Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Monterey’

HPIM1667.JPGThe Dying of the Cotton

“Dude, I think that you need a cat.”

Those fateful words were uttered in the middle of another sleep-deprived Colorado night back in the year of Ought-Four. My redheaded lady friend at the time – now my sweet wife – was the utterer. The ancient timber walls of the rancher’s cabin that I lived in were alive with mysterious activities. Every night, the dance of the deer mice began somewhere in the vicinity of the headboard of my double bed, then ran a hidden course that looped all the way around the small cabin in a loud circuit. Small shadows darted about the pine floors. Food supplies, both human and canine, were regularly attacked. The constant scurrying had my old dog Bear in a frenzy of frustrated patrols.

The last straw came when, lost in a pre-dawn codeine stupor while fighting the lingering Crud, I awoke to the tapping of a clammy nose upon my feverish cheek. Cracking one bloodshot eye, I made out the hazy image of a ragged-looking mouse sitting up on my chest. He was holding the keys to my truck in his outstretched hand. “We’re gonna take the Ford for a spin up to the Cardamone place. There’s a mouse party goin’ down up yonder…Cheese, milk, cereal by the barrel…the whole nine centimeters,” the rodent said nonchalantly. “Thought that you might want to know that you’ll probably be late for work today. We’ll be back around 11… Ish…” it added.

“Ohhh. OK. Thanks…I guess. But hey…can you put some fuel in the truck? I’m almost out,” I replied. My head was woozy. The room was spinning. “Sure, sure, bub. We’ll “put some fuel in it” the mouse retorted with a sarcastic wink and the flicking of his rubbery paws in the universal sign of mocked quotation.

When I emerged from my narcotic slumber it was past noon. I looked out of the window and saw that my truck was parked halfway into Miss Carolyn’s prized azaleas. I looked down at the kitchen floor and was not surprised by what I saw. At least a baker’s dozen mice were passed out haphazardly on the linoleum, smiles cast on their milk-stained faces, yellow curds clutched greedily in their awful paws. “Bear! Get em!” I shrieked. The half-Shepherd, half-Chow, half-human leapt into action from his nap at the foot of the bed. The mice all sat up slowly, watching his progress across the 10 feet that separated them with bemused looks, not unlike Monty Python’s French castle guards. Bear growled fiercely as he narrowed the gap, and was about to tear into the mess of them with a year’s worth of pent up, stolen-Alpo doggie fury when the entire stoned colony of mice bolted in every direction at once. All of them, that is, but one.

The Bear stood above him snarling like I had never seen him snarl before – well, other than every day the UPS man comes by that is. But rather than cower at the sight of the relatively enormous monster before it, the mouse produced a tiny white glove from beneath it, methodically straightened out each of its fingers, and then rudely slapped the menacing dog once each way across the nose in rapid succession before hopping off towards a large hole underneath the sink cabinets. Just before it vanished into its hole, the mouse looked back at the two of us, both frozen in stunned silence, and flipped us an exaggerated, arched back double bird, then wheeled and slipped into the darkness. We were still stilling there in frozen astonishment when we saw a creepy ribbed tail emerge backwards from the hole, followed by a hairy rat’s ass. Then, preceded by a discernibly gross, cheesy fart, and there before Jah Rastafari, Bear Anderson, and a shelve full of shocked-looking antique action figures, the Francophile mouse shat a row of shining black poo pebbles onto the kitchen floor. Prior to that moment, I did not think it possible for a dog to wince, but it became clear to me then by looking at the pained look on Bear’s face told me that it was indeed Time To Get A Cat.

Two weeks later, almost as if on cue, a mixed litter of black, white, and grey barn kittens were born in a loft of the ranch where I lived. My girlfriend (and now my wife) had by then moved into the 500 square foot cabin, along with her three beloved ferrets, and was insistent that we claim one of the litter when they were old enough to leave their mother, Muffin.

I had never owned a cat. Never really been around cats other than one that my roommates had in college – an orange tabby named Goat who mostly lived outside with the chickens and the couches. My parents had never had a cat, and I am fairly certain that their parents hadn’t either. I generally mocked those friends of mine that had cats as being soft. The concept was totally foreign to me. But Sharon had grown up with cats and after her own run-in’s with the mousey mafia that ruled our roost, I was assigned, literally, a tiny, bright-eyed white kitten with snappy black patches on its face and one paw and a long grey-stripped raccoon tail.

We brought him into the cabin and Sharon, her ferrets, Bear and I all watched in awe as this little furbearing rocket flew around our house, leaping from dresser to the bed, from the bed to the door sill, performing consistent acts of gravity defiance. Our neighbors Adrian and Susan came over to check on the brother of their two kittens, Pancho and Lefty. We all sat in a circle watching the kitten frolic, drinking Tullamore Dew scotch whiskey from the bottle, and pitching names for the thing. It was Adrian, a native North Carolinian like myself with deep roots across the south, who came up with the name that stuck: Cotton. I would later add an unofficial prefix to the name – Rotten.

Days turned into months and Cotton steadily grew from his initial miniscularity into a fine looking full sized cat. Within weeks of his arrival into our little cabin world, our mouse problem had ebbed into just an occasional brave (or stupid) loner who hadn’t heard the news: There was a new sheriff in town, and he wasn’t taking any prisoners. I have never seen Bear more happy. Finally we could all sleep in peace, except for the occasional sudden midnight flurry, usually followed by a contented sounding CRUNCH CRUNCH from somewhere in the kitchen area. One morning I awoke to find the cat in his customary place –lodged like a shiv, forming a perfect dividing line with the Bear dog between Sharon and I. I was stroking the soft fur on his head when my hand coursed over his face, where something tangibly out of place found my touch. Bleary eyed, I sat up and peered over at him. Sticking out of his smiling mouth was a tiny white glove. Cotton had found his true calling at a very young age. We should all be so lucky.

II.

Cotton lived what I imagine to be the most happy and fulfilling life a cat can hope for on the Shipp Ranch for several years prior to our 2005 move to the clean (but busy) streets of Carbondale, Colorado.  In the winters, he curled up and lounged with us in the cozy cabins. When the snow melted enough that his paws would tolerate the frigidity of the earth, he booked it for the pasture fences, where he would stalk the rails in a low crouch, feeding on a veritable Arc of wildlife – field mice, rabbits, birds of a hundred feathers, lizards, snakes, and the occasional Formerly Sentient Being To Be Named Later.

Despite the anti-camouflage of his stark white coat and his daring do in a heavily hunted predatory zone, Cotton survived and thrived at ranch life. He outlasted his mother and the three of his litter mates that were kept on the ranch, all of whom were picked off by a particularly wily pack of coyotes, though he regularly came home with fresh scars that foretold of difficult battles with larger mammals.

The move to our new townhouse was a blessing for Sharon and myself. We finally had our own place, along with the room to spread out a bit that any co-habitative long-term cabin-dweller eventually yearns for. The “kids,” however, seemed to lose a little bounce in their new city lives. No longer free to roam wide pastures and open space, and confined to the house for fear of the many cars and trucks that buzzed our neighborhood, Cotton and Bear both whined and whimpered at the front and back doors of the house, often one at each, an achievement of stereophonic guilt.

Eventually, we relented. With his regular, mournful moan becoming intolerable, and after a few long man –to-cat talks, Cotton was given the run of Barber Drive. It was not an easy decision. The irony of the name Car-bon-dale was not lost on me. We knew the possibilities that his street walking might bring. In the end, we figured that with the ideal life that he had already led, he deserved a chance to go out (in this case, literally) on his own terms. Survival of the fittest, carpe meow, all ‘dat…

I was not surprised in the least that he took to the dangerous city streets as easily as he did to the predatorily hazardous ranch trails. He was the quickest cat I’ve ever known, with extra cat-like agility. Regularly I would be sitting on the back porch overlooking the hubbub of Hendrick Drive when I would see a white flash emerge from underneath a parked car, dash across the road comfortably ahead of oncoming traffic, and disappear under the cars and trucks parked across the way. And, ever evening, just like clockwork, when the wife or I would go out on the front stoop and clang a tuna can with a wooden spoon, here would come Cotton, just as dirty and bloody and happy as ever.

III.

It was three in the morning in Posen, Michigan when polite knuckles rapped on the door of Sharon’s childhood bedroom door. I was there to meet her parents and multitude of strapping, protective-looking siblings, and, if everything went well, to ask her father’s permission to marry his daughter. Bleary eyed from the late hour and the gallons of pilsner consumed earlier at the bonfire meet and greet, we heard the voice of Sharon’s mother, Rita. She sounded concerned, but ever so politely. “There is a girl on the phone for you Corby. I think that she speaks another language. She wants to talk to you,” she said. Her tone worried me. Her tone worried me. There are, after all,  very few potential positive outcomes when a French woman calls your girlfriends parents house in the middle of the night of your engagement party asking for you.

Thanking my future mother-in-law, I took the call. “Zee cat, eez squieeeshed!” said the voice on the other line. I recognized it to be that of my TV station intern, Cecile, a Frenchwoman who was at our house watching the animals for us. “Zee cat! Eet eez squished…oh no I feel zo tereeebley!” she said again in a Franco lilt. “Eer. Talk to zee veterinarian,” she said sadly, pronouncing every syllable of “vegetarian” with utmost care.

The vet got on the phone and told us that Cotton had been ran over by a car. He said that Cecile had brought him in that night, but that he suspected the accident to have happened earlier, maybe a full day earlier. She had found him after hearing a low moan outside of our bedroom window – usually a sound only heard coming from Peeping Juan, the town pervert. “He doesn’t look good. He’s got a broken leg and pelvis. We can’t know of the internal damage to his organs until we get into surgery,” he said calmly. “I need a credit card for that,” he added.

Sharon was listening over my shoulder. She started to cry, which in turn made me tear up. I repeated to her what the doctor was telling me. She cried more. So did I. “How much is it?” I asked, pondering the impossible question that faces every pet or car owner: how much is your old friend, your family member even – life worth?

I am not a rich man. Never have been. Hope to be someday, like most probably do or should, but at that time to say that my finances were limited is an understatement. The vet told us that while he couldn’t be sure what the total costs might be, depending on the injuries found in exploratory surgery, he thought that $3000 was a good number to start with. The number hit both of us like a brick. When he added that “even with surgery there is a very good chance that Cotton will never walk with his back legs again,” I felt a whole wall of bricks tumble down on my suddenly saddened brain. “Or, I could put him down in a painless procedure. That costs about $200 bucks.” More bricks.

We asked to have a minute to discuss the decision and told him that we would call back in a few minutes. We called Carolyn, the owner of the ranch where Cotton was born. Carolyn Shipp possesses a unique combination of qualities: great empathy towards all living creatures, along with a Libertarian sensibility when it comes to business. We gave her the facts. She paused. Then she told us what we knew in our hearts already: with no easy way to pay and no clear promise of recovery, we should let the vet euthanize the cat.

Fighting back tears, I called the vet back. “Doc, we have to let him go. For all of the reasons discussed before. I need you to ask Cecile to hold the phone up to Cotton’s little ears so that I can say goodbye.”

“Well, if THAT is your decision, then I’ll just see what I can fix and put him up for adoption,” the veterinarian replied unexpectedly. “Excuse me? Did you just sa…” I stammered, shocked. “Yes you did. I’ll repeat it. If you are asking me to put this cat to sleep, I will not do it. I will fix him and then adopt him out to a caring family.” Silence. The weird silence of slow motion bricks tumbling down onto more bricks.

I threatened to sue right then and there. “I’ll have your fucking license for this stunt!” I yelled. Sharon sat amazed, sad. The veterinarian tried to explain what he meant. I countered and shut him down. He tried again. “I’ll tell you what. Let me see what the injuries are and we can figure out the payment later,” he said, humbled. “Well, obviously if he can be fixed, fix the boy. But I ain’t able to pay that kind of money, nor will I, after this bullshit phone call,” I iterated. It pained me to argue for the death of a good friend, but there were principles at play, and I am, if anything, a man of principles. We agreed on surgery. I was connected to Cotton via cell phone speaker to cat ear. “Hang in there buddy. We love you. Bear loves you. Doc’s gonna fix you up good,” I said, expecting that would be the last time I spoke to him. He did not answer. I thanked Cecile and tried to explain to her that she was in no way responsible. I asked that she take care of the dude the best that she could if he made it out of surgery and that we would be home within four days.

I hung up, and we stayed up the rest of the night fretting for Cotton’s life and deciding whether to drive home in the morning or to carry on with our trip as planned. There were elderly grandparents to visit with yet, and I still had a secret, seriously convoluted engagement plan complete with documentary film crew, special after hours private tour and post-yes (I hoped!) catered dinner in a historic lighthouse on Mackinac Island to see to.

To all of our excitement, except possibly Cecile, who had to nurse a partially paralyzed cat for several days, Cotton came out on the topside of surgery. The car had indeed broken his rear leg and shattered his pelvis, but other than a bruised spleen and a hernia, his internal organs had survived intact. Cecile told me to stay on and to go through with my engagement plan/scheme. By the time that we returned, Cotton had graduated from dragging himself around our condo with his front paws to gingerly walking. It was a miracle of sorts. I had condemned a dead cat to being deader. He not only survived being hit by a car, but my own execution order. We kept him inside after that.

IV.

Two years later, on the last days of the year 2007, our herd moved from the frigid winter chill of the Rocky Mountains to the relatively balmy climes of Monterey, California. I wanted to write a book and to find a way to advance my career in media. Sharon wanted to study dentistry. Bear and Cotton wanted some space. Off we went, into the maw of a massive winter storm, our lives jam packed into a U-Haul truck and chase vehicle.

We wound up in a wonderfully spacious ranch-style four bedroom house in the old Army base town of Marina, formerly Fort Ord. The house had a large fenced back yard AND a large fenced front yard. The neighborhood traffic in rural California was perplexingly, and blessedly, light compared to that of the small mountain town in Colorado from whence we had migrated. An enormous sand dune and the four-lane Highway 1 embankment was all that separated us from the glory and danger of the Pacific Ocean. At night we could sit INSIDE the house and hear the ocean roar. Birds were everywhere, much to Cotton’s satisfaction. From little sparrows to cormorants, seagulls to Snowy Plovers — you couldn’t toss a sourdough crumb without a dozen flying creatures clamoring over the score.

After a few weeks of beach life, it was decided that Cotton would once again be an outside cat. Maybe the calm, serene atmosphere of fog and ocean breezes got us to lighten up, or maybe the cats own outdoorsy personality and the telepathically transmitted insistence of his innate need to be Out There won us over, but out he went. Right away he picked up his hunting and general carousing as he had before. His street smarts were evident immediately. We watched him gracefully maneuver Brookside Place and the surrounding feeder roads. Maybe it helped that there was less traffic. Maybe it was that the roads there were built wider enough for three tanks to drive parallel to one another and still have room for a fleet of jeeps to be parked on either side of the road.  Perhaps or boy, by now known affectionately as “the stupid cat” had learned a little something from his run in with the Michelin Man.

Whatever it was, he had the outside cat game fully wired now.

Though fixed, and not necessarily burly by cat standards, Cotton fought like a wildcat with the neighboring cats until it was clear by the noises of each scrap and by Cotton’s studly saunter while leaving each catty scene that he had ascended to alpha of the Brookside pride. He had girlfriends at seemingly every house on the block. When he came home and did not eat his food, we worried some, until we were told by several neighbors that he was wont to visitation and meal privileges in several neighborhood households. He and his buddy, the Bear dog, now visibly aging, tag teamed the local bird population. Not a morning went by that I did not hear my wife’s sing song voice emanating from the living room. “See the birdies?” she would say in her best baby mama voice. It nearly brought the house down every time, with both cat and dog howling in agreeance while clawing into the glass door. Oh, they saw the birdies alright.

Several months later we brought home a soul who was unwittingly to become Cotton’s best friend and worst tormentor. Hondo the dog was born in a Missoula, Montana English Shepherd puppy mill.

It was on New Years eve later that year when I was to realize the sordid nature of his origins, but I should have known. The breeder’s business was called Shady Lane Puppy Farms.  We had looked around all over the regional papers for a pup from this particular breed, but finally were forced to ship Hondo in from out of state. He arrived at the San Jose Airport in a plastic and steel dog crate. He was tiny and scared and visibly confounded by his plight. To comfort him, I had brought along a film crew to document our meeting, along with large photo print outs of his new family. “This is your mama,” I said, holding up a photo of Sharon to the open crate door. He stayed cowering in the back. “This is The Bear, your new brother. He’s the best dog ever,” I said. A tiny, fuzzy black, brown and white painted ear perked, but that was it. “And this, this is your kitty,” I said, holding up the 8×11 color photo of Cotton. YAP! The pup snapped out of his apoplexy, rushing forth to sniff the photo. HIS kitty. It was love/hate/terror/love at first sight.

V.

My intended mission for Hondo was for the youngster to grow to be my old boy Bear’s friend and understudy as he entered his golden years. And while he took to that role with a natural canine camaraderie (though his herding instincts kept the aging Bear on his guard for sneak attack “drive bys”), it was the depth of his friendship with Cotton the cat that surprised us all.

The two were fast friends, literally. Cotton was prone to the “midnight zoomies,” a crack head-like spasmodic reaction to God-knows-what provocation. As a night owl myself, I grew to appreciate these impressive displays of deep-night random energy and strange feline athleticism, but the same cannot be said for Hondo.

Hondo is a weird sleeper. He splays out upside down like a hairy, de-shelled turtle. Cotton seemed to time his evening calisthenics to just about the time that Hondo would grow bored with my Sportscenter fixation, roll over and grunt himself to sleep. Then, with a punk spirit, the Goddamn Cat (Hondo’s words, not mine) would deftly launch himself from the top shelf of the couch down onto the sleeping dogs’ exposed belly, touching down only briefly enough to gather himself and steal a quick catty sneer at the startled pup, before bounding off down to the deck and sprinting off around the far reaches of the house. The poor dog, of course, had no chance. There was no catching a hyped up barn cat with rascality in his blood and evasive maneuvers woven deeply into his sinew.

VI.

We moved a total of four times during the Reign of Cotton. The third and fourth moves were rapidly stacked together, with (thankfully) just two months internment in the California Dutch hellhole known as Ripon, California.

That was the amount of time it took to kill my best friend Bear, who was riddled with two types of cancer and held a fragile football-sized tumor in his poor belly, contract a persistent case of walking pneumonia, pack our beach house up, move the family to Ripon to take a job writing for a couple of TV food show producers who turned out to be the sleaziest, heartless, lowdown scum sucking dirt bags in the history of an industry rife with sleazy scum suckers, drop off the family at our new house before promptly jumping on a plane to the Super Bowl in Dallas for work, find out that my dear Grandma had died in a fall, succumb to the gathering sickness in my hotel room, be excused to go home, fly to the funeral, deliver the eulogy, return to my new home to find out that I was fired, and spend a month looking hopelessly for work in a recession-ridden Central California town that neither Hitchcock nor Steinbeck could have dreamt up.

In that time, Cotton seemed resentful of our move to inner-suburbia. His forays out into the neighborhood were forbidden, as the traffic was regular and the bird-loving neighbors overt enough to let on that cats don’t last long in their hood, a comment that seemed to have nothing to do with the pace and regularity of the traffic and much to do with their Taj Mahalesque bird mansion that measured 25 floors and covered more lawn space than a live oak.

So, instead of his jocular life of outdoor adventures, he was cooped up, whiny, and dispirited. Not even a chance to have a go at the upturned, snoozing pup seemed to rile his mischievous instincts. Gone were the midnight zoomies. Instead, he slept all day, and moaned pitifully at the foot of the door all night.

VII.

Thankfully, fate intervened. One morning, as I teetered near my breaking point in Ripon following an ugly encounter with the neighbor over her perfidious threat to call the cops on us to have my old, temporarily dead 1972 Chevelle towed away as a neighborhood eyesore, I got a text from Dan Shipp, the Mississippi lawyer who owned the Colorado ranch that Cotton had been born on. “What y’all doin?” he asked in his trademark gentlemanly draw. “Pondering a good, old fashioned neighborly fire bombing, to be quite honest. As my lawyer, what kind of time do you think I’m looking at if I torch the neighbor skank’s bird castle?” I replied.

He must have sensed the mounting frustration in my voice, because within minutes he had offered us the chance to move back to his ranch to the little old cabin that we had lived in years before. Within 24 hours we were packed into a 21’ U-Haul, had accidentally knocked off the birdfeeder while backing the attached Chevelle-hauling trailer out of the driveway, and had abandoned uncaring California for the open-armed Colorado. As soon as we had negotiated our long-haul truck and trailer down the narrow dirt road that leads to Shipp Ranch, Cotton began mewing uncontrollably, sparking a mystified Hondo to follow suit.

VIII.

Back on the ranch, Cotton quickly regained his mojo. Now an adult, his mousing skills had sharpened to the point of mastery. Soon, he graduated to squirrels, then small rabbits, along with a steady stream of birds. To supplement his diet, he would throw in a green snake or two a week, a horrendous habit that he seemed eager to share with us by way of dragging the live, squirming snakes into the window before releasing them on our bedroom floor for further examination.

For these field hunts, he often teamed up with his uncle, a grey Maine Coon known as Mister Tigger. It was not unusual to see the two of them stalking a pole fence, one on the top row, and the other on the one below, each crouched low as they scanned the pasture grasses for prey. Inevitably, a family brawl would ensue over the prize, with Cotton regularly pummeling a cat so legendarily tough that it was fabled to have once fended off a coyote by blinding the dog with a vicious frontal Ninja-cat attack.

At long last, Rotten Cotton was back in his element, living what is surely the dream of all cat – wandering open country that was filled with feline delights, dominating the neighboring competition, then returning home to the small cabin at night to curl up under the tall legs of the old wood stove to slumber until his next adventure.

IX.

It was early spring when I got the call. I had started a new job with the local community college, and was in a meeting when my phone buzzed in my pocket. The number was not one that I recognized, but it was local so I decided to excuse myself from the meeting and see who was trying to reach me.

Though I deigned to admit it, I knew the reason for the call even before I answered it.

Cotton had been missing for four days. It was not unusual for him to stay out all night, but he always returned sometime early the next morning. This time he had not. His colleague Hondo had been wandering around for most of a week with a worried look on his brow, standing by the door looking out at all hours of the day, whimpering a bit at night. He eagerly sniffed the bushes on the mountainside beside the cabin on hikes to look for Cotton, both of us quietly hoping not to happen upon any soft white fur, soaked in red.

He was old, Cotton was. Near nine by now. Maybe he wandered off to die, I told my wife in an attempt to reassure her against the doom that we felt looming each night that he did not return. “No, he was fit and healthy. He’s been eaten. I’m sure of it,” she lamented. “Fucking coyotes…” She muttered. I kept a rifle at the ready, in case revenge opportuned.

Just in case, I made a sign and posted it on several power poles around the ranching community where we live. “White male cat with a grey coon tail. Goes by the name of Cotton, missing since Sunday,” it read. I chose two of my favorite pictures of Cotton for the sign. One was a shot that showed his full body, for identification purposes. In that shot, taken in the pitiful Ripon days when the one bright spot in our lives was the addition of a comfy leather couch that we purchased with money sent to us after my Granma’s death, Cotton lay splayed out on the top of the new leather couch, straddling the couch top like a horse saddle. His white fur glistened in the photo. His grey and black-streaked ears perked up and a quizzical look etched on his face as I stood behind him flipping him the bird. It was my way of warning him not to scratch our one good piece of furniture, which, amazingly, he never did.

The other photo that I included on his want ad was one taken in our condo in Carbondale, soon after he had miraculously recovered from being “squeeshed” by “zee car” and then doomed to the vet’s eternal needle by me, before being subsequently saved by the bungling vet.

This photo featured a close up of Cotton’s face as he worked his way into a bunch of historic peacock feathers given to me as a gift by author Hunter S. Thompson’s wife that I kept on my desk. The luminescent green-gold-purple eye of the peacock feather juxtaposed perfectly with Cotton’s own golden eye. The image represented to me everything to loved about the Stupid Cat: his indomitable curiosity, his penchant for adventure, and his mellow, kindly nature. He was not a bastard cat, whining for his way all of the time, clingy or spiteful. He was there when you needed him. Except now he was gone.

The caller asked if my name was Corby. He paused for a second. I studied his voice. It was oddly distressing. My legs gelled.

“Do you own a cat? A cat named Cotton?” he asked. My heart leapt and sank at the same time. Maybe…Maybe he had found the cat sleeping off a big, chipmonky meal in his barn? Maybe he’d finally found his lady cat and set up shop somewhere down the canyon? The possibilities raced through my head, quickly drowning out the budgetary thoughts that had been lingering just moments before.

Cotton had lived through many near disasters. He’d been raised on a ranch surrounded by coyotes that picked off all of his many relatives, hit by a car, condemned to die, and ran the high-traffic neighborhoods of California like a boss. Of lives, he knew many. But surely he had one good life left?

My mind churned through positive outcomes. The caller continued. “I’m…uh. Well, hell, son. I’m not sure how to tell you this…”

 *Corby Anderson is a freelance writer who works from the rickety loft of an old cabin in Emma, Colorado. His stories can be found here, as well as at corbyanderson.wordpress.com, Flipcollective.com, The Aspen Daily News, Monterey County Weekly, Canyon Country Zephyr, and BEER Magazine (the Playboy of beer rags), among others.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

CONDORS

Away from the grey, nauseous coast
free wheeling through a great, long valley
burnt to char, closed to overland travel
an easy cab for travel, blue and loud
loaded for bear, some of everything, except Bear
stories fly like ashy mud from rolling stock
until the decisions add up

across the cracked expanse
of the Central Valley
and a bitter, paranoid failure avoided
there is no hope in the Greenfield Sleaze Inn
It’s the Glory Road, minor through dirt road
red pocks stitched across a blank white void
Doctor Know indeed, intuit knew it
leads us to, over the finest night rally track
that I have ever bombed, dark and empty
as all unknown adventures should be
cows gather but stay put, black blurs on the hoof
the risk and reward, to persevere. Per severe ants
Pre-severance, too broke to go, too rich to stay
Pea Knuckle National Mausoleum
void of the holiday hordes that
abhored me on first attempt
shaken and discouraged enough to drive
two unknown hours, thus to sleep
in the cancer flakes of Asbestos Creek

All night loon chatter about a roaring fire
spoons and forks and thought full lines
drawn in the sands of my corporation plaque
blasting torrents of dead stars
tracing hell through the heavens
God becomes the topic de jour
for railing logic, pulled and pushed
until that notion too ascends in smoke
for his own consideration, or emptiness
finally, warm scotch seizes the mind
and turns off the fun receptors
until cold, lonely night locks the scene

And with day is play, this new place, still ours
empty save for a lonely tent that keeps appearing
looping drives to pay our share, but where?
a slow man allows passage into sweet water
the honor system and a giant tabulator
and off for the hills that bleed sand
and know the dark shadow of giant birds
the colors thicken in the falling light, bloom in dusk
it is a well beat trail, the heart knows a good trail
and rushes forth, testing its flow, alive to go
up through the golden spires, stalwart skies
in search of the Condors gliding on warm thermals
and now this rock, quake shot stone
to hold my calm, to hone my soul

C. Madison Anderson
Pinnacles National Monument
12-3-08

Read Full Post »

The pebbled dirt road underfoot is dampened to the point of congealed saturation. A morning storm has cast its long shadow over this sunless Sunday morning. This after a day of intermittent storms chased us from easy chair to the relatively confined shelter of the truck several times since sun up.

It is not so much the rain, you see, for that is mostly a refreshment in the nearly 100° late summer heat of Southeastern Utah. But rather, it is the random, bold swaths of lightening that have chased us from our idyll. Hondo the dog has spent most of the past 24 hours – only the second day that he has ever spent in the desert – cowering in a black, hairy ball atop of Sharon’s retro puffy ski vest in the back of the land cruiser. There were not many thunder storms in Monterey, California, where he spent the first three years of his existence. And it’s a damn good thing too: the one storm that I recall lit the entire South Coast region afire and threatened to take out Big Sur in its entirety.

This is our first desert camp, officially, in about three years – a shocking gap of time to me. There was a trip four years ago to the Utah/Colorado border, but required a 1500 mile jaunt each way with less than a week all told to do it in. Now, I am back living in the Colorado mountains. Getting here is just a half day drive. I thank the lords of spare time for the chance to do it. This is my place.

The coffee has finished brewing. It is an instant mix that I am sure will taste thick and alkaline compared to the luxury of the French Roast at home, but a nice cup of warm joe sounds appealing under these moody morning skies. Especially with a little brown liquor as a sweetener. Nothing like a good strong cup of coffee before a long walk…

 

Read Full Post »

The Tuesday Pool and the Moon Eaters – a short story

By Corby Anderson

At midnight plus two minutes, the bartendress had seen enough. It was time for her to go home and feed her cat. Time too, for the news and for buttered popcorn in a microwave bag. She would give her cat small pieces of these treats if he asked, but he never asked, so the bartendress always ate it all herself.

The two men, loon squawking buffoons prancing around table number twelve, jamming dollar after dollar into the tired old jukebox, they were not done with the night. Soon their companions would go home, leaving the two to their own devices, left to wander in wonder, and to wonder what happened.

“Hey chica! Howsabout you get some Dylan on here!? Every time I play Dylan Rob fucking Thomas rears his ugly head!” one shouts from across the room. “Well, cabron, you shoulda knowed by now, eh cabron? Bob stinking Dylan has not just walked into my bar and say down behind that jukebox since the last time that you tried to play him! Eh cabron?” she chuckled as her wet rag swept across the slate bartop. Five more minutes, and that was it. This happened every time the two men came to play pool. One of them once told her, in a whisper, that they were poets. This had made her laugh a loud high laugh. She had never heard such a thing in her bar. Poets….The nerve. In her bar, even!

One of the women that the men were with got up to take her turn at the table. The bartendress watched from behind the bar as the comely latina arched her back to reach across the green table for a long shot. “I once had legs like that.” She thought to herself. “And an ass BETTER than that.” She shook her head and counted up the tally for the two men. They each shared a portion of twelve beers, a mixture of Bud Light and Guiness from her tap. The Guiness was always better to serve, she thought. It gave her more to do on Tuesdays like this, when the only patrons were tired tourists and late arriving resort workers.

A flash went off from over by table number twelve. One of the men was taking a photograph of the taller Latina chica. She posed easily, hair piled up over her far ear, raven dark and thick with salt water from the days sea kayak trip. Her golden cross swung freely down by her neckline, like a foot bridge across the deep misty canyons below. She knew that the men would notice, but she arched her back just a little more to be sure. Her hamstrings flexed with taunt hesitance. The office job at the tractor store was starting to make her feel like an old lady.

The older man went off to the bathroom for one last hit before the bar closed. It was the only ventilated bar bathroom in town, and also the only one that bolted with a dead bolt. The three at the pool table thought that they would play a joke on him, and when he opened the door, more glassy eyed and pleasant that before he had entered, he found the other three locked into a three way grope session. “Lucky bastard.” He thought. The three flicked tounges at one another, and rubbed each others backs and legs with a previously unseen desperation. The girls squealed with delight. He moved in closer to inspect this new development.

As the older man came closer, his three friends burst out of their embrace with a large, drunken, “SURPRISE!”. He laughed along with them, but stored the image away for later. Who knew what these women were here for. Who knew what they were capable of. They were mystery women from the planet of the lost angels.

“Enough! Enough of your shenanigans! I have to go home! Romero is going to be pissed! He needs his insolation, you know. He is a diabolic, you know!” The barkeep yelled. “Come get your tickets. Time to pay the beetch” She added.

“Diabetic.” The bald one said, as he came bounding across the room. “Wha?” the woman asked. “Romero. I assume that is your cat. He is diabetic, no?” he added. Her face lit up. She loved Romero with every ounce of her being, and had since the very first second that she had seen him. Her aunt Felicia had given her Romero when the INS came and took Felicia back to Juarez. IT made her so sad that Romero was sick. But the medicine helped. The medicine fixed Romero and she would not have to worry about all of the nonsense medical terminology that the veterinarian had gone into. As long as she had the Medicine, Romero was safe and sound. Nothing could break up her love for this cat. They were connected by the heart. Romero’s collar even said it. It said “Chupa’s Romero, two hearts beat as one”, right on the collar. She had had this specially engraved in Salinas last Christmas, and gave it to Romero on Christmas eve, along with half of a Wendy’s hamburger. Romero loved cheese the most, but she did not get a cheeseburger that day, for some reason. It had been years, and much had happened since, but for some reason she always regretted not getting Romero a cheeseburger that day.

The bald man paid his tab and so did the older man. The two women hugged them both and strutted out of the bar and down the street to where their car was parked. It was a normal night, and the moon was but half full. The men stared up at it and made small talk until the women has passed into the darkness around the corner, and then they started walking up Alvarado Street. The night was young, and their energy was up. But where to go in the stale, unfulfilled din of a Tuesday night?

The barkeep locked the door to the pool hall behind her, amusing herself with thoughts of two poets drinking beer at her bar. The nerve of them, she thought. Poets! Ha! She watched as they sauntered off up the road. “I wonder how they will write about me?”, she thought to herself. The night was perfectly calm, and the moon was half full and tipping towards the great black sea that always looked to her like it would swallow Monterey. Out in the blackness, a small blue light flickered on and off, faint and reassuring. “If it cannot eat the light, then it cannot eat me”, she thought, before turning towards home.

Read Full Post »

*The following reviews were originally published in the Monterey County Weekly Best Of 2010 Awards issue in March, 2011.

Best Deli Sandwich

Compagno’s Market and Deli

2000 Prescott Ave., Monterey

375-5987

Ten-hut! Listen up, you seaweed-sucking cuisinartistas: This is actionable intel! The people have spoken, and that means that only one deli can lead this ragtag outfit. Compagno’s Market and Deli, a dietary (term used very loosely in this case) staple of the adjacently interned armed forces and sandwich-loving locals, in large part due to the large parts that make up these tank-sized monster-pieces. A full-sized Marine Special (chicken breast, bacon, Caesar dressing, pepper jack cheese and a full arsenal of produce and condiments, on huge rolls) will stuff you goofy for two, maybe three meals. And that doesn’t include the mandatory explorations into the rarely seen regional chips (like Herr’s Heinz Catsup – usually seen only on the Eastern Seaboard) or rare sodas (Cheerwine – Carolina treat) and beers that effervescent, funny and friendly owner Bennett Compagno stocks to please his globe-hopping clientele.

Best Neighborhood Bar

English Ales

223 Reindollar Ave., Marina

883-3000 www.englishalesbrewery.com

English Ales, the unassuming, beloved brewpub tucked into the rolling dunes of Marina’s business district, once again takes home honors as Best Neighborhood Bar – a fact that ought to make the tightknit regulars there fairly pickled with justified pride. This is a true pub, with comfortable atmosphere, a ceiling covered in hundreds of personalized, numbered mugs, a welcoming bar, great service, a totally underrated, delicious and hearty menu of British grub and always interesting local beer-lovers on hand to entertain. Hard liquor is not an option, which never seems to matter with upwards of 10 hand-crafted brews to study.

Best Bar for Darts

Bulldog British Pub

611 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey

658-0686

For years now, Central Coast dart buffs have flocked to the Bulldog for sharply played matches, and little wonder why. The pub has fostered a passionate community of cricket-chuckers by providing a bloody charming atmosphere (not to mention imbibement) and by hosting semi-monthly, 2-on-2 tournaments that have been dominated by a small, cagey band of legends. But most times the stately board is open to seasoned hustlers and gapers alike on a drop-in basis. A well-peppered American Dart Company board awaits your steady (or not) hand, and fronts a wall chock-full of bulldog-themed paraphernalia from around the globe. The “oche,” or official throwing line, is well-marked on the ornately woven carpet by the copious beers – and tears – spilled there during many a spirited game.

Best Restaurant – Marina

Kula Ranch Island Steakhouse

3295 Dunes Road, Marina (at Sanctuary Resort)

883-9479, www.kula-ranch.com

Consisting of equal parts all-American steakhouse, tropical Tiki lounge and destination sushi bar – a veritable mirror of mellow Marina – Kula Ranch is a culturally and geographically diverse chutney of presentation styles, flavors and olfactory senses. Kula’s burgeoning culinary rep – and this award, likely – comes from its consistently fresh and classily prepared array of steaks and seafood, and a boost from a loyal Otter following. Taco Tuesdays has become a staple of the CSUMB student lifestyle, with hundreds of starving students descending en masse to chow cheaply and live a little in the spacious, niftily adorned house of flavor.

Best Chinese

Tommy’s Wok

Mission between Ocean and Seventh, Carmel

624-8518, www.restauranteur.com/tommyswok/

When you are a small, rather stashed-away restaurant, your food simply has to be outrageously good to win this award, given the competition. Tommy’s, tucked away in one of those classic Carmel nooks – behind a house of fancy skivvies, and all of 600 square feet, with maybe 20 tables – does just that. Tommy’s Wok creates a stir week in and week out with savory, silky wonton soup, oh-my-God-these-are-good broccoli prawns and a full menu of similarly killer fare across the spectrum of Mandarin, Szechuan and Hunan. It’s not unusual to get a freshly made, hot meal in just five minutes. And not overlooked in locals’ vote making: the super-affordable lunch menu, which offers huge plates for generally under $20 for two, with soda and tea.

Best Local Beer/Brewery

English Ales

223 Reindollar Ave., Marina

883-3000, www.englishalesbrewery.com

When your thirst for a real beer in a real pub in a real town overwhelms, head to resurgent Marina and one of its real gems. English Ales serves up nine English-style ales, from the popular, hopped-up Fat Lip Amber, to a bitter and crisp Corkscrew Ale, plus other tastes from all across the brewing spectrum, with wheats, IPAs, lagers, pales and porters. Have a mug there, or take home a growler for later fresh from the taps, or procure yourself a nifty sixer at a local liqueur store. When in doubt, do yourself a favor and try a majestic, marble-smooth Monk Brown Ale. Mmm. Thirsty…

Best Hardware Store (tie)

Pacific Grove Ace Hardware

229 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove

646-9144, www.acehardware.com

Coast Ace Hardware

1136 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove

372-3284, www.acehardware.com

Not to throw the proverbial wrench into anyone’s sense of plurality in naming a clamp champ, but two separate, independently owned Aces share this crown molding. Pacific Grove Ace Hardware and Coast Ace Hardware, each on the opposite ends of Forest Avenue in Pacific Grove, are jam-packed with tools, materials and a billion doo-dads and whatchamadoogies for your every home improvement project. From augers to aerators, paints to plaster, keys to critter cages, it’s all there at the P.G. Aces, where “good service is always in stock.”

Best Place to Rent Videos/DVD’s

Blockbuster Video

1170 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove, 657-0292

2260 Fremont, Monterey, 655-5401

262 Reservation Road, Suite A, Marina, 384-1054

1988 N. Main St., Salinas, 442-3050

1594 N. Sanborn Road, Suite 100, Salinas, 754-0906

www.blockbuster.com

In what is perhaps the most likely category to go the way of buggy whips and the American middle class, Blockbuster Video wins hands down. Of course, due to unforeseen technological advancements, the competition has dwindled to a few robotic Red Boxes and a rather “blue” local video shop. But those of you who haven’t taken the occasion to walk the aisles of an actual movie rental store since the advent of the various couch-potato friendly digital content delivery services will likely be pleasantly surprised at just how refreshingly nostalgic and inspiring the experience is. The good news: The company that revolutionized the home entertainment industry is still here, with five local stores, and their shelves are stacked (thankfully, alphabetically, which is the natural form of how movie browsing should be presented) with current films, from the A-Team to Zoolander, as well as an interior sea of racks packed with classics that are a sensory hoot to peruse, pick up, turn over, read and consider for your evening’s entertainment.

Read Full Post »

Most Everything

Pomegranates, red-slated fences, green grasses, and rings

Most everything that everybody sings

Desire, need, take and bring

It all blows away in the spring

 

Bloody knees, burnt feet, lost keys, fresh food to eat

Most everything that is unconceived

Oiled glove, new shoes, camp chair, cold stream

It all comes alive in the spring

 

Soft breezes, hard cheeses, and hummingbird wings

Most everything that anybody means

A hard job, sick dog, the extra mile, new destiny

All of this washes away in the spring

 

Porch kisses, dirt roads, and lightning bug pings

Most everything that counts as a fling

Snowmen, cold hearts, whiskey breath, jealousy

All of this melts away in the spring.

 

C. Madison Anderson

10-17-10

Marina, CA

 

Read Full Post »

Chilling in the Mellow Meadow

Relish: The Moment (In the Hipnic of Time)
By Corby Anderson

A Friday in Spring

When the clock thumped 3pm on the office wall, I leapt up and bolted for the door, but not before remembering to dump the leftover coffee so that it wasn’t left to stagnate and mold over the weekend. As is the custom, I pitched the chilly backwash into the snail-riddled lilacs out back. It’s hard to say which does more damage to the decrepit looking landscaping – the snails or their coffee baths, however it has been fascinating to watch the evolutionarily mutated snails peering at me through their yellowing eye-stems as they ramp up their 40-inch dash times to levels previously considered impossible for gastropods.

I waved cordially to the assorted creatives that peck away in the thoughtful nests around mine, and hit the door in a wheezy sprint, hell bent for Big Sur, on a beeline to a music festival called the Hipnic, which was being held under endless trees and swimming stars at a commercial commune known as the Fernwood Resort.

Hipnic is a fantasy camp of sorts for a new breed of California dreamers – those boomer-spawned sons and daughters of the hippie generation and its cosmic alliance of bands, drugs and social circumstance; the surf scene of Jan and Dean, The Beach Boys, and Dick Dale; the western outlaws led by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. These dreamers are just old enough to claim the Doors as their first concert (perhaps womb-side, but still), to understand clearly the connection between the Grateful Dead, Hank Williams, and the pre-capitalist monster that has become Jimmy Buffett. Likewise, they are young enough to have never owned a legitimately mass-produced compact disc, or to have stashed volumes of glossy, illicit “research” under their mattresses.

Hosted by the eponymous, eminent band of west coast musicians known as the Mother Hips, the Hipnic was conceived last year as an intimate, family-friendly gathering of a widening circle of “California Soul” (so named for their genre-crossing Golden State roots and generally mellow nature) bands and the road-loving herd of loyal fans and friends that make up the inauspicious scene.

The first Hipnic, held the previous Fourth of July weekend at the classic bohemian landmark known as the Henry Miller Library, just down the road from this years venue, was a rousing musical success, with summering sets by ascendant bands such as Everest, These United States, Red Cortez, the hosts, and a dozen other hand-picked acts, from straight rock, country, folk, to fully jetted psychedelic space explorers.

Building on that energy towards an organically larger vision of Hipsness, the producers chose wisely to move this years festival to an enclosed resort, so as to take advantage of the Fernwood’s full-service camping, staging, Redwood grove, riverside setting, and a relatively safe expanse of backcountry-esque space for patrons and musicians alike to wander, thus saving caravans of families and red-eyed festivitites the hassle of having to take to the treacherous chicanes and s-curves that wind along the coast, luring a treacherous mix of speed demons and lumbering rental-RV’s.

Big Sur is a vortex within a crystallized meridian, a spiritual eddy that collects a world-class gyre of drifters, artists, chess champions, woods people, surfers, and tourists alike. Just getting there tends to be an adventure into itself. The road from my office in San Juan Bautista, an old California mission town besieged by a particularly wanton and fearless gang of free-range chicken, to Big Sur, a chickless mission town of a whole different variety, is 60 miles. On a good day, when the coastal traffic is light, with few scenery grazers, and the absence of common roadside disaster, the trip should take an hour and a half.

Even with the loss of valuable time stopping in Monterey at the music store for a lowly acoustic guitar peg ($.97), I hit the light at Carmel Valley in record time, thirty-five minutes. At that rate, I projected an arrival time of 4:55pm, just in time to see the second half of the hostess, Nicki Bluhm’s band.

For twenty hair-raising (an extra-exhilarating experience for those who have recently become follicly-challenged) miles, I clutched madly and jammed gears while tracing the awe-inspiring cliffs and narrow bridges of Highway 1 on two wheels – notable in that I was driving a four-wheeled, 4,000 pound hunk of voodoo-blue Japanese Land Cruiser, and an automatic, at that.

Halfway between Hurricane Point and the lighthouse at Point Sur, I was forced to slow down when I encountered a slow-moving ambulance, which was obviously processing some sort of difficult, in-bound tragedy. The aging van, obviously a free-lancing coastal emergency service since it bore no identifying stickers, weaved across the two lanes of coastal highway; it’s blue light bar flashing and its siren squawking intermittently. Out of concern for the victim and the heroic responders who risk everything to peel the misfortunate out of their various catastrophes, I laid on the brakes and watched my speedometer dip by 40 mph to an uncomfortable, but necessary speed of 15.

With nothing else to do but slowly follow, I set the wheel against my kneecaps and reached far into the back of the jeep, to where the cooler was. I fetched myself a cold beverage and took two large swigs of prescription-strength cough medicine to help stave off a gruesome croup that had dipped in and out of pneumonic stage for the two weeks prior. My recovery had included a 5-day brace of ciprofloxacin antibiotics, and had only been complete enough to consider camping out about 48-hours prior.

My lungs, otherwise fairly virginal, had been scorched like amateur crepes by the flu and reduced to semi-inflatable butter churners, and while the Cipro had gotten rid of the mucus, the only thing that seemed to bay the tickling wind were regular doses of codeine and warm whiskey. I figured a Budweiser would do in a pinch, so I dutifully took my medicines, and then refocused on the road.

The ambulance itself seemed to be in distress. It drifted left and right, to the point of nearly launching itself off the cliff at one point. I cringed as I followed behind. Their speed was as inconsistent as their trajectory. The scene had all the makings of a worsening disaster. There is nothing more hopeless than a wrecked emergency vehicle.

I cursed the Lord of Grim and Ironic Situations, and tried to put together a quick solution.

Thinking that perhaps an epileptic fit has befallen the driver, I waited for a clear stretch of road and then gunned my truck to see if I could pace alongside the van and look into the window. My wheels pitched into the soft dirt on the shoulder and threatened to spin me out as I tarried alongside the wayward van. If things were as dire as predicted, I was going to need to apply emergency braking skills learned in my years of mountain living, but never actually applied in dry conditions, or on anything but skis, or on any path curvier than an arrow-straight bunny slope, to nothing larger than a barreling tyke.

Holding the wheel firmly now, I fought through the loose dirt and edged up alongside the drivers window, where I was greeted with a shocking sight. There in the window was not a slumped over, officiously dressed ambulance driver, but rather a glassy eyed, devilishly grinning hippy with an impossible tangle of hair regions. On his lap, facing away from the road, was a freckled, redheaded girl who wore a choker of beaded hemp and nothing else. I stared on in fascination at her unrestrained breasts until she raised her arm to wave, revealing an ungladed pit that would have made the R&D jerks at Gillette froth at the mouths. I stared on, and we slowly wove side by side down the two-lane road until I was shaken out of my trance by a loud, amplified voice.

“Hey buddy, get a good look! Yeah!” the voice squawked. It was the driver, who held the walkie-talkie to his hairy face. “Hell, take a peetcher if ya want to, but you might want watch the rooooooaaaaad hahahahaha!” he mocked in a cackling voice.

I jerked my head away from the ambulance to see before me, less than a hundred feet away, the terrified looks in the faces of a family sitting in the front of an Cruise America RV that was parked haphazardly on the northbound shoulder. By the looks of it, the family had seen us coming from a mile away, and taken every evasive action available to them other than to risk getting stuck turning all the way around on a narrow road with no exits.

With a slow-speed, head on collision a likely outcome had we carried on this strange engagement any longer, I hammered down on the pedal and summoned all of the Toyota’s 245 horsepower, and then some, blowing past the entangled hippies, around the screaming tourists, and into the straightaway that leads from the lighthouse into the town proper of Big Sur.

By the time that I dove off down into the Hipnic campground, my system was coursing with adrenaline and a contradictory mix of medicines. Excited and relieved to have finally arrived at the concert, I made my way to my assigned campsite along the far side of the river. My wife was unable to come along, off seeing to the funeral of her grandfather in Michigan, and the crew of neighbors from Monterey that had been so vital to last years experience at the inaugural Hipnic was variously indisposed or priced out of this one, and so I was flying solo, with the expectation that customarily, a family would be appointed to me in the absence of my own. Such is the gracious, endearing scene that the Mother Hips have created over their twenty years of music making, or vice versa.

I found my site, the aptly named “Area 51”, and was greeted by an enthusiastic man wearing a weathered tie die and a Cheshire smile.

“You must be Corby,” he asked.

“That’s right, where should I set up?” I replied.

“I dunno. Anywhere I guess.” I parked the truck on top of a flat spot that sat adjacent to a beautiful meander in the Big Sur River. A large boulder redirected the river to the right, back towards the highway. A small, picturesque waterfall spilled lazily down the mossy mountainside that framed Area 51, its contents trickling across the road, sliding in sheets towards the river. Unrecognizable music could be heard echoing through the grounds from the stage, and I opted to leave the setting of camp for later. Now was time to relax, see some music, see if I knew anyone, and take in the scene.

A hawk spies on Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, with Jackie Greene on the ivories. Photo by Andrew Quist.

Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers. I missed them, but Andrew Quist most definitely did not!

Deren Ney and Tim Bluhm of Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers. Photo by Andrew Quist.

When I reached the stage, it was clear that I had missed the Gramblers set that I had been racing to catch, but I felt no remorse. I would have plenty of chances to catch the sweetly music of the family Bluhm, who figured to play in one configuration or other at least four more times over the course of the weekend.

Little Wings. Photo by Andrew Quist.

I was not, however, mentally prepared for Kyle Field and his band, Little Wings. Field is a curious character, a direct descendent of the later-day Brian Wilson and songwriting savant similar to Daniel Johnston. He sings in a high-pitched sort of falsetto, with lyrics that are at times difficult to understand, let alone comprehend. Little Wing plays along with a forlorn country twang, and the whole thing is pleasant, but dissonant to my jacked up mood. As if on cue, my reaction to the band at hand fell into inconsequence as a sea of familiar faces started to materialize in the gathered crowd.

Hugs, high fives, punches to solar plexus, and laughs abounded. I decided to tour the grounds and get a lay of the land with a friend of mine from near Yosemite who had been tabbed as the official photographer of the event. He oriented me to the facilities, pointed out members of various bands, and showed me some of the shots that he had already taken since the festival started early in the afternoon. “Can you believe this place?” asked Andrew, smiling from ear to ear.

It was a damn good question. What can be believed? What can ever be verified as factually real, or otherwise figmented and drawn up in ones minds eye? Could it be that a band of musicians whom I first came to know as a teenager in college almost twenty years prior were still playing music at a level that would make me quit my job of eight years and abruptly move to California to be closer to it? Did that really happen? Am I alive, growing up, maturing into the person that the fates would have me be, or am I asleep upon my crib, my feet encased in plastic-footed pajamas, dreaming my way towards a life yet to come?

The Brothers Redwood. Photo by Andrew Quist

I looked around. A grove of endless trees reached forever into the sky. Their rusted bark brilliantly enflamed by the diving sun. A young girl of maybe eight was hula hooping in the grass with her mom. They wore matching outsized J-Lo shades, and, other than scale, seemed perfect replications of one another. A trio of grinning dudes chucked a Frisbee to each other in a loose pyramid out in the high grass of the meadow behind the stage, the one that I would come to call “Jack’s Place”, for its seeming like a good spot for a dazed and obtuse Jack Kerouac to have plopped his drunk ass down for a spell fifty or sixty years prior.

The flying disk shimmered and flashed down to earth as it caught the setting sun. The music sparked up once more and soaked into my ears, relieving them of any worrisome news, or bleating phone, or howling doubt. Here there were no seeping oil spills, no foreclosed dreams, and no terror to be found anywhere, unless an empty beer counts as such. In just one Fernwood hour, my mind had adjusted completely, and corny as it might sound, a familiar optimism had taken hold.

The Skinny Singers had the stage for the twilight hour. The Singers consist of an all-star lineup of Jackie Green, the troubadour bluesman originally from nearby Salinas who has been picked by Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead to help carry that ever-burning flame, Tim Bluhm, the Mother Hips’ soulful front man, drummer Mike Curry of the underrated North California band Jackpot, and ALO’s (amongst other bands) Steve Adams on bass.

Skinny Singers, plus one Greg Loiacono. Photo by Andrew Quist

Green and Tim Bluhm, one of the front men from the Mother Hips, have formed an impressive bond, having created a studio together in San Francisco’s Mission District, and together they produced a truly remarkable rock record a few years back called The Skinny Singer Strike Back. Each brings their own musical and lyrical flavorings to the band, but the end result of the pairing is as distinct and original as anything produced in recent memory. Due to the obligations of their various night jobs, the Singers haven’t played more than a few dozen live shows, by my count, and even this one was not announced until the last minute, despite both being on the bill separately.

Green is the slack-eyed youth, the heir apparent to several rock legends, depending on which camp (literally, in this case) that you ask. His voice is powerful and gritty, and his acumen as a guitarist and keyboardist is approaching Allmanistic levels. Bluhm meets Green at the intersection of Abbey and Haight. Theirs is a harmonious, whimsical brand of American story-song rock that captures the imagination and harkens back to days of CSNY, Simon and Garfunkle, or even Seals and Croft.

The Singers decided to give in to the surroundings and have a seat throughout their set. Their sititude was notable, given the bounce and energy that lace through their bluesy rock songs. It was as if they were physically downplaying their combined star power, not trying to upstage the headliners, which, as it turned out, would have been sort of impossible for a variety of reasons, not the least of which happened to be the fact that the Skinny Singers include the front man and understated, VIP keyboardist of the headlining Hips. The result was a calm rendering of their relatively small, but vital mutual catalog.

I moseyed back down river to where my truck was parked. The sun was nearly gone, and my lungs were starting to revolt in the chilly air. I needed a jolt of codeine, a new beer, and a warm jacket. What I got was a small controversy and a resulting net of new friends and acquaintances. When I parked, it had been unclear what the boundaries of Area 51 were. The camping space on the far side of the river at Fernwood was pretty small, was already pretty crowded, and was situated on a fairly untenable downslope, aside from being vivisected by the gentle run out of a waterfall. And so in the absence of campers in the spot across from where I had been assigned, I had parked across the way, along the river, and had intended to plop my behemoth, 4-man then there in the flat.

In the time since I had been at the stage, two cars filled with a family from Santa Barbara had arrived, and were trying to figure out where to put their own tents up at their site, #52.

When I arrived, the adults were lying in wait for me. “Hey man, do own that truck? What site do you have?” “Where are you supposed to be camping?” they asked in irritated bursts.

I looked around. In my haste to join the party after the harrowing trip down the coast, I had scattered my chair, my cooler, and a box of gear all across their camp site, hoping to claim it as my own in case the dubious camping arrangements had somehow been botched and no one showed up. Now, standing before a rack of accusing eyes, I could see that they had me pegged as the heel that I had half-wittingly been. The sun-baked lot of them had me cornered like I was
an amateur in a prizefight. There was no sense arguing the point, especially when the patriarch, a stout-looking surfer brought out the map of the campground. It was obvious that I was poaching their site.

Yet I was conflicted. My instinct in this sort of contentious situation is to win. As Daniel Fairview once said, “I’ve got the competition in me.” And after all, I had (sort of, if promising to pay in semi-regular payments to the songstress from Humboldt who had bought a ticket but had herself booked a gig elsewhere in the interim) paid a pretty penny to be there myself, and didn’t I deserve a level patch to call my own for a few days?

I stood unsure of what to do for a moment, feeling slighted but knowing that I was basically in the wrong. Just then a young boy of no more than seven, with a tangled mop of blonde hair jutting out of a homemade ski hat started to pluck on the strings of a nylon stringed guitar. His plinking tune made little sense to anyone but himself, but it had a mesmerizing effect. The sprite’s shanty drew strong juju from the gurgling river and it’s kin, the slowly spilling falls. It was infused by the splintered light of the redwood canopy and accompanied by the dancing shadows of the buzzards circling above. The mood shifted palpably. A new sense came over me, a feeling of profound ease. My seared lungs filled with clean air, and for once, they did not spasm or convulse. Watching the boy jam with the elements, it became impossible not to smile, and when the grins came they spread like strong rays through thinning fog.

The surfer reached into his cooler and pulled out two cold beers and a box of juice. He clapped me on the shoulder and handed me a Red Seal Ale, and kept one for himself while he poked a hole in the box with the plastic straw.

“How about we drink these beers and listen to my son pick his tune?” he asked, beaming.“Sure enough,” I said. I gathered up my gear and dropped it over on the other side of the road back into the narrow confines of Area 51, then sat with my back against the stony bank of the river and enjoyed a most pleasing bottle of sun-downing ale with my new friends from Santa Barbara.

Darkness prevailed, as always, and I soon found myself at the camp of a grambling photographer named John. Andrew, John and I were standing by John’s Volkswagen bus, geeking out on the assorted electronic finery that the two of them had brought to document the event, when we heard the sudden sound of something heavy thudding down the steep hill behind us. Other than the glow from the concert lights a hundred yards away, it was nearly pitch dark, and it was only by my headlamp that we could see the boulder that had fallen roll to a stop by our feet.
“Hello?” a voice called from above. “Um, look out, I think I kicked a rock off?”
“No shit!” we yelled in unison.
“You nearly brained us all!” John yelled. His stern comment drew a chuckling response that sounded not unlike that of a woodpecker trying to bore into a bamboo pole.
“Sorry man…Uh, mans…sorry bros.” the voice replied, followed by a rustling sound, and then the clacking chatter of a cascade of smaller rocks and debris.

Andrew astutely pointed out that the hillside above was choked with a particularly potent strand of poison oak, but that didn’t seem to deter the hiker. “It’s cool. I’m, uh, just looking for my t-shirt, he he,” he said, sounding as if he himself was now falling down through the brush and trees. More rocks caromed down, and the three of us jumped back behind the VW. John looked nervous, as would anyone who’s pride and joy was under imminent threat of being pummeled by a rockslide kicked off by a senseless rogue in the night. I focused my light on the hill above. A shadowy figure emerged and perched himself atop at a cliffed out area twenty-five feet or more above the camp.

Andrew and I looked at each other incredulously. “He’s not going to try to…” I started to ask, but as the words were forming, the man came sliding down the mountain on his back, in water park fashion – feet up, arms in the air, right through a shimmering thatch of devil oak.

Photo by Andrew Quist. Spiritstandstill.com

Unknown Wookie. Photo by Andrew Quist.

He landed on his feet, and grinned like a lanky, malnourished cat. His jaw ground from side to side on some unknown cud. Sticks and leaves were entangled in his wooly red beard, his eyeglasses were askew and ran perpendicularly in front of his face, and his patchwork pants were torn to shreds – unless they were made to be that way. It’s hard to tell these days, but judging by the route that he took, those were aftermarket gouges on his knees. “Made it!” he said, laughing and hopping around like he was standing in a hot pan.
“Did you find your shirt?” someone asked. The bouncing freak stared quizzically at the three of us. “Shirt?” He asked. I could see his eyes swelling shut before the glare of my headlamp.

I spoke up, keeping my distance, in case he decided to hug anyone. I can handle the occasional case of poison oak when its of my own doing – petting my dog and such, but I’ll be damned if I was going to go from Pneumonia Way straight into Itch City just because an excitable hippy decided to celebrate his newfound surroundings.

“Look here, you’ve wallowed in the oak.” I said, looking closer. A waxy sprig of reddish-green leaves hung from the corner of his beard. It was worse than I thought.
“Holy Christ, are you eating it? Oh Mary, you are screwed. It’s in your system now, speeding around, infecting everything. Just look at yourself. Your eyes have gone toxic. They’ll be completely swollen shut in minutes. Soon you won’t be able to see a thing, and then what? You’ll fall in the river, and drown trying to claw your innards out. You need help, and quickly. I suggest you go immediately upstairs to the store and buy a gallon of Benedryl.”

The scraggly man thanked me profusely, and since I had anticipated it, I was able to dodge his attempted hugs, despite my own Seagram’s Seven and water-induced rapidly deteriorating personal balance. He ran off, rubbing his eyes like a ferocious sleep had overcome them, and we were all left shaking out heads. Just then the familiar, western toned guitars began to jangle on the stage, and we three instinctively moved towards it, Andrew cursing the “sumac-chewing wookie” as we wove our own meandering path through the redwoods back into the meadow where the Hipnic proper was ongoing.

Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono of the Mother Hips. Photo by Andrew Quist.

The Mother Hips are rock and roll DeLorean’s. They are, in fact, timelessly cool, whether going balls out fast or in reflectively sliding by in a slow gallop. At first glance, they look sort of angular and hard to figure, but wind them up, throw some light on them, and give them a space to perform, and they tach and tarry and confuse time itself unlike any other band.

They are singularly, genuinely nice people who happen to have made almost twenty years of music that started strong enough early on to draw the likes of Rick Rubin into their camps, and that actually – and this is indeed a fact, not just my own biased opin – has gotten vastly better with every new record. Their enigma is that nobody, it seems, aside from a growing legion of hard-core fans (and by that I mean – drive 800 miles-each way through a ferocious winter storm-to see a show hardcores) a stable of appreciative fellow musicians, and a few enlightened recording business people knows who they are. And while that may indeed madden the band members, who certainly deserve to cash in on their true artistic value, they sure don’t show it. In fact, they have made it their badge, and they wear it with humility and humor.

John Hofer of the Mother Hips. Photo by Andrew Quist.

With seven truly outstanding records, a box-set worth of unreleased gems, many solo efforts (Bluhm’s “The Soft Adventure/Colts” album has had me in it’s freedom-mourning grips for over a decade now) and side-projects galore (such as the aforementioned Skinny Singers) they are quite likely the most prolific and concurrently quality-oriented band around, anywhere. They are the Beatles, Floyd, The Dead, the Stones, the Kinks, the Bee Gees, the Beach Boys, Merle Haggard and Crazy Horse all whipped together into a totally unique sonic flavor – a golden honeycomb of tone, timing, harmony, wit, character exploration, and space.

The four Hips, with Jackie Green on keys, struck a sentimental chord early with their soft, classy rendition of The Stories We Could Tell, the unregretful Everly Brothers song. Bluhm craned his long neck out from his stooped stagger, eyes pinched, connecting with the song, the cold air, the mates to his left and right, and their friends and family that horseshoed around them. It was the perfect start to the host’s first show of two to come. It was a literal call for this mostly as-yet unbonded crowd to gather around and listen to some tall stories by the heat of the stage.

And so it went. The band churned through an hour or more of music, flashing their chops as countrymen, as ass-moving rockers, and as modern balladeers. Towards the end, the broke from a dual-guitar attack, time shifting, ironically named (had you been soberly slumbering anywhere near the main stage, though I can’t imagine too many were) “Can’t Sleep at All” directly into a bouncing, rambunctious pirate tale that I had never heard before.

Paul Hoaglin of the Mother Hips. Photo by Andrew Quist.

Hearing a good new song by a band that you identify with to the point of adoration is very much like driving a rented sports car on a curvaceous, empty road, or opening up the mailbox to find a long letter from an old friend. It captures the imagination, engages your mind in a dance of memory and possibility. It reconnects you to the essence of that pristine, original bond that formed amidst the places and faces that make up our own stories. Sure, it’s just a song, one of many, if your band is worth a damn. A new song is merely a fresh arrangement of notes, and beats, and perhaps some different twists on a style or theme. But it can be so much more when its reception is unfettered by static or expectation. It can incite a riot of wonder and appreciation way down deep in the soul.

And that is how The Anchor Out Pirates of the Criminal Bay, sung by the marvelously imaginative Greg Loiacono, bolstered by Bluhm’s harmony and perfectly timed electric jolts, and driven to a hand wringing fever by the lock-tight back line of bassist Paul Hoaglin and drummer John Hofer affected me in the liquored air of the Big Sur night.

I like to mosey. I have to move, always, unless I’m sleeping. And I can’t ever fall asleep until the last minute, when it’s just about too late to sleep, anyways. It’s the curse of the modern thinker. When I was a kid, the teachers said that I had ants in my pants, but that always bothered me. I liked to think that I had something more manly in my pants. Like rabbits, or oxen. So to keep the invisible, inevitable Formicidae at bay, I regularly sprayed my nether regions with Raid, just to make sure. And to cover up that smell, since there is no scentless Raid (and for good reason, otherwise everyone would be lathering themselves in the stuff), I used to douse myself with my Dad’s supply of Brut, by Faberge. And that is what the restroom/shower facility at Fernwood Resort smelled like at the end of the Mother Hips show on the first night of Hipnic Duex. Equal parts Raid and Brut, with a slight tinge of Selsun Blue. That, and someone had written the most irreverent graffiti that I had ever seen on the otherwise stark white plasticized wall. “Suk the Sword of Satan.”

Which is how, in a roundabout way, I wound up in the jam packed, après-Hips pre-dawn jamoney at the Fernwood Grille bar with two pint-sized whiskey drinks in my fists and a professional liar gabbing away in my one good ear, while I tried to make sense of a new thing – a rambunctious eight-star pileup of guitars, basses, and one handheld keyboard deal that an interesting fellow named Farmer Dave played by blowing through a plastic trachea.

Friday Night Hipnic Jam with Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and an unknown grambler. Photo by Andrew Quist.

As I craned into the narrow, packed confines of the legendary bar side stage, I was set upon like a strip of mental tenderloin. “Hey!” A woman I later pegged as Barb yelled, drowning out the tunes that Farmer Dave and his friends were digging into. “I’ve got two drinks too!” she announced. I congratulated her. She retaliated by insisting on a double cheers, which is usually a disaster. It takes tremendous concentration and impeccable hand-eye coordination to pull of such a maneuver, let alone perform it while half-twisted in a crowded bar. The predictable happened: After hemming and hawing and shoulder shrugging to no avail, I gave in to her persistent, pantomimed prompting.

I hesitated too long on the upswing, and then connected with the left, but badly missed with the right and sloshed most of a spendy Woody Creek Iced Tea (Chivas and water) over her shoulder onto the back of a guy decked out in tie-dye and camouflage. I don’t think he noticed, but the lady behind me did, when Barb’s’ wine went in the opposite direction. A shriek lit up the night for one hot moment, and I took that as my cue to bail. Conveniently I was nearer the back than I was the stage, and it took just a few swift sideways slips to duck out before the wine-splattered missus had her complete and rightful fit.

I emerged by the Galaga machine and the front door, and briefly considered running all of the way out, but the music beckoned, and in one glance the blinking colored lights of a simulated challenging stage by had me transfixed in their glare for a crucial split-second, and by the time that I snapped out of it, Barb was back by my side, wanting to know what I did for a living. Her tenacity shocked me, and with no other avenue of escape, I decided to humor her. I told her that I was a health food consultant, which is not that far from the truth.

“Oh yeah? And what exactly do you consider to be health food?” she asked. I thought for a moment. I wished that I were free of summary inquisition and nearer the band, which was raging by now.
“I suppose that anything that does not immediately kill you upon consumption should be considered health food,” I said, and sipped my remaining beverage.

She went on in depth about the nature of kale and how it can be used to heal everything from encephalitis to menstrual cramps. I tried not to engage. Then she asked me to ask her what she did for a living. I told her I’d rather guess, so she told me anyways.

“I get the ball rolling on peoples updates on Facebook,” she said with a straight face. She sensed my radar perking up, and drilled in.
“You know when someone famous makes a post? Well, I first it.”
“You do what?” I asked.
“I first it. Virginal posting.”
“For a living?”
“Yep.”
“Why?”
“It’s high science. A social experiment. Google pays me.”
“Google pays you to make comments on Facebook?”
“Well, not comments. Firsts. But yeah. Big time! Twice a month, like clockwork.” she said, bubbling over with unbridled enthusiasm. I was completely confused. “Wha? How?…are there others?”
“There are now, but I’m the FIRST! Hahahaha. The virgin virgin!”

Some people can’t be shaken. They are wanton energy vampires – human spirit-suckers who deign to hold conversation when in reality they are mind-vaccing the very marrow of your being. And I don’t mean to speak badly of Barb the internet cherry-buster, but by God the woman had me pegged as some sort of officially ordained listener, when in truth I wanted nothing more than to stand in mass solitude and absorb this late-night gramble without having to ooze myself downhill to my still yet-to-be-pitched tent as a victim of catastrophic energy-disgorgement, which is what ultimately happened.

Saturday

There is only one situation in which being unlucky enough to be saddled with a urinary catheter can be considered a positive situation, and that is if you happen to pass out with a gallon of saloon swill in your system and a stereo-suggestive setting of a slowly trickling waterfall on one side of your tent and a gurgling river on the other. I was not so unlucky.

The sky-scraping canopy splintered the ascendant Saturday sun. Its beaming rays bore into my tent to selectively pierce my slumber, signaling a new morning and triggering a sudden, awkward awareness of an internal urgency. I cursed my catheterlessness as I tried to kick my way out of my sleeping bag, sparking off an unholy cramp that seized the entire underside of my left leg.

Grunting and swearing like a playground bully, I clawed the nylon floor, pulled myself out of the tent and onto the dewy leaves and cold pebbles of the ground outside, and squirmed painfully out of my synthetic down cocoon. The air was still and sweetly scented. My neighbors waved hesitantly from around their morning fire as I stood on the cramp and gathered my bearings. I breathed as deep as I could, letting the mountain air in and hoping that I wouldn’t revert to a spasmodic coughing fit. But the air filled them perfectly. My lungs felt finally free of the pneumonic grip that had nearly ruined me just days before.

“Hipnic!” I croaked, my voice shot from the prior nights revelry. “Indeed,” the surfer replied. “Day two, ready or not!” he called from his bacon station. A pair of kids and their mom stood wading in the river, the kids stood near the bank and were swamped up to their waists, the mother knee deep in the lazy running creek.

The water called to me, and I hobbled down the bank and submerged myself with a plop, kneading the iron knot in my leg. After a minute in the chilly water, the cussed cramp eased enough to stand aloft, and without drying off I bid the Santa Barbarian’s as good a day as I could muster before making a hamstrung lope for the stage-side restroom to complete my original mission and get ready for the day ahead.

Near the stage I ran into Andrew, who was sitting amongst the plastic chairs with Greg from the Mother Hips and his neighbor from Marin, Scott Thunes, a wise eyed fellow who once served as Zappa’s bass player. Heady company. We were joined by a tall fellow in a lopsided cowboy hat named Jesco, the singer for a semi-defunct Chico band called the Keystones, whose rhythm section split off in the early 90’s to become the original Mother Hips’ back line – a tandem that produced outrageous time-changing California rock for quite some time, until kids were born, and styles evolved, and ways were kindly parted.

The conversation sailed in the morning air like a slow Frisbee. Back and forth. Here and there. Easy as it goes. Smiles were paid back with laughter. Laughter with knee slaps. Knee slaps earned howls. There was a sensation of infinite possibility lofting about. There was so much to do yet, and

In the field of grass to the rear of the stage, a juggler practiced to the serenade of a solo banjoist. Greg grinned from beneath his stylish-once-more black Wayfarers as Thunes diddled with his iPhone, effortlessly tossed out a breadth of ponderous facts, and regaled us all with Zappa tales tall and wide. Somehow the conversation turned to soundtracks, a topic that allowed me to bring up a question that I had been meaning to ask Greg.

Just two nights prior, as I fought the croup tooth and nail into an exhausted, sleepless stupor, I curled up under a blanket of made of old t-shirts that my mother and grandma made me long ago and mindlessly gazed at the TV. We had recently gotten the pay channels for the first time, and with no other options that seemed interesting, I dialed up a movie on the Independent Film Channel called “The Babysitter’s.” It starred John Leguizamo, a respectable, if strangely pan-faced actor whose performance is typically enlightening in some way. If I were to rate pre-Babysitter’s Leguizamo, the watchability factor for his vehicles would have to rank somewhere around those of similar urban actors such as Mark Rufalo, or maybe Terrance Howard. I generally don’t get all that excited, or all that disappointed by their performances, but I do seem to always come away thinking that I know the guy that they are playing, if that makes sense.

And I should couch this with a brief statement about my own threshold for shocking artistic content. I’ve yet to find it, and I have endeavored to do so. Best that I can tell, I really don’t have one, that is, other than total gore or meat grinder cinema, like the Saw franchise, or replays of election night in the year 2000.

But even in my zombified state I was not prepared for the uncomfortable foray into child-prostitution that the plot heralded. Leguizamo, and his high school babysitter started a call girl service, enlisting his middle-aged buddies to hire the sitter’s young friends. The movie turned seriously creepy when they whole illegal, super horny gang stole away for a weekend of ill gotten debauchery in a cabin that appeared to double as a Roofie factory. It was easily 4 in the morning by the time that the cabin scene came on, and I hoisted the remote to kill the thing before I was further distressed, and just as I fingered the power button, a familiar tune sparked up. It was the unmistakable 13 note walk down that signals the start to the song “Red Tandy,” by the Mother Hips. My favorite band. A band that I had watched grow strong and curiously unfamous over the span of nearly two decades, and a band whose decidedly cinema-friendly music, to my knowledge, had not ever been used in a real movie. “It was a terrible scene, Greg!” I said. He grimaced and leaned so far back in his chair that I thought the plastic legs would twist and collapse. It was as if he was trying to duck away from the news. “It was ugly, a rape scene. But it was your song, and I couldn’t believe it. I was torn to pieces, you see…”

“I know!” he replied, laughing. “We had no idea. We just heard from Jon (Salter, of Camera Records) that it was some indy flick, a modern romance. He said Leguizamo was the lead, and that the producers wanted to pay a few grand to use our song. Then months went by and we heard nothing about it. Until…well, someone told me about the scene. We were shocked! It’s just crazy.”

“Panface,” I said irritably. Thunes picked up on the comment. “I noticed that too! It’s like his cheeks have been frontally compacted or something.” We all chuckled. “I saw the same thing happen to Jimmy Page. I was watching a video of Zeppelin playing “Immigrant Song,” you know – the BOM BOM BOM BADOW, BOM BOM BOM BADOW part, and right before my eyes Page’s face flattened out like a startled gecko. Instant pan face. He’s never looked the same since.”

It was Derby Day, and I was itching to get upstairs to the bar to see what the line on the race was. I generally pull for the seventh post, and on this day a dog named American Lion held the lucky spot, and his line was a sketchy 30:1. No matter, I had no money on the race. But the pre-race chatter always gets me piped up, and it seemed like a good way to unwind from all of this unwinding. Also, I needed sustenance. It had been a long night, and my innards needed a healthy coating of grease to return to proper working order, and there was rumor of a breakfast buffet with a 10am cutoff. I asked what time it was, and a quartet of cell phone displays told me that it was 9:35. High time to motivate.

On the small stage that sits in the far corner of the Fernwood’s funky deck overlooking the campground below, local boy Levi Strom and his band played a morning set of golden-toned Big Sur folk while we feasted on plates piled high with sausage, scrambled eggs, fruit chunks and chalky biscuits. Bloody Mary’s, beers, and a perfectly good glass of fresh squeezed orange juice that had been raped by a bad dose of tequila littered the weathered redwood slab that served as our table. “I need bacon,” I said to nobody in particular. “I can’t listen to folk music in the morning without bacon. It just doesn’t seem right.”

I went inside to see the cook. He is a stout man in his 40’s, with a ready grin that seems to run contrary in spirit to his neck tattoo. The cook was pulling the last remaining steam pan from the empty buffet table. He must have sensed my dismay, and asked if I’d gotten enough to eat. “Sure, sure. It was a fine meal…” my voice trailed off. I stared at the pan in his iron hands. “But?” He found my gaze. “Well, I could use some bacon, I guess. It helps to render the old beer,” I said. He laughed and disappeared into his kitchen. I glanced over at the Galaga machine and my stomach leapt. Barb the Firster was hunched over the game, carrying on a conversation with dive-bombing space demons. I slid around the table and out of her view plane.

The cook emerged with a wide grin and an oily napkin that held four crispy strips of bacon on it. “Found a stash in the back. It’s yours,” he said. “Oh man. Major score. Thanks!” I said. I scooped up the strips and started to turn, when a notion of gratitude came over me. “Hey, you know, you guys out here get a bad rap.” “Oh yeah? Whadya mean?” he asked, his voice ascending suspiciously. He did not look up from his task of cleaning the long table that fronts the roadside window.

“Well, the old line is that most of the Big Sur locals are dicks. Real hard cases. Rude and ungrateful to the visitors and their money that comes from all over to see this place.” The cook crossed his arms and took a defensive stance. “But I’ve never seen it. I’ve had nothing but good times here. You all put on a hell of a party, close late, and come right back for more the next morning. And these tourists come at you in waves, so I wouldn’t fault you a minute for getting overwhelmed by it all. A man has to protect his turf sometimes, or else the visitors get a little too comfortable. I’ve seen it in Aspen. People take certain liberties, and given enough leash they tend to go spastic and start thinking that the locals are just window dressing in their grand shopping spree. No. You all handle it pretty damn gracefully if you ask me.”

The cook laughed, grumbled about backhanded compliments, and then dismissed me with a three-fingered, temple tapping salute. I wandered back out to the deck with a fist full of pork. “What this party needs is some salt water!” someone said. “Let’s go to the beach!”

Our crew saddled up in two trucks and rode the mile or so up the coast out to Andrew Molera beach. I led the march to the sea, claiming to know the way, and predictably, we were lost within minutes of striking out on the trail. “Um. I think that I parked in the wrong place. The trail I’m thinking of is up the road a piece,” I said, slightly embarrassed. Like all men and unfarmed salmon, I pride myself on my keen sense of direction. “We’ll just follow the river. It runs into the ocean up here a piece.”

We strode into a fierce, wilting wind. Point Sur, the geographical elbow of the California Coast that Andrew Molera State Park sits adjacent too, is one of the most consistently persistent windy places that I have ever seen, and on this day the gales were in plus mode. Tall, arching waves of poison oak spilled over our heads on the narrow trail, and we filed along singly while ducking and dodging to avoid contact with the swaying sumac. “Hey Magellan, how much farther up here is it?” hollered Jesco from behind. “Gramblers are on at 1.” I thought for a minute. I didn’t rightly know, given the foreign nature of this particular stretch of trail, plus the canyon of hateful weed that we were channeling through. “Oh, it’s right here. Right around the corner!” I lied. “How about a beer?”

A half-hour, or maybe more, later, our beleaguered band of explorers emerged out of the thicket and to the mouth of Molera State Beach, an arching strand of white sand that horseshoes around an asymmetrical black rock cove. The lumber schooners called small coves such as these dog-hole ports, a colloquialism that stemmed from the tight confines of the lumber ports along the west coast, just big enough for a dog to fit in.

There were no pooches at Molera on this day, though there were a bevy of surfers, beach walkers, and a few scraggly kids who were just weighty enough to not fly away, if barely. The beach is bisected by the chilly, steady streaming river that pours down out of the Lucia range. Fording the river proved to be a challenge at high tide, but eventually we all made it across, though several of our group had to de-jean to get across the hip deep stream. With the wind screaming in at a steady clip, we sought shelter in the driftwood shacks that stud the beach. There, we drank sandy beer, failed repeatedly at the most fundamental aspect of smoking, and found great humor in the re-jeaned Zach and Diane as they attempted to fly a shiftless kite.

A lone surfer braved the chop and rode the shore break to measured success. I suppose that much like skiing, any day in the water is a good one, and even after enduring such hairy conditions, the bushy-bearded dude beamed with unmistakable sea-stoke when he finished his session. “I think that’s Kyle, from Little Wings,” Jesco said. “That guy rules ass.” I nodded and looked down at my wrist to check the time. Strange, that habit, since I haven’t worn a wristwatch since someone stole my Star Wars watch from my cubby in the 1st grade. “Hair past a mole again? Guess we oughta mosey, eh?” said Abbie, Jesco’s lively sigO.

Zach chased down his errant, defiant kite, and after a hilarious undertaking that tested the wits and strength of three and a half people, we got it broken down and packed up into it’s fiercely flapping plastic bag. We waded back across the stream one at a time. An invigorating sensation of mild, but instant hypothermia elicited howls from each who entered and hoots from those that waited on the other side. A particularly tense moment occurred when Andrew, the photographer, nearly pitched over mid-steam when a rock rolled under foot. It would have been an artistic and economic disaster had his gear bag gotten wet, as I had been privy to some of the incredible images that he framed the previous day, and also because he was shooting with a nearly brand new camera and a rented lens after having recently suffered the total loss of his spendy rig in a tragic tripod collapse along the banks of a Yosemite creek. I held my breath when he stumbled, and Abbie yelled at him to throw the bag across the rest of the river that he had yet to cross, but he pulled it together and made landfall with his potent Canon undoused.

The walk back seemed to take far less time than the inbound hike had, but that always seems to be the case, doesn’t it? Interestingly, I’ve always found it to be the opposite when driving. Several of us ducked behind a tree to partake of some North State finery, and then trotted to catch up to the rest of the gang who had motored on up the trail. I caught up to Zach on the far side of a bend in the trail. He was stooped down, tracking something that was slithering on the ground. “SNAKE!” I yelled, skidding on the heels of my well-worn flip-flops. “Good lord, get away! They’ve got rabies, and fangs!” I yelled, backing away. I hate snakes. Especially little ones. They say those are the ones that will kill you the deadest. Their venom is super concentrated, like powdered Gatorade. When a pasty American hiker calf is in their sights, their jaws unhinge grotesquely, and then lock down on the nearest flesh meat like those of an iron-deficient pit bull. Once a young snake has its hooks into you, you might as well limp off and jump headlong from the nearest cliff, otherwise the end will come much more slowly and brutally, but just as surely.

“No snake, centipede,” Zach said. “Or millipede. Can’t remember which is which.” He had the long bug on a stick. I crept in, unsure. The bug was black and covered in quills. It inched along in a bewildered state. Must be strange to be cruising along on flat ground, and then suddenly held aloft in space on the edge of a branch by a giant hippy from Chico. “Still looks dangerous, ” I said, and meant it.

Zach was about to let his leggy prisoner free when a family came down the trail. The father was ahead of his pride, and when he reached us he motioned excitedly to his young daughter to come see the wildlife. The girl was no more than five, and held in her hands a magnifying glass formed in the shape of a frog. She rushed up and gazed down on her study with one huge eyeball. “Look mama, a cinnamonpede!” she lisped. “No honey, it’s a centipede, isn’t that right boys?” she nodded a knowing look at us. I shrugged. Zach chimed in happily. “I think it’s a millipede. It was so many legs. That’s the big difference…I think.” The snaggle-toothed girl looked up at us, and I noticed the bug become extra agitated. It’s black quills shown brightly under the focused light of the microscope. I looked up. The midday sun was beaming down on us from directly above. I closed my eyes and felt it’s heat wash over my face, lingering for a second to enjoy the warmth, a rarity in the El Nino-confused months of rain that had besieged the coast since last summer.

A shrill scream shattered my Zen. “Oh my god! It’s on fire! Put it out! Put it out!” I heard the father yell. I looked back down and the centi-millipede was beset by a tiny wildfire amongst its spines. Zach was in drop-jawed shock. He waved the stick in the air vigorously from left to right, but the action only caused the flames to strengthen. The girl sobbed uncontrollably, her eyes covered by her small hands, other than a gap between her middle and ring fingers from which she peered with terror in her red eyes.

In the corner of my ears, I thought that I heard a series of tiny screams in protestation of intense pain and untold suffering. It was too much to bear, and I yelled for Zach to drop the stick. He did as directed. I swiped my left flip flop off and prepared to slap it down on the flaming bug, intending to lightly pat the flames out. But just as I lined up my shot, a heavy surge of adrenaline swept through me and my emergency strength overshot the appropriate measurement. I succeeded in putting the flames out with one swift downswing, but in the process I squashed the big into a greasy, smoldering mash.

Suddenly, all was silent. I looked at Zach, and he looked at me. Neither of us could bear to look at the family. Zach’s face was frozen in a surprised expression, the look that one might have if they were in a room of people that were all suddenly sucked into a self-closing sinkhole. “Well, um. I guess I put it out, he he,” I managed. “Might want to give a minute to recover though. Its, uh…Its been through a lot in a very short period of time,” I said, trying to let my optimistic nature show through in a tight spot. They say how you react in times of crisis makes the measure of a man, so I did my best to comfort the shattered child, and then pointed up at a fake condor and sprinted off up the trail, dragging Zach by the looped strap atop his North Face backpack.

Back in the wooded confines of the Fernwood, we pulled down into the campground below right as the unmistakably tall and narrow duo of Tim and Nicki Bluhm descended the stairs that lead from the topside bar and grill. They walked hand in hand, and gleamed with a certain sincere joy from beneath their super-sized shades. I looked at the clock on the dashboard and winced. “Ah shit, did we miss the Gramblers?” I asked as we pulled alongside. “Yup. Where were you?” Tim chided. “At the beach, sunning, and winding,” I replied. “AT THE BEACH! Whatever would you do that for?” laughed Tim, who might very well be the most beachy person that I know. He slapped the Toyota in the ass like it was an old trail mule, and I took that as our cue to motor on to camp.

One of the truly outstanding aspects of the Hipnic is its intimacy. There are only three stages, the entire event is self-enclosed and immediate, and the crowd, if you can call it that, numbered in the low-hundreds rather than the tens of thousands that most rock festivals command. There is room to roam, space to space out in, and yet due to its small canyon-bound geography, you are always there, with the music. The stage is unassuming. There is no scene-dominating steel truss girding, nor overwrought light and sound spectacular to contend with.

Unknown Hot Woman. Photo by Andrew Quist.

Rather, Britt Govoia, the fast-rising producer who helms the locally-based production company known as (((folkYEAH!))) opted for a simple plot of two-foot tall risers spanning across about a twenty foot stage whose backdrop was as natural as it gets – majestic conifers, bushes of unknown phylum that burst in every direction with tiny purple blossoms, overhanging white oak branches that looked like suspended whale bones, a precipitously carved, denuded Lucia Range mountainside all gathering around the wispy green meadow that floors the bottom lands below. It was a welcome sight, but strange on eyes that are used to seeing a near and cluttered backdrop at high quality rock shows. Photographers and video people love to talk about their depth of field, but this scene took that notion to unheard of levels.

Red Cortez. Photo by Andrew Quist.

It was against this backdrop that Red Cortez, a gritty quartet of Los Angelino’s put on a midday concert that elevated the musical barometer with a mercurial nut punch. Led by singer Harley Prechtel-Cortez, the band roared through an hour’s worth of spunky, bouncy rock. Prechtel-Cortez looks somewhat like a young, un-rouged Dave Navarro, the glam-punk guitar god of Janes Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers fame, and has distinct tonal qualities of Elvis Costello and Bono coursing through his vocal pipes. Like Bono, Cortez (the dude, not the band on the whole) is prone to erupting into extended flights of neck-vein inflating lead wail at any time, even in casual conversation and on line at the taco truck.

They are a relatively new band (their debut record is due at the end of this year), and their sound has matured and tightened considerably since last years Hipnic – where they impressed with a tenacious effort. Red Cortez employs an intense two guitar attack, with a back line that pulses and careens with climatic builds, pauses at just the right moments and then drives home their ambitious songs, thus leading me to rename them Shred Cortez. They earned it. If and when the chance arises, I’d see that band again in a heartbeat, and I am willing to bet that they will have gotten even better then. They have that rare quality – an unpretentious swagger and confidence in their music that really good songwriters and performers, and the occasional deranged street busker, exude.

When their commanding set ended in a series of long, preternatural howls, I wandered lazily down Grotto Row, a series of riverside campsites that had serendipitously been allotted to various groups of folks who have kept up with the Mother Hips scene via a beloved and well-informed fan site that is known as The Grotto. Each site held different members of that tight-knit family, and their own families. An army of gleeful kids played in the sand volleyball pit that serves as an island in the campground. They built sand yurts and sustainable villages with tiny solar arrays and windmills made of Popsicle sticks. A pair of tow-headed engineers cleared cat-taminated dunes for development with electric front loaders. The older kids played tag, and threw things at each other with unrestrained velocity. At least one kid hit the game winning home run in the 7th game of the 2020 World Series with a bat that was longer than he was tall. It was an improbable feat of high physics, and was celebrated with an impromptu shower of Bug Juice and a fresh coat of SPF 50.

The parents sat at picnic tables filled with crackers, cookies, and various cooking devices. They tended small fires and laughed at their children and the world at large, wherever it was, or is. Many of the gathered trace their mutual Hipsian connections back to the early 90’s, when they, and the original members of the Mother Hips, pretended to be chasing a higher education while stomping like drunken rhinos around the now-legendary North California party town of Chico.

A whiffle ball game broke out across the way amongst the gang that I had hiked out to the beach with. From a hundred yards east I heard the tale-tell whistle of the plastic ball and the subsequent thwack of the yellow bat, and quickly hustled over to join the fray. Whiff, you see, is my thing. Well, was… In my own Chico daze, our houseful of scrubs and dirtbags once ran a veritable Whiffle Ball enterprise out of a front yard field that we dubbed Oleander Yards. Shit got out of hand, really. A row of impenetrable trees were sacrificed, much to the consternation of the City and our landlord, and Jack, the resident mad genius, strung up a hazardous array of bare light bulbs attached to power lines and pirated cable runs that criss crossed the yard so that our outrageously competitive games could go on when the scorching summer sun finally fell out of sight. Roommates and brothers bickered bitterly for days on end over the capricious fates of ghost runners and long shots that flew heroically out into the street but were called back as do-over’s due to passing cars. We kept stats then that are still trumpeted and boasted about today. One guy, Pete, never left Chico. Word has it that he has built an entire whiffle ball stadium, complete with working scoreboard at his house there.

Parson's Redheads, by Andrew Quist.

As the Parson Redheads twanged out a set of perfectly mellow California rock from the sun-drenched stage nearby, I confidently tugged my hat down low and screwed on what I thought to be a menacing glare, but was later told looked more like a bad caricature of Fred Burst taking an unplanned dump.

I jammed my lower lip with a ridiculously oversized chaw of tobaccy, then took the mound and tried to re-master the Emphi pitch, a devastating dual-stage breaking ball that when thrown correctly is essentially unhittable. Those halcyon days of Whiffle-domination are behind me, I suppose, because when the lefty-slider-drop ball pitch wasn’t sailing wickedly wide of the plate, plinking random campers two sites over, it was refusing to break at all before being driven cruelly deep into the redwood grove that served as our outfield. Like all impromptu adult picnic games, the afternoon whiffle ball game ended when our collective interest in drinking a cooler full of ice cold beer superseded our interest in chasing the bouncing plastic ball into the woods.

There is a meadow in each and every mind. It lies in a pool of unvarnished sunlight, the high grasses tickled by a slight breeze. Infantile, boldly hued buds sway in showy unison, bending slightly this way and that. If you get low enough, dropping yourself down to eye level, belly-down in the dirt, you can witness a universe of miniscule life forms coursing through their vertical plain, striking out on independent missions of unknowable import. But you must get low. You must dive below the glowing wheat and glide face first through the stems. To know your meadow, you must wade low amongst the sub-canopy, flow through low clover, taste the warmth of the earth on your lips, sip the evening dew from the blades where they condense and sparkle. The lady bugs flitting on improbable wings, the worms blindly tunneling, the grasshoppers tuning their summer song.

An orchestra of tiny life existing in a sea of grass. A teeming world of roots and shoots, weeds and seeds, bugs and slugs. It’s all there, in your meadow. Also, it’s where you might find your only can of Copenhagen, should it happen to slip out the thigh pocket of your ratty shorts during a spirited game of trackball. I found both, together.

Nicki Bluhm displaying one of her many talents. Photo by Andrew Quist.

I missed a band – a good one, I heard later. Elisa Randazzo, a honey-toned songstress of note, conjured a mellifluous set of Laurel Canyon brand California folk rock it seems. I spaced an entire hour of music, picnicery and socializing. But I found myself in that meadow, and that sort of self-discovery is worth a dozen confused looks cast when you emerge from your deep-root adventure with a face streaked in rich soil and a toupee made of dandelions, wild grass and spider webs.

As I rounded the bend and rejoined society, I saw a suddenly very retro crowd cheering on a familiar figure who was standing atop the stage risers. I could swear that it was 1979, and that Neil Young had just ambled onstage. Upon closer introspection, it was not indeed the decade before the decade before the decade before this really shitty decade, though it was quite close when spied from a crooked head. It was Neal Casal, who is a dead ringer for Shakey in profile form. I kept moving, like Snapperheads made light of my recent earthly makeover as I tried to find my friends and a reasonable bottle of booze. “Looks like you just lost a fight with a lawnmower!” someone said as I walked by. “Been out rootin’ around?” chirped another. And so on.

Neil Casal. Photo by Andrew Quist.

Casal exhudes the unkempt, windswept regality of a noble troubadour. Perched on a stool, just a well-seasoned Gibson acoustic guitar and a pair of mics between him and the crowd, the singer seemed to have been made precisely for his moment in the sun, as if he had been carved right out of the local woods, and slowly smoothed into shape by the sands and the seawater, before being plucked out of the surf and deposited onstage to tell us all how it went down.

Casal is a Cardinal, one of Ryan Adams’ regular band mates. His solo work is thoughtful, catchy, and lyrically evocative. His fingers flow over the frets unhurried and light, the guitar more of an organic extension of his arms than a foreign beast that must be constantly tamed. His angled face beams widely on stage, soaking in the fading sun. Casal was dressed in an old Army coat that contrasted and popped vividly out of the posterized blue-sky background. An emphatically pained brow and louvered eyes were the only indicators of tension in an otherwise calm reel of songs by Casal. In a sweet homage to the hosts, he played a timely rendition of Tim Bluhm’s timeless ode to the Golden State, “California Way.”

Farmer Dave Scher. Photo by Andrew Quist.

A loose cat named Farmer Dave played next, finally leading a band of his own after serving as the de facto Hipnic multi-instrumentalist session man for just about every other band that played over the course of the weekend. Wielding a golden Flying V, Farmer Dave Scher brought the sun most of the way down with a set of slightly off-kilter, poppy psychedelia, cementing himself as the Most Versatile Grambler. The crowd was now primed for action. Hula hoopstresses spun in warbling arcs around the front of the stage. The women were in their evening finery – wide brimmed hats, sundresses and cowboy boots, a much more utilitarian outfitting than that of a curiously dressed swath of men folk. Fashion wise, for quite a few of the males in attendance, it was as if the Sex Pistols had mated with Grizzly Adams. In almost every direction, rail-thin dudes with badly snugged jeans and heavy coats stood around. Each was bearded or heading in that direction, and each seemed to try to out-irony the other with their choice of shirt and hat slogan combo.

Over at the merch booth, a young entrepreneur was bilking unsuspecting mathaphobes out of their last nickels. He nearly got me, too, but I wised up just in time. I had gone over to the table to inquire about procuring myself a nifty Mother Hips beer coozie like the one that Jesco had been sporting.

A troublesome aspect of Mother Hips fan hood has always been the wildly sporadic disbursement of logoed goods, and a beer coozie was not only a welcome addition to my crusty collection of too-small Hips t-shirts, it was a novel concept, it was one that was going to come in right handy. In fact, the cold Stella in my right hand was the real driver in spurring me to action from my spot of leisure by the campfire. But young Noah Loiacono, the tack-sharp pre-teen son of Hips guitarist and singer Greg – a savvy kid who has been raised in rock and roll since he was just a zygote, was hawking the goods, and the tyke threw me for a loop when I asked how much the cool beer holders where.

“Five dollars,” he said enthusiastically. “Well then, I believe that I’ve got enough for two!” I said, matching his capitalistic fervor. “That’ll be twenty dollars!” he replied.
I looked at him quizzically. “You mean ten, right? I’ve got a ten spot right here little buddy…jest you wait!” I said pawing around for my wallet. He looked down at the table, and then into a cardboard box at his feet. “Only two left, it’s your lucky day! Forty dolla! It’s a collectors item now.” I scratched my weedy head. “I’ll take door number one, Mister Trump. A single for $5.” He looked down at the coozie on the table. “Deal.”

Realizing that I was still naturally camoed from my meadow foray, I took the opportunity to clean up and layer myself for the evening chill that never seemed to come. My all-too-recent pneumonia had mysteriously, and thankfully retreated entirely, and I was cognizant of being able to finally draw in a full chest of fresh air without lurching into an empyhsemic fit as I dawdled by the camp fire. Not even the smoke choked me out. I was free at last, and the very realization of the unexpected and apparently total recovery had me bounding with joy and relief. So I started on the whiskey again, and spent the rest of the night pleasantly two-fisted.

It was at this moment in time when the Hipnic transitioned from its relatively sedate daytime campout permutation into a full-blown Big Sur rock show once and for all. Dawes was the harbinger. To borrow a baseball analogy -they played the role of set up man with a closers fury. The sun faded off and the stage lights found their marks on a rising band that seems destined for commercial success, perhaps more so even than the major, and worthy acts that followed, due to their lyrical prowess and boundless cache of hooks and dramatic builds.

Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes. Photo by Andrew Quist.

Looking all the world like a middle manager on a four-day coastal bender – scruffy to the point of semi-haggardness, but relaxed and peppy – Dawes front man Taylor Goldsmith belted out a cavalcade of harmonious Laurel Canyon rock tunes. He has the story-song writing sensibilities of James Taylor combined with the urgent angst of a young Billy Joel, and is backed by a band that is talented way beyond their years. Drummer Griffin, Taylor’s fro-bound 18-year old brother is a unconsciously flinching dervish behind the skins, pounding beats down with both arms flailing independently, as if his kit was infested with musical groundhogs popping up in unexpected sequences. Such is the fervor and pace of his manic rhythm.

Their song When My Time Comes is a driving, inspirational anthem that features a Seven Bridges Road-style instrument-less harmony at its close and may well be THE song of the Summer of 2010, if their advocates at ATO records are able to get the word out to the masses. Their record is called North Hills, and is filled with catchy songs about love lost and the poetic yearning for peace of mind and a good laugh in a world gone sad. When their set ended, a huge cheer went up from a crowd that seemed awakened, and charged. I half-expected the young (average age of 21.5 years old) band to step off the stage, grab the prettiest women by their hula hoops, and surf heroically down the Big Sur River on a raft made of road cases. They were that rock.

Dawes, by Andrew Quist.

If you know what you are looking for, you can spot an DEA agent every time. It’s no cakewalk, but it is possible. It takes a healthy dose of innate paranoia to have your radar up in the first place. But if you are one of those types who take new routes to work every few days, then the process is fairly straightforward, once you suspect a bogey is in your midst. You just have look closely at the details. Listen for the code speak. Spy on the spies. And, if engaged, confuse the living hell out of them.

I spotted the plants early on. They were camping in a too-new Airstream hybrid of some sort. No windows, lots of aerial rip rap on the roof, a sinister looking dish cleverly marked with a common carrier sticker. “Dish,” it said. Hardly. The duo in question skirted the fringe all day, hovering about uncomfortably. He was a pasty white ectomorph whom I judged to be in his early 40’s, based on the dilapidation of his face meat. She was a short Hispanic lady in her 30’s, and looked a little like a Spanish Martha Stewart. They both wore starched tie dies and asked a lot of strange questions. “Where can you get a good shot of wheat grass around here? I mean, strong wheat grass, ifyouknowwudImean?” Hint Hint, nudge nudge. Another: “Any idea who has the Leon Spinks DVD?” That one threw me for a loop. At first it was just one of those random statements that stood out in a soup that was relatively stocked with interesting commentary. Then he said it again, louder this time, emphasizing the first syllables of each word. Dumb fucker, couldn’t think of anything more appropriate.

Once I figured out their gig, I preyed that they wouldn’t run into our bushwhacking wookie friend from the night before. He would have been no match for their simple charms, and likely would have falsely implicated large swaths of festival attendees had he gotten pinched.

I was walking by their trailer/mobile command center, fumbling with my multiple vices, when the two sprang up from their camp chairs and ran over to intercept me. I thought of running, but didn’t want to spill my drinks.

“Hey there buddy, sure is a fine night out here, isn’t it?” the male agent asked.
“No spreken se Duetch?” I replied in shaky German. The female stood in front of me, stopping my forward progress by spritzing a cloud of patchouli.
“Aha, a European! Boy, that sure is great, isn’t it Carol? Finding a European way out here in Big Sur?” he said.
“Imagine that,” she replied. “Well, you Euros sure know a good party when you see it, don’t ya?”
“Si?” I mumbled.
“You know what you look like? A skier. All you German’s like to ski, huh?” I stared on and bit into my last ice cube, wondering what damaging materials I might have on me at the present moment. There was no telling. It had been a long day already. The stores had been depleted.

“Carol and I love to ski too! Sure do hope that it snows out here tonight, if you catch my drift!” the pun sent them into a spasm of snorting laughter. “Yessir. We like to ski all night long. Cold snow, yellow snow, powder. We love it all. Hey, you wouldn’t know anyone who has some ski wax tonight?” he said, winking. I dared not blink. Instead, I looked over his shoulder at the back of their white Tahoe. The windows were tattooed with a symmetrical array of stickers.

As he prattled on with his forced innuendo, I focused as best I could on the stickers in the dim light. Along the top of their rear window there was a Mother Hips sticker, and to the right of it was a Dawes sticker and a Fernwood Resort sticker. On the bottom row was a Jackie Green sticker, then Red Cortez, and curiously, a Nicki Bluhm sticker, which solidified my suspicions, since to my knowledge such a thing did not exist. In the middle of the window was a big green leafy sticker with the numbers of that now infamous smoking time, but it was stuck hanging upside down and the numbers read 02:4, another sign of amateur subterfuge. Every neutron in my duodenum told me that I had to get out of there, quickly.

“Ski? Schralpen zee Alps? Si! Mach Schell! Actung!” I bellowed, hoping that if I yelled loud enough, someone might come to my aid. “Ich lieben dich mein schauntz!” I said confidently. To the best of my knowledge I was urging the lady to behold the girth of my fruit bat.

I made a motion towards my nose, and then lowered myself to a full tuck grand slalom position. “La gato esta en la playa!” I yelled from my stoop, reaching over my back and pointing furiously towards the women’s shower room to my right. “LA PLAYA! ACTUNG!” I yelled, nodding wildly, clapping the man by the shoulder. The two looked at each other cautiously, and I just kept nodding and speaking in shattered Germish. I made a motion like I was pushing off with ski poles, and started sniffing loudly. “EN LA PLAYA!” A dawning look of understanding came across both of their faces at once. They locked eyes and cocked an eyebrow at each other simultaneously. Carol started flashing tactical hand signals at her partner, who had dropped into an instinctive crouch and was skinnied up against the trunk of a redwood, glaring at the ladies shower facilities with an adrenal glee.

I shushed off on imaginary cross-country skis, kicking my heels out dramatically until I was back over the bridge and out of sight. As soon as I rounded the corner, I ran to my truck, found a Sharpie, and drew a hasty mustache onto my upper lip. Not confident that the disguise was enough to throw off the dogs, I threw a gamy smelling poncho over my hoodie and traded my Crippled Stripper hat for a San Francisco Giants beanie with faux-“Freak” locks attached – local dirtbag hero Tim Lincecum-themed swag scored at a recent ballgame. I topped the get up off with a pair of novelty sunglasses that were fashioned to look like two flamingos making out.

An approaching series of cooing noises drew my attention, not unlike those of a fast moving group of smitten cow elk. Freshly outfitted with a new beverage and a backup, I peered into the dark to see what was making the racket, only to narrowly avoid being trampled by an excited herd of twenty to thirty thigh-booted MILF’s. They were keeping a spectacular pace, given their running attire. The spikes of their high heels left an impressive rooster tail of sparks in the blackness as they double-timed it through the campground towards the stage. At first the incident had me confused, and slightly worried. Something had obviously spooked them to cause this mad rush. I shined my headlamp to the ground to study the tracks. If my theory was correct, then it was indeed a rare sighting this far from this city. There was only one way to be certain of my suspicions, and that was to get on my hands and knees and follow the sign. Soon enough, I found a trail of tale tell pinpricks and flat marks in the moist earth along side a smattering of green tinted rose petals that had settled in the jet wash. At once, I knew. The stampeding herd of hormonal hellions were Greene-heads.

They are from what Hunter Thompson called “Generation Swine” – the post-Boomer, pre-Gen X set brought up in the age of Reagan and Wonder Bra’s. They are good, professional women on a bad trip – Dylan, Dead and Devo reared leather and leopard print-accoutered lasses who are drawn to the “Prince of Americana” like Grizzly’s to a stream full of fat salmon.

Jackie Greene. Photo by Andrew Quist.

I doused my light and made my way to the stage, where Jackie Greene was just digging into his first tune, Gone Wandrin’. It was my first time seeing Greene by himself without his band, or any other, since I had seen the multi-instrumental sensation play with the Mother Hips on a few special occasions. The crowd was thick now, and while there were pods of dancers on the fringes, most of the chairs in front of the stage were occupied by appreciative-seeming folks who hung onto every word.

(Caveat: Great Lord of all that is Original and Fair, I hate the thought of even writing the following overwrought comparison, but there truly just is no way around it. As the great realist Knute Rockne was known to say – “It is what it is”) And for good reason – Greene has long been associated with or likened to Bob Dylan for a variety of reasons, his looks, his blues/country/folk/rock cross-over style, but perhaps most importantly, it is his knack for poetic story making and entendre-laced turn o’ phrase that aligns him so closely with the great Wilbury.

Greene alternately stood or sat on a stool alone on stage, just an acoustic guitar, and his harmonica brace perched at the ready on the front of his puffy winter coat. For several songs, he moved over to his piano and showed his breadth of skills. How often do you see a pianist accompany himself on harmonica? For the first time that I had ever seen, he eschewed his signature hat for a more native, longhaired look.

The solo performance given by Greene was an honest, enthusiastic, and at times genuinely funny trek through his expanding catalogue. But what it was more than those things was, god forbid: mature. And no, not the bore-me-straight-to-my gadget screen, draw a square in the air, gin before dinner kind of maturation that you might be imagining. I’m talking about the kind of intellectual and artistic maturity that develops in a man who is on the lean side of 30 and has been meticulously building himself to the point of prime professionalism for more than a decade and a half. He may have once been a young prodigy, but those days are over for Jackie Greene. Now he is a Major Dude. You don’t get the types of heavy assignments he’s been pulling without having a shit ton of talent and the grace to control it.

Greene played with a loose, even humble professionalism – cracking jokes, telling stories – never seeming to lose sight of the historic and enchanting setting that he was performing in. With no band to fill in the well-timed gaps between verses, his powerful, high ranging voice cast high above the stage and pinballed between the bark of trees old enough to hide in their folds the ancient char of Esselen Indian fires.

Four months ago, some degenerated little shithead named Blak$hugga broke into my unlocked locker at the Monterey Recreation Center, rifled through my gym bag, reached into my reeking work shoe, and thieved my iPhone. I know his name because one hour later, when I was at home zeroing in on his location via a high tech tracking system that I had installed on my laptop for just this type of occurrence, the cocky thug posted a cryptic message on my phone list after I unleashed a taunting tirade via the texting function of my software. “Lo$er FoneGone –took slik dik bie Blak$hugga” was all that remained of my well-evolved phone list, and then the thing went dark forever, wiped via instant cellular lobotomy.

I was as cantankerous and vengeful as a lanced bull for most of a week after the pilferage, and then I came to realize that while the plundering piss ant had most assuredly taken my phone, he had also likely saved my very life.

For weeks on end, you see, I had teased and tempted the cruel whims of fate – tweaking her nipples and ignoring her advances by texting and updating profiles in spasmodic volumes that would make a teenager jealous, all while commuting at terminal speeds on narrow two-lane farm roads choked with weary long-distance lettuce haulers. Things had gotten so out of hand during this period of high texting that as an act of self-mockery, I made Dead Man’s Curve my ring tone, and Detroit Rock City my text chime.

So while I mourned the sudden and loss of my only camera, voice recorder, compass, magical musical-guesstimator, and alarm clock, I also celebrated having survived the warning shot. Not only had I not gone toe to grisly, maimed toe with twenty tons of fresh-cut Iceberg, but I was once again free of the incipient modern curse of constant, unceasing contact.

Since then, I’ve had to rely on more primitive time keeping methods, which has heightened my sun-clocking abilities in the daytime (unless it’s foggy, and it’s always foggy), but has seriously degraded my already awful sense of night time. And so I don’t know for sure how long Greene treated the crowd to a truly solo show, but by my Irish time piece, it was five or six beers past before Greene invited Tim Bluhm up to lend a voice on a song that I later found out is called The Ballad of Spider John.

If you are as troglodytic as I am and haven’t heard it, Spider John is a rootsy first person lament of the freight-hopping anti-hero, a country confessional written by, it turns out, a relatively mythic Texan named Willis Alan Ramsey. Buffett has covered it, amongst others, and somehow despite it’s apparent status as a folk classic, I had never come across it. And the thing about that song, being sung by Greene and Bluhm on that stage, is that it easily could have been theirs. The songwriting pair, who have consistently proven their own mettle as individuals and as creative partners in their band, the Skinny Singers, absolutely owned the cover song, sold out for it. I was transfixed by the both the power of the song itself, and the possibility that it was some new song that they had whipped up in their noteworthy work at their Mission Bells studio.

And this uncertain pride, in essence, is what has driven me to such depths of excitability about the music of the Mother Hips and their assorted permutations and collaborations: even when they play a song that is not their own, they make it so. And always, always, I learn something from that effort – whether it is discovering, and subsequently mining the material of an obscure artist, or simply appreciating the choice and performance of a random nugget for that precise moment in relation to the soundtrack of that particular night.

Of course, I am a chronic and committed dreamer, and we tend to get all caught up in the gears with that sort of existential thinking, which is why in the long and tragic history of people, dreamers have always made better foot soldiers than generals, and plum targets for the oppressively conservative.

Jackie Greene, Tim and Nicki Bluhm. Photo by Andew Quist.

Greene called out another Grambler for his next song. Entering the fray was the bluesy, honey-belted voice of Nicki Bluhm, the regal and properly postured hostess. The family Bluhm and Poker Face Jack stoked their fellow campers into a swaying, spinning throng of liquid humanity with a sterling version of Sugaree, the Grateful Dead standard.

Watching the three exert their varied and complimentary skills on the number, it was difficult to ignore the notion that these Californian’s, each reared up with their needles on the pulse of the milieu, will actively and gracefully build from and carry on the songwriting tradition that the Grateful Dead built for themselves. It seems inevitable, now. Greene is the Dead scene’s golden boy – the cant miss kid who has been given the high-handed, enthusiastic approval of the quorum of nomadic mystics who decide on these things. He has been a regular in Dead bass player Phil Lesh’s band for several years, and has himself managed to master a notebook full of Dead songs, which his audience laps up in fawning admiration.

Tim Bluhm of the Mother Hips. Photo by Andrew Quist.

Bluhm, the Mother Hips, and even the Gramblers are the authentically prepared, time-tested torch bearers whose weird, independent orbit just happens to be synching up at exactly the right time for the Grateful evolution, a charm that has been a hallmark of the band in the Zenfully meandering career. Interestingly, early on in their careers, when they were young, shit hot and being pursued by scads of record companies, the Mother Hips purposefully avoided both the comparisons to and association with the jam band scene that the Dead heralded, to the point of sudden countrification, matching mustaches and the excising of any song that might have taken longer than a bowel movement from their play list. Now, after a rootsy, two-decade tour through the gnarled and dramatic branches of American music, the Mother Hips seem to have completed an important circuit. They have journeyed out into space and returned to terra firma on their own, and now seem ready to put what they have learned to good use in their next expedition.

Which is not to say that either the Mother Hips OR Jackie Greene will literally become the Grateful Dead after the original members have all boogied on up to that Brokedown Palace in the sky, but they are each logical and reasonable carriers of the mantle of versatile, free spirited North California song crafters.

The ironic bitch of it is that while it is safe to say that the Hips stalwart fan base actively supports the band’s ability to go as far as they desire to go commercially (and make no bones about it, the Dead are titans of commerce perhaps even more so than they are of psychedelia), that kind of profound success would make intimate events like the Hipnic a logistic impossibility. Big Sur would need to be ten times bigger just to host such a thing, and if anything, the place is losing ground thanks to the Central Coast’s cleaving tectonic plates and the insatiable gnaw of the Pacific tides.

“It would be sweet for the fellas if the Hips are able to achieve all of the acclaim and financial success that they are due, but it would definitely be strange only being able to see them play stadiums and huge fests and the like. I really don’t think it would be as fun. It would be blown out, you know broheen?” commented a freakishly tall kite surfer who said that his name was Bud. Several others chimed in on the conversation, with similar contradictory feelings.

Being a chronically afflicted, self-diagnosed, and unmedicated ADD or ADHD (attention deficiency in sparkling, time sucking High Definition, I presume, though I can’t seem to find the time to look up the difference) patient, the topic, while timely and spirited, held my attention for only a minute or two before I found myself cloaking up and slipping off into the dark during the change between Greene and the Hips. Such is the gift and the curse of the conversational sprite.

I circumnavigated the crowd in a fanciful orbit, listening in on random comments and placing them into a mental timeline. I like to do this from time to time. It is good sport, much like slowly spinning the AM dial while driving at 2 am on a clear night in Medicine Hat, Utah.

As I skirted the edge of the crowd, I happened to tune in just in time to overhear a disturbing plot taking shape. Two guys were planning a fireworks display after the Mother Hips show. Something big, too.

“It’ll blow their minds, man!” said the short one with the big nose. “Oh wow man! Wait’ll they see the Naval Barrage. They’ll shit themselves! That thing’s gotta have two, three hundred rounds of rockets lined up,” replied his pal, who not only looked physically like a Viking, but also wore the fierce grape hat and shimmering nylon jacket of the Minnesota NFL team. I reversed thrusters and pulled cautiously into their neck of the crowd, hovering and monitoring.

“I wanna shoot ‘em off now, man! It’ll be sooo great!” The Nose said. His buddy looked around, craning his fat neck out like a turtle until his coal-black eyes could peer above the crowd. “OK, there’s a break. Let’s do it man!” the Grape Norseman replied enthusiastically. I followed them through the campground out to their Suburban at a comfortable tailing distance. The two were like giddy school girls the whole way, jumping around for no apparent reason, clapping their hands in gay patterns as if they had just spiked a volleyball. I hung back and watched incredulously as they disgorged from their vehicle a coffin crate packed with fireworks. Even though both were stout and beefy, they struggled to stand it on end. The coffin was so heavy that they had to use leverage to unload it, and when they finally had it upright it was taller than each of them.
“You got a lighter?” Grape asked.
“I got a match.” His partner replied.
“That’s all you got?”
“Well, we only need one, don’t we?”
“You asshole! What if it goes out?” yelled the Viking.
“Well, we can borrow flame from someone, man. People loooove fireworks. Take it easy, alright?”
“Sure, sure Jaime. It’s good. It’s all good. Can’t wait. You can light it, and if the match goes out, we’ll just get us another one. People love a big bang. Yep!”

These two dim-witted fools were dead set on launching a man-sized rack of fireworks into an area that is just now, two years later, recovering from a wild land inferno that nearly croaked the whole town. The place is a tender box still, and scoured by hard-rushing winds. A single carelessly placed cigarette butt can cause the whole candle to go up all over again. And I love a good aerial bombing as much as the next guy. Fireworks are an all-American right, up there with free speech, racial and gender equality, chili cheese dogs, the post office and Budweiser. But not after seeing first hand the, apocalyptic wrath of the conflagration that occurred in Big Sur after that freak electric storm two Junes ago. I had to do something.

But what? How to reason with drunken Vikings who had likely spent the contents of their top shelf stash jars to fund such an extravaganza, including a thousand mile round trip through heavily policed borders to get to the source – the Moapa Indian Nation, who sell a brutally efficient blend of commercial-grade explosives, tax-free liquor and tobacco, a fine assortment of tobacco water pipes and assorted paraphernalia, while simultaneously offering slot machine and video poker gambling as well as prostitution referral services all under one sinful roof in a baked plot of scratch desert land off of I-15 outside of Las Vegas.

I studied the scene. The dangerous duo were obviously saddled by the unwieldy girth of their fireworks package. Based purely on observation, it seemed likely that they might be just dumb enough to try and light the thing off right where they stood – in the heavily wooded edge of the campground and the Big Sur River- if they couldn’t drag the thing to the meadow. The river gurgled by in the night, making judgments of it’s own. I watched the dark waters slide by from the right to left, heading out to the uncalm sea. A plan came to mind.

I ran back to my own camp, stripped the rain fly off of my tent in one hasty snatch, and grabbed a bundle of parachute cord from the Back of Beyond Books canvas shopping bag of bungee cords, straps and rope that I keep handy. I ran back through the camp and made my way down the slope of the riverbank, where I crept in my best out of shape SEAL form until I was directly below the amateur pyro men. I peered up above the crest of the bank, and saw the coffin leaning up against the Chevy, which was parked right up against the bank. The pyro’s had wandered to the road, scouting out a path in their attempt to deliver their quarry to the meadow. Seeing my window, I leapt up, lashed the oversized fireworks kit with the cord, and without pause, jumped back over the ledge towards the river, tipping the box with my weight until the whole thing toppled over the precipice and crashed down on the rocks that littered the bank. I was nearly caught underneath the coffin as it fell, but performed a drunken barrel roll to my right just as the kit hit the dirt with a loud whomping noise. The plastic wrap that had been applied to the box hit the wet river rocks on the bank, and much to my surprise created a lube-like effect, which rocketed the missiles out into the water in one swift motion. I watched for a second or two as the coffin darted out into the current and began it’s lazy descent towards the sea.

Two pairs of footsteps approached urgently, so as planned, I threw the white tent rain fly over my head like a sheet, pinching it down with the elastic band of my headlamp, which I set to it’s blinking red emergency pattern. I ran straight up the bank towards the Vikings.

“Whoo whoo!” I howled as I crested the hill. The two skidded to a stop next to their truck.
“What the…?” yelled the Nose.
“Wooooooo!” I intoned in my most evil warble, running right between the two with my arms flapping like some horrible human/camping gear genetic experiment gone astray. “Now I’ve seen it all. Spook’s sponsored by Coleman!” yelled the incredulous Viking.

My “plans” never work out quite right, but somehow here they unfolded exactly as I had imagined. The surprise factor had worked in my favor. I cleared their camp and disappeared into the redwoods without either of them in pursuit. I felt good knowing that the fireworks would be water logged and unusable in such a pristine, special place. Jesco the yuppie cowboy hailed me as I rejoined the crowd.

“Hips are starting. Take a swig of this,” he handed me a flask.
“What’s in it?” I asked.
“Dunno.” He replied, smiling.

I sniffed the drink through the small spout. The liquor inside immediately revolted my nose with it’s horrid acrid, earthy odor. Tequila. I was instantly brought back almost exactly twenty years, when I had nearly landed in a Mexican hospital, prison, or both after a terrible night post-high school graduation. Yuck. Someone handed me a joint. There was no avoiding my peers. I chased one with the other. I do not recall in which order.

The Mother Hips. Photo by Andrew Quist.

The Hips took the stage for their second performance over the course of the weekend. There were rumors amongst the long timers that the band was going to split their concert in half, with one set of country tunes, and another filled with their particular brand of loose-formed psychedelic rock, but that was put to rest within the first three songs, as they covered the gamut of their styles, from folk to gritty rock to rolling country in a harmony-driven flourish.

Melody Fair, the appropriately named, achingly slow, pre-disco Bee Gee’s song led off the headlining show. High, three part harmonies lace the contemplative ode to femininity, which gives uber-instrumentalist Paul Hoaglin a chance to feature his own glassy pipes. He is the secret weapon in the band. A force of musical cohesion and master of the perfectly timed fill.

Our small, boisterous crew drifted to the back, where we could get loose and stretch out the boogie legs when the band tore into a newer song called White Falcon Fuzz, an at times growling, at times delicate mix of dream analysis, homage to the timeless tone of Neil Young’s Gretch guitar, and personal legacy introspection. I stomped around in my unique, obliterated dancing style, letting the music control my bones, once more happily and hopelessly lost amongst the familiar notes. After a few songs of this I walked back towards the facilities, where a small group gathered at the front. I looked up to greet the fellow Gramblers when I started to recognize faces.

There, in one highly charged, weirdly chummy group, stood the Vikings, the Wookie, Barb the Googler, and the DEA tandem. They were all grinning like hyenas, singing along in an endearingly off-kilter way, and from the whiff I caught, imbibing themselves in a group toke. I dipped my head and passed with a single thrust arm, extending a thumb of approval. There is no telling how they all got together. If there is one thing that I learned in ten years of working in community television, it is that freaks tend to flock. It all sorts out, I thought as I cleared their view plain, if you just let things happen organically. Maybe I had pegged them all wrong anyways.

Greg Loiacono of the Mother Hips. Contrastic photo by Andrew Quist!

When I returned to the fold from my walkabout, the Hips were wrapping up the namesake song of their latest record, the searing, street-fighting anthem Pacific Dust. Bluhm thanked the crowd, extolling them to be ready for the party to continue upstairs, in the bar after the Hips show. Then a trippy rumble of drums echoed out, followed by a distant-sounding noodling of guitar. Cymbals washed in the background rising and falling away. Someone slapped my shoulder with a delighted swat as Bluhm turned the song with a single emphatic note. It was Poison Oak, the ominous, time changing ripper that the band has lately elevated to new levels of spine melting fury.

Bluhm laid down the loping, march, Loiacono interjected with fierce torrents of tearing psychedelic reverb sonicness, and the back line hummed along as the gears shifted speeds from slow to fast and back, until, inexplicably, preluded by only a few echoic spatial clucks, the song dropped completely away from all of them.

The Hips are a band that loves to play with time. They regularly employ swift, contrasting dips in the “heart beat” of their songs, building back from the calm to a boiling rage, particularly the songs that were written early in their careers, such as Poison Oak. So it is not unexpected that the band would take the song down to a single repeating note. But not ever, to anyone’s recollection, including the band, when asked later, had they ever flat lined a song completely. If you’ve ever wondered what three hundred stunned people sounds like, I am hear to tell you that it sounds like the pregnant, silent Big Sur night. For several minutes, the band held back, their faces signaling that even they weren’t sure what was going on, letting Loiacono spark off but a few deep space flourishes. Otherwise, it was total, almost reverential silence. The crowd stood too wrapped up in the dramatic moment to move, or talk, or do anything but watch.

Tim Bluhm of the Mother Hips. Badass shot by Andrew Quist.

And then, just as it had begun, the song faded back into being. “There are men who do not blossom in expression,” Bluhm sang, the line that starts the romping, Crazy Horse-esque march to the chaotic chorus. The spell was broken, the base drum thumped at triple time and the crowd liquefied into a swarming gruel of delirious humanity. Jesco and Zach leapt up and down atop folding chairs along the back row. Upon the howling of the line “she is the naked skin and I am the oil”, I shot put two empty chairs into the darkness beyond the glowing arc of the stage lights, permanently loosing a flip flop in the process. A fine looking lass in a puffy jacket and a frilly skirt swayed astride her bearded man with her head pinned to his chest, repeatedly slugging him in the left bicep. There was a palpable sense of connectivity to the relentless crescendo of the song. Sweet, care free emotional release, like screaming in a lonely canyon.

It was the signature moment of a remarkable weekend of music, in retrospect. Sound engineer Evan Drath had the gear perfectly dialed in to the testy atmosphere of the chilly, breezy Big Sur coast. The sound that came through the stacks was crystalline and album quality. How often can you say that at an outdoor concert?

The encore, the affectingly sweet, slow-dancing Motor Home served as a calming balance to the spasm of energy that the band conjured out of their friends and fans. When it was over, Bluhm again made mention of the late night jam at the bar up top. Some campers took the cue to retreat to their families, to curl up in the cool air and rest their heads in the comforting bosom of their loved ones.

Me, I migrated back to Rowdy Camp, along with a seriously astounded Andrew Quist and his photographic brethren, John Chapman. It was late, but to a soul, we were charged for action. It had been an inspiring day, capped by an incredible 10-hour run of music. And now, it was about to get even crazier in the relatively tiny confines of the Redwood Grille. We gassed up with every type of fuel that could be obtained within camp. Whiskey, beer, gin from the bottle, a rum punch, beer. Tobacco, others…If it was passable, it was possible.

When we were about to go, I fell into a brief panic as I tried to find my headlamp. I wanted no part of the dark, drunken crawl home that I had endured the night before. I at least wanted to be able to see where I was crawling. Now, the damned thing was gone. Goner than gone. Vanished. History. I was crestfallen. I loved that light.

After a minute or two of checking the pockets of the camp chairs, and staggering around trying to see the ground to see where I had dropped it, I noticed that the whole camp was laughing at me.
“Wha…” I asked.
“Watcha lookin’ for?” Abbie asked.
“Headlamp,” I said sheepishly. The laughter grew. She extended a hand and slowly pointed a long finger towards my groin region. I followed her pointer down to my pants, where I was surprised to see my pocket aglow from the blinking beam of my lost headlamp.
“Don’t forget to turn off your love light, Casey Jones,” she mocked.

Bolstered anew, we roamed the grounds in an awkward, forced hush, out of respect for the other campers, until we found the long run of stairs that lead up to the bar. Then the blathering continued unabated. Outside, John Hofer, the Hips drummer stood against the wall, smoking, drinking and laughing with his typical gusto. Greg Loiacono walked by with a guitar case in hand. Each spoke for a bit. I asked Hofer about the quiet interlude during Poison Oak, and he laughed it off as a missed communication. “Someone is supposed to be the trigger for the rest of us to kick back in when we break it down like that. This time, nobody wanted to trigger it. So I just waited it out. I wanted to see what would happen,” chuckled the drummer.

We went in and immediately were nearly kicked out and black listed from the bar. Jesco had a camp drink in his hand, and the barkeep spotted him from his high perch and commanded him to leave with a disapproving wag of the finger. I had one in hand as well, but when I walked in behind the singer, I saw what was happening, and put my drink inside my poncho.

As predicted, the place was crammed with people. Eventually, Andrew and I fought our way through the main room and into the kitchen area, where the band was getting set up to play. When I was still enough to focus, I made out that fronting the band was Kyle Field, the strange folkster that I had seen upon first arriving to camp two days earlier and then earlier on this day at the beach. After they had sorted out their troubles at the bar, Jesco, Zach and the ladies joined us and we commandeered the back wall along the kitchen as an area to sit. Within a minute I realized that I was boiling alive in my wintry togs, and so I shed the poncho, hoodie, and beanie with the haste of a man diving into bed with his dream girl.

Little Wings situated themselves on stage, and the crowd pressed forward in eager expectation. There was a sense of anarchy in the air. Tim Bluhm settled in behind the drum set. Field plugged himself in, shambled about a bit on stage, and then turned to his band mates and gave them a rousing, stomping countdown to lead into an obviously energetic crowd winner. “ONE anda TWO anda THREE anda…!” blerrrrrrrrrreeeeeeeooowwwww.

Field blew right past the spirit of his own prompt and descended immediately into a mumbling, slide guitar-heavy sludge, punctuated by occasional pointing to the crowd, ala Willie Nelson. Watching casually, I thought that maybe his act was a put on, but then the second song started the same way. And the third. He would stomp dramatically and count out a start, and then musically channel the sound of a sad cat stuck outside in the rain. Meow Rock, I called it. The sound of kitties crying.

The small room compressed in several waves as people jammed themselves into the space. A group of talented ladies stood atop the long wooden table opposite us and started to dance. The spectacle of a half-dozen good-looking girls in short skirts and thigh boots dancing together atop a table was more than one randy bloke could take. He climbed up there too, blocking our own view, and was eventually driven back by a barrage of well-thrown relish packets that were requisitioned from the waitress stand.

Field, Bluhm and crew pressed on, confertaining (half confusing, half entertaining) the crowd, 3/4 of whom were blasted anyways. There is an avant-garde element to Field’s performances, both from his art, and his supporters. In a quick scan of the crowd, I noticed a disproportionate amount of thrift store lumberjacks with week old beards wearing outsized spectacles. Everyone was drinking tall cans of Pabst.

I was nearly blinded by an unexpected snap shot that came from across the room. It was the bloke. He was back, and now armed with a small digital camera. I watched as he navigated the crowd, occasionally grabbing an acquaintance and yanking them into a point blank photo pose. Half the time he had the camera pointed the wrong direction. The other half, the flash seemed to be aiming right for me.

We assailed him with another round of flying relish packets, but he persisted. Finally when he was alongside me, I grabbed him by the wool checker boarded shirt and said in no uncertain terms that I was done being flashed. “What the fuck are you doing with that goddamned thing, trying to maim us all? We aren’t moles. You’ll blind us all!” I yelled at a volume so that he would hear me over the band, which of course unexpectedly stopped at exactly that moment. My voice rattled around in the club. Everyone turned towards us. Most had crooked eyebrows. I let go of the offending bloke and stepped back. He pointed his camera at me jokingly and I flinched back, ready to punch. “Hey man, it’s alright. I was kidding, I’ll put it away,” the snapper said. “Meooooooow!!” I blurted loudly, just as Field kicked his band into low gear with another animated count down.

Quist saw that I was getting to be on the verge of limited self-control, and got me out of the crowded bar before I started a real scene. The fresh coastal air outside was an instant boon to my equilibrium. We agreed it was time to head back to camp. The expected Hips jam never really occurred in the form that we had hoped for. But so what? It was their party. They had pulled off an incredible lineup for a small two-day festival. Let them cap it off in whatever form they saw fit to.

We started around the back of the Fernwood towards the steep stairway when a dreadlocked Spunion came around the corner on a strange beeline. He sensed our presence and stopped on a dime, his body rocking in place front and back like a Weeble Wobble. “Heyouguyswannabuyabagashroomslasonefortydollaastone!” he blurted, and then as if jolted into gear, leaned backwards, lurched forward and then sped off in the direction he had been headed without waiting for an answer.

Sunday

The new day arrived on the wings of a small blue bird who had perched itself on the peak of my tent, chirping me to bleary consciousness. I eased myself up, careful not to trigger any leg cramps this time. I grabbed a gallon of water and doused my guts with its coolness. The camp was half-cleared out already. I looked up at the sun and guessed it to be about 10 am.

I wandered over to Rowdy Camp and said my goodbyes. All around old friends and new families hugged and parted ways in a camp wide chorus of high fives, honks and rebel yells. There was a palpable sense that some bit of history had occurred and that we had all, musicians and music lovers alike, had been a part of it. And yes, I know it was just a music festival. Just a small picnic, really. But before you accuse me of being overdramatic, I challenge anyone to check back with me in ten years and tell me that the careers of at least three of the participating bands have not taken major upswings in general popularity and commercial success. I’ll lay serious odds that if all goes to form and the crops don’t fail, people who didn’t even know these bands existed today, will talk about the Hipnic with reverence years from now.

My camp was packed up in short order, as was that of my camp mate, Timo. He sang us a final song, a humorous ditty about female prisons, and then gave me his card, a glitter dusted, pie plate sized tie die drawing that deadheads call spin art. I thanked him, agreed to consider writing a screenplay about disenfranchised suburban gamblers with him, and pulled out of Area 51 with a blast of the horn and a coyote howl.

I stopped up at the top of Fernwood to buy a Gatorade for the drive home to Monterey. Inside, the staff was cleaning up, and already had the place pretty much back to normal. Breakfast was being served, and I briefly thought about partaking, but decided to pass on account of having already blown my bacon budget by several fistfuls for the week.

My mind was muddy from the weekend of constant stimulus, but already fond memories were forming. I walked back to the truck and was about to step in when I felt my bare foot squish down and pop the life out of some goopy thing. It was a bad, brutal sensation, and I was afraid to look. I am always racked with a terrible guilt when I accidentally stomp some helpless animal.

I stood frozen for a moment, and a pig-tailed girl who was sitting on the porch yelled out, “Whatsamatter?” startling me briefly. I looked up at her, and she was beaming back at me with a bemused smile. “Oh, nothing, I think that I stepped on a snail” I replied. Her face recoiled a little, mostly in the eyebrow region. I saw her headband move.

Finally, I stood back and looked down at what I had squashed, bending over to examine my victim. There, sitting lifeless and disgorged in a green, slimy puddle was a small, perforated packet of Heinz relish. A simultaneous rush of irony and relief came over me. “Oh good. It’s OK, I only killed a condiment!” I yelled, looking up, hoisting the packet aloft triumphantly.
“Thank God!” she whispered serenely, slowly turning her sleepy face towards the inviting warmth of the rising sun.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »