On a Saturday morning, Westcliff is closed for business and the bluegrass festival doesn’t open till ten. There aren’t many people out and about.
The local grocery store isn’t open till nine but you can get cash from the bank ATM if you are short.The only gas station is on the highway back to Walsenburg, a few miles south of town. There are several real estate offices with flyers posted in their windows for lookers, and the restaurant at the bowling alley is still asleep with bowling balls cuddled up in their chutes.
The Sugar and Spice Bakery is one of the few places open this early and seven patrons are already lined up ahead of me.
The two young women running the shop wear plain long skirts with plain bonnets on their head, their hair bundled up under the 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 the restaurant.
I feel like I’m back in the 1950’s again.
In a changing world, the Mennonites and Amish ,in Westcliff ,might be the only ones in our country saying “no” to progress and the latest party line newspaper propaganda.
While this planet spins, those of us waiting in line know you can’t beat good muffins, scones ,and apple pie for breakfast.
Even in our complicated world, eating hand made muffins, sitting in chairs that have no screws, riding in wagons pulled by carts, and listening to bluegrass music is not without charm.
We can buy our food out of machines but eating that way just doesn’t have the same spirit that comes from eating meals made and served by human hands.
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 black wagon pulled by a black horse, driven by a young man wearing a black hat, black pants and black vest, a white shirt, with a reddish beard. He 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 and the San Luis Valley 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 discussion. Neal tends our camp fire, and Max and Weston move their hands and fingers just fine making us some Kentucky melodies.
The spirit of bluegrass is here tonight, just as meaningful as what we will hear under the big festival tent tomorrow morning.
You can be a city slicker and still know about ” hollers” , but I’m pretty certain none of us have been late to many meals.
Going back to our rural roots, even if we live in big cities, is what this bluegrass festival 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, or 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 or after each performance.
Waiting in the wings, this mandolin player plays a few choruses to keep his fingers nimble and his mind alert, rehearsing a song his group will be performing soon. His band mates are joking with a vocalist from the band that just finished their set, one of the co-hosts for the Festival.
All the groups are good 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, or a combination of all of these emotions.
Much of the player’s conversations,inside and outside the performers tent, are about fingerings, rhythms, chords and tempos.
When these performers aren’t talking music they are talking money, relationships and schedules, all of them tied together like a good Boatswain’s mate knot.
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.
Our joy is to enjoy the music and be pleased we can be here to hear some good ole guys and gals show off their musicianship and take us on a musical trip back to America’s quickly vanishing past.
County road 40 takes us from the highway that continues to Westcliff, Colorado directly to the Alvarado Campground in the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountains. The Pike and San Isabel National Forests is where we are camping for the annual Mountain Hay Fever Bluegrass Festival. It is July, warm, and blue and white flowers grow in the pastures around the cow’s hooves.
County road 40 is two way, maintained, flat as the countryside it cuts through. On each side of the road are barbed wire fences to keep cattle in as well as show people’s property lines. In old times, people chased cattle rustlers and kids getting into their gardens. In the old days, rifles and six shooters and a hanging tree kept the peace. Now, lawyers shoot in out in court and all kinds of lines get erased and redrawn.
There are multiple County roads crisscrossing the farming and ranching land here. Homesteads are built under little clusters of trees in a country side filled with millions of acres of lush grass, cool temperatures, wide open skies and more stars than the cows can count, when they decide they want to.
This evening, as the sun goes down, it is peaceful. These cows, big black splashes of paint in the middle of this natural work of art, will soon disappear into darkness and we will hear, but not see them.They say nothing, graze,and stare at the distances. Their thinking caps are back at the barn.
Today, for these cows, was most likely much the same as yesterday,and tomorrow will be much the same as today.
Cows, we suppose, don’t understand time, have no memory of yesterday, no concept of tomorrow.They don’t have to worry about clothes, driving, smart phones, retirement, gender identity, party politics.
It is hard to imagine these guys can be out here this evening, in the middle of this beauty, and not have a thing to moo about?
The last time I checked, Van Gogh didn’t paint cows.
He should have painted cows because he would have been able to use that tube of black paint that his brother Theo found in a big city old time thrift store.
When these cows get on the road, which they do, you have to slow down, edge forward, move through them deliberately but not recklessly.
I don’t think they give a damn about our fences,or us, whichever side of the fence they are on.
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.
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 even more unique,staccato, complex. There will be 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 the music I’m listening to this morning.
Mother Nature, as hear it, is a very good composer.
In 1936, families and kids brought their dimes to this theater, looked at the marque, 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 who ran the projection room and threaded old fashioned 35mm film through the apparatus that moved the film through light that projected images on a pure white movie 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 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 be nostalgic and remember what it was like they were little.
In 1936, you never would have seen a movie about Elton John, or anyone like him.
Our tolerance for difference has been irretrievably expanded.