Travelogue: A Mellow Celebration Along The Mississippi River

Is anything worth celebrating these days?

Eighteen months after we began to shut down in the name of protecting ourselves from the COVID-19 virus, we are still under threat with a new variant causing more trauma to the healthcare system. It was a sign that we were far from being clear of guidelines and restrictions that were mean to keep us safe and healthy.

This pandemic caused various celebrations to be cancelled last year. This trend continued into 2021. One would hope that they would do something extraordinary to welcome all of us back in celebrating our communities, cultures, and lives. 

Doing anything in 2021 became a gamble. Even with guidelines in place, one would hope that the organizers would pull off their event for their community. 

It is with this backdrop that I was set to head down to La Crosse, Wisconsin for their Pride in the Park celebration at Riverside Park. 

Let me give you some context here. First of all, you know that I am gay. You also know that I write for a couple of LGBTQ outlets. Thirdly, this is not my first time doing such a “Pride Road Trip” with a specific automotive manufacturer to yield content on such a trip. 

This La Crosse Pride Road Trip was in contrast to two years ago, when I did a similar trip to Fargo, North Dakota with Lexus. Because of its proximity to the Twin Cities, this would be a day trip instead of an overnighter. 

Instead of a Lexus, it would be Toyota that was driving this trip. Rather, that I was driving a Toyota to this event. To be specific, a 2021 Highlander XSE

So, how did it go?

Well…it was an interesting time at Riverside Park. How so? Let me explain.

First of all, the producers of the event, The Center: 7 Rivers LGBTQ Connection, asked attendees to wear masks in hopes to thwart the spread of the current variants of the COVID-19 pandemic. For that part, it was half-and-half in terms of wearers and non-wearers. 

After navigating around the construction to the nearby La Crosse Center and across downtown La Crosse, I ended up parking the Highlander XSE a block or two away. What greeted me was an interesting sight. 

At first, I could not understand why a person had a bullhorn at the start of La Crosse Pride. Also, why were some of these people were lined up? It turned out to be a protest by a local pastor focusing on the fact that Pride was celebrated on city property and that it was shared with some concert at the opposite side of the park in the bandshell. Maybe not the latter, but you are probably getting a flavor of things to come. 

I also noticed some of the community members tried to calm the pastor down. That did not work, as the bullhorn-wielding pastor decided to make his presence known around the small festival. He was confronted by the community, including an older long-haired gentleman in a Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts, and a top hat. I heard he was also a pastor. Then, I heard some cursing, which I hope the deities would forgive on that day. 

As I was conducting my first interview for another outlet I was writing about this trip for, the bullhorn-wielding pastor flagged down a La Crosse Police officer on the street. As the officer was backing into his parking space to take down a report, he backed into an SUV that was very close behind the police cruiser. By that time, the pastor and his flock left the park and the La Crosse Police had to contend with the accident across the street.

In the words of the late Anna Russell, “I’m not making this up!” 

I tell this story because it was a bit of semi-comedy that could have ruined this project with Toyota and their agency. Trusting me to be an “influencer” comes with the double responsibility of telling the story while absorbing the experience. My journalist instincts came into play. 

In my interviews for the other outlet, I discovered some things that have been bugging the La Crosse LGBTQ community. This was something I ascertained as I arrived at the park and how the attendees reacted to that bullhorn-wielding pastor.

Throughout the summer, La Crosse’s LGBTQ community were targeted in a number of violent attacks against property and people. The main case was an attack at the city’s Copeland Park against two transgender people in July. 

In response, The Center: 7 Rivers LGBTQ Connection had to steer the conversation towards education and community healing. La Crosse Pride was one way to do so. That is why this show had to go on. 

After that little morning entertainment, things got better at La Crosse Pride. The crowds appeared light in numbers overall, but I got a sense that everyone had a good day at Riverside Park. It was a way to celebrate and turn a summer of violence and hatred into a good time for all.

I got that sense by the interviews I conducted, along with a few chats at the booths. One person saw that I was with a specific media outlet and identified herself as an ally who used to live in the Twin Cities. She was glad that someone would come down from The Cities for their Pride celebration. 

That sentiment was shared with the people I talked to. Which is probably why I did this drive down with Toyota and their agency to La Crosse. To show that someone from another region would take the time to visit them and celebrate something we have in common – our LGBTQ identity and care for our fellow humans. 

La Crosse always provided an escape down on the Mississippi River. No wonder why all of the hotel rooms were booked that night! For the two-to-three hour drive out of The Cities, coming to a mellower place is always a good escape from the routine of work. 

If it was any other weekend, La Crosse offers a great getaway for anyone in the Upper Midwest. The hotels by the La Crosse Center are modern and are walking distance to great dining, bars, and a few sights. However, you simply come for the river itself. That’s the city’s main attraction. 

If I took out the parts about the protest, the car accident across the street, and the fact it was the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, it was just a mellow day down by the Mississippi River. Mellow…humid…but, quite enjoyable. 

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle for this story was provided by Toyota Motor North America

All photos by Randy Stern

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