By now, some of you have heard about a not-at-all mysterious billboard that has gone up at the mouth of 87 leading into Evans, a 6x8 foot monument to the lengths one man will go to for a laugh. And it all starts with a text chain.

Text chains are pretty innocuous. They mostly consist of wishing people happy birthday, reminding people about events, and occasionally sending weird memes. But sometimes what starts as the simple “I’m making the best ribs at my house today,” quickly snowballs into “I make the best ribs in the whole dang world and I will prove it!” And that’s how you get “Waller in the Holler.”

“Waller” was a fun summer BBQ last year for our invited family and friends, an opportunity to enjoy everyone’s company while also raising some much-needed funds for Adopt-A-Family, my dad’s favorite charity. We passed the hat, opened the bar, and in between all that, my Uncles, Gapper and TL, and Cousin Scott, decided to settle once and for all who made the best ribs so the family could move on to Thanksgiving without the cloud of “who is the rib-master” hanging over us. Because it’s hard to be thankful for what you have when what you really want is for everyone to be thankful you’re around to make them smoked meats.

And just a quick side note: the process to get to “Waller” involved no less than three separate family meetings, at least two “I’m walking out!” arguments, and the disastrous decision to let Uncle Gapper order the trophies, which resulted in one of them, in bold capital letters, spelling out “RIBBS.” I’d like to tell you that this isn’t normal, but it’s not a Ranson bash if it’s not over the top and at least one of us doesn’t start looking for a “normal” family to be adopted into.

Back to the story. So we’re all eating, drinking, making merry, and rib tasting is happening. I’m running the Official Judging (because this is what I went to law school for), making sure it’s anonymous, fair, and to keep certain people from adding unapproved garnishes and sauces which should result in automatic disqualification (again, law school graduate here), while the people got to give their voice via colored buttons in jars. When all the ribs were tasted, and all the buttons counted it was Uncle TL with his eight Crock Pots full of ribs and brisket over Uncle Gapper and Scott’s all-night smoker entries. Uncle Gapper had to settle for “People’s Choice,” and a trophy so tiny, you can’t get the tip of your pinky through the trophy handles.

There’s a fantastic picture of the winners and losers that I’ll cherish forever: my surprised Uncle TL holding his trophies for “Best RIBBS” and “Best Brisket,” while Scott and Uncle Gapper, gracious in defeat, smile on happily, and my Uncle Chuck photo-bombing in the background. We lost Uncle Chuck this year, and “Waller” was probably his last big bash, probably the last time a lot of people saw him happy and whole. If “Waller” again this year, we’ll desperately miss his face behind the bar, dishing out stories, offering up his opinion on who will win, and slyly “ribbing” (pun intended) the ones who lost.

But parties end and life goes on…so we think. See Uncle Gapper is a gracious loser, but he is not a quiet one. Not content with “People’s Choice,” he decided to play a long-game prank on Cousin Scott by having a picture of himself in his chef regalia put in Hilltop Meats (his preferred meatery and 70 percent of the reason his ribs are so good), so at some point Scott would have to see it. And see it he did, months later, while picking up Thanksgiving dinner meats, and we all laughed and laughed. Which gave Uncle Gapper the idea: if a picture of me in Hilltop is funny, how funny would a billboard of me leading to Uncle TL’s house be?

And that brings us up to now: my Uncle Gapper, six-feet high on a billboard, trophies in hand, chef regalia on, where no one driving in west Jackson County, but most especially not my Uncle TL, could miss him. He’ll be there for a month, and afterwards, we’ll move him to the holler, where he’ll stand as a warning to the cows of what’s to come. I’d say they’ll be scared, but they’ve seen how bad we are at killing deer, so they’ll probably just shrug and chew cud.

You know, the saying goes that money doesn’t buy happiness. But I prefer the saying “People who say money doesn’t buy happiness aren’t using money correctly.” Because what better use of the COVID stimulus money than making the entire community of Evans and passing drivers laugh while simultaneously annoying your baby brother so much he’ll have to drive through Parchment for a month to avoid your huge billboard?

So in these bleak times, let me impart some lessons from my tale: one, challenges in text chains are apparently legally binding. Two, if the law doesn’t work out, I have a future as Rib Cook-Off judge coordinator. Three, never miss an opportunity for an outrageous, over-the-top family bash, because you don’t know who won’t be at the next one.

And finally, if you have the chance to spend some extra money you weren’t expecting on a really good laugh, do it. Because money does in fact buy happiness when its spent on the rental of a 6x8 billboard with your uncle’s face on it. Lord knows I’ll be happily laughing about it for years to come.