The travelling gnome (also known as the roaming gnome or gnoming) is when someone brings a garden gnome lawn ornament on a trip and takes pictures of it in front of famous landmarks. Some instances became national and international news stories, where people have stolen a garden gnome from a garden, and then sent the owner photos of the gnome for a period of time as a practical joke, before returning it.
The Garden Gnome Liberation Front in France is a community that considers gnoming to be stealing garden gnomes from other people's property, without the intention of returning them, as part of their purported mission to "free" gnomes and "return them to the wild", which has sometimes led to criminal charges, jail time, or fines.
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The earliest record of a prank involving a traveling gnome is from Australia in 1986 when the Sydney Morning Herald reported an "Eastern Suburbs gnome-owner was distressed when she discovered her gnome had been stolen at the weekend. A note was found in its place: 'Dear mum, couldn't stand the solitude any longer. Gone off to see the world. Don't be worried, I'll be back soon. Love Bilbo xxx.'"
Travelling gnome prank
A running prank has developed, which has made national news at times, where people steal a garden gnome from an unknowing person's lawn and then send the owner photos of the gnome and sometimes cryptic messages that were supposedly written by the gnome for a time as a practical joke before returning it.
The most well-known instance of the travelling gnome prank was arguably in 2005 when a group of college students took a garden gnome, dubbed "Gnome Severson" in news, from a property in Redmond, Washington, U.S. and brought it on a roadtrip to California and Nevada. Gnome Severson became a national news story after the group ran into socialite Paris Hilton at a gas station, who posed for a picture with the gnome that was printed in People magazine. At the end of the week-long trip, the friends anonymously returned the gnome to its owner's front porch with a photo album titled "Gnome’s Spring Break 2005", which included the issue of People and other pictures of the gnome around Hollywood, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. The owner, who had not even noticed the gnome was missing until she found it returned on her porch, was even interviewed on Good Morning America.
According to ABC News, the owner decided to auction the gnome on eBay, which sold with the photo album for US$360 in May 2005, because she became tired of all of the media attention. However, in February 2006, it was reported that the gnome had actually been secretly purchased on eBay by the owner's friends who continued to take photos of it around the world in locations such as Canada, Mexico, Italy, and Thailand. After it was returned for the second time, the original owner, referring to it as "the prodigal gnome", said she had decided to keep it and would not sell it on eBay again.
Gnoming as theft
There have also been a number of criminal incidents in which individuals or groups steal large numbers of garden gnomes without the intention of returning, often with the purported mission of "freeing" gnomes and "returning them to the wild". These crimes can cause distress to the victims of the theft, particularly if the gnomes have sentimental value.
France's Garden Gnome Liberation Front (French: Front de libération des nains de jardin), which in 2006 claimed 100 active members in France, Canada, Germany, Spain, and the United States, became known to the public in 1990s when they took credit for the theft of hundreds of garden gnomes around France. In 1997, their ringleader was sent to prison and fined for stealing over 150 garden gnomes over a period of several years.
In 1998, the Garden Gnome Liberation Front made headlines again when they staged a "mass suicide" of gnomes by hanging 11 garden gnomes with nooses around their necks under a bridge at Briey in northeastern France with a note that stated, "When you read these few words we will no longer be part of your selfish world, where we serve merely as pretty decorations." The Front was in the news again in 2000 when they stole 20 gnomes overnight from a garden exhibition in Paris, and they were suspected in 2006, when 80 gnomes were stolen in the central Limousin region of France under a banner that said "gnome mistreated, gnome liberated".
In popular culture
The travelling gnome prank was popularized by the film Amélie (2001) in which the main character persuaded her father to follow his dream of touring the world by stealing his garden gnome and having an air hostess friend send pictures of it from all over the world. The traveling gnome theme later became the basis for Travelocity's "Where is my Gnome?" advertising campaign.
The short fantasy story "The Garden Gnome Freedom Front" (2005) by Laura Frankos, published in The Enchanter Completed: A Tribute Anthology for L. Sprague de Camp, deals with the supernatural aspect of this custom.
The travelling gnome has appeared in several video games. For example, it has been used as a recurring Easter egg in The Sims computer game series, such as Sim City 3 (1999) where different varieties of garden gnomes appear and move or change position daily and in Sim City 4 (2004), in which gnomes reveals themselves in the game's buildable landmarks. In the video game, Half-Life 2: Episode Two (2007), players receive a special achievement award for launching a garden gnome into outer space in a rocket after carrying it throughout most of the game. Gnonstop Gnomes, a mobile app for Android and iOS devices, lets users attach clipart of virtual gnomes to their travel photographs that they can share with friends.
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Whilst seeming insignificant at first, it is in fact part of the popular Achievement "Little Rocket Man", which requires the player to carry the gnome to the final location of the game (White Forest) and place it within the rocket.
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