by David Mas Masumoto
published Sunday, April 28th, Fresno Bee
Imagine a caravan of buyers, many from out of the area, flocking to our San Joaquin Valley for Americana gold. Imagine thousands of yard sales and swap meets flourishing for a week along Highway 99 as it winds through the heart of our state. Imagine a Valleywide festival, celebrating who we are, sharing (and profiting) from our junk. Welcome to my dream of the “Great Highway 99 Yard Sale Trail.”
A river of asphalt connects the small towns of our Valley. Millions of people travel it, often passing through our communities and trying not to stop. I want to give them an excuse to take an exit into another world and celebrate real people.
Highway 99 stretches from Bakersfield to Red Bluff, about a 425-mile journey that wanders through farmlands, rural communities and a few large cities of California’s Central Valley. But it’s the exits and small towns that can provide hidden gems. Along this artery, every community can host a site for their local vendors. Combined with weekend festivals, they could celebrate local foods, down-home cooking, and attract thousands of people who come in search of discovering that diamond in the rough.
Models already exist. One of the largest is the 127 Corridor Sale, billed as the “World’s Longest Yard Sale.” It is held every August along Highway 127, which runs north to south from Michigan to Alabama for 690 miles. Thousands clean out their closets and barns and set up shop in their front yards along the roadside.
Michigan has its own U.S. 12 Heritage Trail and “The Longest Garage Sale.” Every May, Tennessee celebrates its TN52 Tourist Trail, running along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. For three days, 800 vendors set up shop.
Our Highway 99 links the cultural geography of the Valley. From the 1930s, families first entered our lands along this road. Some portions, at times called Golden State or Business 99, retain the original character. Drivers can recognize the old motels and gas stations, the shady trees where overheated cars parked or roadside stops when families stopped to picnic. Giant Orange stands once dotted the landscape. The 99 remains the Valley’s main street and it’s time to reacquaint ourselves with a shared past.
For a few days, the glory days and slower rhythms can return to this thoroughfare. A yard sale festival is not about speed but moseying along, branching out to explore the little towns and side streets, and following homemade sales signs.
A culture of inclusion is celebrated, we introduce ourselves to one another and attract others by being who we are: working class and everyday people with authentic collectibles (and some junk). Some will be embarrassed by our flea market image; but we aren’t San Francisco or Los Angeles and we shouldn’t try to be. Our own gold survives here in this Valley, found in the stuff we have and the people who keep it.
Stories shine during this treasure hunt. The origins of objects and how they were once used provide authenticity. Sharing the backstory connects the object with the human drama of life. The journey of a piece of furniture, the meaning of an old, discarded toy, the hands that once touched a kitchen tool, the harvests embedded in a rusting piece of farm equipment — all these can elevate a simple object to something of significance. Collectibles acquire special value with story.
Yard sale dealmaking will be recast as an extreme sport. Hunters passionate for bargains will be matched against expert sellers in bartering that is both art and science. We will return to an era of face-to-face exchanges without online shopping and auctions. The joy of the hunt and the shopping experience is renewed because of the human dimension.
Reality TV already understands this with its antique and swap meet shows. One program, called “American Pickers,” examines the antique business of searching in rural and backwoods areas for hidden gems. In “Flea Market Flip,” contestants search for bargains; they buy cheap, then clean up or repair and sell for profit. We already have these gems. Let’s share these secrets as we build social and economic capital and welcome visitors traversing the back roads in search of hidden fortunes (which may be the people themselves).
Community events with local music and arts will add flavor. The Valley’s folk arts have yet to establish an identity. Other regions — the North Carolina Arts Trail is one example — honor local musicians, artists, writers and their crafts.
This can quickly evolve into a local and regional food adventure. Our ethnic diversity could be celebrated in food wagons, small coffee shops and restaurants. Community organizations could honor the cuisine of people. Depending on the time of the year, local farm produce would share tables with antiques.
Elected officials and chambers of commerce will have to buy into our Highway 99 legacy. City and county governments will need to coordinate activities with tourism bureaus and vendors. Cooperation will be required as we promote a regional identity and support alternative economic development.
A Highway 99 yard sale trail can provide us with an opportunity of self- discovery. We have something of interest, legitimized by outsiders. We remain gems in the rough as our junk becomes treasures. We offer a different world here, a good culture shock for California. And we can make a little money too.