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Fall 2002, Volume 20.1


Picture of Matthew Cooperman.


Matthew Cooperman

A Raft of Blues  |  The Color of Dust

Matthew Cooperman's poetry, essays and interviews have appeared recently in Denver Quarterly, American Literary Review, Black Warrior Review, and Quarterly West, among others. He is the author of the poetry collections Surge, winner of the Wick Chapbook Prize (Kent State University Press, 1999), and A Sacrificial Zinc, winner of the Lena Miles Wever Todd Prize (Pleiades/LSU Press, 2001). A recent Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, he is a long-time editor of Quarter After Eight and teaches writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder.


A Raft of Blues

Here is to the Mexico border,
Here is to the people up it and down it!
May the borderlines all cease to exist,
May the peoples crease and increase!

—Woody Guthrie, Seeds of Man

9:00 am

Primary colors—red, blue, yellow—define the day's unfolding. A mesa. A cloudless sky. A midsummer's ratcheting of sun. Now string sounds catch the morning air and are blown away with the wind. Warm chinook from the west, it quakes the aspens and willows just enough to be relief. Another scorcher. Day Two of the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival in Lyons, Colorado. RockyGrass. It's July 28th, 2000, and the Year of the Dragon on another pinprick of land.

I'm sitting in the campground adjacent to the festival. The gentle North Fork of the St. Vrain River cuts below the mesa which defines the town, and offers, between banjo picking, a sub rossa burble. Above that, but below the banjo, is the roar of my MSR stove. It's the venerable XGK model I've had since the mid-80s, and it's making a commotion below my espresso maker. I'm waiting for the little black enlightenment which generally starts my day, and ruminating on this place and time in the cavalcade of my musical history.

I'll admit it with pride: I am a Festivarian, and I have made the attendance at various musical festivals throughout the United States a yearly part of my life for the past decade. It is as much a part of my sanity, condensed into three to four day sessions, as the rest of my recreations combined. But I've been drifting, of late, into a professional life and out of the joy and release of these gatherings, and I'm sorry for it. I'm sorry for the loss of fun, of course, and these sessions are epic fun, but more chagrined for the loss of lifestyle these festivals imply. Is it a loss of youth? Perhaps. But there are many a grizzled regular to attest to long-term possibilities. More accurately it is a loss of space, the space and dancefield of the fairgrounds, and the diminishment of space inside me that these gatherings afford. There is a landscape implied in the attendance, and it is filled with a dredlocked dervish, a tarp full of new and old friends, a sky at night still blue with the light of a mountain moon, and a head full of stars that will last a whole year.

It's a head full of beer as well, as I can attest on this particular morning. And as I pour my coffee and settle into the shade of the aspens, I sketch out the day's possibilities: some reading (McPhee, Dögen, Lionel Trilling), some journal writing, a number of mountain bike trails, morning instrumental contests (mandolin, guitar, dobro, banjo), a nap, a tour of the food and craft booths (gumbo, blackened catfish, gyros, smoothies; Guatemalan shorts and batik sun dresses, leather goods, candles and oils), tubing down the St. Vrain, more music on the main stage, catching up with old friends, making new ones, building a sculpture in the river, perhaps some hackey sack, or a little hula hoop session, another nap, dancing, a backrub, dancing, and yes, another cold beer. This is all before some late-afternoon return to the campground for a little regrouping, perhaps some grub, a shower if desired, and some change of clothes and gear for the evening's sessions.

This pattern goes on more or less the same for the three days of this particular festival. Other festivals, like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, or High Sierra in California, go on for four or five days, and have their own rhythms. Still others, such as the Oregon Country Fair, Winfield Bluegrass in Kansas, or the Kerrville Folks Festival down in Texas, go on for weeks. We're here for the music, of course. But the point in such a gathering, at least for myself, is to lose touch with the weekly routine and find instead an original space dictated by whim and music. I am out of practice, and the odd fact of this, losing touch with relaxation, with spontaneous acts of play and the keen readjustments they imply, makes me sad. How can I forget to have fun? To breathe? To clear the day of habit? It is a personal problem, a by-product of an academic career and an intense drive to write, and not one my fellow Festivarians probably encounter. I try to give myself license to relax. I listen to the waves of music. I encounter a little Archdruid.

Still, I might be wrong in this assumption. Whatever little martyrdoms my ambitions beset me with are not so unique, and my difficulties with true relaxation are a shared fact of American society as much as anything. We are a culture at odds with play, with stillness, even as we go on vacation. Do, do, do. Or see, see, see. Or more likely, buy, buy, buy, the postcard or the t-shirt standing in for the actual experience in a greater or lesser satisfaction which offers the idea—"vacation"—over lived leaning and loafing. Indeed, these days the thought that work should not dominate our lives and personalities is anathema to our boom and bust culture. The common refrain?

"How you been, whatchubeenuptolately?'"

"Busy. Crazy at work. Trying to keep it together."

I suspect most people would trade in this pell mell rush if they thought their neighbor or co-worker would the same. But who can rest? Who can trust their colleagues not to get ahead? The paradoxical by-product of America's current prosperity is, thereby, anxiety, a desire for more which provides less. Will it last? And how to recover, in the words of novelist Walker Percy, the "still creature" which is ourselves?

Here the fact of that rush is embarrassing. There is too much space in this campground, too much joy in the local picking going on at the camper across the way, to assume my problems are others' problems. Or to assume that my problems are unique, and that each of us is not trying, in our own way, to reclaim the soul allowed by festivals such as these. I'll universalize the need for music, and recognize its present presence. That's "Dark as a Dungeon" I hear. I'm hot now; I want to swim. Something's almost hunger welling up. Who knows what's next?


1: 20 pm

I'm sitting on a blue tarp, in the middle of the festival grounds, thirty yards from the main stage where Dr. Ralph Stanley is playing his "high lonesome" bluegrass. Stanley is an institution, an American legend, and, along with his brother Carter (now deceased), part of the holy trinity of bluegrass. The others are Bill Monroe (also deceased), considered by most to be the "father of bluegrass," and Flat and Scruggs (the former deceased), developers of many of the flatpicking techniques we assume as the bluegrass sound. Together these men advanced an American music to the point of an idiom. Much like jazz, bluegrass thrives on a core lexicon of melodies and structures which are constantly modified, sampled, and extended by subsequent players. There is a tradition to its phrasings and its subjects. Like another idiom music, the blues, bluegrass thrives on prison songs, love gone bad, Jesus, work, and nostalgia for home. Born of Appalachia, it is a place-based music. But its brilliant picking and joyous harmonizing are infectious to the degree that its reach spirals out generously from geographical origins. This has been crucial to its popularity, allowing for generational restringings, today an infusion of hippie jam enthusiasms (mostly in the West), and country and western singer-songwriting. The blend makes for strange bedfellows, but the nature of the music—intensely technical within tradition-prescribed limits—allows for a great mixing of personalities. And all that harmonizing and singing about whiskey and women makes for a good campfire.

Today on the tarp I'm chatting with a friend I have not seen in years. He is also a Festivarian, and my friendship with him is described almost entirely by the festival experience. This isn't particularly unusual. In fact Steve, a woodworker now living in the small town of McCoy, Colorado, is one of a sizable group of folks I've known only from festival gatherings—Mad Dog, Plumb Bob, Shrobie and Nancy Jo, Neddie and Melon Man, people I know very little about in their hometowns, but who I care for and miss intensely. We've grown up, started families, had affairs and disputes, changed jobs, moved around… and shared a lot of music together. The motley shade of our changes appear each year on the tarp, and the record of these changes, the remembering and remarking of them, is what somehow makes us a family. There are tapes to exchange, food to share, and kids to get to know. There are beers to be drunk and bowls to burn. There are smiles to rekindle in the matchlight of stage spots and moon.

That the tarp is blue bears remarking. It is a kind of joke we tell to friends and people we've just met.

"We're down in front, near the center, the blue tarp…," goes the conversation, "come on by…." But every tarp is blue, and everyone's near the center. At least that's the case for the hardcore
crowd which leaves early to queue up for the next day, sleeps in line, and rushes out at the "morning gate" to claim a prime spot. It's a duty shared by the group, and people take turns with the tasks and responsibilities. If you're a "sleeper," holding space overnight, you can expect coffee and breakfast burritos on your rising. If you're a "line jockey," ensuring initial priority, you get beers at the end of the evening, as well as the community of the line itself. If you're a "runner," sprinting for space in the morning, you get high praise and meals from the subsequent tarp community.

For this whole thing, in its reclaiming of space, is also the formation of community, and the two are inseparable in my mind. This is as much true of strangers just met as friends you get to reknow. There's a kind of assumed trust that's implied with attendance, and a generosity and willingness to share as much of your person as what you own. People tell stories, jokes, concerns. People leave their stuff around, on the tarp and in the campground, and children come and go under the watchful eyes of everyone. That's a pleasure in an American society strung out on abductions, shootings, terrorism. I know of few places in my day to day life where this absolute trust obtains, and I am certainly a more generous, pliant person in this crowd than elsewhere.

If someone's lost, usually a child, or there's a problem with camping or meeting places or health, the emcee of the event will come on between acts and attempt to solve the problem. There's lots of acknowledgement of efforts—organizers, sponsors, entertainers—and plenty of exhortations to drink water. So far in my
experience there has been no need to warn people to "stay clear of the brown acid," but if the issue arose, I have no doubt we would be looked after.

All of this seems ideal, idealized in my imagination, and practically ideal in my experiences. Festivarians make it easy to believe in people. And the ideal community which the festival both offers and suggests is a model of civility I would like to think is possible in other spheres of our lives. That blue plastic square is a life raft, a piece of space I can translate from local to global worlds. And if there is a geography to hope, then the diverse origins of my friends here this weekend—from Vermont, Utah, Florida, Washington, Iowa—make the map of America seem contiguous with bluegrass music. Today on the tarp, as Ralph Stanley gives way to new wunderkinds Nickel Creek, and Steve and Shelly's daughter Molly comes crashing into our phalanx of chairs, and I am handed some brownies and homemade mead, I am a believer.

8:00 pm

Back on the tarp (after bike riding, more swimming, a nap, a shower and a catfish taco), I am itching for Sam and Dave. No, it's not the Motown group, but Sam Bush and David Grisman, two of the greatest mandolin players ever to finger a fret. I've been a long-time fan of each, Grisman, from my formative "jazzrockfusion" days in San Francisco in the early `80s, and Bush, from a decade of concerts in Telluride listening to him front the crossover supergroup New Grass Revival. They're to play together, a duet, in an unusual "jam session" that's been suggested by the concert promoter (and Planet Bluegrass founder) Craig Fergusson. It's a kind of showcase gig where anything might happen and anyone might show up on stage. For all the Fretheads (technique groupies) this is a highlight. I'm interested as much in the fusion of styles that the pairing suggests. Grisman has been at the forefront of "new acoustic" music, as well as jazz and bluegrass, for nearly thirty years. Indeed, he is the founder of his own type, "Dawg" music, which is an accurate description of the mutt-like mixture of jazz—particularly Django Reinhardt/Stéphane Grappelli `40s "hot jazz"—bluegrass, Gypsy folksongs, and rock. Bush is more traditionally bluegrass, though he is also more aggressively rock. An accomplished vocalist (as well as fiddler), Bush groomed his fusion playing with Leon Russell in the early `70s, and then exploded in the widely popular New Grass, which is responsible for much of the crossover popularity of the music. Between the two of them, there'll be a whole lot of pickin' going on.

The set does not disappoint. It's some of the most amazing playing I've ever seen, and the breadth of their musical selections, from Gershwin's "Summertime" to Marley's "Trenchtown" to the bluegrass traditional "Girl from the North Country," makes one believe in the capacity of music to bridge racial, historical and cultural divides. That the crowd is overwhelmingly white is an irony I'm willing to live with.

Still, if we're creating an ideal space and community, the issue of diversity needs to be addressed. It is a reflection of two basic facts: bluegrass is almost exclusively white, rural music; and in Colorado, a state whose ethnic diversity, at least on the eastern slope, is almost entirely situated in Denver, there are few black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian people driving up to the mountains to hear bluegrass. Another way of understanding this is through the local history of Lyons, and, more largely, of Boulder and Boulder County which lies directly south. Lyons is an old quarry town, and still actively mining the ruddy sandstone which has made it famous. A local once told me, though I have yet to confirm the fact, that much of the stone quarried here was shipped east to build the brownstones of New York and Boston. I do know that much of the stone went to build the main campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder. The architect, Charles Klauder, wanted the campus to resemble the Tuscan hilltowns where he had spent some formative time in his youth. It's a lovely campus, but also rather a dislocation of place, the palazzo dormitories caught between the pinion foothills and the sere sage plain that extends into Kansas. Workers here, Scotch-Irish and German, built the campus there.

The Lyons Mesa, which dominates the town's skyline and forms one edge of the festival grounds, perches like the Great Wall over the tops of the aspen and cottonwood trees. It was this feature which impelled Edward S. Lyons to found the town in 1880, and one which has dominated its existence ever since. The stone is part of the Lyons Formation, a Devonian sandstone extending north/south along the Front Range axis, and which in pockets reaches a thousand feet thickness. There's a subdivision at one end of the Mesa, and a few houses perch on the edge, looking down at the festival. It's an odd sight, and disconcerting, obdurate, many-hued nature domesticated into someone's backyard. For a while people used to set lawn chairs precariously near the edge, enjoying a little free festival action. In more recent years, a cop patrols the rampart, enjoying the music perhaps, but shadeless and not entirely appreciated in his duty.

Lyons itself is a town of about 1,500 people, though that number is growing fast. It still feels like a western town, with a couple of saloons and dry good stores, and an old caboose which serves ice cream and cappuccino. But it's a `50s western, with little motels replete with knotty pine paneling, and coffee shops that serve "flapjacks," and there's a rock shop next door with little forts made out of sandstone. Main Street is about two blocks long, and yes, there are t-shirt shops and wooden wildlife purveyors who sell black bears and raptors at one end of the strip. There's even the Black Bear Hofbrau, an ersatz beer garden and schnitzel palace which, while it looks like another log cabin casualty from the Eisenhower administration, serves four-star meals.

The town sits at the north end of prosperous Boulder County, at the confluence of the North and South forks of the St. Vrain River, and so describes itself as the "double gateway to the Rockies." At last census Boulder County contained nearly 300,000 people. The main city, not surprisingly, is Boulder at nearly 100,000, but the other large towns in the county—Longmont, Louisville, Lafayette, Westminster, Broomfield, Superior—are growing much faster. Currently, there's a lawsuit going on in Lyons over a new development which will bring in some 200 homes. Old story. Apparently the developer, who owns the property, is in a water-rights feud with the city council. From what I've gathered, the resistance to the tract is more a personal feud with the developer than a philosophical problem with growth, but when it comes to water in the West, it's always personal.

Growth is a contentious issue around here. In the past five years alone, Boulder County has ballooned by nearly 60, 000 people. Much of it is high-tech growth in the southern part of the county. There, a business park, incongruously named Interlöcken, has dramatically altered the landscape, not to mention property values. Located on the Boulder Turnpike corridor on the way to Denver, the development has, in a few brief years, transformed the open space of indigenous grasses—grama, buffalo, brome and yucca—into movie megaplexes, Home Depots, hotels and golfcourses. It's unbridled growth, and seems more than a symbol of everything that's wrong with "progress" around here. Four years ago, driving into Boulder from Ohio where I was in graduate school, two days of wind and space and heat rioting in my brain, I noticed a brightly lit "parkway" stretching into darkness. There was nothing on it or around it, just a road. Now there's a business park, some car dealerships, a subdivision and, under construction, another luxury hotel. Now there is Rock Creek, a large and magnificently offensive swath of boxy condos and houses that stretches into the foothills. I am reminded of the Bob Seeger song, "Tickytack Houses," and amazed at the almost military regularity of the development, as if the builders were thumbing their noses at the elegant swale of foothills surrounding them. Corporate replication. "Build it, they will come…."

Almost all of this "they" is white, white-collar workers. The effect in the city of Boulder, where I live, has been to more than double property values in the last five years. When I first came to Boulder for my junior year of college in the mid `80s, I rented a room in a house for $125 a month, and most homes were valued at well under $100,000. Now the average room rents for $500, and you can't even look at a house for under $300,000.

Increasingly in this town so known for its progressive mindset, only the rich can buy a home. A friend, who is in the last year of his residency in ob/gyn, and whose fiancée is already a partner in a family-practice clinic, confessed to me that he didn't know if they could afford to buy a house. A land of $500,000 remodels, if racial and cultural diversity, always a problem here, has mostly ceased to exist, economic diversity isn't far behind. Looking around at the almost exclusively white faces of the festival crowd, and remarking on the $120 three day ticket with camping, it's not very hard to believe.

The irony of the situation is that many people who live in Lyons and Boulder County have moved here for the lifestyle, the easily approachable outdoors, and the expansive vistas which the mountains and foothills provide. Everyone looks healthy, genuinely so, in the way aerobic encounters with elements color the skin. There's a core of winter sport enthusiasts, but also an active scene of mountain biking, climbing, running, and kayaking. Indeed, the area is concentrated with world-class athletes who enjoy the back roads and extensive whitewater and trail systems at this pleasantly thin, mile-high altitude. People here get after it, on the weekends, after work. And they care, for the most part, about the environment; they recycle, vote for greenbelts, protest logging legislation and WTO corporatism. Rocky Flats Nuclear Trigger Facility, some ten miles south of Boulder, and twenty miles south of Lyons, is a favorite lightning rod for environmental outrage. And it spins in the vortex of social justice issues which seem to really matter to these people. So a schizophrenia resides, or lies roiled, in the complex physical geography of this town and country, this festival.

But what else is it about this area? It's a quality of light to be sure, and of spirit, an eclectic frequency of Native American ancestral voice, Buddhism, and New Age metaphysics. Sometimes it seems the spirit is the light, and in the myriad golds and olives which lave the evening grasses, a sense of possibility presented as space. As the last bars of Grisman's "New Dawgs' Rag" echo in a Sam and Dave crescendo through the festival grounds, music feels like space as well. Everyone's grinning ear to ear, and the sea of lawnchairs and tarps, glinting in the incarnadine spotlights, stretch on to the equally red mesa with a satisfying luminosity.

1: 30 am

Life in the music line. Sleeping "mummies" stretch out in a row like body bags, a hundred deep. There's a muted picking session going on about twenty folks back, and the people immediately in front of me are passing around rice crispy treats. My friend Lisa and I are in line for the last day of the festival. More accurately, Lisa is in line, and I'm here as support, cold beer and blanket bearer. I was the "line jockey" tonight, and cut out early during Ricky Skaggs set in order to stake our claim. Now it is Lisa's turn, and she's eager enough to sleep. It's hard though, with these sugary treats, and good conversation going on. I've met a nice group of women from Utah in line, and we're talking about the Forest Service's disastrous fire policy in the West as this summer burns to a close. We're talking about backcountry experiential education, Aldo Leopold, logging in the White River National Forest, Winona LaDuke's upcoming appearance at a rally for the Ute Mountain Reservation. It's an "environmental responsibility" conversation, but it's tinged with a hands on encounter with place. These folks are living their beliefs, as workers in the mountain recreation business, as school teachers, city planners and lawyers, as sunset-hungry backpackers. I feel a kinship with them that is multiplied by the musical priority. They're a pragmatic group, have driven from Salt Lake City with a feeling of necessity for this event, and they carry their beliefs with them in wind-etched smile lines, impassioned voices. Now we're talking about Terry Tempest Williams, Mormon feminism, and the ways landscape, in this case the Great Salt Lake, can function as a metaphor for health. It's easy to feel healthy in a place like this, surrounded by like-minded people and a web of shimmering stars, but the consideration of nature and use, of personal application and local discovery, serves to dramatize the ways we might ask hard questions of our ourselves and our communities. I suspect this is a learned habit for all of us, and we're working on it now in the flush of conversation. I'm grateful for the connections because these women are sun-stung and lovely and believe what they say, but also because I'm hopeful, less alone in this abstraction called America; words spoken here will most likely take root in their hometowns, as activism, education, conservation; as a particular sensitivity to light and water, the migration pattern of birds, the blooming cycle of flowers. Perhaps this application is the real source of my joy as a Festivarian. I can't make claims for our integrity or vision, but I can speak to eager ears; how these people here are listening intently, curious about the world and imaginative enough to explore it. As the picking down the line rises and falls through the chorus of "Pike County Breakdown," I feel finally, fully relaxed, uncommonly happy, even tired. Time to sleep.

9:30 am, Day Three

A little groggy. A little coffee and ginkgo. Up semi-early for the day's music, which this morning includes the gospel set. It's a regular Sunday morning event at these festivals, and though it is rarely Mahalia Jackson, it is always full of harmony and faith. This morning it's the Good Ol' People. The crowd is still pouring in, most of them showered and watered. The early lawnchair brigade is both here and in the campground. Having done their work to secure space, they are resting, having breakfast, washing and clothing their kids. I make a circuit from the river's edge to the cottonwood trees which mark the southern boundary of the fairgrounds. The aspens too are shining, and the effect
of white morning light, an intermittent breeze, and the refreshed visage of eager people, is again a kind of primary experience. Such color and vivacity rippled on the air by proclamations of faith and homecoming. It may be Jesus this morning, or simply the emerald lamp of summer trees.

3:30 pm

"Where you gonna go if yer already home?," asks Doc Watson, the blind, peripatetic flatpicking legend. It's his stage now, and by extension, his home, so I suspect I don't have to go anywhere. I've been looking forward to this set for some time. Doc is a hero as much for his storytelling as for his picking, and I've missed his jokes about cousin love and loss. Born in 1923, Arthel "Doc" Watson hails from Deep Gap, North Carolina, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The last time I saw him was at the Merle Watson Memorial Bluegrass Festival near Wilkesboro. Merle was his son, an accomplished guitar player in his own right and longtime accompanyist with Doc. He died tragically in a tractor rollover accident in 1985.

The festival has been going on as a testimony to Merle and this musical family for nearly fifteen years. I was there about seven years ago, the spring of my first year in southeast Ohio. The trip down to North Carolina was significant for me as a tracing of musical origins and a journey into understanding place. Appalachia stretches from the Carolinas to Pennsylvania, and is the cradle of "old-time" string music. Southeast Ohio certainly qualifies as a legitimate purveyor of bluegrass and as a unique cultural experience. As a half-willing graduate student moving from the West, its version of Appalachia was rather shocking. With its backwoods suspicion of outsiders, grim economics, dubious environmental practices and "single-wide" trailer lifestyle, it was an America I had little context or respect for. My arrival at the MerleFest, as it's affectionately known, marked a kind of acceptance of people and place, and an appreciation for the craft culture which has distinguished Appalachia as an American phenomena. It was possible, looking around at all those smiling faces, to feel there was more in common than less. Not surprisingly, Doc Watson starred on that stage, making me feel a little less exiled, and it is for that reason, and the continuity that he now provides with this crowd, this moment, that I have a deep affection for him.

His music is unique too. Doc got his start in the `50s playing in a band led by Jack Williams, a piano player from Tennessee. Because the band didn't have a fiddle player, Williams asked Doc to provide the fiddle lead on guitar. In this way Doc developed his lightening-quick flatpicking style, moving the guitar out front from its usual background position. It was not until the folk revival of the `60s, though, that Doc began to be widely noticed. At the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, Doc hit it big, and soon was playing up and down the east coast, and occasionally with Bill Monroe. He initiated an even wider appreciation on the legendary 1973 Nitty Gritty Dirt Band three-album project "May the Circle Be Unbroken." Doc has been a tireless performer, and though the loss of his son has been a great burden, and certainly slowed his touring schedule, he has maintained a presence at the major bluegrass festivals around the country.

On this afternoon, it's Doc and Doc's frequent accompanyist Jack Lawrence. About halfway through the show he's joined by David Grisman, and the three of them tear it up on dueling guitars and mando. The songs are rootsy, and the pickin' clear and light. You can hear the bounce and melody of Doc's fiddle-tune origins, and his deep baritone voice tells a truth like cold mountain water. His set includes "Cora's Gone," "St. Anne's Reel," "Greenville Trestle," "Keep on the Sunny Side," and even a version of "Nights in White Satin." Damned if I'm not smile-pinned and tarp-tapping the whole time.

6:00 pm

Packing up, breaking down camp. An exhausted, slightly sad affair. I am half-inclined to just nap in the floury dust, but I manage to gather my things and ferry them out to my car, which is parked near the high school in town. There's an efficient school bus system running back and forth, and what I cannot carry I'll leave to other friends whose cars are parked in the campground. The whole procession in and out is handled with remarkable efficiency, and there's little traffic in the break down. It's still early though, with plenty of music to go in the evening's session, but I have to work tomorrow, and figure a quick exit will be best. Many of the people in the campground, however, have other plans. The pickin' will last into Monday, the smiles for another couple of months.

After shuttling my gear, I return to the campground and fall in with a group of pickers from Lawrence, Kansas. They're {C}{C} having a dinner break, getting some shade, and it occurs to me, as the sounds of John Hartford rise into the heat-shimmered air from the main stage, that the festival is already a diffuse landscape. It's the traditional "Dill Pickle Rag" here, but it's backyards in Kansas, a potluck dinner in Montana, woodsmoke and "yups" in Vermont too. Perhaps because they are musicians, involved in the reciprocal attention of playing and listening, and so primed for collective gatherings like RockyGrass, these people are already community, and they extend that home in sympathy to the extent that the festival is present in other people's lives. I think what I'm intuiting is that the festival is carried in one's head, and although attendance at the actual thing allows for an instant recognition, one might be a Festivarian without ever having attended the event. That's a strange paradox, might seem to dilute the actual experience. On the other hand, it suggests a kind of collective consciousness which implies space and disposition, consideration of others, daily habits and conversations, a certain American horizon. I admit that my enthusiasm makes faint connections seem dramatically palpable. But I consider too that if there are ways to create space and play inside us, however imagined, they are virtues. I do not know these people, and yet I know them. I've just walked into a close-knit group, but already someone has handed me a slice of homemade bread.

9:00 pm

The shimmering slides of Jerry Douglas' incomparable dobro sing through the valley mixed with the bell-tone harmony of Tim O'Brien's voice. It's a fittingly melodic ending to the festival, and time to go. I have an early class to teach tomorrow, and some papers still to grade. It's an Environmental Literature class at the University, and it has been on my mind—and in my lap as papers—in varying degrees this weekend. We're reading Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces, and thinking about how landscape is a body to dwell in as much as a physical space to live on. Land's a solace too, an objective pane that clarifies the images we have of ourselves, and it can clear our neuroses out. My students like the book, though they find Ehrlich's eloquence disconcerting. "Where do these images come from? How can a landscape engender song?" they wonder. It's a question too easily answered by my weekend's attendance at RockyGrass. But that's a literalism of a much deeper truth. Landscape has a voice, and places like these save us because we are looking for them. They compel us back to play and stillness, and a quality of seeing and listening which comes with a recognition that you cannot be truly anywhere but one place at a time. That's a memory of an old subsistence intimacy. Today, it's a process of waking up, listening, allowing the small bones in one's ear to center the vertigo of modern life. There are people here moving, by days and nights, into familiarity, and so community. I will see them again in another landscape replete with stone and sky. We will, together, incrementally I hope, purchase the real goods which will quell our voracious appetites. From border to border America seems such a possible song. It will be a blue music to make us dance, to forge true connections, place by place, in the high-lonesome smithy of our soul.

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The Color of Dust

By the time we reach the turnout the temperature has cooled to 105 degrees. Sweat pours off us and just as soon dries. My truck pings in the heat. The sun, a dull white ball all day, is lower now on the horizon, less oppressive to be sure, but sharper in the eyes. It's 5:30 in the afternoon. Late June in the Canyonlands desert.

My traveling partner Peter Covitz unloads gear from the truck. He is fresh, or rather worn, from New York City. A doctoral student in microbiology at Columbia, he is a life-time Easterner, but blessed with that particular imagination which savors risk and bodily exposure. It is fourteen hours since he stepped on the plane, trading glass canyons for these red-rock walls. By the bend of his back, the slowness of his movements, I surmise that he is wondering why he came, why he's sweating on this blasted margin of rock and dust.

There is no one else here, and as we listen to the wind, the steady wash of sand against the truck, we organize gear and fill water bottles, already stopping every few minutes to slake our thirst. We are going camping, four days, walking into the gritty teeth of the desert. Though I have been here a number of times, the silence is unnerving, and I question yet again what I'm looking for, what I'm doing, if anything, besides `edge' camping. A dubious marker, Peter's brow picks up the swirling dust, but soon we are climbing the narrow path that leads from the turnout out of the canyon. It is arduous hiking: fifty-pound packs, tenuous footholds, doubt, that merciless sun, a dry, hot wind blowing out of the south.

Wind in the desert is a ubiquitous presence. If it is not sluicing dust into your mouth, gathering in folds of your clothes, or spreading grit evenly across your dinner, it is building, a barometric pressure and sense of direction like an impending event. Raven-winged, brain-clouding, it is a harbinger of change, signaling rain, snow, even greater aridity, or the mental break that accompanies the continuous gusting, gusting. Much like the Eskimos' thousand names for snow, wind here is a various character that must be learned for survival. The Anasazi drew great motion markings on the rock walls suggesting wind patterns like infinitely inscribed cartoons. They look oddly like Keith Herring paintings too, perfectly accurate and iconic. Presumably those winds foretold a change in their environment. But how to read an invisible thing? Early settlers of the area noted the wind as a private affliction, a "wound upon the spirit." The Hopi say that every canyon has its own personal wind.

Our situation is less intimate, and before long we are up on the mesa that looms over the canyon. Vast reaches of sandstone spread out before us, peppered in an intricate network of obelisks, needles, and mounds that fan out in increasingly violet shadow. As the sun slides slowly towards the horizon, everything gains a drawn edge, the monochrome glare giving way to the blood-etch of rock on air. The sky is a patchwork of turquoise and cloud. The La Sal Mountains rise blue-violet in the northeast, their peaks even now wisped with snow. We stop for this sweeping sight and a drink of already warm water. Our backs are drenched where the wind cannot dry us, but on our faces there is only a veil of salt. Fingerprints. I look at Peter. He is somewhere out coloring in this wide place.


How do we find ourselves looking for ourselves? More likely losing ourselves. Whatever drift we experience in panoramic places curiously gives us a center. Or better yet, space, like a room, suddenly expands to include something not us. Not being. It's nice to think it's possible, and for me has always been the principal attraction of a horizon. Every summer as a child I travelled the great valley of central California to visit my grandparents in Arizona. The transition from semi-humid agriculture to arid desert was an experience of the horizon as emptiness, sporadic roadside kitsch giving way to saguaro trees. Later, as a somewhat dewey-eyed poet, my early experiences in nature, ex-pat from parents, generally involved male-bonding, the vast plane of the Pacific Ocean, and controlled substances. This conjunction was excellent for adventures, and it took me into places of a refulgent absence I am still slipping through my fingers. More clearly rendered today, it is a respect for nothingness. As a respect for paradox, it requires a kind of attention that hovers between abstraction and observation. Nothing and every thing. Sublimity seems too large a word for it, or laden with Romantic feelings. For here it is not awe exactly that the desert allows, but indifference, a separation from the human, which is tonic. Strangely enough, it returns us essentially to the human, a yo yo of identity and annhiliation. Perspective. Apart or against civilization. Apart or against wilderness. A pitting to wide places and wide minds. As an adolescent, the landscape held this drift out in a very palpable way. It was exhilarating, scary, a need I didn't know I needed. Perhaps at the core of every trailhead trepidation is that look into the brink. Today it finds me ready, willing in a way only my body knows.

We set off again, increasing our pace on the flat plain of the mesa. Pinion pine, prickly pear cactus, and juniper dot the surface as we wind towards what looks like a maze of hooded nuns. The rock here is raw, like worn hands, an ancient body of bruised, teetering forms. Slow nature carving her art, like the wind's long arm, the rain's pointing. Words fail or reach too neatly back into the human. Here our frame of reference is imagination or memory, the odd collusion of TV westerns and seeing clearly. Try personification's elbow, a flock of jostling crows, a covered wagon rattling into shadow.

Less unsettled now, our silence is cut by our footfall, and the human rhythm of walking ties us to the place. More paradox, that our crunching boot soles could seem right, belong. In an hour's hike we cross the mesa and come to the edge of a narrow arroyo that is invisible until we are within fifty yards of it. Like a secret river the canyon fingers through the rock, bends its sheer walls into yawning shadows. Water has done this, water, which is nowhere to be found, cutting through the sandstone, streaming off the rock in dusty braids, nourishing the thick brush on the banks of the wash. It is hard to imagine. And vegetation, vegetation so thoroughly adapted, so patient to withstand months of arid weather for a chance to dip dry tendrils in the brief moments of a flash flood, that, too, is an unlikely force. Salt cedar. Monkey flower. Ironwood. Velvet ash. In this vast quiet the only sound is dust, swishing like waves through the sage.

The first time I came here was on a "couples" camping trip. A new relationship, with old friends. This place seemed appropriately dangerous, initiatory. Bad decision. By the third day my girl and I
were exchanging only the basic civilities. While our problems stemmed from human stubbornness, frailty and unfamiliarity, the exposure of the desert magnified our inadequacies. It was only after a rather harrowing bicycle accident and broken bones that we found ourselves back together, as if the environment had had enough of our squabbling, and so tested us.

Now we descend the mesa. The climb is treacherous. In places we must take off our packs and ferry them one at a time down the steep wall. As we scramble down, the sandstone crumbles beneath our feet. What takes the wind a thousand years we are accomplishing in a matter of minutes. In such an absolute environment the fragility of the rock is startling, our presence here an alien thumb print, a boot mark in the nitrogen-fixing soil that will last a hundred years.

Once down, we head north up the wash. A mile or so up we encounter black slabs of stone, polished by the wind and intermittent waters. Curious in color and texture, the slabs are harder than the surrounding sandstone: pre-cambrian, volcanic, nearly two billion years old, some of the oldest rock on earth. We take off our packs and lie on the smooth surface under the shadow of a juniper tree. The history of layers trembles beneath us. Below this is another age, a completely different climate. Once there was a sea here, and beneath it a volcano. These black slates are older than all life on our small planet. They glow in the coming evening, showing their passage to the sun. Erosion has whittled us back past ourselves. Beneath the volcano is a star, galactic dust, silence. We palm the rock, trying in some atavistic wish to remember.

The sun hangs distorted, a shimmering pear on the horizon, as we climb up the other side of the canyon. With three more miles to go before we set camp, we quicken our pace. We've been planning this solstice trip for over a year, and I'm grateful now, almost suddenly, for the extent of the sun. The light shifts off the canyon walls, and I marvel at how much the colors have changed since we began our hike. The palette of pale rusts and tans has deepened to bloodstone, purples, apricot, madder rose. Contrasts between rock and sky shimmer, a vibration the eye can barely perceive. These colors are millennial, like something I've always known, and they flow into me in a rush of warm wind. Peter keeps stopping to look around, 360 degrees of glowing hues and human absence. He has fully landed now, and I must gently exhort him to hike or we will spend the night on the trail, thrilled by the sights, but slowly chilled by the cool desert night.

As we walk, we talk about passages—my impending move to the midwest to begin a doctoral program in English Literature; his jump to California to start a post-doc studying yeast in another lab. "How will that place be different?" he wonders aloud. "Can the blasé West really deal with an aggressive New York Jew?" I suggest that a lab is a lab, and he looks at me with mild disdain. His concerns, however, are also my own. As a creature of place I derive not only identity but mental stability from the landscape. How will I respond to the alluvial plane of Ohio? To the folded shale hills of upper Appalachia? "People are people," I say, hoping, "and places merely places…."

Soon we come to another steep gulch. Again we take off our packs. At one point there is fifteen-foot drop we must descend by gripping the limbs of an ancient pinion pine somehow growing on the cliffband. Rather than dropping our packs to the bottom of the overhang, and possibly losing our water, we clip them to ropes and belay them down. This takes some time, and the light is failing. More than the temperature, lack of light in this steep and flaking environment is our concern. The other side of the gulch proves less daunting though, and we are soon up on the next mesa which drops gradually into the meadow where we will camp for the night.

Meadow. Land in or predominantly formed of grass. A tract of moist low-lying, usually level grassland. Fescue. Timothy. Grama grass. Prairie dogs. Cows. How a meadow in the desert? A parable? Some act of typology clearing, a "promised land"? Something just shy of a miracle? The edenic sound of the word rests oddly in our voice. Finding it here, a mirage shimmering in the dunes, is as incongruous as the desert gets. Rather, meadows conjure up images of settlement: lush farms, teetering barns, horses, ploughs, a windmill, or perhaps a murmuring mountain stream and the brilliant polychrome flush of wildflowers. Our greenery this evening is nothing of the sort, although from the edge of the mesa the thick sage and vallo weed give the impression of verdancy. And true, in spring there is an explosion of wildflowers: blooming prickly-pear cactus, red and white indian paintbrush, yucca blossom, marsh marigold, wild iris, monkey flower. Tonight it is a spiny verdure.

Yet this was once grazing country, Angus cattle in the days when Mormon pioneers settled the rough land. There are remnants of their ranches checkered through the country: timbers brought from Colorado, hollowed-log drinking troughs, fence posts, intricate webs of rusted wire. As we pass into the meadow, I think of how the land has changed; how hoof and mouth disease, alkali water and sheer distance killed off the cattle; how fencing and over-grazing disrupted the delicate balance of the soil. Once accomplished, the defoliation has dramatic results. The brief and violent spring rains wash away the tenuous stability of the topsoil, and the wind picks up the dust, whisks it fine-grained into the ever traveling air. The result is a shift from larger vegetation to intermittent grasses whose seed is carried easily by the wind. And the nutrient-poor soil, held tenaciously together by nitrogen-fixing bacteria, soon gives up its grip; the delicate system from largest tree to smallest cell lifts up into the wind. Who knows how quickly this place is changing? And how much our presence, with its assumed awareness, contributes to the very change. As if to echo these transformations, we cross a shallow wash strewn with the limbs of dead cottonwoods; as the largest, and most thirsty inhabitants of the desert, these trees are markers of environmental shifts.

Of course, before those 19th century Mormons, Native Americans roamed these canyons. Fremont, Paiute, Anasazi; then Navajo, Hopi. Those ancient voices resident here are more subtle, a mystery occupation that lived in better balance with this place, farming, hunting, gathering, moving with the water. Their intricate villages, pictographs and petroglyphs, and nearly invisible kivas, hang in these walls unnoticed but for the trained eye. As we walk in silence, staring up at the cinnabar walls, the rock barely whispers of their presence.

The way wind and dust spiral round our bodies, I am amazed that anyone could survive out here for long. Barring any unforeseen disaster, we, of course, will make it, bolstered by an accommodating technology and a modern sense that any place is not that far from another. Yet that is a false impression, one of the dangerous conclusions of the twentieth century, and I am wary of the theme of interconnectivity, even as it insists, as an articulation of the planet's very survival, upon recognition. For to collide places by means of their biotic, their touching margins, is to homogenize the notion of place. Particularity is as much a fact of existence as the web that we are woven to. Like a satellite telephone, metaphors of unity easily lend themselves to complacency. For if chaotic counterbalancing returns the system always to homeostasis, it is at a cost to individual lives. Surely the planet will shoulder on, but the miraculous adaptation of this collared lizard, or that canyon wren, will be missing. Hopefully our journeys to uniquely tuned places help us understand time and consequence, our rapid impact on the planet to its diminishment. The erosion of these spires is an empty solace. Nothingness yet again. Attuning our own instruments. This is nourishing, necessary, a return to friable source, concatenation of winds.

As we descend farther into the meadow, we are met with a startling sight: a blood red sun dropping its distended mass into the mouth of a distant canyon, spreading out like liquid fire over the surface of the rock. It feels like symbiosis seen, a transfer of heat and light from sun to rock, as if daily the desert is redrawn, forged again in the belly of stone, then spewed forth nightly in a cough of sky remade by our yellow star. We are stunned still, embarrassed; the image was not cast for human eyes. Rhapsodic apart from our projections, it is a moment of pure earth, element nodding to element, this diurnal passage turning for millions of years, and for a second we are part of it, housed in a world of rust and failing blue.

As color wanes we slowly regain ourselves, our human thinness in this wide place where the earth visibly bends on the horizon. The warm wind continues to blow, but I am suddenly chilled, my back wet and alive with the weight of my pack. Dazed, we trundle further into the meadow and find a spot in the lee of a huge monolith we call, half in jest, half in fumbling amazement, Sangre Madre, blood mother. She burns in the last light as we scrape our bodies of sweat and dumbly dump our gear. Words mumble into the dust, empty sounds in the the audible silence.

After some lowing and reeling and the odd crackling of candy wrappers, we return to the human. It has cooled down considerably, though still in the 80s. We change our drenched shirts, and Peter remarks that he has never seen so much red before. Everywhere a different shade; the clouds overhead are red, our faces, our socks. We walk out from the overhang of our protective mother and up one side of the meadow to a vantage point for the day's last show.

Another paradox. All sunsets in the desert are singular events. Yet on this evening we witness what seems a truly rare moment. Usually, the sun's decline is painted more or less at the point of the sun's descent. But on this night, diffuse with the day's windy particle, the whole sky casts the sun's light as if it had set everywhere. As one patch of clouds catch fire, announces itself and fades, another band on the other side of the sky does the same. Calico swaths animate and disperse. Sandstone jumps and catches on the vibratory margin; there is no center, all the colors bending and swirling around the deep bowl of the sky. We are somehow in this, vaguely a pivot. Soon the moon in a half sickle, strange benediction of passing, rises out of a pocket in the cliffs. Two lights linked body to body, we too begin to shine. In the east the snowy tops of the La Sals catch fire, speak of all the elements gathering and dispersing.

Benedictions, yes, laboratory mice. We look at each other and smile, hoot at our immense luck. We are voyeurs in an inhuman world, absorbing the color of dust. It is the color of our blood, interpenetrates our veins. Time whirls in another dimension, a slow shifting of breath that takes a thousand eons. What is consequential? How to translate? How to remain silent? The desert scrapes on, regardless. Soon we will return to a more complicated world. The questions of moving and settling will expose our various insecurities; the pressures of dailiness, of human interaction, will obtain a sense of priority. And true, the pleasures of our voices will announce their own kind of place. But for now, on this longest of days, the sharpness, the nothingness almost realized, hangs in our lungs, makes us part and parcel of the place. The desert, empty of all our claims, yet so full of ordinary magic, allows us simply to be, echoes our discovery, fades into night in wind and whisper.

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