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View from the USA: Dead funny

Each year, a Colorado town throws a party to honour the corpse of a frozen grandpa — proof it’s not just us Brits with a talent for eccentric humour.

View from the USA: Dead funny
Aaron Millar. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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We do eccentricity well in Britain: Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks, the plain wackiness of Morris dancing and the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, whose manifesto includes nationalising crime to make sure it doesn’t pay. They’ve got my vote.

Then there are our eccentric sports. We’ve got cheese-rolling, bog-snorkelling, gurning championships and, speaking from my own experience, the maddest of all: The World Extreme Lilo Championship. That’s right. I once navigated the class IV rapids of the River Nevis on an inflatable bed. I was one of the lucky ones — the chap next to me, riding a blow-up doll, nearly drowned.

In America, it’s different. Crazy here means Scientology and stockpiling guns. It’s altogether less fun. So, imagine my delight when I discovered a bit of British-level eccentricity here, in my adopted home of Colorado. The mountain town of Nederland (not to be confused with Michael Jackson’s Neverland) is like the love child of Davy Crocket and Timothy Leary — part 1960s acid casualty, part beaver-skinning Armageddon survivalist. It’s also the home of, perhaps, the world’s craziest festival.

The story starts in 1989 with a Norwegian called Bredo Morstoel biting the bullet and getting packed in ice and sent to the hills above Ned, where grandson Trygve Morstoel had built a cryogenic facility in his garden shed to house him. Talk about a man cave.

Fast forward a few years: Trygve’s been deported and Grandpa’s left out in the cold (or not, as was the problem). What did the town do? Call the cops? Contact a legitimate cryogenic facility? No. They hired an ‘Iceman’ to deliver 1,600 pounds of dry ice to Bredo’s sarcophagus every month and threw a party. That’s why I’m here. For two days every year, Frozen Dead Guy Days pays homage to the dead dude they found in the shed. There’s Ice Turkey Bowling, the Frozen T-shirt Contest, Brain Freeze Contest, Salmon Toss and, just because it’s weird, the Rocky Mountain Oyster Eating Contest (that’s bull testicles to you and me).

But the star event is the Coffin Races — a cross between Tough Mudder and the zombie apocalypse. Teams of six pallbearers must carry a homemade coffin over an obstacle course without it breaking or killing the ‘corpse’ for real. I talked my wife and five friends into it, then bought seven royal family masks, a Queen outfit, a ridiculous amount of lumber, and enough beers to get us through the build. Finally, Team ‘Royal Bloody Family’ was ready to be the UK’s first official entry in America’s most bonkers race.

We’re one of 30 teams competing on a 200-metre course dotted with hay-bale chicanes, mud pits and icy banks. We race in pairs. First up, the gold-suited Disco Queens versus a team in Beetlejuice outfits. Then the Unicorns pit their rainbows against the Knight’s toilet-plunger swords. The Lady Lumberjacks impress, despite the weight of their fake beards. Team Blue Balls seem to just shrivel and hide.

Then it’s our turn on the starting line: Charles and Camilla up front, Will and Kate at the back, Her Majesty royal-waving from the coffin, two inflatable corgis trailing behind. I’d love to tell you we snatched victory from death’s icy grip, but coffins are heavy, we’re old, and haring around an obstacle course wearing a mask is like sprinting into a china shop with your eyes shut. We nearly dropped the Queen on the first bend, got thrashed in the mandatory snowball fight and crashed through the last mud pit with our royal faces firmly in the arse of the team in front. We lost.

Or did we? Afterwards, the teams take part in a death march through town. Sure, the whizz-kids throwing Mario Kart banana skins out the back are fast; and, yes, the Jamaican bobsleigh team are agile and have nice buns. But we have the crowds in hysterics, high-fiving us as we pass. We may have lost the race, but we triumphed at the parade. And that’s the thing about eccentricity — to win is fun, but to laugh at yourself is truly enlightened. Grandpa Bredo would’ve been proud. frozendeadguydays.org

Published in the July/August 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)