After the pre-Derby ordeal of finding my obscure designated parking, I spent nearly 40 minutes on a shuttle that took me less than a mile. Once Super Saver won the Derby, I didn't want to wait in the neigh endless lines for shuttles. I cleverly thought I'd save my time and hoof it instead.
What I failed to take into consideration was 150,000 other people were also struggling to get the heck away from Churchill Downs. To give you an idea what this means in real world terms, I live about six miles from the track. The Derby ended a little after 6:30. I didn't make it home until well after 9 pm.
When I finally reached my parking lot, I couldn't believe so many people had the energy to keep on partying. I also couldn't believe they'd want to party in their cars. No one wants to party in my car. Party supplies call cabs so they won't suffer the humiliation of arriving at the same place with my peeling, ancient Volvo. I didn't get it.
Then a total stranger offered me a Hebrew National hot dog.
Food never tasted so good. I don't know how much I walked at Derby - enough both of my feet were bleeding by the time the tailgaters told me to sit down and have a beer.
I hate beer. I drank theirs. It was delicious. This will never happen again in my life, but in that moment of adrenaline spiked exhaustion fueled with the knowledge I still had half a mile to go before I reached my car, Natty Light was nectar of the gods.
"Why are you doing this?" I asked.
"You look like you're about to fall over, darlin," said Jason, who drove down from Columbus, Ohio for the Derby.
"No," I waved at the camper and tent. "Why all of this? The tailgaiting. I love you for it, but...why?"
Jason and his half dozen Buckeye loving friends looked at me like I was an alien. Well, I did spend the last month as first mate of the Louisville Space Pirates.
"Derby is like a football game..."
I looked up as though I hoped he'd explain the concept of football with small words and finger puppets. I'm not 100% sure which shape ball that game uses, though if I had to guess, I'd say "not round."
"What time did you get here, girl?"
I couldn't remember.
Jason laughed. "We got here around two. Set up, made lunch, had a couple beers, walked to Derby. We got there just in time to blow our money on a couple juleps, bet on the big race, and head back out here. Now, we've got our own bathroom, we've got a grill, our neighbors have music, girls are dancing, and we've got a parade streaming right past. We didn't fight traffic to get here. We won't fight it getting home. AND we still saw the big race. Can you say your day was better than this?"
"I talked to Superman."
They offered me another beer.
While I ate my divine meal of epic proportions, they handed out water to strangers, let strangers use their bathroom, and posed for a ton of photos. I always thought of tailgaiting as antisocial - if you didn't like the big crowds, you could hide in your camper and only talk to your friends. Now, I saw it was the world's best conversation starter. Anyone who looked tired or needed a bathroom or just wanted to play a relaxing game of cornhole before slogging the rest of the way to their car would stop by and introduce themselves. Tailgaters could hang out with friends, meet new people, and never worry about being stuck in traffic.
All they asked in exchange for their hospitality was that I print the words, "Go Buckeyes!" These guys are really passionate about their peanut butter candy.