My 4th of July 1999 Trip

We left Monday afternoon with the idea of spending the next few days camping and arriving in Washington on Friday, which would let us spend July 3rd and 4th at Boom City. However, we got a late enough start that we spent the first night at a motel. The next day, as we traveled up the Sacramento Valley on I5, the engine was running hotter than usual with no problem obvious enough for me to see it, so I was considering having it looked at. By that evening, we were at Shasta. One of the high-elevation campgrounds described on the campbook (just a meadow, actually) sounded good, so we wended our way up to it. The campbook said it was open from June through October. Well, not this year - the entire meadow was a foot deep in snow. But when we got out to check it out, Irene noticed that the engine had overheated to the point where the coolant was venting. So, we stayed at one of the lower-elevation campgrounds (which was extremely nice, with a frigid snow-melt stream passing through it and potable water provided by an old plunger-type hand pump).

The next day on the way back to I5 we stopped at a mechanic, who decided that my radiator needed to be rodded (top removed, and a rod rammed through all the tubes to force corrosion out). He sent us off to the radiator shop. However, they were booked solid due to an epidemic of radiator disease, so they called up a radiator place at the next town over, who also didn't want to work on my radiator that day, but who I managed to bring around to agreeing that he'd look at it that day. Off to the next town, taking it easy to keep the temperature down - I was told by the first mechanic that heating to the point of boiling over was often enough to blow the head gasket of an aluminum engine.

Radiator Man #2 had his shop just outside of town. He had me start the engine and then stuck his finger in the fan, which obligingly stopped. This told him that my fan clutch needed replacement; as hot as the engine was, the fan shouldn't be that easy to stop. He called an auto parts place and was promised rapid delivery of a replacement. He gave me an estimate of three hours. I took the cellphone Chris had lent me for the trip and we headed into town to kill time. The walk to a theater took about an hour. Nothing showing before evening, so we started walking back, at which point RM#2 called and said the work was done, rather ahead of schedule. It was also at this point that it occurred to me that with the hot hot sun irradiating everything in its sight, including me, I should've applied some sun block. Oops. By the time we got back, I had the feeling I'd pretty badly burned my neck. I was right. By nightfall, it hurt enough that I decided I wanted a nice soft mattress in an air-conditioned room, so we didn't camp. It wasn't much better at the end of the next day; thus another motel. So much for the week we took off to camp.

We arrived on Friday as planned, finding the region very wet. Chris hadn't arrived yet, so I indulged my concern about the one expensive lens I had that didn't have a protective filter, and called around trying to find one. It needed a somewhat specialized filter (ultra-thin, because it's a very wide-angle zoom), and the nearest place that had one was near Seattle and hard to find. I got it in the end - it cost three times as much as any other filter I'd bought, but I figured that was better than having the lens damaged by drizzle or flying objects. Unfortunately, after joining Chris & Rhonda at Chris' grandfather's place and putting the filter on, I realized that since an ultra-thin filter has no threads to attach a further filter to (which I well knew), it also couldn't be covered the the interior-clip lens caps common today. I needed one of the old, outside-clip types. None of the local places had them, and I didn't feel like spending the time to go back to the place I bought the filter (which would probably have an appropriate cap), so I just removed the filter and felt the lamer for it.

Chris' grandfather has a place at the Port Susan Camping Club, which is on the Tulalip Indian reservation, next to Marysville, which is near Everett, about 20 minutes up I5 from Seattle. Conveniently, this is the very reservation that Boom City is constructed on every year, near or on (it's hard to tell) the Tulalip Elementary School. The reservation is beholden only to federal laws, not state laws. Legally, they aren't part of Washington at all. They take advantage of this by selling all Class C fireworks, many of which are not legal in Washington. The fireworks companies each bring in a few semis full of fireworks, park them, and set up a wholesale sales area. A reservation resident with 116 or more blood from their tribe is allowed to build a fireworks stand. They buy wholesale from the fireworks manufacturers and sell retail at a healthy markup. There are 180-200 stands each year, arranged on both sides of three long aisles. The haggling and selling is very dynamic.

Since you aren't supposed to take the fireworks that aren't legal in Washington off of the reservation, there's also an area set aside for the patrons to set off the fireworks. A dirt parking lot is between the firing area and the stands, providing enough separation that there has yet to be a “stand accident”. The most prominent feature of the firing area are the two large concrete silos, long since defunct. The provide a popular target for rockets and Roman candles and such, and have open tops that people like to throw explosives in for the interesting sound it produces. A chain link fence (the type with diamond-shaped interstices) surrounds the silos, presumably to prevent people from entering them and hurting themselves. Of course, the fence becomes a popular target for explosives, and is ridden with diamonds comically stretched to many times their original size.

None of these large explosives are Class C fireworks. The Class C limit is 50mg, as used in the better firecrackers and the pathetic “M-50s”. However, since they don't have to worry about local or state police action, many of the stands sell both homemade and commercial bootleg explosive devices far larger than this. They're kept under the counter and all but the most aggressive vendors only reveal them to those who ask and who don't set off their fuzz-alert intuition. Celebrants also bring their own large items (again, both bootleg-commercial and homemade) to Boom City where they know they can get away with setting off devices that would elsewhere risk a felony rap. The first year we went to Boom City (1997), there were a fair amount of large devices being expended. A couple of people had filled tennis balls with flash powder - probably more than 100g, 2000 times the legal limit. By 1998, it had escalated dramatically. Some vendors had picked up on the tennis ball idea, and they were quite popular. Heavy-duty items were more evident in general. We expected to see even more this year.

However, Chris' grandfather had a paper with an article in it about a sting operation that had just been performed against the Boom City vendors (it's open for the two weeks leading up to the 4th of July). ATF agents went to eleven stands and tried to buy illegal explosives. Ten of the stands obliged. They brought this to the attention of the tribe, who shut down those stands for a day. They did it again, and one stand sold them explosives; that stand was shut down for the duration. After reading that, and with the rain falling, my hopes for a nice full-on-wacky 4th began to dim.

But, on July 3rd, though the clouds hovered menacingly overhead, the rain pretty much stopped. We went to Boom City to check things out. The parking lot and firing area were muddy messes, but that wasn't keeping anyone away. As I expected, the amount of large ordnance had been toned down, but everyone was still having fun. The clouds sucked for taking pictures, since it takes a lot of light to freeze some of that action and smoke doesn't show up well against cloud, but it was actually better than 1998 when it drizzled the whole time.

Sometime that evening, a kid asked me if I'd heard whether <someone>'s celebration for his son was going to be held there that evening. I had no idea what he was talking about and told him so. I found out later that night, when a group of people went out into the firing field and started digging holes with pickaxes! Once they had dug deep enough, they set into these holes a row of what were clearly large mortar tubes. Class C includes mortar tubes up to about two inches, which are fun but don't rival professional displays. These tubes were five or six inches in diameter - Class B stuff. Someone with a megaphone announced that this was in celebration of his son, with some other details I didn't catch. The display was good, but far from perfectly executed - one of the shells went off at ground level, and others low enough that hundreds of still-burning stars reached the ground, landing on the cars in the parking lot and putting bystanders into evasion mode. Not a big deal, though; everyone there fully expects that sort of thing.

Near the end of the evening, one of the revellers pulled out a tubular explosive that he claimed contained 20 ounces of flash powder. It didn't look big enough for that, but might have been tightly packed. He looked around for a place to set it off and settled on one of two concrete posts that protected a fire hydrant near the silos from wayward vehicles. They were about half a foot thick. I don't think he meant to damage it; he wanted a pedestal on which to carry out his contraption's immolation. The explosion packed the strongest punch of anything I felt at Boom City, which is saying something. And the post did suffer - half the diameter of the post had been removed from the top, in large pieces. The remaining concrete seemed oddly friable, as though the internal adhesion that lent it structure had been seriously compromised.

The next day, July 4th, was more of the same weather-wise. Before heading out to Boom City, we all stopped at Safeway and Fred Meyer (a large grocery and department store) and picked out a variety of fruit and other comestibles that we judged might provide an interesting effect when liberated of their form through the application of explosives. This had proven extremely popular in previous years - no need for us to try to acquire explosives, as many would be offered when the fruit was brought out. Chris loaded up his trunk with watermelons, oranges, a pineapple, etc.

At Boom City, things were in high gear. It reached the point where just as many explosives were being used as in previous years. I only saw a few tennis balls, which suggests that much of the stuff that was used was brought from outside, and the effect of the ATF sting was to limit it to last year's level, when otherwise it might have been well exceeded. Altogether, things were more intense, with more people and more fireworks. A constant rain of expended rockets and helicopter fireworks fell from the sky, bouncing off people and cars. As in previous years, every large explosion set off a gaggle of car alarms. People were as careless as ever, throwing rockets after lighting them so that they flew in random directions or improperly setting up rockets and projectile fireworks so that they flew in a haphazard manner and flung balls of fire about in circles like an automatic weapon laid on the floor. But, nobody complained much; most laughed as they ducked missiles and watched plastic ricochet off their vehicles. For the most part, the danger is to those who ignite the fireworks, especially the large explosives; being hit by a rocket or some such is unlikely to cause more than a trivial burn. However, every year I half expect someone to end up with an eye injury. It hasn't happened yet.

I bought some fireworks to play with myself. One thing I like to do is swing a long string of firecrackers around my head while it goes off. I did that with a 2000 string on the 3rd, much to the amusement of onlookers. On the 4th, while firework shopping I came across something I hadn't seen before - a set of five large hexagonal firecracker bundles spaced at intervals on a piece of heavy twine, with a fuse also connecting them. It was hanging forlornly on a shopkeeper's wall. The clear intent was that it be hung from a post; the first bundle would go off, then the next, etc. I thought it would be a fine thing to swing about my head instead of a conventional string, so I bought it. It would appear that either I was embedded in a field of stupidity, or my subconscious mind had long since determined that it was one of my major goals in life to tear out by their roots as many cochlear cilia as possible. I was imagining the hexagons going off in the sedate manner typified by long strings, while somehow ignoring my long extant knowledge that the purpose of winding firecrackers up in a bundle is to make them go off as fast as possible. Bundling them also causes exploding firecrackers to blast other, imminently exploding firecrackers in all directions, so that you get a sort of solid sphere of explosions, transient but quite spectacular. Fortunately, I at least tied a piece of rope to the twine, so that the last hexagon wouldn't be too close to my hand when its turn came. Still, imagine my surprise as I swung this thing about my head, waiting for the first hexagon to start, and suddenly found myself inside that sphere of detonations, firecrackers exploding in excessively close proximity to my body, and the entire hexagon expended in a fraction of a second. BRAAAAAAAPPPPPPPPP!!!!! Of course, to set it down at that point would be to admit before the observing masses that this hadn't been my plan all along, so I plugged one ear with my free hand and swung harder that the sphere might be distorted by centrifugal force into a form less centered upon me and weathered the storm of the other bundles.

Another amusing scene took place along the firing line. The firing field is separated from the parking lot by a line of logs. Participants are supposed to stand behind the logs and throw or aim their fireworks into the field. Some people enter the field to set up large fireworks, risking the slings and arrows of their cocelebrants to do so, but there is a thick line of people next to the logs and observers behind them. Suddenly, a circular hole opened up in this line, bodies evacuating the area as though an antipersonnel field had dilated in their midst. A most peculiar sight. The reason became obvious in a moment - someone's large stash of fireworks had been ignited, by what we will never know. Rockets and multishot tube batteries launched in all directions, firecrackers exploded, and everyone cheered.

A few large mortars were set off that night, too. Someone had a large tube set in a hefty concrete base, obviating the need for a hole to bury the tube in. He brought it out in the firing field and set off some nice shells. Later, someone else brought out his own self-supporting tube, made of metal with strong side-legs welded to it to keep it upright. He set it in the street that runs along all of the areas described above. This person felt that the streetlight detracted from the mortar launch, and was prepared to deal with it. He had a routine set up. When he called “light out!”, a compatriot would pull a large flash powder explosive from his pocket, light the fuse, and hold on to it to let the fuse burn down just long enough before hurling it over the streetlamp. KABLOOOIE! and the light instantly goes out, the single brilliant flash convincing it that dawn has arrived. The lamp stays out for a minute or so before a tentative restart, long enough for the mortar to be set off. The synchrony and excellent aim exhibited by this duo considerably enhanced the show.

Finally, it came time to break out the fruit. We like doing this in the street under the lamp, the better to appreciate the organic disappearing act. At this point, most people know what it means when Chris come back from his car with a watermelon. Someone offers an explosive - a sphere or tube or puck-shaped thing. Chris cuts an appropriately shaped hole through the watermelon's rind, and then slips his hand in to pull enough flesh out that the device can be deeply embedded. The excised rind with attached fruit goes to whoever wants it. A curious sort of dissonance was formed in watching Chris' cute 3-year-old niece Sapphire munch away on the removed segment - too much for her - while Chris drops an immense bomb into the bowels of the melon.

In a previous year, when first exploring this vein of destruction, we had made the mistake of trying cantaloupe. Ooops. Never again any hard-rind fruit after the welt that gave me. Watermelon is quite safe, as demonstrated by the confused person who blundered into the scene after ignition and just didn't get it when we told him to GET AWAY!!! KABLUT! But, as is typical, he was entirely amused rather than upset at having one side of his body violently and thoroughly blasted pink with pulp and seeds. An extra sensation offered by this act is the heavy scent left hanging in the air by whatever is demolished. The pineapple was especially nice (an exception to the hard-rind rule, but the pineapple = grenade link was too much to pass up). The odor of obliterated orange still wins in the end, though.

A bit after midnight, we were shocked when they announced that Boom City was closing and everyone had to stop now and leave. Usually, it just winds down by itself around 2AM, with some of the vendors coming out to fire off their remaining inventory. However, they had decided that things had gotten too out of control this year, what with people being particularly incautious in the guidance of their rockets and such. We left, much to the dismay of the onlookers, and found a beach on which to expend the rest of our matériel.

July 5th dawned with a perfect blue sky. I tried not to let that annoy me as we departed for Santa Cruz.

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