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Travel

I Went to Vulcan, Canada, for a Small-Town Trekkie Convention

For two decades the amusingly-named rural community has been holding a Star Trek–themed festival called "Spock Days."

by Jeff Toth
Jun 24 2014, 5:25pm



All photos by the author

Growing up in small town Alberta, I had always vaguely known that there was a nearby place called Vulcan that had a replica of the starship Enterprise. This might’ve been a bigger deal to me except that even as kid, I thought Alberta’s obsession with roadside attractions was pretty lame. Come to [insert town name], Home of the World’s Largest [insert random object]! Stay for nothing else!

What I didn’t know is that the Enterprise statue was just the tip of the iceberg. Vulcan has parlayed the coincidental overlap of the name—which it's had since 1910—and the seemingly neverending popularity of the Star Trek franchise to turn itself into a tourist destination for Trekkies (or "Trekkers," if you care about the distinction there). Since 1993, the town's annual Trek-themed festival, called Spock Days, has brought thousands of people to the community.

On my way to Spock Days two weekends ago, all I was expecting to see was a miniature Star Trek convention awkwardly beamed into a rural setting. While that certainly isn't an inaccurate description, Spock Days is just as much of an ordinary small-town festival as any rodeo or cornfest you’d find in neighbouring rural Canadian towns: There’s a free pancake breakfast, a softball tournament, a beer garden, a barbecue, and a dunk tank. Unfortunately, the event I was most looking forward to, the dog agility show, had been canceled—the lady who does it was sick.

It seemed a little ridiculous that the reason for all of this hoopla was that this rural town happened to have the same name as a fictional intergalactic race known for their logic and ability to pinch people to sleep. However tenuous the connection was originally, in the 22 years that Spock Days has been running, Vulcan has integrated Star Trek into its DNA. There are Starfleet logos printed on street signs and poured into sidewalk concrete. Businesses are named and decorated with references to Star Trek. Vulcan is also home to Canada’s only Star Trek museum, Trekcetera, which opened last year. Even if it was a naked attempt to attract tourism, Vulcan's attempt to link itself with the beloved sci-fi franchise is a serious endeavor.

The event that really melds the small town present and science-fiction future is the annual Spock Days Parade. The guests of honor—three former cast members and a former set designer for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine—led the parade in convertibles. The town’s own float is, of course, a replica of the Enterprise called the USS Vulcan, orbited by a cluster of enthusiastic Star Trek fans. In a jarring shift, the very next float was for an evangelical Bible school, and most of the remaining floats were promoting local businesses, though some paid lip service to the Star Trek theme with Spock ears or “Keep Khan and Klingon” hoodies. My favourite image from the parade: a classic Cadillac promoting a retirement community packed with seniors, one of whom flashed the Vulcan salute like a gang sign as they rolled by.

The spectators reflected the odd mash-up feel of the parade. There were wholesome-looking small town folk, some in cowboy hats and boots, standing by Trekkies in full costume. Weirder yet was seeing members of a nearby Hutterite colony taking in the sci-fi action in muted confusion. It was as though people from the past, present, and the imagined future had all come to enjoy the parade.

It was interesting that you could easily tell who was from out of town, because they were both wearing costumes and taking pictures. For the locals, the people who come to their town as spectators are the spectacle. As the parade crowd dispersed, I overheard a local talking to a costumed couple:

“Hey, where are you two from?”

“Calgary,” said the woman.

“No. Where are you really from?”

After taking a second to understand she wasn’t being insulted, she replied, “Oh! I’m from Bajor and he’s from Vulcan.”

The actual convention itself was more, well, conventional. It was a scaled-down version of what you’d see at any comic con: There were booths where you could buy merchandise or have original artwork created. This year’s two biggest celebrities were Rene Auberjonois and Nana Visitor (Deep Space Nine’s Odo and Kira respectively), sat down for question-and-answer sessions, fielding questions with casual honesty. When asked what the strangest thing she had autographed was, Visitor replied, “Looking back on it, I probably shouldn’t have done this, but once I autographed a six-week-old child.”

Not all the celebrity guests were as down-to-earth. Chase Masterson, who appeared in 17 of DS9’s 173 episodes as Leeta, noticed I was taking photos of her autograph session and insisted on seeing the photos so she could veto any that weren’t flattering. While she flipped through my photos, I checked out the self-produced CDs she was selling. They had titles like Songs from the Holodeck and cost $30 each—prices from the future.

The other main event at Spock Days, which rivals the convention in size, was a 24-team slo-pitch tournament, complete with a beer garden set up between the baseball diamonds. I kept checking back in on the tournament hoping to see some Trekkies in full Starfleet uniforms enjoying a game or at least a beer, but there seemed to be very little cross-pollination between the two events. One of the players I talked to, Brett, was originally from Vulcan. Even though he doesn’t watch Star Trek, he always comes back for Spock Days.

“It brings money into the town,” he explained. “The ball tournament is huge. And it’s a good drunk.”

On my way back to the convention to catch the "video dance party," I stopped in at the Star Trek museum, Trekcetera, which debuted during last year’s event. One of the owners, Michael Mangold, doubles as the museum’s tour guide, and is clearly as passionate about Star Trek as he is about the town. Even if it is a little silly, his enthusiasm for the topic is thrilling.

Mangold is particularly fond of Leonard Nimoy, who has become something of a folk hero in the area. In 2010 Nimoy visited Vulcan and the town dedicated a bronze statue of Spock to him. Mangold explained to me that Nimoy approached CBS on behalf of Vulcan to have it officially named the Star Trek Capital of Canada, further legitimizing town’s status as a Star Trek destination, and Vulcan has prospered. It was tough to be cynical after seeing Mangold’s sincere appreciation of what Star Trek has done for the town and for him personally.

Back at the convention, the crowd mingled before the dance and people kept asking me how my first experience with Spock Days was. They knew I hadn’t been to one before because this was a small-town convention in more than one way—they all knew each another. This was the fifth consecutive year that Shayla from Edmonton had attended. She had just graduated high school the week before, and she had gotten gifts in the mail from people she had met at previous Spock Days, or as she referred to them, her Vulcan family.

The emcee informed us that before the dance started, there would be a special performance by Chase Masterson. She kick-stepped and twirled around the stage while singing a version of Marilyn Monroe song with repurposed lyrics to pander to Trekkies, titled, unfortunately, "Latinum Is a Girl’s Best Friend." After promoting her CDs (available for sale at the back of the room), she inexplicably launched into a cover of "Pure Imagination," the famous song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. No response. She broke the following stunned silence by saying, “That was for all of you.” Even in a town that had manufactured a Trek-tourism industry, this felt like an unabashed cash grab. She left the stage to strained applause.

The mood in the room quickly bounced back when the video dance started with Pharrell’s "Happy." Trekkies eagerly packed the dance floor. There’s something magical about watching people in Starfleet uniforms and blue body paint dance while lasers dart around the room. Shayla came back and told me to put down my camera and come dance in the circle. And, after I found a place to hide it from Masterson, I did.

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