Last year's inaugural Beard Team USA National Beard and Moustache Championships took place at Bend's own Les Schwab Amphitheater, and as many of you recall, it sent Bend into a facial hair frenzy for a good month or so. It also gave birth to Whisker Wars, a reality television show about the world of competitive facial hair. With this in mind, and the fact that the second annual event, although taking place in Lancaster, Penn., was produced by our sister company Lay it Out Events, we figured we'd tap intrepid beard fan Sam Beckelhymer to cover the contest.
I've become increasingly aware of the culture of competitive bearding over the last few years, and, as a committed beardsman of nearly a decade, this is a development in the field of non-athletic sports that I fully support. Nevertheless, when beard zealot and hierophant Mike Bookey asked me to cover the National Beard and Moustache Championships in Lancaster, Penn., I figured my approach would need to be more "respectful outsider" than "active participant."
Yes, I've seen a few episodes of Whisker Wars; I've marveled at the comic-bookish results of international beard expos; last Halloween I grew and fastidiously styled what I still consider the best moustache my family has ever produced. My current beard, however, is hardly show-ready, so I decided to fashion myself as a kind of Jane-Goodall-among-the-bearded, performing a sociological experiment through full and courteous immersion. This was my intent, anyway, but how do you remain accepting of a culture and willing to take it seriously when these particular chimpanzees are themselves openly aware of the ludicrousness of today's display?
So, without knowing exactly what to expect, I make my way from my home in Philly on Saturday morning with Mark, a friend and fellow beard enthusiast, destined for Pennsylvania Dutch Country, upon which Jack Passion, event host and former natural beard world champion, will later bestow the honorific "the American Epicenter of Facial Hair." We arrive just as things are getting started. The spectacle - and it is a spectacle - kicks off with a long and merry Beard Parade up to the minor league baseball stadium that will hold the competition. The beards are truly resplendent, and seem, in a country that tolerates chest waxing, downright indulgent. Decadent even. The costumes, which I had not expected, are no less impressive, and were my first glimpse at the performance of absurdity that would characterize the event. Pirates and bikers, cowboys and old prospectors, Civil War generals and lederhosen-clad wanderlust types - all are present and handsomely outfitted for the day's proceedings. "Mayor of a fictional cartoon town" (top hat, waistcoat, impeccably curled moustache) is another popular look, though I might have liked representatives of this specific style to have taken a cue from Mayor McCheese and donned a pair of pince-nez, or at least a monocle.
The competitors file in as Jack Passion, who also hosted the inaugural event in Bend, announces the states and countries represented from a stage set up on the infield, where the processional ends to the oohing and ahhing of the crowd. From here, the event unfolds as a beauty pageant, or even a dog show, might. Judges are introduced. Scoring criteria described (appearance, style, personality).
Contestants in each of five categories: moustache, partial beard, full-beard groomed, full-beard natural, and freestyle - are marched across the stage in smaller groups for a preliminary culling. I make initial contact with the tribe by singling out a few beardsmen to get their perspectives on the growth and upkeep of a world-class beard. I'm no stranger to the additional precautions beard ownership entails, and if you've ever acknowledged a fear of peanut butter, or learned the hard way that careless flossing can be astoundingly painful, you'll know what I mean. Here, though, amidst the circus-like atmosphere it is easy to forget that, for the greater part of the year, these lumberjack gods and storybook pirates, these walking affronts to razors and personal grooming norms, live regular lives, have regular jobs, interact with other regular people.
So what do you do with your beard when you're not competing? Tuck it into your belt like Gandalf and go about your business? I asked this of Bryan Nelson from Austin, Texas, whose luxuriant, ruddy carpet of old-growth beard placed second in the Full Beard Natural category, and his answer was effectively, "Nothing." Or, "Nothing special," anyway. A beardsman from my home state of Washington claims the semi-regular trips from Yakima to Seattle for professional beard care are his biggest, beard-related inconvenience.
Most of these guys are pretty normal, and I'm beginning to feel a bit silly for thinking of them as specimens in my study. Sure, a beard that threatens to hide your belt buckle, or a moustache that has outgrown its traditional boundaries and begun to manifest destiny its way across other parts of your face will draw occasional stares and compliments, but pageantry aside, this is far less like the isolated tribe of weirdos I had steeled myself for. Of course, not everyone I talk to is so casual about his beard. A musketeer is a bit defensive when I ask innocently if he is a pirate, and an obvious pirate is aghast when I less innocently inquire if he is a musketeer.
After the champions have been crowned, congratulations doled out, and many a beer quaffed with gusto (I failed to mention: there's a beer garden in right field), the Bacchanal revelry of our hirsute host descends upon the quaintness of Amish country, where legendary beards will filter and absorb ales innumerable in the friscalating dusklight of autumnal Pennsylvania. I, however, must make my way back to the sobering, clean shaven reality of West Philadelphia, where I find myself suffering a kind of reverse culture shock, passing harsh and unsolicited judgment on smooth chins and modest moustaches.