We’re in Denny’s, because Roadtrip Rules are still in force, and because there’s one just across the parking lot from our delightfully clean and anonymous hotel. At the table next to ours, two African American bikers sit down. They’re older guys, with some impressive looking patches on their biker vests. I imagine they’re business professionals who have escaped for a couple of days to ride the freeways on their expensive bikes. We’ve noticed that there’s a lot of the middle-aged-biker fraternity on the roads around here and wonder if there’s A Thing Going On.
The fantasy version of what happens next would be: I say: “Excuse me, I’m exploring the country for a book I’m writing and I noticed your leather vests. They’re awesome. Would you mind if I took a moment of your time to take a photo?”
And because I’m so polite and have The Accent, they’re all, Of course! And I take my photos and we each become an anecdote for the other.
This will never happen in the real world. There’s no way I’m approaching a stranger to ask if I can take his photo. The social embarrassment is likely to be fatal.
Our breakfast – well, my breakfast – is the kind of pancakes-and-bacon feast that shapes American life. It’s certainly changing my shape. As I’m putting away a week’s worth of carbs, we get a call to remind us we’re due in Hillsboro for lunch in about 90 minutes. This is not what my stomach needs right now, but it’s what it’s being given. While my wife is certainly the hard worker on our team, my digestive system is coming in a reasonably placed second place behind her.
The Hillsboro Country Club, 90 or some minutes later, is a big wooden building bordering Lake Hillsboro. It is currently mostly filled with family-and-friends of my wife’s side, in for the parade and various reunions. At first I feel that familiar sense of being out of place among strangers but gradually I find myself sinking into the experience. Most of those around me are a generation or two older – someone uses the phrase “Class of ‘72,” which is the year I was born. They are, quite literally, old school.
They pass around old class photos, talk about Carnival Queens of the past. Before too long, they’re inevitably remembering dead spouses of friends and listing who has cancer. My people. This is the first time, possibly ever, when I’ve really felt like I’m seeing the genuine small-town America. These people have mostly flown or driven in to Hillsboro to catch up with friends and reminisce. For them, the past is worth celebrating – to keep it part of the present.
It strikes me as relevant that most of the people at the table don’t actually live here anymore. That will seem more significant as the day goes on.
I notice one other thing that seems relevant to me and my cohort. None of this group’s nostalgia is based on popular culture – no movie quotes, snatches of song, comparisons to a TV show. No slogans, catchphrases, or memes. Their memories and conversations of the past are all based on people, on lived experiences. These people feel like the actual grown-ups of our culture. And me, stumbling toward 50…I’m still mostly at the kids’ table in life.
It’s easy to mock something as sincere and lacking in self-awareness as a small American town’s yearly parade. And we’ll get to that in time, but first let me also be sincere and sentimental.
This parade, however low-key and unproduced it might look, will have taken effort. People in the town have prepared for it. As I’ve noted, people have flown in to be here for it. Camping chairs, towels, and blankets line the paths and grass along the route as locals secure their preferred spots. This is a form of popular culture, a form of a celebration of shared identity. You can’t understand a small town without a firm understanding of their traditions and view of its past.
Before the parade starts, we walk through the fair. There’s small – and not so small – rides that look to me like they’re constructed out of Meccano parts. There’s no way you’re getting me on that Wheel. But many people did go on and apparently none of them died, so what do I know?
There’s games where you have to throw things at things, on things, or through things. My wife shows a startling skill with a dart, winning me a fluffy skull. She knows what her man likes…and it’s fluffy skulls.
The food…well, there’s a shortage of vitamins and more than enough fried batter and mystery meat for everyone to have their own souvenir coronary. This is a fair; anything else would be weird.
This is also Trump country: It’s very white, there’s a lot of flags on clothes, a lot of gun artwork. I also see a few women with a very specific rose tattoo on their left shoulder and wonder if there’s a secret society here…but probably not.
Eventually, the roads are closed and the crowd thickens at the sides of the road. Here come the paraders! And, if it wasn’t exactly how I imagined, it wasn’t far off.
School bands in matching colors – with maybe some copyright infringement that George Lucas and Disney might be interested in. And floats. Some floats. Not enough floats. If I was the artistic director – and why wasn’t I? – there would have been 200% more floats. The floats they had were small, home-made, a little obscure (the theme was throwback…which I’ll need to loop back to in a bit), piled high with small kids. In short, perfect. We needed more of those.
We could, in my outsider opinion, have done with fewer cars driving by for no apparent reason. Yay for the County Coroner?
And there was one guy in a truck just pulling his boat.
“OK, Geoff, what are you doing for the parade this year?”
“I’ll be pulling my boat.”
“Just my boat.”
“Will you be throwing candy at the kids, like everyone else?”
“Nope. Just the boat. I like my boat.”
Much of the parade felt like a show-and-tell for guys with their cars (and boats).
There were also a lot of carnival queens – young girls with sashes and/or crowns, the queen of something or other. There’s a chance that there were more teenage queens in the parade than there were teenagers in the crowd. They like their queens, is what I’m saying.
American fire engines are cool – maybe all fire engines are cool? – so seeing those drive by slowly with the lights going and the siren wailing is never a bad thing.
Between the color – and the random vehicles – politicians drive by with an entourage of locals in suitably colored sweatshirts…and along with the politicians come the local political issues, including the gun club with the NRA stickers and the “right-to-life” float with the smiling kids waving and looking like they’re maybe thinking of the ice-cream waiting at the end of the parade. The guy standing next to me with his rebel-flag baseball cap gave that one a good cheer and a wave. He seemed to be taking the “throwback” theme a little too literally, but what do I know?
The best was left to last…tractors (my new love) and horses. OK, so not enough people on horseback dressed as cowboys, but that might be the tourist in me talking. There were horses and there were people riding them. It’s a good way to round off the parade.
After the show: ice cream, a sit down, and the pleasure of having done the thing you came to do. The fairground rides come into their own as the night falls, the flashing lights and whirring motion seems much more impressive in the dark.
As an experience, it was definitely worthwhile. Seeing another part of the country was always going to be interesting. And it’s true that we live in an Austin bubble; getting out to see the rest of the country helps to understand exactly where it is I’m making a home now. Going back “home” to the Old Country doesn’t hold much of an appeal to me, and standing in this crowd I began to wonder why. Why does the idea of the home town hold such a place in these people’s hearts – the ones who left and the ones who stayed – whereas I feel rootless, with no ties to any particular place?