Monday, February 18, 2013

A Week In Mountain Time

I landed in Denver, rented a car that smelled like a sickening combination of artificial strawberry-scented cleaning solution and stale cigarettes, and headed towards Boulder. I had six gigs in nine days, over the course of which I would drive more than 1,500 miles. The only part of a 1,500-mile drive zigzagging around Colorado, Utah and northern Arizona that isn't staggeringly beautiful is when you're inside a tunnel. Even driving through a blighted, abandoned neighborhood in parts of Denver, or entering the sprawling parking lot of a giant mall, you constantly have a magical vista of towering, jagged, snow-covered mountains to look at in every direction.

This is especially true of Boulder, a college town nestled in the Rocky Mountains, where people just walk to the edge of town, put on their cross-country skis, and they're off into the wilderness, which expands as far as you care to go, if you're heading in any direction other than Denver. My last visit to Colorado was during the Occupy Autumn, which included a memorable visit to Occupy Boulder. The Occupy camp is gone but some of the folks I met the day I visited the camp showed up at the concert, which was an event that included me, a locally renowned singer/songwriter and community radio programmer named Elena Klaver, and others. It was the second annual memorial for Gary Ball, long-time Boulder resident, a fairly accomplished musician himself, as well as a fixture of the activist scene, who died well before reaching old age.

It was my first visit to Colorado since last November, when the voters of the state passed a referendum legalizing marijuana for recreational use, along with the state of Washington – leaving the rest of the US, not to mention bastions of tolerance and enlightenment such as the Netherlands, looking a bit feudalistic in comparison. As a middle-aged white man with a full set of teeth who dresses and otherwise looks somewhere within the bounds of respectability, I am used to being completely invisible to the police, even if I'm walking down the sidewalk smoking a joint, as I often do, just to test my theory of middle-aged respectable white male invisibility. But even though I haven't been noticed, let alone bothered, by police for anything like that since I cut my hair off twenty years ago, I felt significantly more relaxed from the time I rolled my first joint in the new, slightly more sensible state of Colorado.

During the fall, when the referendum was being debated, I was listening to a radio show where one of the promoters of legalization was being interviewed. His command of the facts was impressive, and one fact stood out especially. When, under popular pressure, the powers-that-be were trying to negotiate an easing of the law with regard to marijuana, one thing they tried was leaving it up to the cops on the street whether to arrest someone for possession or just to ticket them. What happened once this new system was in place was the overwhelming majority of white people charged with possession got tickets, while the overwhelming majority of nonwhite people got arrested. Give an average cop options and he'll consistently make the wrong decision, apparently. So legalization was clearly the sensible, and far less racist, alternative – in the real world at least.

It was too soon, apparently, to see a big impact yet, since it seems they're still trying to work out the details in terms of just how the whole thing will work with public access to recreational smoke. Pot was already legal for medicinal use in Colorado, so the clinics were easily visible in many towns and cities, with their green signs and welcoming appearance. But one change that was easily perceptible was the attitude of so many people who used to be more cautious about these things. Every day someone I knew would say to me, “you know I'm a grower.” Actually, if they had been growers before, they never told me that, but now they're happily public about this fact, showing off their latest buds for all their friends to see.

In Denver I was participating in another memorial for a local activist who recently died before his time, Fellow Worker Richard Myers, who was responsible years ago for organizing one of the best gigs in Denver I ever had. Richard was also a graphic artist who designed a tour poster for me a while back, and he played that role for many others in Denver and beyond, the guy to go to if you needed a good-looking poster or flier. Richard was active with many causes in various forms, and was a loving father, and the variety of people his life had touched was pretty well-represented at his memorial, with people of all ages and walks of life there to remember their friend and comrade.

When some folks from the more progressive Colorado cities like Denver and Boulder hear I'm doing an event in Colorado Springs, they're likely to say something along the lines of, “I'm sorry.” It is indubitably a military town, the main hub for Norad among other institutions, and the local university is not known for its outspoken progressives. But in Colorado Springs as in anywhere else, although it was far from an overwhelming crowd, several dozen folks showed up to hear me sing, and to hear Kathy Kelly deliver one of the most riveting anti-imperialist speeches I have ever heard. She was fresh back from her umpteenth trip to Afghanistan, and she was on fire.

The focus of Kathy's talk was a story about her first trip to Ireland. Although very clearly of Irish descent, Kathy had never been to the island of her ancestors until around ten years ago, when she was in Baghdad, awaiting the arrival of the infidels along with the locals, and she got a call from a nun in Ireland. The nun explained that some folks had taken sledgehammers to a US warplane at Shannon Airport, and they wanted Kathy to testify in court as to why people would do such a thing, since friends of hers from the Plowshares movement in the US and elsewhere had been doing things like that for a long time.

Kathy talked about her experiences at the trial of the Pitstop Plowshares, as those with the sledgehammers at Shannon called themselves. When the judge barred any testimony relating to the religious convictions of the activists Kathy's heart sank, and she thought things were not going well. But in the final hours of the trial, when the brilliant solicitor representing these Catholic Workers was giving his final arguments, he quoted from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, and called Jesus the greatest pacifist of them all. He then switched gears, describing a scene he had witnessed the other day, children playing in a playground, laughing. Once he had the jury all thinking about laughing children, he surprised everyone by launching into a verbal attack on anyone in Ireland who would not go and take a sledgehammer to an American warplane. How, he asked, could people allow these planes to use Irish soil to fuel up before they went off to Iraq and Afghanistan to kill innocent children? The jury then deliberated, and acquitted the Pitstop Plowshares on all counts – just as a jury in England had done almost exactly ten years before, just as a jury in Aotearoa would do only a few years later.

Kathy gave me a shawl made by women she was working with in Afghanistan, and I gave her my latest CD, Meanwhile In Afghanistan, with a picture on the front of an Afghan boy looking at the camera, a backdrop of complete devastation filling the scene behind him. It turned out Kathy and I had something else in common, in the form of the photographer who provided me with the cover of the CD, Guy Smallman from London. Kathy's face lit up at the mention of our mutual friend. Like Guy, Kathy's main purpose initially in going to places like Afghanistan was to bear witness to what was happening there and to tell her fellow American citizens about what the forces of our government were doing in our name. But bearing witness to the grinding poverty of the Afghan people was too much for both Kathy and Guy, and both of them were driven to not only bear witness but to play some role in helping to alleviate the suffering, if just only a little. Kathy helped set up a little cottage industry, providing Afghan women with the materials they needed to make duvets to give away to families who might have frozen to death without them, as so many Afghans do every winter. For his part, Guy added something to his routine when he made his frequent pilgrimages to Kabul – he'd raise money before leaving home, and then when he got to Kabul, he'd rent a truck, hire a driver, go to the market and buy all the useful items he could (most of which were labeled “USAID” and were supposed to have been distributed to the Afghans for free), and he'd go deliver the contents of the truck to a local tent-filled encampment of war refugees. Guy has never proclaimed anything like this, but by Kathy's estimate he is probably single-handedly responsible for preventing as many as 100 refugees from freezing to death last winter. The first shipment of goods Guy organized was, according to the elders among the refugees serving as their community leaders, the biggest single delivery of anything they had ever received. I was staying with Guy soon after he returned from that particular trip to Afghanistan, and I remember exactly how much money he had raised for that delivery – 400 pounds (about $600).

My little Mountain Time tour was inevitably doing a fair bit of zigzagging, but more or less in a loop, starting in the Denver area, then moving on to different parts of Utah, then back into southern Colorado, ultimately ending me up again in Denver. So my next two stops were in Utah. Which meant, of course, a long drive to get to Utah to start with. I got up one morning after a light snowfall in Boulder, took a long walk around the frozen city. I was delighted to hear one of my songs in a music break on Democracy Now!, though my delight was tempered by the stream of multi-million-selling rock stars that made up the rest of their musical selections for the week, as usual. What a great radio show for the most part, but their motto for their music breaks could be summed up by a slight variation on the slogan of your average Clearchannel station: “(almost) nothing but the hits.”

The road from Boulder to Moab is virtually paved with gold. Driving around and sometimes through the majestic, snow-covered slopes and the chaotic peaks too steep for snow, presented frequently with picturesque vistas of lines of mountain ranges in the distance, before descending again into the next valley, if there were some pack animals around you might think you were in the Himalayas. But there are no pack animals, only rich white people in Sports Utility Vehicles laden with skis and snow boards, chugging lattes in the cookie-cutter western-style towns that have sprang up all over the region in recent decades. Often these ski towns are only five or ten miles apart from each other, each one with its own Starbucks. Among the towns I passed through was Vail, home of the ski resort which the Earth Liberation Front burned to the ground back in the 90's. (Bill Rodgers – Avalon -- rest in peace.)

My gig in Moab wasn't til the next day. I knew how vast the distances are between gigs in this part of the world, and had planned in several days just for driving, and this was one of them. Too tired to get all the way to Moab that day, I spent the night in Motel 6 in Grand Junction, which has got to be the spiffiest Motel 6 on the planet. The next morning I was glad I had spent the night in Grand Junction, because I wouldn't have wanted to miss the spectacular drive over yet another range of mountains, to the Utah desert town of Moab.

Anybody who has ever wondered why on Earth anybody would live in Utah has probably never been there. Yes, there are lots of Mormons, and many of them are very strange, but that is pretty much true of all non-Unitarian Christians, seems to me... But while there are good people to be found everywhere, the only place you can find the kind of mystical beauty that Utah's wild, red desert has to offer is in Utah. As soon as you cross the border into the Mormon state, it is abundantly obvious that this is where so many of those Westerns were filmed. But even the big screen cannot approach the transcendent, almost spiritual experience that being there can provide to even the most cynical atheist.

And long before I arrived in Utah on this trip, I had gotten the word that this paradise is under imminent threat by the oil industry, and the people who live in this paradise are mobilizing like they haven't done in a long time. If there is one person who is a unifying force for this growing movement in Utah it is Tim DeChristopher, currently serving a prison sentence for his impromptu participation in an auction of land intended for use by the oil industry. Members of his organization made the long drive from Salt Lake City to the benefit show in Moab, and they were joined by environmental activists representing a wide range of groups, from volunteer-driven, anarchist-oriented networks like Rising Tide to members of comparatively tame nonprofits that, until recently, had left the civil disobedience to other people.

The influence of local luminaries no longer with us such as David Brower and Edward Abbey was very apparent. Throughout my 24 hours in Moab I heard stories from people who had been friends with one or both of these two giants of the environmental movement, who had both held the Utah desert as close to their hearts as anyone could, evangelizing in prose and organizing people from many different backgrounds to join the environmental movement that was fighting to keep Utah's oil, gas and uranium safely in the ground where it belongs, to keep Utah's rivers free of dams and power plants. Hanging out with these folks, walking with them through a nearby canyon, it was easy to imagine how I might have joined the Monkeywrench Gang, had I lived in Utah in the 80's or the 90's or some other time before the feds started throwing in the “terrorism enhancement” charges and regularly handing out sentences in excess of twenty years.

Another long day's drive to St. George, a small city in southwestern Utah nestled between Monument Valley and the glittering city of Las Vegas. It's hard to imagine – or maybe not so hard, really – that so close to this little city that was, until recently, almost completely populated by socially conservative Mormons, was the most institutionally immoral city in all the Americas, a place that veritably represents the very principle of heathenism, where people go not just to visit brothels or to gamble, but to do both in the same morning!

Strangely for a state that was not part of the Confederacy and that was founded by a group – the Mormon Church – that opposed slavery, the institution of higher learning in St. George was called Dixie State College. I say “was” because the day I arrived, the state approved a request by the trustees of the college to upgrade its name from Dixie State College to Dixie State University. Until recently, Dixie State also featured a number of statues of Confederate soldiers, but they were removed a few years ago.

My gig at the college was not until noon the following day, but I got to town early enough to join the fine upstanding leftwing hippie professor Joel Lewis, his wife and several of their friends, at the local open mike. I hadn't been to an open mike in many years, and I did not go to this one with high expectations, but it turned out to be the sort of experience that could give just about anybody a sense of optimism with regards to our species.

Here were the youth of St. George – mostly youth, anyway, with a handful of folks over 30 thrown into the mix. The venue, Jazzy's, was clearly the place to be in St. George, and this open mike was the night to be there. Most people in the room were teenagers, and they were acting like teenagers – playful, loud, full of sexual tension, still very excited to be alive, despite everything. Most of the kids getting up on stage were singing very well-known pop songs (which I might not have recognized but for my seven-year-old daughter's efforts to introduce me to the radio stations in Portland that play this stuff these days). My hosts were excited for me to be participating in the open mike, but I wasn't. I mean, I was happy to be hanging out with them and happy to be there, but I know how it goes at open mikes. Just being good doesn't mean you're going to manage to attract anyone's attention, especially if you're doing unrecognizable, original music, especially when the music in question is blatantly political and completely out of the framework of most young Americans in 2013. Especially in southwestern Utah.

For some reason I thought I'd ease my way in by playing an old Irish love song, “The Lakes of Pontchartrane.” The sound system was unusually good for a cafe, and the guitar sounded crisp and had the kind of attack on the low E string that I crave but rarely get from most sound systems. But this one had nice big woofers on the ground, along with the elevated speakers on either side of the stage. Nonetheless, though I'd say I delivered the song very well, it was clearly a bad idea, and didn't succeed in getting anyone's attention aside from the table of folks I was sitting with. Each performer had three songs, though, so I had two more chances. The second song I did succeeded, and the third one even moreso, and both were very political selections (“I'm A Better Anarchist Than You” and “Occupy Wall Street” if you really wanna know). It was as if most of the young people in the room knew this was important. Yes, it was a frumpy, relatively ancient guy playing unrecognizable songs with an acoustic guitar, but even the hyper-fashionable, impossibly attractive blonde girls who had been giggling and shrieking their way through the evening up until then were suddenly paying attention, and when I unplugged my guitar and stepped off the stage they thanked me for coming, and they meant it.

In contrast to the open mike, the average age of the crowd at my noon gig on the campus the next day was probably about 55. This may seem strange on a college campus, but it's not. I rarely get gigs at colleges, and when I do, it's often the case that most of the people who come for the show are not students – unless the students are getting extra credit for attending, in which case they'll do so in droves. But this time no one was offering extra credit, and most of the crowd was older than me. When I sing songs about certain subjects, I'll often meet people who are somehow related to those subjects – sing a song about Palestine, for example, and if someone in the crowd is of Palestinian ancestry they'll often let me know afterwards, giving us a chance to get acquainted a little. (Giving me a chance to hear more stories, and to write more songs.) Recently I wrote a song about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and at the end of the show, after doing the song, I found that among the older men in the room were several who had been in the Navy during that time, who all attested to the apocalyptic tension that was in the air in October, 1962. (But thanks to Vice Admiral Vasili Arkhapov, we're all here to talk about it.)

Another day, another breathtaking drive across the beautiful high desert, this time the region known as the Four Corners, on the Utah/Arizona border. The unromantic truth of the matter is that I rarely pay attention to where I'm going anymore. I look at a big map on my wall when planning tours and I use Google Maps to estimate how long it's gonna take to get from one gig to the next, but when I'm actually on the road I just plug the coordinates into my GPS and do what the nice female English voice tells me to do. (If I have to choose what kind of voice should order me around I'd rather it be an English accent.) So it came as a pleasant surprise that, at least according to my GPS, the fastest way to get from St. George, Utah to Durango, Colorado was by driving all the way across the Navajo Nation from west to east across northern Arizona.

There are many different places in what we call the United States where there is so much space in between population centers that it makes no economic sense to run a commercial radio station of any kind, and there aren't any. At least on the FM dial on much of the drive through Indian Country, there in the Navajo Nation, as in the land of the Lakotas far to the north, there was only one station, 88.1, a community radio station run by people on the res. The woman hosting the show spoke slowly and clearly as she alternated between playing recordings of traditional Native American music and Country-Western songs.

I stopped for gas and for dinner along the way, and each time I stopped I marveled at the fact that it is still possible to be the only non-Navajo person in a hotel lobby, at a gas station, in a restaurant. A beaming teenage girl with braces thanked me for buying a tank of gas. I just wanted to thank her for existing, but I didn't.

Anytime I'm anywhere near the Navajo Reservation I think of the people I spent a couple weeks with back in 2000, the last time I know of when a significant number of folks from outside the res came there to try to do something useful. Herding sheep, protesting Peabody Coal, bringing supplies for those still resisting relocation to the radioactive wasteland on the other side of the res, singing songs, being white.

As I was driving that day, switching from the community radio station's eclectic musical programming to satellite radio, on BBC they were talking about a Native American tribal leader who had been speaking out in support of police in Indian Country having the ability to arrest and prosecute non-Indians when they assault or kill their Native wives or girlfriends. He said 90% of assaults on reservations are non-Indian men assaulting Indian women. The tribal police are powerless to do much about it, and the state police don't send anybody.

Being white can also be a useful thing to do on the res. For those supporting the resisters in the Black Mesa area of Navajo country, for those resisting relocation, having the white supporters around means being more or less temporarily immune to being harassed and persecuted by tribal authorities. The grandmothers might get their sheep impounded if they dare to break the rules and have more than twenty of them, but if you got a blond hippie herding your sheep for you they have to lay low and wait for him to leave.

The last gig on the tour was at Fort Lewis College, a place with a sordid past of kidnapping and brainwashing Native children, like so many of the boarding schools throughout North America, but in recent decades the influence of the school has been far more constructive. Because of the original land grant through which the institution came into existence in the first place, the college is contractually obligated to give free tuition to Native Americans, from anywhere in the US (including Native Alaskans and Hawaiians, of course). As a result, among the four thousand or so students enrolled, 125 tribes are represented.

The crowd at the show in Durango reflected the diversity of the school, as did the membership of Professor Becky Clausen's wonderful Sociology Club which sponsored my visit. Among the group that came over to my guest trailer after the show was one young man who had been spending some of his free time herding sheep for the grandmothers, among the Blackgoat family, for whom Roberta Blackgoat was most definitely the preeminent matriarch, before she died at a fairly advanced age, a couple years after I spent time there over a decade ago. Among Roberta's many talents was the fact that she was just about the only woman of her generation in Black Mesa who spoke English.

The next day, one more long journey through the glorious mountains, through the San Luis valley and the Spanish-speaking towns that have been there since long before Colorado was part of the US. A stop for lunch in Salida, the central Colorado town that was once the US/Mexico border, I hear, before the first invasion of our southern neighbor in 1846. And then one night in Denver, staying at the home of my new friend Remy, a radical French-Chilean-Mexican-Armenian biochemist living in Denver, raising his son, who is the same age as my daughter. Turns out, naturally enough, half the people I know in Colorado already know Remy, but for me he is a connection made posthumously by Richard Myers, for it was at his memorial that we became acquainted. Me and Remy and his son went out for breakfast somewhere really good, and I headed to the airport and started writing this little document, and now you know more or less what happened during my week in Mountain Time.

1 comment:

premium saltine cracker said...

a friend turned me on to your site. this was a most enjoyable read, my brother. i wish i could tour with you, drive your car, light your smokes as you walk down the street, herd sheep with you on the rez. you do a powerful job of painting a picture with your prose. i look forward to getting to know you through your music and writing. is there a place i should be buying your music so you can get the most return? peace and thank you