I can’t remember how many times I’ve stood on a street corner in an American town, waiting for a parade.
The parades I go to have never marched in River City. They would have nowhere to put 76 trombones. They assemble along hundreds of Main Streets, far away from important places, throughout the constellation of small towns that dot America’s vast interior. These are parades that march for their own communities, which very often feel invisible to the nation, and very often are. But that’s not the defining story of these towns! They know they’re not invisible. Ha! Far from it.
Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, Arkansas, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah… not only do towns in these regions have parades, they have a lot of parades. There is always the Fourth of July, Homecoming, some kind of Fall Harvest, a Christmas Lights Parade, and various high school, county fair, Volunteer Fire Dept. and Chamber of Commerce events. Finally, add the word ‘Festval’ to any of the following: Apple, Potato, Walnut, Soap Carving, Corn, Tomato, Soybean, Cigar Box, Wheat, Pumpkin, Pickle, Fishing, Cheese, Green Chile, Pork , Crochet, Cake, Sunflower, Dairy, Squash, Bingo, Radish, Pie and Tractor. ETC.
People show up early. Waiting is part of these parades. The marchers won’t make a move until the crowd has been in place for long enough to make the first drum roll count. As well, at least one member of every family in the crowd is in the parade, and at least one other has something to open, hitch up, block off, screw in, attach, tighten, loosen or drop off. Everyone else goes off to get a good seat, even though you can usually get a good seat if you show up late. It’s considered impolite to point this out by showing up late.
But in a few small towns (that I know of), Grade A seats are snapped up so quickly that they must be essentialy reserved. In Murphysboro, Illinois, people leave chairs on the sidewalk the night before. They don’t mark them in any way, since you’re expected to know whether or not a chair is yours. I’ve seen peope remain standing next to an empty chair for the duration of a Murphysboro parade – even when the last float is in sight and the heat index is 102: it’s not their chair.
Forgotten chairs, many of them quite nice, line Walnut St. in ever-dwindling numbers for three or four days before the last of them are retrieved. I’m not the only person who amused myself by waving graciously at the chairs as I drove by.
I watched these parades long before any editor assigned me to cover them. I was a stranger to these small places, but something about the huge landscape and their place within it made more sense to me than either the coast I grew up on (East) or the other one.
I should have felt lost as I drove west across the Oklahoma Panhandle for the first time, nearly fourteen years ago. I on my way to Las Cruces, New Mexico and my first job on a ‘big’ newspaper. I drove for hours without coming to a town. But I didn’t feel lonely. Not at all. I drove into numerous tiny towns, each with a huge grain elevator looming over a deserted main street, and in each one, I found that people want to tell a stranger a story.
However, you’re not going to find a parade in a town that small. But you will discover that it sends a contingent to the parades of a larger town, perhaps an hour away. And by the time you reach the end of the Panhandle, you’ll realize that everyone in every town knows everyone in every other town along the 180 mile strip.
These kinds of American parades are like that strip for me. One could say that the parades know one another. When I first began driving around this huge interior, they formed a kind of connective tissue of familiarity that became my map. Whether I was wondering if anyone still lived in North Dakota, crossing the high plains of Kansas, or driving the endless expanse of west Texas, I’ve never felt lost following that map. It turned out to be the road home.
All photos except number five (row of chairs) by Claire O’Brien 2010
Row of Chairs / Google Images