Floating on the Fourth of July with Karen and Larry Johnston

On a lovely, late June morning under cloudless skies, Larry and Karen Johnston both showed growing signs of alarm.


“They’re anticipating thunderstorms for this afternoon,” Karen murmured amid the sounds of staple guns and hammers, and then added, “When it rains, it’s a disaster.”


With that, out came the tarps. As if by magic, a gaggle of neighborhood boys appeared, eager to help save the day.


With the tarp secured, the centerpiece of Mammoth’s Fourth of July—its signature parade float—was safe.


Over the last 11 years, the Johnstons have been through one potential float calamity after another, but it has not stopped them from building them. 


To this day, Larry said, it’s almost the only topic of conversation that comes his way.


Case in point:


During the 2014 Election campaign, in which he was running for re-election to the Mono County Board of Supervisors, the main question had nothing to do with sage grouse habitat, the county budget shortfall, the behavior of the sheriff’s department, CARB compliance or solid waste.


“All anybody seemed to care about,” he said, “was what the float was going to be this year.”


While open to discussing campaign issues, Johnston clammed up as to the fate of the float, as is also tradition.


While anybody can plainly see what is afoot with the float as they pass by the Johnstons’ residence, its theme is still treated as a state secret until the moment arrives when the float moves onto the parade route to the sounds of oohs, ahhs and rounds of applause.


Also at that moment is when three weeks of building and months of planning come to an end.


“It’s a lot of work,” Karen said, “but it’s so much fun.”



The Johnstons began the float tradition hard on the heels of yet another successful “Haunted House” extravaganza 11 years ago.


The entrance to their haunted house, the favorite stop for a generation of witches, goblins and trick-or-treating ghosts, that year was a representation of the pirate ship, “The Black Pearl.”


Over the holidays, the Johnston family came up with the idea of using the haunted house decorations as a Fourth of July parade float.


Since The Black Pearl appeared, the Johnstons, along with family friends and neighborhood kids, built, in order, Harry Potter, Jaws, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Black Pearl II, The Titanic, the Trojan Horse, and, last year, the Endeavor space shuttle.


With both Larry and Karen active in politics, many observers over the years have tried to attach a political message to their floats, but both Larry and Karen say they have no such intent.


However, they acknowledged that both the Trojan Horse and Titanic themes just so happened to coincide with Mammoth’s long tightrope walk toward the precipice of municipal bankruptcy.


In any event, they say, the theme of the float is decided far in advance, usually around the winter holidays, with family members—many of them from out of town—contributing to the idea bank.


The only things that really present problems are things such as not enough cardboard, a shortage of staples or the weather.


For instance, on Friday night, June 20, a cold front moved through town and with it, a cold, persistent rain.


The Johnstons were undeterred, scrambling to cover the float with tarps as the rain came down.

By early this week, they once more took evasive action by putting up tarps on the strength of nothing more than weather forecasts.


That was enough, however.


As the skies darkened later in the day and with the sound of distant thunder rumbling over the mountains, Larry and Karen Johnston could rest easy, at least for another day and, presumably, another Fourth of July.