“This is gonna be the best part of my day”, I thought as I drove through the deserted DC streets. Normally at 8:30 am on a Monday, the DC beltways are packed with people grumpy to be returning to work, bleary eyed, balancing coffee on their thigh as they casually but aggressively cut in front of my car. Instead, on this morning, driving into the Nation’s capital was a dream! The beltways were totally deserted with only a few cars whizzing around their curves. It was peaceful, almost meditative and that’s what I needed because this was not a normal Monday, this was one of the biggest national holidays in our country: Independence Day. This drive into DC was gonna be the best part of my day, not because I didn’t have a good day to look forward to, but because I was nervous for it to begin. I was going to be in the National Parade. The one that marches down Constitution Ave every year on July 4th afternoon in DC. (What could be more American?)

The George Washington Memorial Parkway’s banner, assembled, ready and waiting to march in the parade. The banner is surrounded by Park Rangers from parks in the area. July 2016.

I had trouble sleeping the night before in anticipation for this day of public display and I found myself fidgeting while waiting for the shuttle from the satellite parking lot with Park Rangers I had never met before. As was common they asked me about my position as a Centennial Volunteer Ambassador (CVA) and then seemed uncertain or confused about what it was. By this point, one month into my internship, I expected this sort of reaction. The Centennial Volunteer Ambassador program is only in its second year and not many people had heard of it or understood how the position fit into the Park System. I always start by saying, “We are here to increase volunteerism in the parks”, which is true, but there is much more to the position like assessing need, bringing fresh ideas to the parks including social media campaigns, and of course, being a young face for the Park Service, which is what I came to do that day: be in the limelight for the National Independence Day Parade.

We were dropped off on the National Mall, and I located the other CVAs from my region who were also in the parade. We walked to 7th Street where the floats and acts were being staged before the walk down Constitution Ave. My colleagues and I passed every conceivable design and combination of red, white, and blue on our walk to our spot in the parade, where it was all just a patriotic blur. We overtook balloons, floats, girls in dance costumes, performance groups from cultures around the world, and of course, marching bands. Finally, we spot the familiar green and grey of the National Park Service, standing out in the sea of American flag outfits. I give a sigh of relief: we’re the back of the parade! I’ll be able to collect my thoughts and watch all the other acts go first. This eased my nerves considerably, for the time being.

Me, Quinn Conlan, with the National Capital Region’s parade float featuring the Lincoln Memorial, the Cherry Blossom Trees, and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. July 2016.

As golf carts whizzed around us, we assembled banners and watched as the National Park Service float, featuring some of DC’s most iconic sites, was driven into line and final pieces added. The rangers that are in the parade brought living historians from their sites, including a miniature Frederick Douglass, or even their own children representing the Junior Ranger program. The whole atmosphere was buzzing with that of celebration and of family; what July 4th has always meant to me. A larger crowd was gathering now to see the parade set-up. We were getting close to 11:45 AM, the start time, and I was elated to be a part of it, not nervous.

I’m asked to hold the Regional Banner for the National Capital Region. How exciting, I’d love to! It’s only then in that moment, as I see that all of the other Park banners in DC are behind mine in alphabetical order, that I realize I am not the back of the parade, I am the front! I had to pony up fast because the parade was starting in five minutes. I stood in my place, ready to go, looking at the huge crowd of people gathered around the corner on the steps of the National Archives building thinking, “This is it. This is what it’s like to be in a National Parade.” I’m sweating and we start.

American flag balloon marching down Constitution Ave on July 4th

A beauty pageant smile was plastered to my face, in what I knew ironically to be a sincere smile because once we rounded that corner to Constitution Ave I am beaming with excitement. Giving my best princess wave, I saw uncountable cameras (read: phones and tablets) pointed in my direction filming the beginning of the parade. Sandwiched between two performing roller skating clubs, I knew that my feelings of nervousness were unfounded because nobody was going to watch me when a guy just in front of me is doing splits while wearing wheeled shoes. Even so, I felt like I was a valuable part of it all. As my arm gets sore from holding the banner off the ground, we passed by the parade’s commentator who described each act or float as they processed. He said, “The young faces in front of you are National Park Interns, welcoming the next generation of park visitors to our National Parks…” or something to that effect. In that moment, walking in the parade and putting my face forward, saying the National Parks are cool, I felt like I really was helping to send the message that National Parks are for young people too. As a millennial I could be doing a lot with my time, like designing my Instagram account to get more followers or planning my imaginary burger tour of DC, but instead I’m in this parade, I’m being a Centennial Volunteer Ambassador, I’m giving up my 4th of July, and that matters to me and to the future of the Parks. A very happy birthday to America and to the National Park Service!