Mother Earth News named Paonia, Colorado one of “8 Great Places You’ve Never Heard Of” in 2007. And rightfully so. This was the traditional fourth of July destination for the Gdovin’s 8 of Grand Junction. In the early pre-Robin and Lori years, the old white station wagon would be packed with fried chicken and chips and blankets and kick balls and Jay, Mark, Larry and I in the back. And black olives. Jay and I could eat an entire can of black olives carefully placed one at a time on Clover Club potato chips during the 70 mile drive. We knew we were getting close when we saw the mountain with the letter “P” prominently displayed in white paint. Once at the park (there was really only one town park at that time) we were allowed our freedom to roam the entire area, play in the water that flowed in a little concrete ditch on two sides of the park, and just wander aimlessly, returning often to our “spot” and grabbing a chicken leg and a handful of black olives and we were off again to explore. There was the annual Cherry Days Festival parade and crowning of the Cherry Days Queen and her royal court. A huge area in the park was marked for the talent contest and there was no shortage of contestants. Talent ranged from martial arts presentations with an abundance of “ooooohs” from the audience at the appropriate times, to the tiniest of baton twirlers tossing the baton far up into the clouds (okay, maybe not that high, but when you are 8 years old, it seemed fairly high) drawing the audience “ahhhhhhh” as the silver baton was caught. Little men playing their fiddles and plucking old songs that I knew from visiting my grandma in the summer, and Bavarian dancers in brightly colored attire made the top contenders for the all important title of “winner”. And while we enjoyed the doings of the day, Mom was back in the camper pitting the local cherries she had purchased and making a cherry pie and crust from scratch.
After Robin and Lori were born, mom and dad bought a Roadrunner camper and we got to drive to Paonia on the 3rd – a whole day earlier than before. We would be up at the crack of dawn waking to the smell of daddy’s gigantic, fat pancakes. After making beds and getting dressed, we were allowed, as always, to go our own way to watch the parade and daydream and play, always fearful of not being able to pack enough fun in the time we had available. In my ‘tween days, a population of hippies moved into the mountain area of Paonia and Hotchkiss (a little sister town) and often held their own event of sorts, singing and playing guitar on the large truck flatbed stage. Actually, this was a bit more fun than the actual competition, as they had us singing along to the current “folk songs” of the time. And since the official talent did not begin until after lunch, this proved a perfect way to spend part of the morning. AND, we got to see REAL hippies. (Remember, I am from Grand Junction).
After I married and had children, we visited the festival a few more times with our own little camper (I know! What ever possessed me!) parked next to Mom and Dad’s. The campers were different, but the tradition was still the same. Hot breakfast. Off to the parade. Back to grab lunch. Off and running all over the park playing games and watching batons high in the air and cheering for local singers that we were certain would be on Ed Sullivan show the following Sunday evening! A neighborhood mom, Mrs. Moulton, once entered the contest, and how excited we were to hear her beautiful singing and elated by the fact she had come all the way from Grand Junction and here she was – ON STAGE! I was thrilled to tell anyone who would listen, “oh yes. She is my friend, Kristine’s mom. She lives near us. In Grand Junction. I have known her most of my life. Uh-huh.”
As years passed and kids got older, we could always find Lori standing near the end of the parade route stroking a horse and visiting with the owner, and five minutes later, in the saddle and riding the horse all around the park until the owner finally coaxed her down. She quietly relinquished the reins and awaiting the next horse to walk by and the ritual started all over again. Sort of like the song that never ends.
It was a time of a very small town and a very large family coming together to celebrate the Fourth of July. The entertainment and menu were simple. We did not need Martha or Paula or Rachel to tell us how to plan a Paonia picnic. Fried chicken legs in flour, salt and pepper. Bags of chips. Mom’s potato salad and my special potato salad of potatoes, boiled eggs, onions and green peppers (no pickles or mustard or mayo for me!), black olives and kool-aid. Add a couple of old blankets on the ground and a kickball, and you had your picnic.
I have enjoyed many Fourth of July celebrations since then, but they all pale in comparison to the Cherry Days Festival of Paonia, Colorado. Someday, maybe the remaining family can once again gather on the mountain in the park, and relive the best Fourths ever.