Around noon on July 4 in Grand Junction, the largest city on Colorado's Western Slope, a parade was taking place on North Avenue, the community's main drag.
But it wasn't the charming Independence Day parade that's been a hallmark of the community for decades; that was canceled because of restrictions against large events to stop the spread of COVID-19, even though Grand Junction has among the lowest number of cases for any sizable urban area in the state. No, this procession involved regular passenger vehicles — mostly trucks festooned with American flags and occupied by people defiantly refusing to let public-health concerns put a damper on their right to assemble.
Watching it all was a man standing in the bed of his pickup, colorfully decorated with Betsy Ross's famous design and a variety of other banners: a couple warning folks not to tread on him, another emphasizing that blue lives matter, and one commemorating the Confederacy. And in his hand, held aloft and aimed at the sky, was an AK-47.
Such sights weren't an everyday occurrence in Grand Junction when I was growing up there. My home town, where I lived from my birth at St. Mary's Hospital in 1961 to 1984, when I graduated from what was then Mesa State College (it's now Colorado Mesa University), was no stranger to firearms; gun racks mounted inside truck cabs were fairly common. Still, the weapons on them tended to be hunting rifles, not the sort of gear used to mow down enemy troops in war zones, and they were seen as tools to be used for practical reasons rather than political statements. But that was a different time, when our nation's enemies were Commies, not an invisible killer drifting on the breeze.
I was in the city on the Fourth by happenstance. Along with three loved ones, I was staying at our family cabin on the Grand Mesa, about 45 minutes outside Grand Junction, for the weekend, and when we discovered that we needed a few items, we headed into town to pick them up, not realizing that we would be bumbling into the middle of the Cruising for Freedom Rally, described on its Facebook events page like so:
Stand For The Constitution is sponsoring a 4th of July Rally which will start with a Cruise down North Avenue, beginning in the Big Lots parking area. This is a non-Partisan event. Anyone concerned about protecting our Constitution, our Freedoms, and the Rule of Law are invited to participate. We ask that all participating vehicles display a flag. The Cruise will end at Sherwood Park, at the end of North Ave. off of 1st St where the Rally will continue with booths and great speakers. We welcome other freedom-loving organizations to join in the Cruise and the Rally in the Park.
The reference to the nonpartisan nature of the rally apparently didn't connect with those Grand Junctionites of a liberal persuasion. The majority of the participating rides we saw boasted paraphernalia promoting President Donald Trump, including one with a flag featuring The Donald's face Photoshopped onto a depiction of Rambo.
We were still processing such imagery when we arrived at a Walmart, located on the highway into which North Avenue transforms — and inside, the messages connected to the novel coronavirus were decidedly mixed.
There were stickers on the floor encouraging social distancing, just as at Walmart stores in the Denver area, and all of the employees we saw wore facial coverings. But the percentage of patrons wearing masks was 10 percent at most, and probably lower. Likewise, social distancing wasn't much in evidence. Kids were allowed to run around within a foot or two, if not inches, of people outside their party, and customers stood next to each other in aisles as if COVID-19 never existed.
This attitude is understandable, at least to some degree, when placed into the context of data disseminated via the New York Times. The latest digits show that since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Mesa County, which Grand Junction dominates, has registered just 118 positive cases, or a rate of 77 per 100,000 people. Moreover, no deaths have resulted from these infections, despite the fact that a huge chunk of Grand Junction's population is elderly; the town is a popular destination for retirees. Compare that to Denver, which, by the Times's count, has seen 7,344 cases, or 1,010 per 100,000 people, and 382 deaths.
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Granted, the number of infections in Mesa County is rising. As of July 5, there were 4.1 daily cases there based on a seven-day average, up from 2.7 daily cases two weeks ago. In contrast, Denver had 48 new cases on July 5, an increase from a daily toll of 41 two weeks earlier. Still, the numbers indicate that Grand Junction isn't entirely immune from COVID-19.
This reality didn't deter Cruising for Freedom participants. After making our Walmart purchases, we headed to Sherwood Park, which was mobbed with people — probably 200 or so — standing shoulder to shoulder and chewing the fat without apparent fear that they could be passing a potentially deadly virus back and forth.
No, we didn't join them. My family was frankly freaked out by the proceedings and concerned about what would happen to the car in which we were traveling — a Prius with a now-vintage Pete Buttigieg sticker — if we parked it nearby. Besides, we would have been the only mask-wearers at the park aside from a young woman from a local TV station carrying a camera on her shoulder and seemingly trying to do her work as quickly as possible so she could get the hell out of there.
That's a very different kind of freedom.