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“The Fourth of July is a big deal up here,” my dad’s neighbor calls to us over the hedge. Folks who grew up in northern Minnesota come from all over, she says, and some will even fly in to be a part of the holiday celebrations. I know she’s got it right; after all, I’m one of those folks, an ex-pat once again making the journey from Minneapolis, three hours to the south. But my annual homecoming ritual came with urgent new questions and concerns this year. Chief among them: would these Fourth of July celebrations remain “a big deal” as the coronavirus pandemic rages on? And, more crucially, was it fruitless, even reckless, for visitors like me, “from all over,” to be making a pilgrimage home at all right now?

The Days of Parades, Parties, and Fireworks in Every Town

On the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, I know the rhythms of a normal Fourth of July weekend well. Each of the dozen small towns that dots the landscape can be counted upon to mark the occasion with its own bounty of celebrations and shows of community pride – its own parades, street dances, carnivals, concerts, cookouts, and, of course, fireworks. For the enthusiast and local jet-setter, it makes for a packed itinerary, with entertainment and socializing filling multiple days on the early-July calendar.

My family was one such group of enthusiasts. When I was a child, my dad created floats to drive through the local parades. We’d cruise the circuit each year, hitting as many towns as we could. We’d go from Eveleth, home of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and the “World’s Largest Hockey Stick,” to Gilbert next door. We’d go from Embarrass, known for record-setting cold winters, to Hibbing, birthplace of Bob Dylan. In the span of days and weeks, we’d pass through these towns and many more in between, savoring the best of summer in small-town Minnesota.

The author, second from right, rides in a parade float dedicated to The Lion King, in the days before aggressive corporate copyright enforcement. (Photo courtesy of the author)
A later float had a Toy Story theme, another intellectual property coup from simpler times. (Photo courtesy of the author)

As I sit in my dad’s yard this year – practicing strict social distancing – the neighbor recalls these parades too, reminiscing about the Eveleth Clown Band, who are regulars of the circuit themselves and even had a drum showcased in the Smithsonian, don’tcha know. I figure the marching Clown Band would be taking a rare, perhaps unprecedented break this year, with most of those familiar parades probably cancelled for safety reasons.

Across the board, I’ve prepared for a subdued and scaled-back holiday weekend. Even putting the pandemic aside, it seems a sub-optimal time for outright patriotic revelry here in America, and Minnesota in particular. For the first time in my life, I book a motel room in my own hometown, out of concern for my dad’s health and safety. We limit our interactions to occur outdoors or, if indoors, to be exceedingly brief and socially distanced. The few times I find myself stepping into a local business, I don my mask and make quick work of the tasks at hand. Though municipal fireworks are proceeding as scheduled, I don’t look into other community events or celebrations to assess what’s been called off or kept intact.

This year’s trip is about spending time with family and close friends and finding brief respite from day-to-day life in the city. I set my expectations as such to assure this year’s experience is neither unsatisfying nor unsafe.

Yet, as the trip goes on, northern Minnesota shows its ability to adapt and rise to this uniquely challenged occasion. For brief moments, you can squint and see a glint of social life as we once knew it, without veering into wanton disregard or blithe ignorance. People here seem generally more at ease with those around them, though mask wearing in public spaces is not uncommon and the pandemic still shapes everyday affairs in prudent ways. On one of my momentary jaunts into my dad’s kitchen, he proudly scans my forehead with his new no-touch temperature reader, in a mix of jest and emerging habit.

Social Distancing Summer

We spend our days on the lake. They’re atypically hot ones for northern Minnesota. With daytime highs in the mid-90s, we’re within a few degrees of the temp in San Antonio, says one of our hosts, a close family friend with a granddaughter and great grandkids living in the Texas city. The heat accommodates easy conversation about the weather, a common pastime and prodigious talent you’ll find among most Minnesotans. I daydream we’ll one day develop a similar conversational ease and mastery regarding the climate, as I ponder these sorts of hot stretches becoming more typical. While some of our crew retreat indoors to the small, air-conditioned cabin, I keep my cool through periodic dips in the lake. Sitting in a floating lounger on the water, social distancing doesn’t come too hard.

Here on the lake, I learn you can never really escape the parade circuit, even in a pandemic. On July 3, we’re treated to a boat parade. The floats – more aptly named than ever – are a flotilla of pontoons and fishing boats decked out in all manner of festive decorations. The audience watches on from their docks, cabin patios, and beaches, as the parade completes a couple laps around the lake. The next day, I read in the local newspaper that numerous towns kept their traditional Fourth of July parades going in similar fashion, updating routes to snake through each residential neighborhood, for easy watching from stoops and yards, rather than following the traditional march down main street and primary commercial corridors.

Two boats bearing flags and other American regalia complete their first lap around the lake for a Fourth of July parade on the water, just outside of Biwabik, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Giorgi)

As we return to town in the evening, I take a short drive around those commercial corridors to see how much activity can be spotted. It’s mostly quiet. A community orchestra had finished playing a concert in the park an hour or two earlier, a notable accomplishment in these times. The bars are open, though I’m hard pressed to spot one with more than three or four customers inside. At the far end of downtown, near a scenic overlook offering views of historic mine pits, I see a small pack of teenagers gathering to launch off bottle rockets and other almost assuredly illicit fireworks. As I size them up, I feel powerfully in touch with the passage of time, as if some of my old Iron Range brethren were in the reflections of the mine pit water, telling me about the Circle of Life. Thinking back to my teenage days, I figure social distancing also doesn’t come too hard when you’re trying not to lose a finger.

Later, I return to my dad’s yard and we revisit old photos from our heyday on the parade circuit, as we light off some sparklers. It’s the first time I’ve seen these photos since my youth, and it summons a parade of memories and emotions all its own.

As the final hours of July 4 approach, I arrive back at the inn and notice a decent crowd is assembling and spreading out in the area. As it turns out, the patio outside my second-story motel room door offers a picture-perfect spot for watching fireworks, far better than any other I’ve encountered in all my years traipsing about town for the show.

Revisiting my earlier questions and concerns about the fate of this year’s Fourth of July travels, I’m cognizant of the fact that the social cost of festivities like these won’t become clear until days and weeks pass. Yet, I’m comforted to find that for all that is lost – and all the new dread and anxiety we are carrying – so much of what made these times special has been cherished and preserved, even if in a modified form. And I find myself heartened by how Independence Day shows these small-town people and places can still depend upon one another to support their common rituals and sources of community.

These are trying times, but social distancing – and improving life in our nation – doesn’t come too hard when we remember how to do things together and treat the people around us with care.