Sunday, July 30, 2006

Mountain States Recap

In as few of words as I can muster, here is a report on our tour of the western mountain states earlier this month:

Wednesday, July 5th- Travel day
Betse, Nate and I drove the brown clown as far as Colby, Kansas. The air conditioner in the van had died before the Alaska tour, and we lacked the sufficient funds to replace it before leaving this time. Thus, it was a hot and loud drive across Kansas with all the windows down. We checked in to our Motel 6 around midnight.
(More on the Colby, Kansas "field roaches" in another post...)

Thursday, July 6th- Denver, Colorado: The Bluebird Theater
Picked up Ike from the airport around 3pm. Opened for bluegrass up-and-comers, Chatham County Line. Not many in attendance. We Wilders were rusty after our post Alaska break. The highlights of the night were tunes we don't normally do. Otherwise, it was a bust show for all concerned. I think Denver is like KC, it's a heavy metal town. We just can't get a crowd there to save our lives.

Friday/Saturday, July 7th & 8th- Buffalo, Wyoming: Bighorn Music Festival
Neat festival situated at the county fairgrounds. It reminded me of the old Iowa days-dust blowing in your face, the smell of manure, and bluegrass fans in lawnchairs, sweating it out in the sun. We reunited with our old pals, Sweet Sunny South, as well as Pete and Anne Sibley. Also had a couple of funny conversations with Tim O'Brien. Later, I was blown away by an exuberant Missouri/Arkansas band called the Arkamo Rangers. Had to split right after our show on Saturday to drive halfway to Salt Lake City. Saw more deer on the side of the road than I've ever seen in my life. White knuckles and tired eyes were the result.

Sunday, July 9th- Snowbird Ski Resort, Salt Lake City, Utah: Founders Festival
This was a big tent show at a very swanky ski resort. One hot night followed by one hot day just to get there, resulted in an explosion of energy from the band. We played our best show in a LONG time. Also got to celebrate our pal, April's birthday, in ski resort luxury.

Monday, July 10th- driving day en-route to Jackson, Wyoming
Split the driving/ riding between April's Subaru and the Brown Clown. Stopped at a roadside bar, and had a beer and a few games of pool before heading on into Jackson.

Tuesday, July 11th- Jackson, Wyoming: Harvest Cafe'
We sold out this funny little show at the local natural food store. They converted a grocery store into a concert hall in about an hour. Being so close to the crowd was a nice change of pace.

Wednesday, July 12th- Gardiner, Montana: Gardiner Community Center
It was a pretty good crowd for a Wednesday. the audience was made up of a lot of Yellowstone National Park employees. Everybody came to dance and sweat.

Thursday, July 13th- Bozeman, Montana: The Filling Station
We hadn't played a stinky bar in awhile. The crowd was psyched and we picked up on their energy and delivered it back. I get the impression that people in Montana like to dance. The sound was horrible but we persevered and everybody had a great time.

Friday, July 14th- Great Falls, Montana: Bluegrass by the Bay Festival
Left early but arrived late due to a blown trailer tire. Luckily we got 2 new tires, and replaced some bad lugs at a Sinclair Station in Sulfur Springs. This festival had the largest attendance we've played to in awhile. People seemed to like it, but we were too besieged by bugs, heat and humidity to really get it going. That night, we stayed at a motor lodge downtown with a 2nd floor bar which looks directly into the 3rd floor pool. Sadly, the mermaid that usually swims for entertainment on Friday nights called in sick. The next morning, there were several regulars sitting at the bar watching kids swim in front of the glass. Sort of creeped me out.

Saturday, July 15th- Helena, Montana: Mount Helena Festival
We've played events like this in Helena several times, so we knew exactly what to expect. People hung out in the shade and enjoyed the music. Our set was early and we got back to the hotel before the sun went down. Still, I stayed up too late watching cable. Then I got up early the next morning and climbed up a mountain trail just outside of town. It took me an hour to get to the top and then I was attacked by gnats. Still, the view was more than worth the effort and the misery.

Sunday & Monday, July 16th & 17th. Travel home
A heat wave of hellish proportions tortured us the entire way back. We took turns driving, so that at least the driver and copilot could have direct hot air blowing on them. At one point south of Sioux City, Iowa, I woke up in the back, delirious and basting in my own juices. I realized Nate had overdriven his shift by about a half hour. I yelled from the back, "DUDE, its time to pull over and let ME drive! This turkey is DONE!" I made a mental note to call the mechanic and get an estimate on the A/C repair as soon as possible.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Alaska: Part Five

Ok, sorry to leave everybody hanging in Juneau. We are back on the road cruising in the Brown Clown en-route to festivals and concerts in Wyoming, Utah, and Montana. As the days pass, my memory of Alaska is sadly fading. What images remain, are mostly centered around the final weekend we spent near the Arctic Circle. Therefore, I give you my final Alaska installment:

There's no place like Nome...

We took off from Anchorage in the late afternoon, and quickly the landscape beneath us changed from mountains to wide open rolling tundra crisscrossed by hundreds of shallow river flood plains. Roads are almost non-existent in the Alaskan interior, and it was really weird to see so much open land with virtually no human development. We flew northwest for a few hours, landing briefly north of the Arctic Circle in Kotzabue, a tiny island settlement hanging by a thread to the continent under constant assault by the ice and winds of the Bering Sea. As we took off again, I could see the sea ice still floating just offshore. From above, it looked like somebody had emptied a giant bag of flour into the ocean. The short flight across the Seward Peninsula to Nome was amazing. There were miles and miles of green tundra, divided by meandering rivers fed by snow-melt from the interior mountains. From high above, the rivers writhed across the tundra like long giant snakes. These were rivers still in their natural state- free to flow this way and that, seeking the most advantageous route to the sea without the Army Corp of Engineers meddling to straighten, dam, or impede their progress in any way.

We landed in Nome around 8:30pm, and were greeted in the tiny terminal by our host for the weekend, Carol Gales. Carol was dressed in tie dye and sensible shows, and had the spare, thin and hardy look of someone who could easily survive in the harshest of landscapes. We threw our stuff in her van and took off to the Forest Service bunkhouse- our lodging for the next few days. Each of us tossed our bags in our rooms, and then we piled back into the van rolling up the roller coaster road above the permafrost to a welcoming party hosted in our honor at a fishing camp/cabin 20 miles outside town. Several Nomites waited there for us, and we were immediately made to feel at home with cold beverages and caribou barbeque to satiate our thirst and hunger. We broke out the instruments, and played a good hour or so of tunes for our hosts. On a break, I walked outside the cabin for my first walk on the tundra. Everything I had read or heard up to this point was confirmed when I got about 10 feet outside the cabin. The experience of walking on tundra- being a thin skin of living vegetation and soil delicately perched atop frozen land that never thaws (thus it's name permafrost), is the equivalent of walking on top of giant car wash sponges. The vegetation seems to grow in clumps, and as I walked, I had to be careful to not twist an ankle as the tendons in each of my legs tensed with each unsure step. I tentatively made my way to a rock outcrop about 200 yards above the cabin. It was after midnight, and the sun still hung on the horizon as I looked over the incredible treeless terrain stretching before me on three sides, and the vast Bering Sea darkly cutting across the horizon to the south.

The next morning we were awakened, from too-little sleep, for a series of morning radio performances on various stations in Nome to promote the Midnight Sun Folk Festival. We were to be the "host band" at the festival, and we sleepily played a few songs at each station-inviting the residents of Nome and beyond, to abandon their mining and fishing and come hear some music. After the radio shows, Carol took us to the Nome Elder's Center to play a few more tunes for the lunchtime enjoyment of Nome's senior citizens. Alaskan natives pay great respect to the elders of their community, and I was fascinated by the large portraits of these honored citizens hanging on the walls all around us as we played. Many of the smiling faces were native- a term I heard much more than the culturally imprecise "Eskimo" (there are many tribes, and quite diverse languages in this part of Alaska). However, there were some lighter faces represented on the walls as well- leading me to assume that respect for your elders is not culturally exclusive. We played a few tunes, and then sat down with some of the elders for a lunch of cold cuts and lemonade. One older white gentlemen, seated across the table, struck up a conversation with Carol about his vocation- gold miner. I eavesdropped as Carol questioned him about his success at this precarious occupation.

Question: How are you making out?
Answer: Well, last year I panned on the beach for the entire summer, but I didn't really know what I was doing. It was the greatest experience of my life.

Question: What are doing this year?
Answer: I bought a new floating dredge. I'm waiting for it to be delivered on the next barge. I also bought a new dry suit and I'm learning how to fit it properly. As soon as I get the dredge up and running, Then I'll be in business.

Question: How does that dredge thing work? I thought the only "claims free" area was on the beach?
Answer: Well the law states that you can dredge mine from the beach 100 feet out in the water at mean tide level. But I'm planning on keeping my distance well under that 100 feet. There are a lot of people with claims that shoot first and measure later.

Question: Wow, you must have done pretty well last year if you bought a new dredge. They don't come cheap do they?
Answer: I cashed in my IRA. I'm not going to live that long. The doctors tell me I have diabetes.

Question: So you're betting on gold for your retirement?
Answer: It's not about the gold. It's the adventure that I love. Gold is just the reward for the exercise in adventure.

At this point I excused myself, searched for a pencil, and wrote this last comment down so I wouldn't forget it. Something struck me as sad and wonderful about this guy. He knows he is going to die soon. He's chucked the whole idea of retirement and is cashing it all in to pursue a lifestyle he loves. "Gold is just the reward for the exercise in adventure." In my opinion, that's Alaska to a T.

After lunch, we caught a nap and then headed over to the Nome Elementary School for our sound check. The Midnight Sun Folk Festival is different than any festival we've ever played. As the "host band", we were to play a full concert on Friday night, then a second short set on Saturday night amongst a full roster of performances by volunteer musicians from within the community. Our final performance would be an all gospel set scheduled on Sunday evening. Because we had to fly to Alaska, Nate had to borrow basses in each city. Now, in the past, Nate has had to deal with this situation several times with varying results. Thus far in this tour, the loaner basses in the Yukon, Juneau and Anchorage had ranged from very decent to barely playable. So I wasn't that surprised when we were in the middle of a smoking fiddle tune during our first set in Nome on Friday night, and I suddenly noticed there was something sounding very wrong in the bass department. It sounded like Nate had started playing the tune in a different key, and Betse quickly put it out of its misery before we embarrassed ourselves any further. I looked behind me to see Nate examining the neck of his borrowed bass, which now had a huge gap between the body and the neck. The strings had slackened due to sudden release of pressure and Nate looked at me and said, "dude, this bass is done." We took a break to try to figure out what we could do. This was apparently the only acoustic bass in the entire town, and there was a frantic rush to acquire anything else that might work. The patient crowd waited expectantly, and within a half hour, a Fender electric bass and amp were liberated from a local bar a few miles away. Now, this wasn't the first time that Nate has had to use an electric bass (he played an electric after breaking his own bass during the first set at the Winfield festival in 2004). So, without batting an eye, he tuned it up and adapted to it like a champ, and we made it through the rest our set without a hitch.

On Saturday morning, Carol picked us up in the van to participate in the annual Nome Midnight Sun Festival downtown parade. This was Betse's first ever participation in a parade, so she wants to tell that story in another blog. After the parade, we waited around for about an hour for the annual Nome Midnight Sun Festival bank robbery. Apparently, every year there is a bad posse of dudes that, like a foul-smelling wind, blow into town to loot the bank. Luckily the local sheriff (portrayed this day by the dreadlocked owner of the java shack across the street from the bank), foiled the heist and the lucky children of Nome scrambled for a share of the spilled bank booty of hard candy and chewing gum (which was "accidently" dumped into the street during the gunfight). Another hour passed, and we piled back into the van again, to head out to the beach for the annual Nome Midnight Sun Festival polar bear swim. Pretty much the whole town turned out- arriving in various states of undress, and The Wilders fielded a team of two for the event. Nate came to the beach dressed in fashionable red-stripe-on-blue trunks, while Ike arrived in his beautiful tahitian-blue, extra-long surfboard jams. In short, they represented the "host band" fabulously. There was a huge bonfire built on the beach, and everyone huddled next to it, preparing for the 43-degree surf of the Bering Sea that lay just beyond. Then, someone unofficially yelled something, and everyone moved down to the edge of the surf. Then a group yell filled the air, and what seemed to be the entire town of Nome, plunged into the icy water. I stood just out the water, and snapped photos of the ensuing melee. Screams of delight and shock rang out and, as quickly as they had jumped in, the masses ran back up the beach in terror to warm themselves by the fire. I had lost track of Ike and Nate during the initial plunge and, as I turned back toward the fire, I saw them sprinting down the beach for a second dive into the freezing water. Ike dived headfirst into an oncoming wave and then leaped back up like a jack in the box, shaking the water from his beard and screaming in the high pitch of a terrified little girl. He and Nate paused for a moment, whooping and hollering in the water, and then lumbered back up onto dry land to warm themselves by the fire. I snapped a few more photos, and then Ike said to Nate, "come on dude, one more time", and they were off and back in the water again. The cold water must have felt pretty good, because they repeated this process over and over while everyone else watched with amusement by the fire. I lost count after 5 times.

We played our second set on Saturday night, with Nate still on Fender electric bass- and finished the show with a rousing "Amazing Grace" sing-along with many of the performers who had played during the evening. Then it was back to the bunkhouse for a short break, and then we were rushed down to the Bering Sea Bar, to lead the after hours "jam". As you can see, the Nome Midnight Sun Folk Festival really gets their money out of their "host band". I'm not complaining, I mean, how many people get paid to visit Nome, Alaska for crying out loud? But, by the end of the jam, we had been participating in, or observing one event after another for over 15 hours. Regardless of how tired I was though, I still ended up getting into bed just after 4am.

It's almost impossible to describe how weird it is for it to never get dark at night. Alaskan residents basically have the luxury of getting used to it. Each day past the winter solstice, there is more sunlight, and more sunlight, until the summer solstice, when it is all light, all day, AND all night. So, it is a cycle that happens over a long period of time. For us, however, we were used to it getting dark, like, YESTERDAY. The result of this relentless midnight sun on us "lower 48ers", was that our bodies still thought they were supposed to be awake far later than they should have been. Then, after finally crashing, we couldn't sleep late enough to catch up, because it's unnatural to sleep in the daytime. After two weeks in these conditions, we were beyond tired. We were The Zombies, reformed as a bluegrass band. Since I got back home from Alaska, I find myself unable to stand in direct sunlight for very long. And my eyes have become much more sensitive to the sun. Sunglasses have become more than a fashion accessory too, and I recently spent some of my hard earned Alaskan dollars on a pair of good polarized sunglasses to put more of a barrier between me and that blazing orb. It isn't like I despise the sun, I just feel better when its under clouds, or setting, or better yet, SET. This is untrue for Ike, who the lack of darkness affected more than any of us. He has gone on record several times since Alaska, bluntly saying, "I HATE the sun." He now glares back at it in defiance and, once or twice, I think I saw him shaking his fist at it when he didn't know I was watching.

Sunday's schedule was more loose, and, after having breakfast downtown, Carol took Betse and Nate to observe the annual Nome Midnight Sun Festival's river raft race. I decided to stay behind to catch up on some email, and make a few phone calls while Ike did laundry. We reconvened in the late afternoon and enjoyed a meal of muskox stew, moose barbeque and grilled Dolly Varden (a delicious fish reminiscent of trout), before heading back to the elementary school for our gospel performance- which was a wonderful way to finish up the festival. We had been told that the gospel show was to be broadcast on the powerful AM radio station in Nome, and that the signal would be quite audible across the Bering Strait in Russia. Luckily, the radio station had a russian language interpreter on staff, and Betse asked her if she might give out a greeting to our Russian listeners. It was a really cool experience to hear her speaking russian on our microphone- understanding none of it except "The Wilders". We pulled what little energy we had left into the show, and I think the audience (many of whom had not attended any of the other festival events due to religious convictions), really enjoyed it. After the show, we hung out for awhile, said some goodbyes, and then headed back to the bunkhouse to pack our bags for our early flight back home the next morning.

I had already packed my crap earlier in the afternoon, and so I decided to take one of the forest service interns, Monique, up on her offer of a guided midnight bike ride up to Anvil Mountain- which overlooks the entire Nome area, and the Bering Sea from the north. We pedaled out of town for about 5 miles until the steepness of the road forced us to ditch the bikes and walk the rest of the way. Muskox herds were grazing about 200 yards ahead, and we stepped off the road into the low-growing willow bushes to pick the fur that these remarkable animals shed in the summer time. Monique told me that muskox fur has been collected by the natives for thousands of years, and is the lightest and most warm wool on the planet. The herd was just off the road, and we were able to get within about 20 feet of them for a few pictures before moving to a safer distance. Apparently, muskox were hunted to extinction in Alaska until conservationists relocated a few small herds from Siberia to the the Seward Peninsula. The animals have short legs, mountain goat-type curled horns and a powerful and squatty body that looks like an american bison. We left the Muskox to their grazing, and trail-blazed across the tundra toward the summit of Anvil Mountain.

Monique told me that the snow had only melted in the last two weeks, and I was astonished to see the explosion of vegetation under foot. There was a layer of fragile flowers and succulents as far as the eye could see. With so little time to grow, the tundra flowers grow and bloom only a few inches above the thin layer of thawed soil. It was now about 1am, and the twilight made the color of these fragile blooms all the more beautiful. Protected from the wind, we were suddenly assaulted by swarms of mosquitos, and decided to move back to the road for the rest of the hike up. Near the summit of Anvil Mountain, are four monolithic parabolic radar receivers which once functioned as America's first line of nuclear defense during the cold war. If Russia had attempted to launch missiles over the Bering Sea, these receivers would pick them up within seconds, allowing for a potential counter-strike. Monique told me that the two story structures used to be staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and that the crews actually had living quarters inside the radar receivers. As we approached these huge structures, I realized that they were sheathed in rusting corrugated tin. They looked like giant drive-in movie screens, and standing next to them, I felt really, really glad that Russian never launched anything. We walked past the monoliths up a steep outcrop of volcanic rock, and were finally at the summit. It was just after 2am, and the sun was finally setting in the northern sky. I took a few more panoramic pictures, and then we bushwacked back down- stopping again to watch the muskox herd, then grabbing the bikes for the ride back into town. The five miles back were very cold, as the wind was whipping in off the Bering Sea like an icy wall right in our faces. We arrived back at the bunkhouse just before 4am, and the sun was rising back above the horizon as I climbed into bed.

Carol picked us up just a few hours later to take us to the airport. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 10:30am and after boarding, we were flying or in airports for the next 31 hours. I've expended more than enough words here, and I won't bore you with more stories of air travel discomfort. I'll just finish by saying that we were very fortunate to be able to play in Alaska. There are so many more stories to tell. We met so many quirky and cool people. We made a lot of new fans and a lot of new friends. We will definitely be going back. But, I have to say, it felt really good when I looked outside my house in Kansas City, and watched the sun go ALL the way down.