“I feel like I just sold my soul to the devil,” I told Rich last week. I’d finally taken the plunge and signed up for ChatGPT, the new artificial intelligence that will soon be running the planet.
How complex was the signup process? About halfway between taking out a library card and applying to become a NASA astronaut on the Mars mission. The strangest part? It asked me — five times! — if I was human. Well, that felt a bit personal this early in our relationship. I wondered what would have happened if I’d said no. Would it stonewall me? You’d think any self-respecting AI would welcome fellow cyborgs to the conversation. Most likely ChatGPT just wanted to verify that yes, it had to dumb down its responses for yet another slow-moving meat-based brain.
In my efforts to embrace ChatGPT, I figured I’d start with an easy test run, asking it to provide some background about the first activity of my Nutters Tour of California: the nearby town of Petaluma’s Butter and Egg Days. Disappointingly the chatbot seemed to know less than I did — and considerably less than Google and Wikipedia — about this annual screwball event.
The festival’s roots go back to 1849, when Petaluma had the great good fortune to be in the poultry business as the Gold Rush hit California, bringing in 300,000 hungry prospectors ready to pay top dollar for grub. By 1915, Petaluma was producing ten million eggs a year and for nearly two decades its banks held more money per capita than anywhere else on earth. Canny officials promoted their town as “The Egg Capital of the World,” “The World’s Egg Basket,” and “Chickaluma.” In 1918 the first Egg Day parade took place, with the theme “Eat More Eggs.” Forty years ago local dairy farmers wanted to get in on the fun, and today the annual celebration is known as Butter and Egg Days.
With forty years marking the ruby anniversary, somebody hit on the theme of ruby slippers and the Wizard of Oz catchphrase, “There’s no place like home.” Ruby slippers, ruby sneakers, ruby boots, and ruby chicken feet appeared on everyone from babies to those old enough to know better.
Saturday’s first spectacle was the spirited Cow Chip Throwing Contest, featuring festively painted dried dung patties. Locally sourced? It started out that way, but enthusiasm for picking up bovine droppings soon fizzled out among regional dairy farmers (go figure). Thanks to Ebay, boxes of cow chips are now shipped in from Texas every year, although the job of painting them still falls to Petaluma’s selfless volunteers.
The contest began with the traditional Battle of the Badges, pitting fire chief Jeff Schach against police chief Ken Savano, whose epic throw a few years ago (past the end of the plaza and across the street beyond) has become a local legend. There was a wind up …. The pitch … And Savano won again, to wild applause.
Town dignitaries and beauty contest winners then tried their luck, displaying more heart than skill. Several chips landed embarrassingly close to the starting line, one appeared to glance off an awning, a few skittered into the crowd, and one dropped down on a dog, who seemed surprised but uninjured and very interested in the cow chip.
It was tough to tear myself away from this thrilling spectacle, but I had to move on to the next event, the heartwarming Cutest Chick Contest. Because who could pass up the chance to see toddlers dressed up as baby chickens? “We had to cut it off at seventy entries, with thirty waiting as backup,” said announcer Jeff Mayne. “That’s how popular this event is.” It may have been popular with the doting parents, but while some tots graciously accepted the adulation of the throng, most howled with annoyance or stared, glassy-eyed, into the crowd, clearly wondering what they’d done to deserve this hellish treatment.
After that I strolled around booths offering clothing, crafts, food, and self-defense weapons for girls and women until it was time for the parade. As families began drifting to chairs they’d set out along the route first thing that morning, I took off for the staging area.
There I found upwards of a hundred floats getting their final inspection as rag-tag bands tuned up, eagle-eyed moms adjusted kids’ headgear, and shelter dogs tried to look adoptable. As I strolled past the loony mix of small business owners, girl scouts, Harley Davidson bikers dressed as flying monkeys, Star Warzians, political activists, and wildlife rescuers, I said to Rich, “These are my people. I am home.”
Does California turn people into nutters or just attract those with a pre-disposition? The old joke about the continental tilt theory — which says everything loose rolls to California — had never seemed more true than it did in Petaluma that day.
I could not have been more delighted. Much as I love Seville and my life there, I will always be a foreigner in Spain, where most people have known each other since baptism. Here in California, home to five generations of my family, I am surrounded by people who may technically be strangers but who are as familiar as my own relatives in the way they embrace the unexpected and delight in the ridiculous. Nobody in Petaluma hesitated to walk down the middle of the street dressed as a chicken wearing ruby slippers. Nutters one and all. My people indeed.
Every one of them embodied something AI will never know: the sheer, heady delight of doing something madly creative simply for a lark. During my research, I asked ChatGPT for possible headlines for a blog post about the event, and its first suggestion was, “Celebrate Petaluma’s Rich Agricultural Heritage at Butter and Egg Day Festival.” Talk about failing to capture the spirit of the event. Or the crowd. Or my blog, for that matter.
The last event of the weekend was Sunday’s Deviled Egg Competition, an unofficial part of the celebrations and “the most egg-citing day of the year” according to its promoters. I’m not sure it quite lived up to that hype (what could?), but it was a hoot and a great fundraiser for a charity helping local families in need. Surveying the options, I made my selections, including a red egg dyed with beet juice and — the hands-down favorite at our table — sushi deviled eggs, which combined the solid comfort of the classic base with a surprising topping of fresh roe, green onions, and a drizzle of sesame oil. Where else would you find this offbeat combo? “Dorothy was right,” I told Rich. “There’s no place like home.”
JUST JOINING US? THE NUTTERS WORLD TOUR SO FAR
NOW STARTING: THE NUTTERS TOUR OF CALIFORNIA
Can Artificial Intelligence Help Me Plan the Next Nutters Tour?
THE NUTTERS TOUR OF SPAIN
Spain Never Runs Out of Offbeat Curiosities (Zaragoza, Barcelona, Tarragona)
I Travel Deep into the Heart of Nuttiness (Palencia & Pamplona)
Road Warriors: Let the Good Times Roar (Léon & Oviedo)
Travel Alert: You Can't Always Get What You Want... (Madrid & Burgos)
Gobsmacked at Every Turn but Embracing the Chaos (Jaén & Valdepeñas)
All Aboard for the Nutters Tour of Spain (Packing & Organizing)
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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