Like a Rock…An American Holiday

A uniquely American holiday, at least that’s how the Fourth of July is viewed by the rest of the planet. Where else is blowing stuff up regarded as a national treasure? When it comes to absolute destruction, no one can compete with the United States of America. Imagine a holiday with more firepower than July 4th, it is difficult to comprehend.?

Not all Independence Day celebrations involve massive amounts of Chinese and Mexican-made explosives. Those little paper-wrapped, high-flying incendiary devices filled with gunpowder and chemicals to add splashes of color are big business in overseas factories. In Wyoming, there aren’t many limits on the size, style, and range of fireworks. Vacationers and family from other states are always astounded at what we can buy at our local fireworks stand and how few limits there are on when and where we can set them off. It’s best we don’t tell them how limited our medical resources are around here before we hand them a box of matches and a bag full of high explosive ordinance to celebrate the holiday.

Most years we have a good fireworks display at our place, in those rare years when we have a family reunion in town, the display takes on epic proportions. A couple of times its resembled those black and white, night-vision videos from the Fall of Baghdad played on CNN back in 1991. Fun stuff, and thankfully devoid of injuries so far.

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Thinking back on my best July 4th weekend, fireworks weren’t a part of it at all. The fondest memories are fishing, waking up to new-fallen snow, and a fabulous, final salute to the joys of youth before I entered the nine-to-five world of work and worry that awaits all of us in our early 20s.

I had just graduated from the University of Wyoming the previous May. I’d signed my first teaching and coaching contract with Niobrara County High School in Lusk and was making $9 an hour, as a construction worker with Alder Construction, from Salt Lake City for the second summer in a row, building the Riverton Water Treatment plant, near Central Wyoming College.

Tying iron, pouring concrete, backfilling and compacting the dirt and rock we’d removed the previous summer in building the structure, and soldering miles of air control lines filled the day. It was a great job for a strong, young man to have. I often had second thoughts about my approaching career as a teacher knowing that I’d never earn the money I was making as a construction worker.

As July 4th approached, our foreman, Loren Ricks, had a little job for my college roommate Frank Schmidt, and his forlorn brother Joe. The filtration system at the plant had a couple of tanks that needed pre-fabricated 85-pound concrete filtering blocks lowered, and aligned in place. They filled a flatbed, semi-tractor trailer that was backed up to an opening. Loren told us we could take off that Thursday as soon as we unloaded and set all those blocks.

Union Pass, and a 72-hour weekend in Dubois where the bars in town stayed open all day and night for the holiday awaited.

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We came up with a rope and pulley system to drop the tiles. Frank hooked the tiles and swung them out over me, sliding them down. I grabbed them, set them in place, and in a few minutes there was another one waiting. Joe went off to smoke and returned a few hours later as we finished the job, a process he had developed into a lifelong skill.

By 1:30 pm, we were finished. Loren just smiled (a rare occurrence) as we drove off.

My cousin Gene had just graduated from high school in California and was at our grandma Gasser’s place in Riverton. We had my dad’s 1978 GMC ¾-ton pickup already loaded with sleeping bags, coolers, and fishing gear.

We picked up Gene and headed to Lander. A radio advertisement offered Hamms beer at just $4.98 a case, so we headed across the valley. A stop in Lander for two cases of beer from the “Land of Sky Blue Waters” a couple of pounds of cheddar cheese, a few onions, a pound of butter, and three pounds of pastrami, along with a roll of tin foil filled our provisions.

We drove through Ft. Washakie and on to the promised land. Frank drove, and Joe slept up front. Gene and I sat in the bed of the truck, shirtless and enjoying the afternoon sun. A station wagon full of Japanese tourists approached us from behind. Gene and I grabbed a can of Hamm’s as they passed and saluted them. Cameras emerged from every window as the tourists snapped photos of the insane Americans in the back of the truck.

That first night we headed for a place called Lost Lake. I was driving on a bumpy two-track road with an old map for a guide. The map didn’t mark a stream we discovered directly in our path. It was only 25 feet wide but looked at least four feet deep. Instead of checking, I backed up, gunned the GMC, and hit the water with all four of us in the cab. The tires kept contact, at least the front ones did. A wave of water slid up on the hood, and the rear end lifted off the ground in the current, but momentum carried us and the front tires grabbed the opposite shore. Yes, we pushed our luck but made it. We camped there for the night. The next morning we woke up to four inches of fresh snow covering our sleeping bags. It was July 4, 1980, and a blanket of snow covered the ground. It melted by 9 am. We caught mackinaw and a couple of grayling at the lake, along with dozens of brook and cutthroat trout, with most of them released. We wanted to head to Dubois for the nightlife, and the only obstacle was that same stream. It was the same process, only in reverse. It was easier this time, the far side was shallower and we crossed without the bow wave.

We fished our way down the pass, stopping at all the little streams along the road and the big one at Warm Springs. We caught a limit that evening and cooked the trout in tin foil over the coals from an open fire. After dinner, we headed back to Dubois where live bands were playing in a couple of the bars. We spent most of our time at the Rustic Pine, which had a good one playing, and was filled with girls from Jackson and seasonal workers at the local restaurants and dude ranches. We didn’t close the bars, since they were open all night, but headed out for the wilderness at about 5 a.m.

We fished again as the sun came up and limited out quickly along Jakey’s Fork east of Dubois.

We made camp, which consisted of sweeping rocks away from a flat area and laying our sleeping bags on the ground, and slept through the day in the shade of the willows on the creek.

We fished again in the evening on the Wind River west of Dubois, then cleaned up for another night in downtown Dubois.

As the sun rose, we fished below the old tie hack flumes on Warm Springs, caught a few more fish, then slept the day away in the shade of the trees above the creek.

It was a perfect weekend. A final Saturday night in Dubois, with a little more fishing Sunday morning and we drove back to our apartment in Kinnear, returned my dad’s truck, and went back to work on Monday.

It’s an exhausting thought today, but in the words of “Like a Rock” by Bob Seeger, “Stood there boldly, sweating in the sun, felt like a million, felt like number one. The height of summer, I’d never felt that strong, like a rock.”

Nothing like being young, strong, and fearless, I miss it. Happy Fourth of July.

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