We crest the Sierra-Nevada above 7000 feet and soon find ourselves accompanying the Truckee River on its descent towards Reno. Here the resinous smell of pine gives way to the drier and emptier vibe of sage and desert. As we drop onto the flats the rhythm of the road asserts itself, the fullness of California subsides, eventually to be replaced by the empty vistas we now find ourselves in. As a bulkhead of mountains diminishes in the rear view mirror we discover the Great Basin spread out before us.
But hold on, I’ve gone too far. I was intending on lingering in the land of plenty a bit longer…
Our first gig of the week was at the Mudpuddle Shop – a renovated barbershop and funky one room storefront in the Niles District of Fremont. The shop was crowded with musical instruments, art on the walls, a pie-eyed assortment of chairs, and a sofa – being the exclusive domain of Clancy, a big ol’ black lab, and our host, Michael McNevin. Michael, the unofficial “mayor” of Niles, is a singer-songwriter, storyteller, and Etch-A-Sketch artist extraordinaire. A native of Niles, Michael toured and travelled widely before returning to help create a vibrant music scene in his hometown neighborhood.
Tall palm trees and the Fremont Hills frame Niles Boulevard. It's a rare slice of pre-Silicon Valley, California. Strolling past the soda fountain, antique shops, Essanay Silent Film Museum, restaurants, and biker bar, one feels transported back in time. Charlie Chaplin filmed five of his movies and Bronco Billy made the first westerns here between 1912 and 1915. This is where silent films were born. Across the street is the Niles Canyon railway station, which in 1865 was the terminus for the transcontinental railroad and was where the transcontinental railroad met the San Francisco Bay.
That night, Nashville songwriter Laurie McClain had just arrived in town for her California tour and was looking for a place to play so she opened our first set. After the intermission a local sister duo, Red Shoes, opened our second set. With three acts in this tiny room filled to capacity of 24 people, it felt like a folk festival “Mudpuddle-style.”
The following nights brought us to play a series of house concerts. First, high atop the hills of Berkeley – next, out to the Sacramento Valley for a show in Davis at Bill Wagman’s place – and finally, back to the Bay, to the Haight in San Francisco where from out the window where we stood to play I could see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, glowing as the sunset. Each of these evenings was simply magic, spent in the company of good friends, good food and good cheer…. Our time together is always too short.
Our ultimate motivation for being in California this week was to have a “do-over” of Sue’s 50th birthday. This was in fact, Sue’s 51st, but her actual 50th was marred by an unfortunate encounter with a copperhead snake that landed her in the ER – hence the do-over. One of Sue’s top three places in the world is Point Reyes in western Marin County north of San Francisco. So I booked a B&B in Point Reyes Station and on her 51st birthday and we hiked the full 10+ miles out to Tomales Point and back.
Marin felt like our touchstone, our place of peace on our day off, and it symbolized the fruition of our journey West. It takes an additional hour and a half driving north and west out of San Francisco to reach the trailhead at Pierce Point Ranch. Past Fairfax it’s nothing but slow and winding roads through redwoods and hills. By the time you’ve made it out to the western edge of the county it feels like you’ve walked a labyrinth. There’s a certain psychological clearing that takes place, which quiets the mind and makes one receptive to the subtleties of the natural world.
As one drives onto Point Reyes a visual phenomenon occurs where the shapes of the horizon, and hills, the road, fence posts, ocean, and sky all come together to create a profoundly beautiful effect. I’ve tried to photograph this, but it’s difficult to capture. Perspective changes every few feet as one moves along so delight in the unfolding is continual. Here the cliffs are close, so occasionally while rounding a curve or cresting a rise in the road, you feel as though you’re flying or suspended in mid air.
This was the feeling we carried with us as we left California to begin our long-cut toward home.
Our arrival in Wendover marked the end of the day driving 540 miles across Nevada. Wendover is a windswept casino town that straddles the Nevada/Utah border. Perched on the edge of the salt flats it’s where folks from Utah and Wyoming come to gamble and see shows. It was Wendover’s great neon cowboy “Willy” that inspired my song, “One Way Ticket.” The 1980s version I knew looked like a carnival barker looming large in a casino parking lot, paint peeling, colors faded, cigarette dangling from the edge of his mouth, and a sputtering neon arm waving up and down in greeting. Today’s Willy is a newer, cleaner, spruced-up version that greets tourists from his place on the median of Rt. 58 as they arrive into town – something of a cowboy concierge. I much preferred the older Willy.
The next day we arrived in Rock Springs, Wyoming for our concert at the home of Chris and Sue Kennedy whose home sits about 75 feet from the Union Pacific railway. As we’re doing our show, a line of freights rumbled and screeched by, all but drowning us out playing acoustic in the living room. Chris says, “It’s as close as you can get to sleeping near the tracks without being a hobo,” (and another time) “I know where the hole in the fence is, so either escape or suicide is not far away.” Chris also explained that in the original mapping out of Wyoming’ s infrastructure, the state government decreed that Cheyenne got the capitol, Laramie got the university, Rawlins got the prison, Rock Springs got the miners hospital, Green River got the switching yards, and Evanston got the mental institution.
As September turned into October and our concerts brought us east to Colorado and Illinois, visions of Marin, San Francisco, and the Bay lingered. It’s a long way across the country, and truth be told, we don’t make a lot after expenses. But one thing is for sure – the journey and the privilege of experience are well worth the cost. To ride a wave of consecutive nights of folks in their most gracious and generous creates a reverence to the whole process of being a musician.
Thank you all so much for yet another great tour!
Dana and Susan