For the first time since 2010, I found myself with my family in the United States on the 4th of July. My sister, my nephew, my dad, my dad’s girlfriend, and I piled into two cars and drove down the road for the July 4th parade in my home town of Sykesville, Maryland.

Family decked out for July 4th
A family waiting for the parade outside a Sykesville shop.

Attending the parade felt surreal for a number of reasons.

Sykesville: The Coolest Small Town in America

First, Sykesville has transformed over the past decade from a tiny, sleepy, virtually forgotten hamlet into “the coolest small town in America”, according to an online poll by Budget Travel in 2016. I kind of laughed and didn’t think much about this new designation when Dad first told me the news a couple of years ago. But this year I realized it’s true — Sykesville is extremely cool.

Sargent pushup runs down Main Street in the parade
“Sargent Pushup”, a local activist, runs down Main Street during the parade. This photo gives you an idea of how nice the town’s buildings look.

Sykesville’s Main Street has gentrified; the old bank, drug store, and greengrocer buildings have been beautifully restored and transformed into charming little stores, tea rooms, and even a wine shop. There’s a weekend farmer’s market, a couple of great restaurants, and occasional outdoor concerts.

Dad taking pictures of the parade
My dad, Tenney Mason, 50-year resident of the coolest small town in America.

Like virtually all of America’s small towns, Sykesville no longer functions like an actual town. Residents do most/all of their business and shopping online or at the big-box shopping centers up the road. But there is no avoiding this and a gentrified main street is way better than no main street at all, in my opinion.

Maskless in the U.S.A.

It felt super strange attending a parade with hundreds of other people, virtually none of whom were wearing masks, after a year-and-a-half of covid lockdowns in South Africa. There were so many faces to photograph.

Spectators at the 4th of July parade in Sykesville
So many people. No masks.
Dog at the parade
The dogs were also unmasked.
Kids watching the parade
Kids enjoying the vibe.
Motorcycles in the parade
Cool motorcycles.

Although covid certainly hasn’t left America for good just yet, cases are way down a significant percentage of the population is vaccinated. It’s crazy seeing how relaxed everyone is about covid here as South Africa continues to endure its worst covid wave yet.

To make everything feel that much weirder, my boyfriend (who is back in Joburg) had just tested positive for covid the day before I went to the parade. He was exposed right around the day I left — possibly when he took me to the airport — and it’s a miracle I didn’t get it too. (I went for a test as soon as Thorsten told me the news and tested negative.) Thorsten’s symptoms haven’t been too severe, thank goodness, and it looks like he’s headed toward recovery. But it was a major wake-up call.

I already said this in my previous post, but let me just say again how grateful I am that I was able to travel to America and get vaccinated. My heart goes out to everyone in South Africa — and elsewhere in the world — who is suffering due to covid right now.

A Cautious Sense of Optimism

This parade made me feel proud of my home country for the first time in a while. This time last year, due to the political situation and several other factors, I couldn’t imagine feeling patriotic ever again. But the parade shook something loose in my psyche. Everyone seemed so happy, excited to be around other humans, and focused on unity instead of division.

I felt optimistic, even hopeful, for America’s future. I even shed a few happy tears as the local marching band paraded past.

Westminister marching band
The marching band from Westminister, Maryland — another nearby small town.
Cymbal guy in the marching band
I love marching bands and really struggled to narrow down the number of photos I took.
John Deere tractor in the Sykesville 4th of July parade
No small-town American parade is complete without a John Deere tractor.
Pride signs at the parade
Pride Month had just ended and it was great to see all the Pride signs up in Sykesville.
Marchers from PFLAG
Marchers from PFLAG.
Kids in sunglasses
Happy kid with cool sunglasses.
People in white car with white glasses

It was nice to go to a holiday parade and feel cheerful. I won’t ever take that simple feeling for granted again. Happy belated 4th of July and thanks to the cool people of Sykesville.

Heather and Jack in Sykesville
My nephew, Jack, and me in front of a historic Sykesville building. (Photo: Susanna Mason)
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