Photo: Fourth of July parade in Flagstaff

United we walk: Small-town parades go big.

Photograph by Tom Bean, Alamy

By Boyd Matson

From the June/July 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Our marching orders read: “Show up at 9 a.m. wearing sandals, sunscreen, and sunglasses. We’ll take care of the rest.” The rest, I’m now discovering while pulling on garish, flowery surfboarder shorts, is an homage to Jimmy Buffett, or what Vogue would call “a fashion don’t for men.” But on the Fourth of July in Telluride, Colorado, traditional style rules go up in fireworks. That’s particularly evident on Colorado Avenue, a six-block stretch of asphalt where the town and half the surrounding counties gather to celebrate. It’s also where I and 29 other guys will be sporting stuffed parrots on our heads.

Telluride on the Fourth is everything I love about small-town parades. It’s a celebration that captures the spirit of America—the idea that every voice should be heard, every person encouraged to speak up to say a collective “Happy Birthday, America!” Telluride’s parade is the ultimate in participatory democracy, because even those not marching come dripping in patriotic regalia. In heart and costume the performers and spectators are one.

I’ve been to the Rose Parade, the Macy’s Thanksgiving extravaganza, and other classic events where it seemed you were there to cheer for the celebrities and applaud the workmanship of professional float builders. Sure, seeing a rolling depiction of man landing on the moon, constructed of hundreds of thousands of delicate roses, inspires oohs and aahs. But in places like Telluride, you’re at the parade to applaud your family, neighbors, and friends. The floats might be kids waving in wagons pulled by their parents and civic clubs tossing candy to the crowd from the beds of pickups, spaced out among dogs in bandannas and folks on Harleys.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed this same spirit in numerous small towns, such as Crested Butte, another old Colorado mining community turned resort town. At one parade there, participants included ladies in saloon-era dresses on roller skates and anyone who owned a unicycle, a pre-1970 car, a horse, or a pair of stilts. My favorite float was a flatbed tractor-trailer with a zip line, on which the mayor rode over a burning fire pit and landed in a hot tub at the other end. Presumably, the message was “Let’s party, America!” Who wouldn’t cheer that sentiment? Best of all, in Crested Butte, the parade always ends in a townwide water fight.

Back in the mid-nineties there was one group in Telluride noticeably absent from the spectacle. Oh, these merrymakers would wear the red, white, and blue on the sidelines and cheer loudly for those who did march, but they lacked the confidence to step onto the main stage, probably because they didn’t play instruments, didn’t look good in sequins, and most of all were incapable of learning the simplest dance moves—or even marching in step for more than three paces. But in 1997, local Stu Fraser (now the mayor), after watching his wife, Ginny, march in a group called the Rauncherettes, decided men should also have the pleasure of making fools of themselves in public. Six months later, he woke up in the middle of the night, turned to his wife, and grunted, “Men without rhythm.” She replied, “The parade.” That brief dialogue, which might be worthy of analysis in a different magazine, launched Stu’s all-inclusive concept.

That 2 a.m. revelation is the reason that on this Fourth of July, an hour before the start of the parade, I’m sipping margaritas in a parking lot with a group of individuals trying desperately to master Ginny’s choreography for “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” After we rehearse both songs a couple of times, the jury is in, the verdict unanimous. We are all starring in the role we were born to play: Men Without Rhythm. There is some question as to whether the half hour of practice or the half hour of drinking better prepares us.

Over the years, Men Without Rhythm have, to paraphrase Thoreau, marched to the beat of a variety of drummers. One time it was Elvis; another year it was the Blues Brothers. The most embarrassing costume, according to Stu, was the Disco Chicks year, when the guys donned bright skirts and rainbow clown wigs. The most elaborate concept was the wedding theme, which included a real eight-minute ceremony, right there in front of the judges’ stand. The guys carried canes, performed “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and wore top hats, bow ties, and white gloves.

Bottom line: If you are ever in or near a small town in America on the Fourth of July, go to the parade. And if you feel like marching or dancing, join in. Based on my experience, at least for one day, you’ll feel as though you’re part of something bigger, something special. A word of caution, though: Your outlandish getup won’t receive the same reaction any other day. As part of our uniform, the Men Without Rhythm also wear temporary tattoos of cartoon characters. Mine is a Tinker Bell decal on my neck. The day after the parade, at the airport, the Transportation Security Administration agent stares at me for a minute, then asks, “Do you have a granddaughter?” I hesitate. It’s a security question I’ve never been asked. Finally, realizing she’s staring at my neck, I mutter a vague explanation. Then I hurry toward my gate before she orders a full-body search.

Contributing editor Boyd Matson hosts National Geographic Weekend on radio.

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