True spirit of July 4 embraced in Gunlock

Perhaps I am a little old school, but I just can’t pass up the opportunity Independence Day provides to revel in the freedoms handed down to us from previous generations, to express gratitude to those who laid the foundations of a free nation, and to give thanks to those who have honorably served to protect that freedom.

Somehow, simply saying thank you just isn’t enough. True gratitude is more fully expressed through the choices we make and the lives we live.

Unfortunately, like a generous inheritance, the gift of freedom is underappreciated by some and readily traded away for what amounts to bobbles and beads by others.

There is a small community in Southern Utah where appreciation for American freedom runs as deep as the red sandstone hills that surround it, and the outdoor heritage is passed from one generation to the next via genetic code. It is there where my first wife and eldest son are buried near family and friends in the small cemetery lined with cottonwood trees and dotted with pioneer headstones dating to the mid-1850s. The community is Gunlock.

The July Fourth celebration in Gunlock begins at sunup with a freedom devotional complete with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the Pledge of Allegiance and a politically incorrect expression of thanks. That is followed by a pancakes-and-eggs breakfast complete with Dutch oven taters, the annual fundraiser for the local Boy Scouts Troop. And surrounding all of that is the three-day Gunlock Rodeo, an annual event since 1945. It is slated for today, Friday and Saturday. The event provides funding to help support the community cemetery, park and town hall.

While the rodeo includes a long list of traditional events such as team roping and barrel racing, my favorite is the donkey watermelon race. Of course, the unofficial snow cone-eating contest is pretty good, too. Generally it has only one participant, and I usually come out the winner.

Though the elk and deer seasons are still a ways off, talk of upcoming hunts can be heard in the rodeo bleachers and near the concession stand. Stories of hunts gone by, laced with half-truths and exaggeration, are shared by male and female, old and young alike. Some of the best are yarns spun by the rising generation whose members have yet to carry a rifle into the field but are already developing the art of storytelling.

North of Gunlock, the Santa Clara River squeezes through a narrow canyon lined with vertical walls of dark-colored rock. On one July Fourth, I decided to explore the canyon with my fishing rod and a small Panther Martin spinner. Walking past the old mill that used to stand guard at the canyon’s entrance, I soon realized why none of the town’s folks fished the canyon. It was choked with vegetation and its bottom covered with jumbled boulders.

The going was difficult, but undeterred I pressed forward, climbing over and around boulders and through brush. Along the way, I found a little pocket of water just open enough for a short cast. Just as the spinner hit the water, a silver flash shot out of the shadows and a rainbow trout grabbed the lure. He wasn’t big, perhaps 9 or 10 inches long, but he was scrappy. Knowing that great-grandpa liked fresh trout, I put him on a stringer and moved up the canyon.

Given the terrain, I kept an eye out for rattlesnakes, but it wasn’t a snake that caused me to turn around and head for town. With a couple of more trout added to the stringer, I stepped across an opening between two rocks, and that is when I heard a rustling in the dry leaves below. There, just 4 or 5 feet below, was a skunk. Luckily he seemed preoccupied and unaware of my presence, but the choice to move forward was the choice to give myself away.

Preferring my own natural odor to that which a skunk is capable of sharing, I slowly moved backward and made my way down stream. Along the way, I crossed paths with yet another skunk, and it was then I decided it was time for another Gunlock Rodeo snow cone. What better way to celebrate America’s birthday than the Gunlock way.

Freelance writer Doug Nielsen is a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His “In the Outdoors” column, published Thursday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is not affiliated with or endorsed by the NDOW. Any opinions he states in his column are his own. He can be reached at