Like most everyone else in this country, I had no fireworks on my Fourth of July this year. But the combination of it always having been my favorite holiday and the fact that my dad passed away 20 years ago on July 4 made me determined to celebrate it in the best style I could during a global pandemic, sheltered in Waco, Texas.
Ever since my dad, Ray Bean, died minutes before midnight on July 4, 2000, I’ve tried to honor and remember him on Independence Day by doing something he would have loved, intrepid and unstoppable adventurer that he was.
On the first anniversary of his death, my then husband, our two sons and my husband’s parents had taken a momentous trip to the Dordogne Valley of southwestern France, staying at a 16th-century farmhouse that had a pool, croquet lawn and access to some of the most interesting landscape in France, complete with prehistoric caves and medieval castles. We rented canoes and paddled down the Dordogne River on July 4; Dad had canoed his way across Canada many times, including with me and seven other canoes for two weeks in 1974, between my sophomore and junior years in college. President Nixon had resigned while we paddled the Canadian wilderness and we returned to raise a beer to President Ford.
Every year since, I’ve made July 4 one of the adventure highlights of my year. Living in Mexico for the past decade, it’s been fairly easy to plan wonderful day trips.
In 2017, a group of gal pals and I made an overnight trip of 25 miles to the village of Teotitlán del Valle, where their first-week-of-July celebration of fireworks with the Danza de la Pluma – the danced conquest of Mexico by Spain – fell on July 4 (Fun on the Fourth of July). There were fireworks on a fixed wooden castillo, which kept sputtering out and having to be relit with a cigarette as a punk.
In 2018, three girlfriends and I hired a driver and traveled the two hours to Yanhuitlán to see its fabulous monastery and visit the studio of well-known married ceramic artists Manuel Reyes and Marisela Guzman (see Yanhuitlán, Second Verse With Ceramics for a full account of that magical day).
Last year, upstairs Oaxaca neighbor Peg – my recalcitrant Buddhist friend who used to own a maple tree farm in Vermont and who served as my sounding board on many cultural conversations which always sounded better in my head than spoken aloud – and I took an hour-long trip to the town of Santiago Suchilquitongo (soo-cheel-kee-ton’-goh, say that fast three times) where we were the only visitors to a two-room cultural museum and thus got a private tour from the curator, who was thrilled to have a captive audience of two Spanish-speaking gringas.
We hired a mototaxi to drive us up to the hill hiding ruins above town where most of the artifacts had been excavated, a dry slope with a view whose entrance to the underground tombs had long closed. We had lunch in a local restaurant afterwards; it was a grand day.
So this year the Fourth put me in Waco, Texas, where I’ve been sheltering since I suddenly bugged out of Oaxaca March 3, leaving behind a decade of experiences and an apartment for my (very dear, bless them) friends to deconstruct. And came home to the little white frame house I’d bought for the future, only the future was suddenly here.
I walk several times a week down by the Brazos River, where I at least see dogs and their humans, and have often mused that the recently rebooted barge tours looked like a good bit of fun.
So I booked myself on a sunset cruise of the Brazos River on Waco River Safari, packed a bottle of chilled white wine and for some reason two plastic glasses, and showed up at the dock by Baylor University at 6:45 with 20 or so other passengers on the now-distanced 40-passenger barge with Captain Ryan.
With most everyone else in pairs or groups, I sat towards the back where one other single woman about my age was pouring water on her panting King Charles spaniel. I offered her some wine, and a great conversation ensued – the kind I used to have in airports and on buses all over Mexico. Where you get the whole Cliff’s Notes version of someone’s life in an hour or less and are somehow forever changed by it.
So Penny had retired from a career of procuring uranium for nuclear reactors (apparently a lengthy and complicated process, and who knew that was a job) and had traveled the world brokering deals in places like Namibia and Kazakhstan.
She had been tooling around the U.S. in an airstream trailer until pandemic lockdown landed her in nearby Hillsboro – where there’s an Airstream community in which you can either live and park your Airstream, or just land there while passing through in your Airstream. Change RV brands though, and you’re out.) This was her last night in the area before heading back up the Texas panhandle where she’d continue to hike, bike and kayak with her dog Sadie, who both rode in the kayak and behind the mountain bike in a baby trailer.
It felt good to be talking travel again. Suddenly, I spotted a dog swimming frantically on the wrong (non-downtown-Waco) side of the river, obviously tiring but not going towards the populated bank. A woman on the other side dove in and Australian-crawled towards the dog. Captain Ryan pivoted the barge to help corral the dog to the woman, who we threw a lifejacket to as she was also getting tired. Both made it to the right bank to cheers.
Further down the river, pairs and small groups of people sat on the docks in front of their million-dollar river houses and waved at us as we passed. The Texas Game Warden patrol boat pulled up to various boats and jet skis, checking life jacket counts and probably booze, arms and fireworks. We turned around on the river and headed back to the city, when a pleasure craft of yahoos sped up alongside our barge and cut away sharply in a rooster tail, spraying everyone on that side of the boat. They laughed and sped off. A little further down, we spotted the Game Warden patrol boat again, and sicced them on the offending speedboat. They stopped a boat, but the wrong one.
Coming back to the mouth of the river just past Baylor University’s riverside McLane Stadium (one of only about three college stadiums in the nation on water, said historian Captain Ryan), a full moon rose just behind the rainbow-lit suspension bridge. I ran to the bow to take a photo with my phone, leaving my face mask temporarily behind on the table where I’d been sitting. “Get away from me; I don’t want you anywhere near me without a mask!” screamed a woman near the front. “I’m sorry; I left it back there,” I apologized. “I don’t care!” she screamed back. And so I found out how it feels to be that person, who I never am, and though I think those things about the non-mask-wearers, I don’t scream at them.
There are still plenty of adventures to be had stateside even held up against a decade living in and exploring Mexico. I met a new travel friend on a river cruise that saved a dog and sicced the law on boat speeders, and got yelled at for not wearing a face mask for two minutes in Corona Times. Seems like the perfect way to have spent a Fourth of July in the middle of a pandemic in Waco, Texas.
My dad would have loved it.
Susan Bean Aycock, embracingthechaos.org, 7-12-2020