Hooray For The Desert

 

        Hooray for the desert.

It’s daunting, all that emptiness.  To top a hill and find yourself suddenly faced with such distance, endless stretches of sage and sun and creosote and gray naked hills.  It’s intimidating.  Mysterious, ominous, foreboding, it stares you down, warns you away, seems to say,  Here, nothing is easy.  Here you will be tested.  The vastness itself has such an overwhelming presence it’s almost Biblical.  That’s why it has always attracted the shamans, the mystics, the seekers of visions.  Hang around any desert gas station long enough and sooner or later some grizzled, bearded, hollow-eyed prophet will roll up out of some dusty canyon in a 1962 VW microbus.  The side panels and doors of the microbus will be covered with hundreds of hand painted Bible verses.  He’ll buy three dollars worth of gas, and where he gets even that much money is anybody’s guess, but you don’t want to catch his eye, because you know if you do he will rise up righteous on you and rain down fire and brimstone with an intensity that mirrors the desert itself.

        Extremes.  Always.

        Everywhere else the wind just blows.  Here it howls and shrieks and screams.  It has menace.  I once spent a sleepless night in a Mojave motel room while the wind battered and rattled at the doors and windows until I was convinced that the glass panes would shatter and skewer me the bed.  In the morning a semi truck and trailer lay blown onto its side on the dusty shoulder of Highway 14.

        One cool fall morning in a dry wash near Monument Valley, Melissa and I watched as a small herd of goats topped the hill and headed toward us, herded by three small dogs of indeterminate breeding.  I kept waiting for somebody to come trailing along behind them, but no one ever did; just the dogs.  You could see every rib.  They kept glancing our way, as if afraid we might try to interfere somehow.  They pushed the goats across the wash and up the other side, and then were gone.  On another afternoon I stood with a friend at Dead Horse Point near Moab, Utah, looking southward beyond the looping silver of the Colorado River far below us, where my friend pointed out where you could see a slice of Arizona, there, just to the right; and to the left a piece of Colorado; and if you squinted real hard, that farthest hairline of horizon was most likely in the state of New Mexico.

         These things are wonderful, and to me much more rewarding than Disneyland, or the Winchester Mystery House.

        Hooray for the oases, the watering holes and stopping places.  I don’t mean Vegas or Reno, with the asphalt sprawl and their video billboards—give me the uniquely American cracked stucco tackiness of filling stations surrounded by salvage yards, and in the middle of them a restaurant serving Greek cuisine and hot dogs.  There is nothing like being in Mesquite, Nevada, and watching as the sunset casts a warm red alpenglow on all the fast food signs.

        Hooray for the people who come here.  Who stay.  They all wind up becoming characters.  For years the sole resident of Ballarat, California was Seldom Seen Slim, a toothy scarecrow of a hermit referred to by those who knew him as “Seldom Clean Slim.”  Here’s to the store clerk I met in Needles, swatting flies that buzzed through the holes in the screen door, and like some character out of Monte Walsh, keeping tally of his kills on a pad of paper on the counter next to him.  “Forty-two so far this morning!”  Here’s to the hardy citizens of Trona, who cover their front yards with concrete and then paint them a defiant green.  And to the RVers who descend on Quartzite, Arizona every winter, thousands and thousands of motor homes and travel trailers with the indoor-outdoor carpeting and the lawn chairs out front under the awnings, an encampment so vast and glittering I am convinced they could be seen from the space shuttle.  Here’s to the well dressed tourist I met on a trail outside Sedona, a middle aged man with wavy gray hair and expensive sunglasses, who asked me if I could direct him to the vortex, and who then went on to explain in great detail how he had visited a different vortex the day before, and was still feeling fairly amplified. 

        Here’s to the hardy immigrants from India and Pakistan who seem to be running all the motels these days.  God bless them, they are here looking for the dream, working their butts off for it.  To be in Elko and welcomed to the heart of the American West by a lady in a sarong is a bit disconcerting, and also somehow joyful.

        God, I love this country.

 

April, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doc’s Grave

 

Between Grand Junction and Vail, Colorado, right on US Highway 70 is the little town of Glenwood Springs.  People used to come here for the waters, to bathe in the hot springs.  They thought it was healthful.  Still do. There are spas and nice hotels, and it is a destination spot for vacationers. 

It was here that John Henry Holliday came in 1887.  He was in the advanced stages of tuberculosis, and believed that the sulphurous vapors from the springs would soothe his tortured lungs.  He was destitute, and alone.  He fell into a coma and died in the Hotel Glenwood in early November of 1887.  He was 36 years old. 

            They buried him in the Linwood Cemetery, off of Bennett Street.  You can’t drive there; you have to park your car and hike a half a mile to get to where the headstones are. It’s a fairly strenuous hike and you have to stop a couple of times to catch your breath.  At least I did.  You can look down the hill and see the Roaring Fork River in the distance.  I kept imagining them hauling the plain wood casket up here in the undertaker’s wagon, jouncing over the rocks in the little road on that cold, late fall day.  The creaking of the wheels, the wagon rattling, the sound of the mule shoes in the dirt.  Kid Curry’s buried up here, too, in potter’s field.  He killed himself near here, when cornered by a posse after one of the last great train robberies in the United States in 1904.  I took a picture of his headstone as well.

            Holliday’s monument is in the middle of the cemetery, surrounded by one of those traditional wrought iron fences.  Sagebrush and the roots of cedar trees poke up through the ground.  It’s not a headstone, but one of those ornate upright obelisk things, and looks very authentic.  The problem is it probably dates only to the 1960’s.  Somewhere along the line all the cemetery records were lost or destroyed, and the exact location of Holliday’s grave is unknown.  Dying broke the way he did, odds are he was buried in potter’s field, near where Kid Curry ended up.  But in the 1950s the city fathers of Glenwood Springs thought that Doc Holliday’s Grave might make a pretty nifty tourist attraction, so they erected the marker here, where it was easily found.  This is the second monument.  The first one was nondescript, sort of cheesy-looking, 1950’s modern.  There are pictures showing little kids climbing on it, wearing cowboy hats and toy six-shooters.  Later, someone replaced it with this obelisk.  An improvement.  The obelisk is much classier. 

            Holliday has his champions and detractors.  I wasn’t here to judge him.  When you’re rolling close by that kind of history, it’s almost a requirement to swing by and tip your hat.  The whole experience took maybe forty minutes.  I recommend it.   

 

 

 

 

 

The Endless Tour... 

Encampment, Wyoming.  Only one paved street in the whole town, two bar-restaurants next door to each other across the river at Riverside, one little market.  A cowboy gathering—but a special one.  I’ve played a few of these, the kind of cowboy celebration located in a ranching community where every ranch family from fifty miles around comes to town to support it, to see friends and enjoy the show. 

There’s a horse show at the fairgrounds on Saturday afternoon, and when the doors open at the auditorium for the show that night—usually in the gym at the High School—there are 8 and 9 year old girls and boys in their boots and spurs and flat-brimmed buckaroo hats strutting around, full of importance and self-confidence; and they shake your hand and look you in the eye and call you sir or ma’am.  Always on the bill are local folks, cowhands and ranch wives who know the life, and write and sing from the heart.  These are the communities where it really counts that they listen and respond to our music; and when they come up to us and ask for a particular song because it means something to them, I feel very honored, and justified, and very, very humble, and know that I am very lucky to do what I do for a living, and to be allowed to be a part of such communities. 

These are not bitter and angry people clinging to religion and guns.  These are the hard-working folks who make up the fabric of the nation, and they have been over-looked by the politicians and the media, because working hard and raising your family and trying to do the best you can by your neighbors isn’t what makes headlines.  But I think maybe it should be.  Just a little, every once in a while.   

 

FROM "AMERICAN COWBOY MAGAZINE":

 

Review: Dave Stamey's "Twelve Mile Road"

Dave Stamey sings tribute to the trials and joys of ranch life.

by Charley Engel

More than any of his nine prior albums, Dave Stamey’s latest is his most personal.

“It’s the best thing I’ve done,” says the acclaimed Western musician. “It’s more about my experiences in the ranching world and my history.”

He paints a vivid portrait of his rancher father, Bruce Stamey, in the title track. The struggles and hopes of working the old home place in Montana are deeply felt: “There’s an old gravel road, following’ the section line, out where lives are held together, with sweat and baling twine/ Where you rattle your bones on a tractor, over 30 years old, and there’s a mortgage and kids to be fed, out on Twelve Mile Road.”

This, the album’s emotional centerpiece, came late in the recording process and almost didn’t make the final cut.

“I finished that song in the middle of recording, brought it into the studio, and taught it to the musicians,” says Stamey. “We got it on the third take, which is a testament to the quality of the pickers that I had.” He credits lead guitar player Dorain Michael for assembling a crack team of musicians. Annie Lyons also gets major kudos for her pitch-perfect harmony singing.

The rest of the album’s 12 tracks seldom stray from the land and its hardy Westerners (and critters). “Song for Jake” commemorates one of Stamey’s mentors, Jake Copass, who died in 2006 at age 86. “Never Gonna Rain” bemoans the heartbreak of drought, “Blackjack Was a Mule” imagines the life of an ore-cart mule in the mines of Bodie, Calif. Though “Wild Sierra” was written more than 30 years ago, it’s dear to Stamey’s heart for being the first song he ever felt satisfied with to keep as a songwriter.

But in an album filled with highlights, “Sweetgrass County Line” stands out as the favorite. Stamey wrote it at a friend’s Montana ranch during a particularly green year and says the sentiment is a metaphor for how he feels about the nation. He sings: “This country is a friend of mine/ Its voice is a voice that I hear/ And when time leaves me behind/ I won’t mind if it leaves me right here.”

Stamey dedicated the CD to his father, “for trying so hard out there on Twelve Mile Road.” In fact, father and son returned to the old homestead a few years ago. Their 100-acre ranch had been divided and sold in small parcels, and the gravel lane had been paved over and signed sometime in the intervening 40 years. Usually a stoic man, the elder Stamey became emotional as he surveyed the land he’d once put so much muscle and sweat into.

“It got to him, and he was upset,” says Stamey. “He said, ‘Look what they did to my ranch!’” It’s a sentiment heard all too often in the modern West. Hats off to artists like Stamey who help keep the traditional cowboy lifestyle alive.

 

 

 
 

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