Back on, back off.  By the end of the race, Gans had managed to get Clarence up about one inch, while we had never even gotten Booger to cling to the string. Seems homeless worms don't make the best racers.
     We were laughing so hard by the end of the race that Sissey fell out of her wheelchair and landed in the same spot on the ground that Clarence and Booger, those worthless worms,  had favored.  Every woolly worm festival volunteer in sight rushed to the platform to help plop Sissey back in her chair and haul her down the steps.  Our worms may have been losers, but the volunteers definitely were not!

      We didn't win the race, but we got more than $1000 worth of laughs out of the process. We finished the day with a hot ear of roasted corn, a sugar-topped funnel cake, and three cups of steaming hot chocolate to warm us up on the ride home. We laughed all the way back as we drove down the parkway, the fall foliage in it's full glory, the mountain tops covered in a frozen mist, Booger lost somewhere in the back of the car, and Clarence doing sprints across the dashboard.  

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