I Went to the Frozen Dead Guy Days Festival in Colorado
The event celebrates the "Mardi Gras" of cryonics
Photo: Daniel Oberhaus
Many philosophers have long held that finding purpose in life is only possible in virtue of the fact that one day we are all going to die. Without the specter of death haunting our daily existence, it would be hard to find the meaning in doing anything at all.
Prior to the late 20th century, such thoughts were little more than metaphysical speculations. Yet now that living forever is becoming increasingly realistic thanks to advances in cryonics and other life suspension techniques, does this mean that life is going to become increasingly meaningless?
I decided to drive out to Nederland, Colorado, home of Frozen Dead Guy Days, to look for some answers.
Heralded as "cryonics' first Mardi Gras," FDGD began out of desperation in 2002. The Nederland Chamber of Commerce had been tasked with designing a spring festival that would drive tourists (and more importantly, their dollars) to the small mountain town about 30 minutes outside of Boulder.
In a state saturated with scenic mountain villages, the Nederland Chamber of Commerce couldn't exactly count on playing up the town as a destination for the outdoor enthusiast to bring in the big bucks. Thus, after much deliberation, the Chamber of Commerce decided to organize the festival in honor of their most famous resident, albeit one who never actually "lived" there: Bredo Morstoel, better known by most of the local residents simply as "Grandpa."
Bredo arrived in Ned as a frozen corpse in 1993
Bredo arrived in Ned as a frozen corpse in 1993, flown in from Norway by his grandson Trygve Bauge, who wished to cryonically preserve his grandfather in a shed behind his house. Bauge had spent the better part of a year constructing a shed where he planned to store Bredo along with several tons of dry ice, making it so fortified that it was capable of withstanding an atomic blast.
Shortly after Bredo's arrival, Bauge was contacted by a family from Chicago who wished to have the remains of one of their family members stored by Bauge. He accepted their offer and soon his shed housed two frozen corpses, making it perhaps the most low-tech cryonics facility in the world.
While Bauge had no problems managing his small off-the-books cryonics facility, the Nederland city council was far from pleased. It had denied Bauge's request for a permit to build a cryonics facility in 1992, and in 1994, when it was discovered that Bauge had not only built the "facility," but had also found its first two tenants, it went out of its way to make his life hell. The history of Bauge's struggle is as interesting as it is bizarre: after a long, drawn-out process which garnered international attention, Bauge was eventually deported for his violation, although his grandfather was allowed to stay in the shed.
The first FDGD was held in 2002, seven years after Bauge's deportation, and was by all accounts a success. Now in its 14th year, the festival has only continued to grow: last year over 10,000 people descended on Nederland, whose population is just under 1,500, and managed to bring hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue to the town. This year, Nederland was expecting to top 14,000 due to a lucky break in the weather.
While FDGD is ostensibly about a frozen Norwegian guy in a shed, my experience during the opening night of this year's festival suggested otherwise. After watching Ned's mayor give a bummer of a speech about the festival's history to an audience of three (a drunken denizen in a top hat had convinced the rest of the audience that beer > speeches), I headed for the the tent hosting the main events for the evening. Inside, around 200 people decked out in costumes "danced" through a haze of Colorado's finest legal bud to the soundtrack provided by a handful of local bands. The music was good, the weed was better. Overall, the atmosphere could be best described as something of a cross between Burning Man and a house party where all the attendees are wearing last year's Halloween costume for some reason.
Bauge was eventually deported, although his grandfather was allowed to stay in the shed
After several hours of this, it became quite clear that the festival had very little to do with Grandpa Bredo. In fact, it appeared as though the festival had very little to do with anything at all. I left the tent that evening with my head swimming from a potent combination of cannabis and craft brews, no closer to finding the meaning of life (or even the festival, for that matter). I hoped the following day would be more fruitful in my quest to find life's purpose.
I would not be disappointed.
Saturday broke warm and bright, a luxury for locals this time of year and a pain in the ass for anyone as hungover as myself. I arrived in Nederland a little after noon, just in time to watch a caravan of hearses parade through the town. The hearse drivers came from all over the state and had decked out their vehicles with grotesque reimaginings of everything from Christmas icons to steampunk chic.
I asked one of the drivers, who was a FDGD virgin, what brought him out to Ned for the festival. According to him, it is a prime opportunity to "get dressed up and fucked up," a sentiment that would be echoed throughout the day by locals and tourists alike. Was partying until the idea of owning a hearse sounds like a good one the meaning of FDGD? It was a start, but there definitely had to be more to this.
After the hearse parade, I headed over to the day's main event, a coffin race around Chipeta park. On my way to the race, I stopped to watch a few people jump through a hole in the iced-over pond for the polar plunge. One of the things that really struck me (besides the hilarity of watching rescue divers pull a someone in a giant inflatable racoon costume from a frozen lake) was that despite how miserable it is to submerge yourself in near freezing water, all of the participants resurfaced with smiles on their faces. To be so happy in the face of such pain and misery certainly involves an enlightened attitude toward living—maybe the polar divers had discovered the meaning of life.
As I waited for the race to begin, I struck up a conversation with a festival goer who also happened to be a veteran coffin racer. He had opted out of the coffin races this year in favor of the polar plunge. I asked him about the point of coming out to Nederland to jump in freezing water and race around as costumed pallbearers. According to him, "there is no point. We just want an excuse to turn out and act weird for awhile. It's a celebration of the absurd, really."
After the coffin races I headed up to the main thoroughfare, which was packed full of tourists from Denver and Boulder perusing stores hocking crystals, geodes and FDGD regalia, most of which played on puns involving marijuana and/or Grandpa (Grandaddy purp—get it?). As I walked further down the street, I passed a number of "poets" reading their verses from atop beer kegs (one guy was pretty much just shouting Diddy lyrics at passersby) and eventually arrived at a side attraction which I had heard a lot about since my arrival: turkey carcass bowling.
"The chamber of commerce asked me to come up with something for the festival. It's been great for business."
The game, which is exactly what it sounds like, had attracted dozens of spectators who were cheering on the competitors with more vehemence than anything involving a turkey carcass should ever warrant. Every now and then, the audience would erupt in cheers when a competitor bowled a perfect game, or emit a groan as bits of turkey flesh exploded into their faces.
I asked one competitor, who has just bowled two perfect games with his turkey, what she thought throwing an avian carcass at bowling pins has to do with a frozen dead guy in a shed.
"Honestly, I don't think there is any connection at all," she tells me. Why do it at all then, I ask. "I mean, how many times in life do you get to bowl with a turkey? I guess that's a good enough reason."
The final day of the festival begins bright and early at the Sundance cafe, a small restaurant/hotel about a mile outside of Ned. Each year, the Sundance hosts another contest which involves throwing a frozen animal. This time, instead of a turkey carcass, it's a 14-pound salmon.
It's only 11 in the morning, but a small crowd has already gathered to watch people pay $5 to shotput a fish as far as they can and nurse their hangovers with PBR and Bloody Marys. "The record is 69 feet," an aging flower child (and salmon toss savant) in a tye-dye shirt tells me. "I don't think anyone will beat that today. It helps when there's snow so [the fish] will slide."
To my left, a young couple discusses the finesse of tossing the fish. "You have to go with the softball windup," says the woman. "Grab it in the gills and let 'er rip." After about an hour of tossing, the fish becomes so mutilated that it is impossible to throw any further. As the crowd waited for the replacement salmon to thaw, I approached Hillary, the owner of the Sundance restaurant to see what this event is all about.
"Are you from PETA?" Hillary asks me. I tell her I am not. "Okay, good. We've had some problems with them before." I tell her I can believe it. "Well, I tell them we give the fish to the coyotes and birds. It was going to be eaten anyway."
The next contestant approaches the line to throw the fish and I asked Hillary what throwing a frozen fish across the hotel's front yard has to do with a frozen dead guy. "Nothing," she said. "The chamber of commerce asked me to come up with something for the festival. It's been great for business."
After the fish toss, I return back to town for the final organized event of the festival: a Rocky Mountain oyster eating contest. (A primer for the uninitiated: Rocky Mountain oysters are a dish of bull, pig or sheep testicles.) At FDGD, the goal is to eat as many as possible for a shot at $100. This year, 30 people have signed up to shove their faces with deep fried balls, a record for the festival.
Having never tried Rocky Mountain oysters myself, I asked one of the youngest participants in the contest, a 7-year old, what they tasted like. "They taste like balls," was his astute response. Another contestant told me that they tasted like "fucked up chicken nuggets."
Hoping to give my readers a more accurate description of the taste of bull testicles, I tried one of the contestant's leftovers. As it turns out, "fucked up chicken nugget" is a pretty accurate description.
As the festival was winding down for the day, I found Joe Gierlach, Ned's mayor, wandering the streets and decided to give my quest to find the meaning in life, and FDGD, one last shot. I asked the mayor, who has presided over four festivals, what he thought Frozen Dead Guy Days was all about.
"The story of the [Trygve and Bredo] is really a metaphor for a lifestyle of individualism," said Gierlach. "We all come to live in Nederland because we don't want to live in middle America. So FDGD is a celebration of that. Also, we get a lot of tourists and they drop a lot of money on local businesses. So from an economic standpoint it's also about increasing the velocity of money."
I left the festival slightly disheartened at my seeming inability to find the meaning of life at an event predicated on celebrating birth, death and everything in between. At the end of the day, it seemed that FDGD was just a giant libertarian orgy held to pay tribute to the gods of commerce by capitalizing on the loss of a beloved member of a Norwegian family.
"The story is really a metaphor for a lifestyle of individualism."
As one festival-goer put it, FDGD is about "making money and hopefully having a good time while you do it," which to me seemed like a pretty good representation of life under modern capitalism in general. Recent advances in technology may be contributing to a death of meaning in our lives, but as FDGD is wont to show us, just because technological advances and industry call all the shots, this doesn't mean there isn't time to have fun on our long march to the grave. In fact, the increasing rationalization and monetization of all aspects of life is all the more reason to party for absolutely no reason at all.
As the town of Nederland disappears behind snow-capped peaks in my rear view mirror, it dawns on me that perhaps I had actuallydiscovered something profound at Frozen Dead Guy Days. The festival had provided me with a tiny glimpse of what it means to be alive, about what it means to laugh in the face of our impending doom, and the importance of turning the negative into the positive—maybe. Or maybe it was just a good excuse to drink beer, eat balls, and use a frozen turkey for a bowling ball.
All photos by Daniel Oberhaus