In many ways, this year’s Fourth of July fireworks in Jackson Hole resembled celebrations of old: sacks of popcorn, glow-in-the-dark bracelets and thunderous booms.
The traditional displays of red, white and blue for America’s Independence Day provided some families an excuse to reunite, and for many the union meant the fulfillment of travel plans postponed by years of pandemic uncertainty.
For others it felt surreal to celebrate patriotism at a time when the nation seems split by polarization, radicalism, danger and doubt.
The News&Guide spoke with visitors and locals at two fireworks celebrations in Teton Village and at the base of Snow King about the significance of this year’s Independence Day.
Brian and Joanne Kimball, both in their 50s, came all the way from North Carolina for the Village’s July 3 pyrotechnics. They said the entire world feels like it’s changed this year.
“Roe v. Wade is out there, and the gas prices are up, and we’re getting ready to go into a recession, and the stock market is F---ed up, and you young people are screwed,” Joanne said.
“But,” she added, “people that are over 50 are over the back side of that mountain.”
In a nearby field, local guide Jason Wright was sprawled out on a blanket with family from Alabama — their annual tradition. He said not much feels different this year, because, “we’ve got our traditions, our routines, we just spend a lot of time on the rivers right now, floating.”
“And we’ve got a neighbor who’s a veteran, so we try to tell him thanks from time to time.”
Wright’s 10-year-old son, Jake, said the Fourth is a chance to “celebrate the ones who have fallen.” The next day everyone was planning to wear matching sparkly blue hats to watch Jake in the 4-H float for the parade.
Closer to the band, another group from North Carolina sported coordinated American flag dress shirts and crisp cowboy hats.
“I wouldn’t say that it feels any different than it has in the past,” said Thomas Sigmon, 27, drinking a Bud Light. “I mean the Fourth of July has always been my favorite holiday. It’s a time that a lot of people just focus on getting together. Everyone shows their American spirit.”
“But I don’t know,” his girlfriend, Katie Kinsey, interjected. “I feel like because of what we’ve gone through, being together and also being in a beautiful place, we’ve appreciated it more.”
Sigmon and another friend from the group worked at Moose Head Ranch back when they were in college. He said it felt good to be back in a place of inspiring, American spirit.
“We were talking to an 80-year-old guy last night who’s summited the Grand 50 times,” he said. “I mean, some of the people you meet out here just have that all-American kind of feeling. I love it.”
As the first fireworks boomed over the parking lot, half obscured by buildings, people abandoned their beer and blankets in the commons and rushed for a better view.
Kelsey Brehm, 31, stood on the curb watching with a few friends. After cheering the first few explosions, she caught herself.
“It’s very weird to be celebrating at a time where I disagree with so much in this country,” the Jackson local said. “But I still love this country. And if I didn’t, I wouldn’t care about how horribly I think it’s doing.”
“I’m still celebrating this country, and I want it to be better for the people in it,” she said, echoing the founding fathers’ vision for a more just nation.
Brehm also has a special appreciation for the Teton Village fireworks, which were one of the final celebrations she shared with her dad before he died.
This year’s show was a visual delight with vibrant sparkles that seemed to fill the whole sky. People cried out, “That’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen!” and howled at the patriotic finale, seeming to forget, temporarily, the uncertain state of the world.
“It was awesome. Those were really good fireworks,” said 12-year-old Olivia Tilman, out on a family vacation from Rhode Island. Her two brothers, 9 and 6, and her parents all wore matching cowboy hats.
Keri Tillman, the mom, said it was a long-awaited trip postponed by the pandemic.
“We’ve been to Yellowstone, the Tetons, riding horses and having a good time,” she said.
Planning to fly out the next morning, they were grateful for the July 3 finale to their Americana tour.
The next night, visitors and locals flocked to the base of Snow King for a quieter hometown show.
Austin Byron, 44, was born and raised in Jackson and remembers coming to Snow King as a kid to watch the fireworks each year.
“This year’s a bit rougher than most,” he said. “[With] all that’s going on in the world right now, it’s just not a happy time.”
Still, he was doing his best to bring joy to the occasion. On Monday night he was teaching his sister, visiting from Missoula, Montana, how to juggle glow-in-the-dark balls. Like Brehm, it was their first Fourth of July without their father.
Across the field, Justin Brammer, 30, was entertaining friends with a glow-in-the-dark poi set. It was the Mad River Boat Trips guide’s first Fourth of July in Jackson. Since 2010 he’s lived in 48 different states, trying to experience as much of the United States as possible.
As such, this season didn’t feel any more unusual than others. “Everything is new every year,” he said. But he also said we’re in a season where “everyone’s rights” are being restricted. “It needs to be opened up a little more,” he said.
William Alejandro was wrapped in glow bands, celebrating with his daughter. The Colombia native moved to Jackson two years ago and said the community has been gracious and hospitable. He said the night’s entertainment, local band Sghetti, was “muy bien.”
As workers lit red flares halfway up the Snow King slopes, the band quieted down and a hush fell over the crowd. Like the previous night, the firework festivities were something an entire town of diverse backgrounds and mindsets could come together and celebrate.
From the top of their mobile home trailer, the Kennedy family had some of the best seats in the house, but their view was still blocked by an unexpectedly glaring streetlight.
The self-professed “traveling optimists” from Santa Fe, New Mexico, were simultaneously blinded by the glare and dazzled by the fireworks display, finding a type of balance that carried over into their sense of patriotism.
“I don’t think that our politics are really what you see in the news — this polarized ridiculousness — are really indicative of the populace who lives in the United States,” the father said.
Most folks, at least from who they’ve met on their great American road trip, are somewhere in between.