The Rio Grande river runs through New Mexico and most of the state’s population and bigger cities hug the river’s edges all the way through the state, from north to south. The river is sustained by snow pack in Colorado and this is a good year with the river running fast and high. Along the entire river, Indian, state, county, and individuals dip their straws into the river and draw off water they need for their uses.
By the time the Rio Grande gets to Texas and Mexico, it is shallow enough in places to walk across, and it’s color is muddy brown. There are packed legal folders full of legal challenges about who owns the water, who gets to use it, and in what quantities. Our Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico and, in older times, was the lifeblood of farmers, ranchers, outlaws, Indians, miners and immigrants all living inside our state borders.
This afternoon, rafts carry fishermen downstream with paid guides maneuvering clients to some of the best fishing spots.
I don’t know what it cost these fishermen for their guide and raft, but it all adds up to an expensive trout dinner.
The guide will give this sportsman a better than average chance to catch something worth catching.
When you come this far to catch fish you want good pictures to show your buddies back home.
A few extra bucks for a trophy fish, you can brag on, is a good price.
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.
There are 15 bands at this bluegrass festival and each musician, in each band, is a performer.
The performers gather throughout the festival in a small tent of their own, practicing, visiting, renewing old friendships and making new ones, talking shop, telling jokes, calming nerves, rehearsing what they will do when they get on stage. Musicians, like any occupation, share many of the same tools and techniques, and all deal with pressures of being on stage, entertaining, traveling, making a living. There are plenty of egos that need to be stroked, and multiple challenges to keeping groups together.
Good musicians need good listeners, and, today, we spectators all are working hard at being the good listeners these performers need.
All of us are performers, in one field or another, but there are few in this audience that are going to stand on stage in front of thousands and play a tricky arpeggio run that makes his band mates smile.
Here’s thanking those who perform. those who make us smile, lift our spirits, teach us something we didn’t know, show us a better way.
Here’s thanking those musicians who still want to entertain, who take pride in their art, who do something well that is so hard for many of the rest of us.
At closing, Portillo’s, in Fountain Hills, is almost empty.
The eatery specializes in Chicago food, hot dogs, polish sausage and Italian Beef.
The restaurant is gleaming and has checkered tablecloths, old style movie posters and employees dressed in sporty uniforms. It is a place that Vinnie and the boys would come to eat after taking care of numbers rackets, breaking some arms,blowing up a competitor’s vehicle with him inside it.
There are more employees in the place than customers this time of night, and, as we finish our late dinner, the help is sweeping floors, closing out registers, getting ready to hang the ” Closed ” sign in the front window and go home to late night movies and Chinese take out.
In the parking lot, the bass player, Tom, has backed his car into a close to our table parking space, in plain view, so he can keep an eye on his expensive irreplaceable stand up bass. I watched him slip the big instrument into its custom made case, at the gig, and roll it out to his car like he was pulling a suitcase in an airport terminal. He carefully laid the bass down in the back seat of his small SUV and covered it with a cheap looking Mexican blanket that would hide something worth stealing.
Instruments, like your best set of golf clubs, your best operating scalpels, your best culinary knives, or running shoes, have to be kept close.
The occasion that brings us to Arizona is a live jazz performance.
Escaping Chicago in the winter months, Greg and Judy rent a Fountain Hills house, from a musician friend, and play every Saturday night at a close by Fountain Hills eatery. They are joined for the gig tonight by a friend from Seattle, Tom Wakeling, who plays bass with Lee Konitz.
The restaurant is full and Chadd, my jazz teacher, invited me to ride over from Albuquerque to enjoy Greg, Judy and Tom’s free three hour performance. It is one thing to talk about jazz, but the best learning is listening to players do it who know how it is supposed to be done.
The trio plays standards out of the Great American Songbook, takes requests, and play tight, yet loose, in the small Italian restaurant.
The accumulated professional years,of these three, nears a hundred and this is just one gig of many they have played. How do you put a value on an art that is gone after it is played? They never play the same song the same way, and that, is something you can take to the bank. These player’s skill sets are not less complicated than those of doctors, lawyers, athletes, businessmen, but making a living is tough for most musicians. For all those who make it big, there are thousands of others working day jobs at the post office.
Even better, than the music ,is going out for an after closing bite to eat with the gang after instruments have been packed away and the restaurant/bar shuts down for the night.
Jazz musicians, musical God’s that they are, still eat the same kind of food the rest of us do.
The little cigar making room, entered through a small corner tobacco shop in the Zona Colonia, has four men inside. One is reading the paper, another is watching the cigars being made, two men are working – making cigars, by hand, one at a time.
” He is muy rapidio, ” I remark.
” He can do 300 in a day if we don’t talk to him, ” one of the non-workers says.
By the look on both men’s faces, who are working, they must be paid by the cigar. They are intent on what they are doing, responsible for making cigars so people that smoke them won’t smoke any flaws.
This workplace smells like tobacco.Tobacco leaves, dry and thin, are clumped around a press on the floor. There are pieces of leaves on the desk of the man in the gold colored shirt, and more on the work table of the man in the blue shirt.. It appears the two workers make a team. One man makes the rough cigars, stores them in a wood sleeve that the other man pulls to his table and finishs. The tools both men use are simple and not any different from what either might have used a hundred years ago to do the same job.
I watch the finish man pick several cigars up from his finished stack to check the smoking end to make sure, once lit, the cigar will draw air and keep its combustion.
These men take pride in their work.
If I was a cigar smoker, I would like to smoke the ones they are making this day I am watching them.
Men will turn themselves into machines if it profits them, but men, bottom line, were never made to be machines.
Every time I pass, I see customers at this little empanada stand – ordering, sitting in these plastic lawn chairs,visiting, stopping a moment in life, standing, moving away, replaced in moments by someone else.
It is all very random. The process is like those parts of the atom scrawled on our high school Biology board – the protons, electrons, neutrons and all the things not up there that we still don’t know about, and may never know about.
The empanada menu here is extensive and all are less than one U.S. dollar apiece. This morning, for breakfast, my order is a ham and cheese empanada, a pollo empanada and two orders of pineapple juice naturale, served with ice in a dixie cup.
I should have tried these empanadas earlier in the trip but stuff always crowds you on trips, distractions and diversions, side trips and just plain not getting around to it. The point is, there are always places to get a quick bite within walking distance of where you are staying, if you look.
I appreciate fine dining with exquisite tastes and beautifully designed plates served on white tablecloths with a candle and the best silverware, but I always regret having to pay for a meal and then having to go buy more food to feel full.
If I lived here, I would be a regular and D would give me the local price, like anyone else.
Only bringing a carry on suitcase this trip, and looking at my pile of dirty clothes on the bed, I am down to my last clean socks and shirt. I could have brought a bigger suitcase but I wanted to travel as light as I could. Doing with less always takes more imagination than taking the kitchen sink.
In my neighborhood, this lavenderia takes my clothes in the morning, gives me a receipt, then hands my clothes back clean, folded in a plastic bag, after lunch. The charges are six bucks, which seems high, but, then again, someone has to deal with them by hand. Just putting them into the washer and dryer, unloading them, folding them nicely, putting them in a plastic bag, writing up the receipt, taking my money, all takes someone a percentage of their total life hours.
It turns out, when I get back and ask, the La Puerta Roja guesthouse, where I’m hanging my hat this trip, has a washer and dryer I could have used for free, just paying for the detergent I use.
Next trip back, I’ll remember to ask first, and act second.
The trouble with learning most new lessons is that you probably won’t be able to use what you have just painfully learned any time soon.
Since dirty laundry is a traveler’s constant companion, I resolve, next time, not to be so impatient.
After all, dirty clothes don’t care how long they sit in a pile on the floor.