For first-timers, finding the annual Peg Leg Smith Liars' Contest, held off a strip of two-lane desert highway about seven miles northeast of Borrego Springs, can be challenging. No road sign reveals the location of Peg Leg Smith Monument, where the contest, in its 29th year of revival, is held after sundown on the first Saturday of April in the flowering Anza-Borrego desert.
Instead, a gathering of motor homes in one corner of this middle-of-nowhere marked the spot. Under an ominous cover of rain clouds, roughly 100 people sat on lawn chairs or blankets spread out on the desert floor, listening to desert-oriented mood music (as in the Sons of the Pioneers).
A raging campfire illuminated a table holding well-worn trophies-for ancient achievements in baseball, bowling and curling-donated for the occasion. "If you get a trophy here, you can take it home and lie about it," an organizer explained.
A plaque informed visitors that Peg Leg (real name: Thomas L. Smith) was a 19th-century "mountain man, prospector and spinner of tall tales" who had somehow forgot the location of a major strike he made. "Countless people have searched the desert looking for its fabulous wealth. The gold mine could be within a few miles of this monument."
Nearby, another sign reading, "Let those who seek Peg Leg's gold throw ten rocks into this pile," stood in front of a pyramid-shaped mound of stones about 20 feet high. The monument was erected more than 50 years ago by Hollywood set designer Harry Oliver, who also built a small adobe home in the area.
Diana Lindsay, president of El Cajon's Sunbelt Publications, called the liars' face-off "the longest ongoing storytelling contest in the United States." Initiated by Oliver in the late 1940s, the event was revived in 1975 by the Committee to Assimilate Curious Tales of Incredibility (CACTI).
Phil Brigati, an Orange County historian and five-time contest winner, explained his lying technique: creating a character who is the "sort of guy who will go to great lengths to avoid doing a little work. He's always got a bright idea, and, of course, it never really works."
But what would the judges (all of whom had backgrounds in San Diego county law enforcement) look for in a contestant-especially when they already knew the storytellers were lying?
Contest judge Jim McKenna explained that while story content is essential, so is delivery. Although not required, period garb and props couldn't hurt. To discourage rambling, a five-minute limit (not etched in stone) would be set for each tale, which had to be about Peg Leg or treasure-hunting.
"The contest," McKenna suggested, "can be terrific and it can be-not. You don't know."
McKenna's point became clear after the first few entrants had performed. Many liars, who hailed from as far afield as Idaho, employed trite jokes focusing on Peg Leg's reputation for drunkenness or references to the prospector's prosthesis.
A Poway woman whittled and popped bubble-gum while spinning her yarn ("To make a long story long, I've got a tale to tell you of lost gold...."), which literally ended with a fish story. An Escondido man, costumed in a fringed suede jacket and carrying a rifle prop, gave an oration on Peg Leg's musings on "real love-the man-and-woman type." But some in the audience groaned when, far past his five-minute limit, the would-be mountain man prepared to continue.
"Out of time!" someone shouted, prompting the rest of the spectators to break into applause that ended the verbal onslaught.
The most surreal moment came when a Santee man set up a screen and gave a PowerPoint presentation: "Searching for Peg Leg Smith on the Old Spanish Trail." The contestant may have hurt his chances of winning, however, when he threw in a gratuitous joke about cops and donuts.
Brigati's presentation was more traditional and executed with confidence. Decked out in a duster and red bandana, he had also memorized his lines.
Eleven of the 13 contestants had participated by the time the occasional raindrops that had been falling all evening became a full-fledged downpour. Chairs folded, SUV ignitions fired up and spectators scurried to RVs for cover. The contest, for the first time in remembered history, was washed out.
Still, those prescient enough to have brought umbrellas waited around the struggling campfire while the judges brushed water off their score sheets. Meanwhile, other liars, including a man from Volcano ("He's spewing," one person whispered) kept the prevarication going.
By the time the rain had stopped, Brigati had once again been recognized for top achievement in lying.Reflecting on his contest participation, Brigati said it was just about "foolishness." But back in his home environment, where people often ask him to retell his winning stories, without the desert and the campfire, he noted, "It's just not the same."