Steamboat Springs In a methodical manner, 9-year-old Matthew Melton walked back and forth tying white and blue balloons to the back of an 18-wheeler carrying the 4-H Club.
His friends perched on hay bales to watch the strange carnival of people and animals on Yampa Avenue preparing to go down Lincoln Avenue for the 98th Annual Cowboy Roundup Days Vectra Bank Parade.
"I'm a little bit nervous 'cause it's my first time," Melton said, as he took a break to pet a rabbit in a basket. Maybe the simple act of waving to the crowd would calm his nerves, he said.
Both sides of Lincoln Avenue from about 10th Street to Fifth Street were packed four to seven people deep with spectators.
Several youths scrambled atop the movie theater roof for a better view; others found a spot underneath Lightning, the newly-restored quarter horse in front of the F.M. Light and Sons store.
Back on Yampa, the All Broads Kazoo Band was raring to go, dressed in their own creative interpretations of the red, white and blue.
"The crazier the costume, the better," said Carole Cohen. "We liven up the parade. It's dull until we get there."
The parade howled into action around 10 a.m. as six fire engines weaved down Lincoln, flashing their lights and blasting the familiar call of their sirens. They were followed by the U.S .Forest Service, several ambulances, and, ironically, three men juggling torches.
"It's all good," said Valerie Brandt, who had two flags sprouting from her back, and a flag-patterned star on her head.
Her dog, Graham, sported a red bandanna around his neck.
Brandt said she didn't think that the meaning of the holiday had been lost in the pageantry.
"It's a wonderful thing," she said.
The hats came off, and hands went to hearts as the Marine Corps' Mounted Color Guard trotted through on four palomino-colored mustangs. They stopped at Fifth Street to face the announcer's stage, as the "Star-Spangled Banner" played.
In front of Mazzola's Italian Restaurant and Lounge, Sandi Droney took a quick break to watch the parade. She, too, agreed that the occasion still maintains its significance.
"They know what it's all about, it's not lost at all," she said. "We're a free country still, and that's great; we must persevere to keep it." She quickly headed back into the restaurant to prepare for the mad rush of customers that was sure to follow.
More groups marched, danced and rode by, 62 in all. The All Broads group lived up to their promise and got the crowd cheering, giving various seductive shimmies to the buzzing of their trademark kazoos.
A group of 12 youths gave the crowd a glimpse of the future as the Civil Air Patrol marched down in dark blue pants and light blue shirts.
They took a crisp, synchronized stop and turn, with the flag bearer separating from the rear and giving the parade judges a salute.
Ben Hollingsworth watched with a strange familiarity from under his Houston Astros hat. He couldn't say how the Steamboat parade compared to the one in Houston.
"I've been coming to this one every year," he said. "Nearly 30 years."
His wife, Starlett, felt a sense of gratitude. "Just how lucky we are to have the freedoms that we do."
As the parade ended, the three parade judges City Council's Paul Strong, Sandy Evans-Hall of the Chamber of Commerce and Debi Lawrence of the Arts Council tallied the numbers. Northwest Ballet's Old West showgirl dance, including one on stilts, took the best theme. Yampa Valley Medical Center's yellow-clad Rubber Duckys group tied with the massive, energetic Perry-Mansfield school's demonstration for best group.
The All Broads Kazoo Band won a category that seemed oddly descriptive: the precision doo-da category. Blue Sky West won for the best commercial group.
At Melton's young age, he had already developed a sense of appreciation for freedom.
"Now we can do anything we want," he said. "We don't have to have a certain time to read a book."