The Ides of April have just passed, and while the midpoint of this month may not mean anything to most, it marks the approximate start of a most auspicious time of year for Louisvillians: Derby Season.
Despite what you may have heard, Derby does not last only 2 minutes. Well, the race itself, which gives the Festival its name, does, but the decadent and depraved party is so much more than that. In Louisville, Derby officially begins two and a half weeks before the first Saturday in May, with a series of events from parades to hot-air balloon races to food festivals. This year the first event on the books is a hole-in-one tournament, but that’s simply a matter of chronology. The real kickoff of Derby fest is and has always been (at least in my memory) Thunder Over Louisville.
Thunder, as we so affectionately call it, is a fireworks display — the largest annual fireworks display in North America as a matter of fact (environmental repercussions be damned). Every year since I was just a year old, approximately two weeks before the Derby, Louisvillians and Hoosiers alike line the banks of the Ohio to watch stuff blow up (in a non-destructive, aesthetically pleasing, set to music kind of way). It’s 45 minutes of the most intense fireworks you’ve ever seen, shot off two barges in the river and waterfalling off the sides of the bridge — bigger than the opening and closing ceremonies of the Atlanta and Barcelona Olympics combined, using over 60 tons of firework shells. An average of half a million people come down to see the show. It’s big, and it’s loud, and it’s magical.
I can’t remember an April without Thunder. When I was a kid, we spent them on the highest level of a parking garage in downtown Louisville, from which we could watch the show with our view only slightly obscured by one of the Galt House towers. We’d drive down early, to avoid traffic and scope out a good spot. The fireworks didn’t actually start until around 9, so most of the afternoon was spent spread out on a Little Mermaid blanket, watching the air show or dancing to the DJ that the office hired for the occasion. Sometimes there was chalk provided for us and the rest of the kids that hung around, and we’d draw pictures on the cement. One year there was even a moon bounce. Thunder was kind of like tailgating, and the fireworks were the big game. We’d pack up food, drinks, and coolers full of popsicles, and we’d spend the afternoon basking in the April sun (hopefully — some years it wasn’t all blue skies and 75 degrees).
The worst part of Thunder is always the outgoing traffic. Perched on our parking garage, we’d stick around for a couple hours after it was over just to avoid the mass exodus from downtown. As I got older and more independent, our solutions grew more creative (or desperate). In high school, one year a bunch of us rented a room at a hotel downtown and curled together three to a king size bed just to avoid the drive home. Another year Zelda and I drove up to the top of a hill by the VA hospital and watched the fireworks from a distance, peeking through a grove of trees, but safe from the downtown crowds. Our view may have been a bit obscured, but we made it home in five minutes.
I haven’t been back for Thunder in a few years, between college and grad school and just plain life. But as you read this, I am getting on a plane and heading back to Louisville for the weekend. I have no idea what I’ll be doing for the big event, but I do know I’ll be in attendance somewhere. Because for Louisvillians Derby is the most important holiday of the year, and it all starts with Thunder. For the two weeks that follow, the city devolves into a state of organized chaos, a hectic mayhem of all sorts of events, from the solemn to the silly.
Many events that revolve around food and drink: a beerfest, a winefest, a Taste of Derby fest. There are concerts, a hot air balloon glow, and races of all stripes: Steamboat Race, Balloon Race, Marathon, Mini-Marathon, Bed Race (yes that is exactly what you think it is, probably, if you think its people racing on tricked out mattresses on wheels). There’s a Quizbowl style Academic Challenge (which Zelda and I both competed in back in the day). And it all wraps up with the Pegasus Parade, followed by Oaks Day and then the main event itself.
We take these two weeks to celebrate the fact that we are part of one of the greatest sports traditions in history, and one of the most beloved traditions in America. We take Hunter S. Thompson’s “Decadent and Depraved” to heart; hell, we embrace it. We take decadence to an almost Roman level, and you can bet we get hella depraved. We find some way to celebrate for two weeks straight, a whole season just for us before the eyes of the nation turn our way for a quick two minutes. The derby may be for America, but Derby is for Louisville — a celebration of all the weird and wacky things that make our city great. And you can bet we’re gonna do the same thing here on Zelda and Scout.
In honor of our hometown’s greatest holiday, the next couple weeks on Zelda and Scout will be dedicated to pure Derby spirit, with all the decadence and depravity that entails. We will teach you young grasshoppers the ways of a true Louisvillian on Derby, from how to make the right cocktails and a mean Derby chocolate pecan bourbon pie (we’ll explain later), to where to find New Yorkers to celebrate the big day with or how to throw a shindig of your very own. Tis the season for juleps and horses and hot browns, and so for the next two weeks, we’re sharing the Derby love. Consider this your call to the post. Stay tuned, and stay hydrated. It’s going to be quite a ride.