On a Saturday morning, Westcliff is closed for business.
The Sugar and Spice Bakery is one of the few places open in town this early and seven patrons are already lined up ahead of me getting something to eat.
The two young women running the shop wear plain long skirts and blouses with plain bonnets on their head, their hair bundled up under each bonnet. They are Mennonites, who, along with Amish,have settled in this area in the last few years. I saw several girls, dressed exactly like this, working at the bowling alley cafe yesterday and admired their work ethic and modesty when serving overweight middle aged women in shorts and tattoos, ordering chicken fried steak and mashed potato dinners.
In our evolving world, the Mennonites and Amish ,in Westcliff ,might be the only ones in our country saying “no” to progress.
While this planet spins, those of us waiting in line,know you can’t beat good home made muffins, scones,and apple pie for breakfast with a hot beverage to warm your hands.
We can buy our food out of machines but eating that way just doesn’t raise our spirits.
I’ll be back tomorrow for more blueberry muffins and hot coffee, and their sign on the door tells me they will be open at seven a.m.
God doesn’t have to get in the way of hard working business women, and He doesn’t.
An old man with a cane shuffles past us in the grocery, squinting to read the fine print on a box label.Two little children pull on their mom’s dress at the bank as she makes a deposit and reaches them a sucker out of a little bowl on the teller’s countertop. A homeless vet passes our vehicle to take a dollar from a hand reaching out of the window back of us. We don’t talk to the politician rushing past us to hold up a baby and smile for news cameras.
On the road to Westcliff, I pass a man in a black wagon pulled by a black horse. The driver pulls his horse and wagon towards the shoulder as I go past, and I wave. I watch him in my rear view mirror as he goes another block, then pulls his horse and wagon into a little drive leading to a country house on the other side of a closed gate.
Amish, from Pennsylvania, have come to this part of Colorado for farming, solitude, the ability to worship as they choose, to raise their families in an old way, and drive to town in a wagon pulled by their favorite horse.
This, my first Amish sighting of the season, makes me wonder how they can maintain their traditions in the onslaught of 21st century propaganda, polemics, politics and problems?
The march of 21st century technology, information, control and surveillance, secularism, is crushing.
Seeing a horse and wagon on the road is like seeing an old John Wayne movie on television.
It pictures a way of life, long gone, that some folks still never want to leave.
We don’t come from some ” holler” in back woods Kentucky mountains with our best coon dog sleeping on our front porch, pop’s favorite whiskey “still ” covered by brush down by the river, grandma’s hot fresh baked biscuits on the table and you better not be late for breakfast if you want to have anything left to eat when you get there.
Bluegrass music was created around fires on nights like this, on people’s front porches, at family cookouts with cheap Chinese lanterns hung in trees for decorations, folks rocking in chairs on their front porches. Back in mountain hollers there weren’t televisions, cell phones, indoor plumbing, or microwaves for quick dinners. People read the Bible, if they could read, and kids didn’t go to school but learned how to fish, shoot squirrels, pitch pennies, and say their prayers real nice.
Alan and Joan have a music discussion. Neal keeps our camp fire bright, and Max and Weston play their instruments just fine.
The spirit of bluegrass here is as meaningful as what we will hear under the big festival tent tomorrow.
Going back to our rural roots, especially if we live in big cities, is what bluegrass is all about.
As one group finishes their set, the emcee steps up on stage and introduces the next group. There is a fifteen minute break between bands, enough time for people to stretch, take a walk, find the porta potties, get a burger, stroll the town, pull a hat over their eyes and take a little snooze.
Some of the spectators today are wearing T shirts from past festivals, here and elsewhere, and spend their breaks visiting with their favorite musicians outside the tent before and after each of their performances.
Waiting in the wings to go on stage, this mandolin player practices a few choruses to keep his fingers nimble and his mind alert, rehearsing a song his group will soon be performing. All the groups are good here but we pick our favorites, either by the songs they play, the way they play them, the way they handle the spotlight, the way they make us feel comfortable, or happy, or sad.
When these performers aren’t talking music they talk money, relationships, schedules, aches and pains,all threads in their musician’s coats..
Luckily, we, in the audience, don’t have to know their business, their politics, their issues, or their motivations to have ourselves a good time. Music gives us all a chance to back away from trials and tribulations and kick up our heels.
If we wanted to be propagandized, or depressed ,we would turn on our TV, listen to talk radio, or open tomorrow’s news already written today.
No one comes to a bluegrass festival to have a bad time and we sure don’t pay for bad music.
County road 40, cutting away from Colorado State Highway 69, takes me straight to the Alvarado Campground in the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountains – the end of a long driving day from New Mexico.
The campground,in the Pike and San Isabel National Forests,is where we camp out during the 2019 Mountain Hay Fever Bluegrass Festival in Westcliff. It is a summer July, warm, and these brilliant blue and white flowers are growing in no discernible order in these cow pastures. This pastoral scene should be printed on a grocery store container of vanilla ice cream.
County road 40 is two lane and well maintained and flat as the countryside we are cutting through. On each side of the road are barbed wire fences that keep cattle in their fields as well as designating people’s property lines. In old times, ranching folks hung cattle rustlers and used buckshot on kids getting into their gardens. Now, lawyers shoot it out in court for all of us and disputes in the sandbox are for judges to decide instead of pistols and rifles.
This evening, as the sun drops and night coolness is coming, I can see these cow’s don’t give a damn about fences, or us,or my philosophy, whichever side of the fence they,or we,are on.
I drive past them at 30 miles per hour, the posted speed limit, hopeful that tomorrow’s bluegrass music makes this long drive worth doing.
When you listen to bluegrass music there should be a few cows in the neighborhood,like this, just to make the music sound more authentic.
Setting up camp this evening will be a happy chore long overdue.
The mountain range, to the west, rises ten thousand feet plus into the clouds. These clouds, turning dark and ominous,prompt festival help to lower the flaps of our music tent to protect the performers and us, in the audience, from soon to come wind and driving rain.
The mountains are ten to fifteen miles away and there is a time lapse between something forming out there and something reaching here. There is space and distance around us and between us and the peaks, space punctuated by scattered homesteads stuck in the land like fallen arrows from ancient bow and arrows. Neighbors are not within a handshake and going to Westcliff is an activity you do when you need groceries you don’t grow, hardware you can’t make yourself, stuff you want but can probably do without, or the kids just need to get out of the house.
Change happens here, just like everywhere else, but it takes a while longer to get to you.
In the country, you know you are small, tiny, insignificant, a small sentence fluttering in a big book in the wind.
In the country, folks get together on the front porch to watch weather and talk about the harvest.
In the city, folks lock their front doors,don’t get too close to their neighbors, watch news about what is happening world’s away but feel powerless to affect change on their own block.
in the country, the world is what is in front of you that you can touch. You have time to get ready for events to reach you that start way way way out there, in the distance, in the mountains.
Out here, being lost in space, is literally, and figuratively, true.
” Nothing Fancy” is the name of this bluegrass band.
This is a good name for a band because we didn’t just drive hundreds of miles to Westcliff to listen to frills and trills and a lot of Mozart licks.
Nothing Fancy serves us country meat and potatoes, fresh vegetables from pa’s garden, cornbread,plenty of sweet ice tea, and a big slice of rhubarb pie in their down home musical buffet this afternoon to start the after lunch concert rolling.
These boys are also slipping us a little bit of fancy too, whether we want it or not, but we aren’t going home from this performance hungry.
Bluegrass music has fancy in it, but it doesn’t come out on stage until the right moment, and, even then, only for a few choruses.
This music came from houses with no plumbing, no electric, well water and wood heat.
Singing and playing too fancy would be akin to committing musical fraud.
This little brook gently runs through the Alvarado Campground, following a path of least resistance on it’s way to join a larger river, and then, with that river, rambling all the way to the closest ocean.
Nature’s music refreshes, doesn’t ask for applause, or notoriety, recording contracts, or interviews.
Nature’s songbook is this little brook, wind moving through pine needles in tall trees on a cool clear night, a woodpecker carving his home inside a tree trunk, the rustling of brush as a brown bear scurries off the highway and back into the woods, waves coming into shore as the tide rises, hail hitting the roof of your car in a freak summer storm,deer antlers striking one another as bucks fight for dominance.
In a couple of days, I’ll hear fish songs at Hermit Lakes, breaking the lake’s surface as they greedily gobble dragonflies.
Back in Albuquerque, city melodies will be much more staccato and complex. There will be car horns, sirens,bacon sizzling in a frying pan, heavy equipment taking down condemned buildings, nail guns installing shingles, gunshots, light classic jazz in Starbucks, the sound of a well struck golf ball on it’s way towards the pin.
This brook is a comforting, simple, legato melody.
Mother Nature, as I hear her this morning, is a very good composer.
Her melodies remind me that there is no need to hurry.
I don’t think I need to change anything here.
It is good, at this moment, to just be still and listen.
In 1936, families and kids brought their dimes to this theater, looked at the marquee, found seats in what now are uncomfortable chairs, and watched westerns and newsreels from around a world just coming out of a Great Depression. The concession inside the theater would have had sweet treats for the kids, high school ushers who showed people to their seats with little flashlights, and a grizzled World War 1 vet still seeing his war on the screen.
The theater changed management in 1963 ,and, again, thirty years later.
Now, the Jones Theater shows movies on weekend nights and has one Sunday matinee.
Theater’s these days can’t compete with Netflix or Amazon Prime, cable TV, an internet streaming world news, 24/7, as it happens.
Now, people go to the theater to sit in a dark room with a bunch of strangers, eat popcorn, and remember what it was like when they were little kids visiting Grandma.
In 1936, you never would have seen a movie about Elton John, or anyone like him.
Our tolerance for difference has been irretrievably expanded.