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By Geoffrey McAllister, Deseret News

PROVO — Swimming in a sea of red, white and blue shirts, tents, coolers and cookies, Utahns celebrated the Fourth of July in Provo at the ever popular Grand Parade.

One of the crowning events of America's Freedom Festival at Provo, the Grand Parade attracts thousands each year who line the streets and cheer for veterans, police officers and firefighters in expressions of patriotism and remembrances of freedom.

In an era of an unpopular war, presidential-campaign politics and an economic slump that has been marked by a credit crisis, upheaval in the stock market and a 5.5 percent jobless rate, several Utahns paused Friday to reflect upon the state of the United States.

"I think it definitely seems like things are changing," said Amy Nielsen, holding her 4-year-old daughter, Kenzie, as they watched a karate club kick its way down University Avenue.

"The way we live, the future of our country is going down a different path than we want," she said. "It will be interesting to see what happens after the election."

Nielsen, who's been coming to the parade for six years, said she is frustrated that she hasn't seen much emphasis on finding other sources of oil to eliminate our dependency on foreign countries.

"I'm still an optimist," said Robert Schloss of Orem. "I still believe we have a lot of room for improvement opportunities."

Sitting in a lawn chair along University Avenue, he called the economic downturn and America's dependence on foreign oil a "dose of reality."

"I'm old enough to remember the gas lines of the '70s," he said. "I remember things turning around and the next 20 years were of great affluence. We still have opportunities to make right choices."

Leo and Christy Penrod have been coming to the parade for nearly 30 years. Now, instead of bringing their young children, they are watching with their grown children and grandchildren.

"I'm a little bit pessimistic," Christy Penrod said, which is strange, she added, because she's usually quite optimistic. "I think things will probably come together, but with gas prices, people are more cautious. I think it will work out. It usually does."

Floats rolled down the streets carrying tiara-spangled city royalty waving to the cheering crowd. Fire trucks from several cities sprayed water, honked horns and turned on sirens, eliciting squeals from young children sitting on the curbs.

High school marching bands played "America the Beautiful" while the crowd clapped in cadence. Enjoying the parade from a blanket on the grass, Brigham Young University senior Chris Williams declared the country is in "lousy shape."

"But it's holidays like this that help us forget that for the moment, and lift our spirits," he said.

For him, the holiday, not $4-a-gallon-and-rising gas prices and worry over the tumultuous economy, was the focus.

"We just come out and have some fun," added his friend, Eric Bird, a junior at BYU.

Friday was the first time Alvaro Ramirez and his family have attended the Grand Parade. Asked about the direction of America, he, too, said he would have to wait and see what happens with the presidential election, which will pit Republican Sen. John McCain against Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.

"The military is the biggest concern," he said. "Do what they gotta do, then get them home. It's a good cause ... and they do a good job, but we gotta keep them safe, too."

The parade route — with new rules prohibiting early spot stakeouts — was lined with lawn chairs, six deep in some places, plus air mattresses, couches, blankets, tents and canopies. Young entrepreneurs pulled coolers, selling soda or Popsicles to the toasty masses.

Children wearing matching flag shirts waved at the performers and eagerly pointed out the giant Curious George and Underdog balloons. Even llamas got in on the festivities, wearing red, white and blue tassels as they were paraded down the route.

Lindon city won the Grand Marshal Most Creative Award for its "Plant Love, Harvest Happiness" float. A red ladybug and purple worm wiggled on the float that was filled with elegantly dressed Little Miss Lindons, glittering flowers and a watering can blowing bubbles.

BYU graduate Megan White said thinking about the country's situation motivates her to get involved. "Every vote is going to matter," she said, still wearing her running gear from the 10K run that morning. "We gotta voice our opinions."

"It's up to us as a people," said Chris Blanchett, a BYU graduate student. "Yeah, we need a good president, but we need to stop whining about things and start taking it upon ourselves."

If gas is too expensive, he said, let's look at better transportation systems or increase car-pooling.

"We whine about the fact that nothing is happening, but we're sitting back and doing nothing," Blanchett said. "It's really up to us."

Students from the newly christened Utah Valley University surrounded their sparkling black and green float, throwing T-shirts and reminding the crowd that "It's Your University."

The float from BYU, "Pioneering the Summit of Freedom," complete with mascot Cosmo riding a train, was met with chanting, cheering and waving.

The following University of Utah float, "Pioneering the World Over," receiving only polite applause.

The float that won for best overall was created by the Primary Children's Medical Center, with a "Pirates of the Caribbean" theme, complete with a giant orange octopus, treasure chest, half-sunken ship and a Capt. Jack Sparrow look-alike.

In the predominantly Republican crowd, Jeff Dart, 24, stood out, wearing a red U. hat and a shirt emblazoned with the words "Obama '08."

After dealing with the economy, he wants to see the focus shift to "peace and diplomacy," he said.

"We hope," he said. "It's America. We're still incredibly blessed with what we have. The American dream ... is not supposed to be easy, but a little bit easier would really help."

Stephanie Walsh worries about supporting her husband in school, especially with the gas prices.

"You need to go to work just to pay for the gas to get there," she said. As a Republican, she's not a huge fan of Obama, but she said she doesn't feel like she can stand behind McCain either.

"I think what someone needs to do is give a confidence stance; make people believe it's going to be better. I wish they'd be out there saying, 'We're going to get out there and fix things,' so we'll feel comfortable."

She stood as the American flag passed by, placing her hand over her heart.

"I still love the country," she said. "So I hope somebody can fix it."

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