I hitched up my wagon – well, I put my suitcase and guitar in the boot of my Buick La Crosse and headed out west. My destination was Colorado Springs but it was too far to travel in one day, so I looked at the map and chose Ogallala as an overnight stay for no other reason than I liked the sound of it. I like saying Ogallala. It’s fun to say Ogallala. Try it. Don’t you feel better for saying it? It’s fun. However, saying Ogallala is a lot more fun than being in Ogallala. I’m thinking that the word Ogallala is probably Arapaho or Cherokee for ‘bugger all happens here’. But to be fair to the Nebraska town, I didn’t get to see a lot of what it had to offer because I was stuck in my hotel room for the entire time I was in the city limits, due to the mother of all storms taking place. The television warned of hail stones the size of tennis balls, just before the electricity cut out for the night.
Speaking of my motel room, it was straight out of a 1950s B movie, where the protagonist is hiding out from the law. The sign – in Spanish as well as English – which requested that you don’t flush your toilet paper down the loo but place it in the bin provided, kept me mentally occupied for quite some time.
I went to a local diner for breakfast. “Do you have anything that’s not been smothered in either syrup or cheese?” I asked the waitress. She looked at me, blankly. I had coffee and left for Colorado Springs.
After the humid heat of the mid-west, and the flatness of the landscape, the State of Colorado was a welcome change. The Rocky Mountains slowly come into view, and then take an age to reach. Once they are upon you, they are awe-inspiring. I heard myself saying, ‘wow’.
The area of Colorado Springs where I was performing in is called Black Forest. Unfortunately, the forest was living up to its name as, two years ago, the area was subjected to one of the worst forest fires in US history. I saw acre after acre of charred woodland; it was a very sad sight. How the wooden structure of the Black Forest Community Centre survived no-one is quite sure – but survive it did.
The Community Centre is home to the Black Rose Acoustic Society – which is dedicated to the preservation and presentation of acoustic music.
It’s a great-sounding venue; the natural acoustics of the room are enhanced by a quality sound system which is in the hands of a sympathetic sound engineer. My sound-check lasted about two minutes. As soon as I plugged in my guitar and strummed it, I knew it was going to be a good gig.
There were about 150 people in the room, who were all there to hear acoustic music. That means they were a listening audience, who hang on every word from the artist. I knew they were on my side the moment I opened my mouth – once again, the accent helped. Every song was greeted with enthusiasm but I could feel that two songs in particular were touching a nerve. I could sense the emotion in the room intensify as I played Judgement Day, which deals with the death of a loved one. And the finale of Restless Celtic Heart (see video on music/links page) complete with a preamble about Irish history and my ancestry, had the crowd cheering along by the end of the song. I sold out of EP CDs, with almost every customer checking that either of those two songs was on it.
Prior to my performance, I had booked into a motel online. After the show, I found an email requesting I confirm my reservation within an hour (which was now three hours ago). I contacted the motel to be told my room had been let. I rang every motel and hotel in Colorado Springs to be told that due to the White Water Rafting Festival in town the next day, there were no rooms to be had. I went into a nearby bar and drank till they closed at 2am. I watched from a distance as the barmaid I had been chatting with earlier, interacted with her boyfriend who had turned up; she a delicate and thoughtful flower, he a stereotypical football ‘jock’. She had confided in me that she wasn’t sure about them as a couple. After he left, I told her she could do better. I think there’s a song there, somewhere.
I settled down in the car behind the bar for the night. An hour later, a visit to the bathroom (a nearby bush) was quickly curtailed by a coyote howling. I might have swore as I quickly adjusted my clothing and hurried back to the car. I lowered the seat back and wondered if coyotes could open car doors.
I didn’t sleep much.
I had breakfast in a diner at 6am: “Can I have that without cheese?”
I cruised the main street of Colorado Springs. I saw people leaving a motel and thought that maybe rooms would be available today, so I took a chance and pulled over. I was in luck. The owner kindly rushed house-cleaning to prepare my room, and I was asleep in a nice clean bed within the hour.
I spent the weekend being a tourist. I went to the White Water Festival (I forgave it for stealing my motel room) and saw a great Celtic-punk band from New York, went to the jaw-dropping Royal Gorge (a sort of mini Grand Canyon) and also to the beautiful Garden of the Gods (an amazing rock formation millions of years old).
I headed south for New Mexico, the Rocky Mountains giving way to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the green of Colorado giving way to the rusty brown of New Mexico, stopping at the Coor’s Inn in the town of Pueblo to eat a “slopper”- an open hamburger sandwich covered with chili and onions, and the inevitable cheese. It was delicious.
My destination was the town of Taos (pronounced Towce) where the following night I was due to play at the Historic Taos Inn. The Dalai Lama once said that God inhales in Nepal and exhales in Taos. It is regarded as a spiritual, mystical place.
I was staying with Keith McHenry, a political activist and founder of Food not Bombs who have been feeding the homeless for over 20 years. When I’d contacted him to say I’d like to meet him and could I stay with him, he’d said, “Sure, you can sleep in my tepee, anytime”. I thought that was just a phrase. It wasn’t; as I approached his farm, I could see this ruddy great tepee rising up out of the land. This was a bit of shock because I like my creature comforts, but I thought, like so many things on this trip, I would embrace it.
There were some personal belongings in the tepee. Keith explained that they belonged to a young man called Adam who came and went. He wasn’t there at the moment. Keith said that this was just as well as Adam was “Well… he’s a little strange”. As Adam wasn’t going to be there, I didn’t pursue the matter.
Keith and I headed into town for a drink at the Taos Inn. During the evening, we got separated, and I made my own way back to the farm. There was a light on in the tepee. Adam had returned. He wasn’t happy about having his space invaded. He rocked from side to side and said, “Keith didn’t say nothing about nobody staying here, man”. I asked if it was a problem. He relented and offered me a sleeping bag and pointed to a space, saying, “You can sleep there”. He plugged in earphones into his phone and watched a movie. There seemed to be a lot of screaming involved. I curled myself up into a ball and cried myself to sleep. In dark moments, when I might have imagined my demise, I’d never thought it would be in a tepee in New Mexico.
I woke up early. I was just glad that I’d woken up at all. The fears of the night evaporated; Adam turned out to be a nice lad; he was just different, living off the grid. I felt guilty for doubting him.
Keith took me to the Taos Pueblo – a nearby Native American reservation belonging to a tribe whose name I can’t pronounce, and as they have no written language, can’t be written down anyway but translates as ‘the red willow people’. They were there before the Spanish Conquistadors came in the 16th Century, and of course, long before the white settlers came and stole their lands. Our guide around the reservation was Jaro, who was born there, and after he graduates from college will work for the organisers of the reservation. He was a gentle soul, and he told us of how the tribe’s traditions hadn’t changed throughout history, of how in-tune with nature they are, and how spiritual they are. It made me wonder what so-called civilisation brought to that continent. It was a very humbling experience.
Back in the tepee, I reviewed my contract for the gig that night. There in the small print was a clause that offered the artist the use of a hotel room. Before you could say ‘Geronimo’ I was in the car and heading into town. Within the hour, I had showered and was fast asleep in a comfy bed.
The gig consisted of three 45 minute sets. That’s a long time to play original material, and as there were quite a few tourists in the audience, I decided to throw in some covers (songs by British and Irish artists – I would feel odd playing American songs to US audiences). Original and covers were all well received.
There is an American tradition of tipping musicians at small venues. I am not comfortable with this. I like a contract, and to know what I’m earning. If I’m honest, I find it demeaning. However, as I was playing, the bar manager put out a tip jar. Before I could protest, someone came up and put a 20 dollar note in the jar. Okay, I thought, let’s go with it. 75 dollars later, I’m glad I did. On a tour like mine, that’s the difference between a seedy motel and a decent one.
The following morning, I left for Santa Fe, calling in at the spectacular Rio Grande Bridge on the way.
Santa Fe is a beautiful town with wonderful Spanish-style architecture. I viewed the cathedral and the Native American Arts Museum.
There is an area of Santa Fe called Agua Fria. It was once a town but so much has been built up around it, that it is more of a district now. The town is mentioned in a Marty Robbins song called Big Iron, which tells the tale of an Arizona Ranger’s gunfight with a notorious outlaw. It was one of my Dad’s favourite songs, and it had a profound effect on me as a songwriter with its lyrical and poetic storytelling and its wonderful rhyme and metre.
I found what I considered to be the centre of Agua Fria; I got my guitar out, and sat on the street corner and played and sang Big Iron, much to the bemusement of people passing by.
My gig was at a Belgian beer house called Duel. Three 45 minute sets of all original material (they were very adamant that there be no covers). With all 10 songs from the album, five from the EP, and a couple of new ones I’d written since being in the US, plus my elaborate story-telling, this was no problem at all. And I was offered a house concert next time I’m in Santa Fe.
I sampled the Belgian beer. After three beers, the waitress refused to serve me anymore. “It’s too strong,” she told me. “It might be if you’re used to Bud and Miller Lite,” I protested, “but I’m used to drinking British beer – and Guinness.”. I stared at her. She thought about it for a moment, and said, “Okay”. I mean, really.