The 36th annual Winter Games are put on by the fictional University of Okoboji. That sets the tone for what you'll find here, in a lake community tucked into Iowa's northwest corner: A weekend festival that has divorced itself from reality.
Some cues may be taken from the community itself, where the police station is also the city hall and also the public library. Four-wheelers are driven up sidewalks; snowmobiles fly over snow-covered hills couched between busy streets and sidewalks, as if there's no chance a person will be standing on the other side.
To your right, you might pass an RV that looks to be driven by two commandos, and the RV's side will be painted with the promise of a political revolution. "Rocky 2016," it says, and you think: That could mean anything.
You may walk into a restaurant known for its bloody marys, but possessing the modern chic charm of a fishing tackle box.
You will walk out when told that the cover fee is ten dollars, and that the only reward upon admission is paying full price for drinks while watching Okoboji Boat People dance on one another.
Don't get me wrong; I had a great time. But I still don't know what to make of my weekend.
The heart of the action takes place in Arnold Park, a small lakefront town that shares its name with an amusement park. I don't know which came first, and while I could look it up, I prefer to leave it a mystery.
The day begins in the early afternoon with some tailgating and watching people shuffle down to the water's edge. It's a warm day, sun shining and ice turning to slush. A pair of women parallel park a truck towing a four-wheeler, and ask for help unloading the ATV while juggling multiple alcohol containers.
When they finally mount their ride and drive off, helmet-less and cackling, they seem like perfect candidates for a gruesome accident. But at the Winter Games, those consequences feel far away.
A similar attitude prevails down at the lake, where a long line of people are taking the polar plunge. People of all shapes and sizes shiver and zip through spectators as they hustle off seeking warmth. Over by the alcohol tent, we find Rocky has set up shop. Roque "Rocky" de la Fuente Guerra is a semi-serious U.S. presidential candidate -- serious in the sense that, according to his volunteers, he is on the ballot in 33 states, although not in Iowa, where the Caucus was just two days away.
Rocky brands himself as the anti-Trump, even though the most basic Internet research reveals that he's a successful San Diego businessman with plenty of cash to burn. A handout detailing his policies and campaign platform reads as almost artistic in its vagueness and bipartisan platitudes. He wants to be the "voice of the people" and plans to "Increase our ranking in Education rank." It is a vision for America that you can't help but desire.
Rocky panders to the crowd with an Iowa Hawkeyes hoodie while volunteers, who look a lot like comic book henchman, pass out free T-shirts to the crowd. I take one from a volunteer who tells me he's a local MMA fighter, out here stumping for Rocky.
Rocky, the volunteer explains, will soon be flying him out to California to fight in an MMA tournament that will function as a political rally. He tells me this so quickly that his motivations are obvious: Rocky has promised, directly or indirectly, to help his MMA career, to give him a shot. He points back at a long-haired volunteer, lanky but with an obvious fighter's physique, and credits him for the opportunity.
The fighter I'm talking to has a career record of somewhere around 60-60. Sixty losses. His teeth are a complete mess: Crooked, large chunks missing. I feel bad for him.
The best fun is on the ice: Not just because you're standing in the middle of a frozen lake, but because you can see the shoreline filled with people and stand among an assortment of activities. Snowmobiles are lined up and abandoned, or else they zoom by from side-to-side far back on the lake's ice. ATVs troll by, including some that have replaced their tires with the track wheels you see on military tanks.
A day-long broomball tournament is playing, with the boundaries of the court formed by piles of snow. The tournament is just far enough away from the busy crowds that you can enjoy the frozen scenery and admire the scale of the lake.
Maybe it's no surprise that, at a wintertime festival where the port-a-potties are threatening to overflow, the best thing to do is steal a moment away from the action. When someone crushes a beer under their boot, a stranger looks over at the can and yells, "Puck!"
Somewhere, there are helicopter rides and hot-air balloons. Winter activities include snow volleyball, sled-dog demos, a chili cookoff and live music playing all day. There are also a bunch of tournaments with absolutely no relevance to winter: Kickball, softball, cribbage, chess. There's a little bit of everything, for better or for worse. But the smart people are down by the lake.
In the evening, when it's dark, there is a fireworks show. There's also supposed to be a mass burning of Christmas trees, but everyone's a bit confused about where and when that's taking place. It's getting cold, and after the fireworks a thin crowd is too impatient to care. Vendors have fussily turned off the heaters in the drinking tent, a not-subtle hint that it's time to go home.
The night ends at a place called Kazarelli's, which someone smartly described as the only Italian restaurant in the world whose name starts with a K. We take seats at the bar and enjoy the friendly bartender and the general ambiance of the place, which has an old lounge feel to it, as well as decorations for Mardi Gras. The other half of the bar is group of older individuals, and they ask us if we met Rocky. Of course; one of us is wearing his shirt.
"He can't even speak English without an accent," she says, among several other observations that sour the mood quickly.
The mood is awkward, the vibe deflated. The woman is loud and full of opinions, all of them terrible. Just as we're moving past the encounter, an older man heading outside stops and asks if we met Rocky, too. We show him our shirts.
"He's got all the money he needs," the man says. "He said he's just living the dream."
The man smiles, and I realize he isn't setting himself up for a racist tirade. Instead, he puts on his scarf and zips up his coat. As he moves toward the door, he raises a fist and says, "Go Rocky."