Ahhhhh…...A Bristol 4th of July. As a proud Bristol native, there is no place I’d rather be at any time of the year, and most especially on the 4th of July. Growing up in Bristol, the 4th was the highlight of our year. It was even better than Christmas, with weeks of celebrations and events culminating with the 4th of July parade and fireworks. The small seaside town of Bristol, RI is the home of America’s oldest continuous 4th of July celebration. Starting in 1785 with Patriotic Exercises, the celebration has grown to include nightly outdoor concerts from June 14th (Flag Day) through July 3rd, the Miss & Little Miss 4th of July pageants, a week long carnival, photography & other contests, an orange crate derby, the 4th of July Ball, a drum & bugle corps competition, fireworks, and much, much more. Bristol’s 4th of July celebration is 100% volunteer run, and planning for the next year starts right away on July 5th.
This year’s COVID-19 restrictions provided the Bristol 4th of July committee with a challenge - How could they keep people safe & comply with social distancing while still carrying on traditions, especially the parade?
As someone who was born & raised in Bristol, I have only missed the parade twice in my life, and both times I was traveling out of the country. Even though it has been over 25 years since I moved out of my hometown, my family and I look forward to Bristol’s celebration, and we go every year - even in the pouring rain (My father would say that it never rains in Bristol on the 4th - anything we thought was rain was actually only sea mist).
As the pandemic progressed and we moved closer to summer, it was starting to look like the parade might not be able to take place this year.
However, the 4th of July committee came up with an amazing idea to keep the parade tradition alive. Rather than hold a large-scale parade as in past years with hundreds (maybe thousands?) of marchers and up to 200,000 spectators, the 2020 parade instead took the form of a motorcade with parade participants traveling the route in convertibles and on flatbed trucks.
Getting to Bristol on July 4th is always a challenge. Bristol has two main routes into town (Rts. 114 and 136), and traffic is awful even on a regular day. On past 4ths, we have usually avoided traveling through Bristol and instead taken Rt. 195 East to Rt. 24, and then gone over the Mount Hope Bridge. My parents live at the southern end of Bristol, so we usually park at their house, eat breakfast together, and then walk about ¾ of a mile to the parade viewing spot that my dad would have staked out at 4 AM, and sat at until 5 AM to make sure everything was all set.
This year, however, there were no crowded roads, and we cruised right down Rt. 136 at 7:30 AM. We decided to turn down Mt. Hope Ave. to check if the parade route was still open to vehicles, and to our surprise it was! We were astonished to see that there were very few parked cars on the side streets (it is not uncommon to have to park over a mile away from the parade route due to the large crowds), and we drove right up to our usual spot, unloaded our mats and chairs, and took photos of the empty area. It was surreal to see Bristol nearly empty on what is usually the most festive day of the year. The only other person around was Tommy, who is well known throughout town and has been an enthusiastic parade viewer at the same spot across from us for many years. We exchanged hellos and then drove to my parents' house.
As they are in their 70’s, my parents are considered high risk for COVID-19 complications, and they weren’t planning on attending this year’s parade. However, when we told them how sparse the route was, they felt comfortable and safe joining us at the motorcade, while still keeping their distance. We were all glad they decided to join us. My parents know nearly everyone in town, and they had the time of their lives seeing people from a distance after months of isolation.
On a normal year, the parade starts at 10:30 and the route is over 2 miles long. It takes about 1 ½ hours for the parade to reach our viewing spot, and to watch the entire parade takes about 2 hours. Depending on the section of the route, the crowds can range from 3-10 people deep along both sides of the road. This year, the motorcade parade started at 8:30 and arrived at our spot around 9. That meant that we got to watch the motorcade before the mid-day heat, and the motorcade participants were much more comfortable as well. We were on our way back to my parents’ house by 10 am.
These two photos were taken in the same spot. Left is 2020, right is 2016. Notice the difference in the size of the crowd.....
Before the start of the parade, Brian and I took a few minutes to walk into the downtown area, which is usually more crowded than where we sit, and although there were small groups of people here and there, the number of spectators was not anywhere near close to what it was in a normal year. Had she opted to participate in the motorcade parade, Governor Raimondo would have been very happy with the social distancing along the route.
Some of the sights from this year's motorcade....
I would like to give the Bristol 4th of July committee and especially the parade committee a huge shoutout for making this year's 4th amazing, memorable, and safe in spite of extremely challenging conditions.
Afterwards, we had a socially distanced backyard bbq with my parents, sister, and her family. After eating, the kids played some yard games and my mom, Brian, Tarynn (with an ear of corn, lol), and I took a walk through Blithewold Gardens and Arboretum. Blithewold is beautiful in every season, and my favorite times to visit are in the spring when there are over 50,000 daffodils in bloom, and at Christmas when the mansion is decorated. Today’s visit was peaceful and relaxing, and we even saw a deer in the wooded bosquet.
We finished out our family 4th of July celebration with the whipped cream hand flip challenge in the driveway. Aoife is our champ (I have yet to succeed), and then said our goodbyes.
To try to extend the magic of this flawless Bristol day, we visited the spectacular Colt State Park on our way home. It was an unusual Bristol 4th to be certain, but it was just perfect in its own way.
Other places in Bristol that we've enjoyed:
We are a family who loves to travel and explore. Covid-19 has changed our plans for summer 2020, but we are making the best out of the situation by exploring our beautiful home state of Rhode Island. During the summer of 2020, we are hoping to visit every town in Rhode Island. Thank you for joining us on our journey!