Cowboys & Klingons: Photos from a Small-Town Star Trek Convention
As enthusiasts for quirky, rural Alberta events, earlier this summer photographer Kyler Zeleny and I spent a weekend in Vulcan, Alberta at their annual Star Trek Convention, Vul Con. We put together a small article for Vice (read here). What follows is the full version of the article and images. Text by Kyler with contributions by me.
Dressed in everyday clothes, Elyse and I are hanging out with Spock, McCoy, and Kirk at the Vulcan Hotel. It’s a Saturday night and there are eight people in the town bar including the proprietor, a new immigrant who mistakes our order of rum and cokes for Bud Light beer. There is a cake-faced-shit-faced hairdresser slugging quarters into one of the VLTs; she takes a break to tell one of our Star Fleet officers that she has nice hair. The hairdresser’s parlour can be found in an alley or in her garage, this part is unclear. McCoy and I spend some time trying to get the sex toys out of the claw machine and I skill myself into a unicorn on my first loonie; it’s easier to go after the stuffed animals.
The screech of tires can be heard outside. A drunk local walks in, offering to buy drinks for his friends at the VLTs. He’s a business owner himself. He initiates conversation, says he’s happy to see “our kind” in town and that he supports Vul-Con. This he declares before entering into a drunk tirade about how the other local festival, Spock Days, with its packed bar and full tilt slow-pitch tournament is the real event to come to town for. What started off as a well mannered albeit slurred conversation on his behalf becomes a set of accidental insults. This is a truly bizarre exchange, one you could only find in the small town of Vulcan, Alberta.
Named after the Roman God of Fire, Vulcan is home to farmers, ranchers, and the occasional Klingon or Captain Kirk. Vulcan’s pre-Star Trek claim to fame was its 9-in-a-line grain elevators and while once the largest grain exporting site west of Winnipeg, it is now a typical rural community making a significant push for regional tourism dollars. Interested in rural culture and quirky events, we’ve come to town to document the weekend. Although Elyse has a latent, yet expressive, love for the community itself, she’s disadvantaged by being unfamiliar with Star Fleet protocol. I’ve been a closeted Trekkie since a child having watched the entire original series as reruns on my dad’s VHS tapes.
As we descend upon the annual convention we feel apprehension and excitement. People are good spirited, and welcoming. Battle cries of “tlhlngan maH,” meaning ‘we are Klingon’ were common amongst the prideful and ruthless rigged foreheads. It’s 30 degrees at 10am and the Borg and Deep Space Nine cosplayers are beginning to melt as we wait for the costume judging to commence. It feels like a theme camp where eager campers struggle to overcome the awkwardness to make friends and the rural familiarity of knowing everyone is in high contrast with the spectacle that unfolds. This is no camp; this is another small Canadian town in the middle of nowhere.
The costume parade, marshalled by the town mayor sporting quality prosthetic Vulcan ears, signals the official beginning of the convention. As we walk down Main Street we are interrupted by a passing train, a diesel powered reminder of the convention’s setting. There are some locals spectating from the sidewalk but the parade is not for them, it’s for us, and for those who trekked here for the convention. This year’s theme is Deep Space Nine, although there are no Kardashians, Ferengi, or Bajoran present. The attendees are diverse: a former football player who drove from Minnesota; a father-daughter duo who starred in a Star Trek fan film; and a young queer woman and her two friends from South Carolina.
The weekend’s events mainly take place in the local arena and curling rink. The walls are decorated with Star Trek posters and the concession is open, serving up typical fare – burgers, chips, fries and gravy, and soda. Despite the organizers’ futile attempts to upsell the façade, it still feels more like a hockey rink than it does a world of the federation, complete with muted lighting and the familiar smell of cold sweat.
Saturday night we attend the formal dinner and dance, held in the high school gym, with a head table for the esteemed celebrity guests of DS9. The meal is expensive and has the feel of small town catering from the 1990s—simple flavour profiles (salt!), overcooked chicken, with the customary saving grace of the quality bread bun with butter. The specialty drinks are lacking; no Vulcan Brandy, Romulan Ale, or, and most disheartening, no Klingon Blood Wine (traditionally made here on earth with tequila, tabasco and cranberry juice). There is, at least, Klingon Imperial Porter, but it sells out before the dinner begins. The night is capped with a video dance party reminiscent of the early 2000s and we watch as the Klingons and Star Fleet officers dressed in their formal uniforms shake it to Hit Me Baby One More Time before they fade into the night.