Notes from the frontier

I’ve been driving up and down the coast of the American West playing music with some friends.

This is not something I normally do. I’m an adaptable man, but there has been a learning curve to touring with a band; it’s a learning curve with unique aromas. A cat puked on my feet in my sleep the other night. Touring has its moments, though.

By processes that are none of my affair, we were scheduled to play a barbeque at a hazelnut orchard 15 miles outside of Sweet Home, Ore. The party invitation promised things like “fancy soda, home-made ice cream sandwiches” and “lovingly raised goat.” This last item was a point of continuous speculation in the van. Were we going to eat ice cream and play with a friendly goat, like at a petting zoo? Were we to eat the goat? If so, was there any chance we could get one that hadn’t been loved all that much? You know, the dickhead goat that sort of had it coming.

Pulling up to a farm party feels the same every single time. You’re driving on a country road that is similar to every other country road in rural America that you’ve never driven: There are two lanes, mailboxes on the side, sometimes a ditch, and you don’t know where you’re going. A cluster of cars and a cardboard sign, a U-turn, some mild anxiety. I’ve always found that it takes five or 10 minutes to adjust to the notion that a farm is an actual place where things happen and where people live, not just a blurry thing in the rear-view mirror.

America lives in a space where the carousel stops abruptly and is suddenly, momentarily quiet.

The old farmhouse on the property had a long columned porch that rendered it both quaint and stately. The volume and density of vegetation around the house was staggering: plums, apples, pears, blackberries, melons, hazelnuts. I sat down at a table in the shade of a giant pear tree and our host Gabriel brought over a plate of Moscato grapes that he proudly declared had been grown right there on the property.

They were warm from the day and seemed, by some benevolent alchemy, to have retained a few beams of light under their tawny skin. I couldn’t help feeling like my throat and belly were glowing on the inside as I ate them, slowly and thoughtfully at first, then by the handful.

I walked around and came upon the promised goat. It was splayed out on a spit held aloft by two steel posts, the bases of which were truck wheels. Mad Max barbeque pit in the middle of the garden of delights. I smoked cigs with a grass farmer named John who’d come over to help with the slaughter and preparation. We discussed the effects of methamphetamine on rural America, bemoaned the joblessness that bracketed it, and speculated on the continued viability of simple human dignities. This country was beautiful once. Has the whole world gone mad? That sort of thing.

The goat was delicious. I never found out how much it had been loved.

We sang for our supper in the middle of the orchard strung up with little white lights. It was like playing in a snowglobe music box. It was a good set and was well received. Also present that evening was a traveling band of minstrels and assorted beautiful freaks called Corpus Callosum, our friends, who grafted gospel numbers, chilling flute and drum choruses, dark lullabies, a collection of perfectly tuned wine glasses and circus showmanship into a performance that convinced me of the continued viability of simple human dignity.

Their set culminated in a performance piece in which my friend Dax intoned a dark, half-sung, half-whispered seafaring tale while slowly assembling a hand-made cardboard square-rigger. Yellowed paper stuck to the mast for sails, he hove the vessel up and sailed it calmly through the crowd. As the story crested in the din of maritime battle, as the privateer cursed their captain, the cardboard ship started to fall apart, piece by piece, landing on the ground of the hazelnut orchard until the wreckage was complete.

Later that evening, I fell asleep on an inflatable mattress in a dormered attic bedroom, several feet from a secret room where the bandit Jesse James once laid his head.

Vagabonds, Pirates, Bandits, Touring Musicians.