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illustration by john cuneo
The Dude sits at the bar of a bowling alley. He’s wearing a bathrobe, a white V-neck T-shirt and sandals. I buy The Dude a drink. A White Russian, of course. He thanks me kindly and takes a big hearty slurp, vodka-laced milk staining his moustache.

The Dude — this one, at least — is from Tampa, Fla. His real name is Mark LaRocca. His very un-Dude-like day job: business-development specialist. Mark has a LinkedIn page, which The Dude would not abide.

But tonight, at the Lebowski Fest in Orlando, Fla., there is no Mark. There is only The Dude. It’s a celebration — nay, a gathering of worshippers — of filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen’s rug-quest epic, The Big Lebowski.

I tell The Dude that I like his style. He responds that he’s always worn his hair long and his goatee messy, and whenever life went haywire, he’d go bowling. Somebody eventually told him he should rent the movie, which came out in 1998. “I was The Dude before The Dude,” Mark says.

As he says this, The Dude — another one — saunters by the window behind the bar. He’s carefully sniffing a carton of half-and-half, like Jeff Bridges’ stoned slacker character did in the dairy aisle of a supermarket. Nearby, another Dude shows off his expertly sloppy bowling technique, terry cloth robe billowing behind him as he races toward the lane.

There are at least 10 Dudes here, including a female one and another wearing, instead of a bathrobe, a poncho and a sombrero. (Asked about his getup, that fellow explained smugly: “El Duderino.”)

For those poor souls who have not yet seen it: The Big Lebowski is an adventure tale of mistaken identity, purported ransom kidnappings, severed toes, a nefarious and skilled rival bowler named Jesus, a mostly nude splatter artist, a group of nihilists, a suitcase full of dirty undies and — the impetus of it all — a rug that really tied the room together.

But mostly it’s about an unemployed Californian nicknamed The Dude and his entourage — handgun-waving war vet Walter and always-inquisitive, out-of-his-element Donny — navigating a labyrinthine, White ?Russian–fueled plot while trying to make their bowling league’s finals.

The Dude has inspired, quite literally, a cult: More than 100,000 people have been ordained as Dudeists. There’s a magazine called The ?Dudespaper. And since 2002, self-styled Dudes have been making pilgrimages to Lebowski Fests across America.

Trivia questions are announced on the bowling alley’s PA system. “What street did The Dude say In-N-Out Burger was on?” is an easy one, sending Dudes reaching into the pockets of their robes to tweet the answer from smartphones. (It’s ?Camrose, duh.)

With such a crowd, making too obvious a ?Lebowski reference is a capital party foul. So the costumes stray into meta territory. Four men in lab coats won the Best Group award in the costume contest. This is a reference — bear with me — to a cop’s sarcastic remark to The Dude that “the boys down at the crime lab” are working in shifts to find the thieves of his dented Ford Torino.

Bowling next to my lane is a skinny nihilist in tight black-leather pants, a hoodie and combat boots. As he bowls, he holds a stuffed ferret on a studded leash. He is so authentic — his frame so malnourished, his gaze so beady — that I’m pretty positive he really does believe in nuzzing (nothing, to non-Lebowski fans).

The most beautiful part about Lebowski Fest is the single-minded focus on bowling. The film had, at its core, an unironic love for the sport of curving 14-pound balls and clattering pins and post-strike dances. So, too, do these Orlando revelers. We all throw rocks for at least three hours. Nobody goes over the line, so nobody has to mark it zero.

The event is not without turmoil. Like all great groups, the award-?winning lab boys clash and nearly break up over an argument apparently involving Facebook. And at least one of The Dudes, snubbed in the costume contest, is complaining that his category’s winner had an unfair advantage because of a physical resemblance to the movie’s star: “He is Jeff Bridges,” he says bitterly.

It all only adds to the authenticity. After all, pretty much every attendee has ingested approximately seven glasses of vodka and milk.

As I leave the bowling alley, I spot The Dude at the Waffle House next door. I can’t tell if it’s the same Dude I joined at the bar. He’s entertaining a couple of ladies and digging into some midnight breakfast while holding a brimming White Russian he apparently brought into the establishment.

I’m then reminded of a piece of the film’s closing dialogue — far too obvious for any trivia question — from its cowboy narrator: “It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ’er easy for all us sinners.

“… I sure hope he makes the finals.”