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Twenty Thousand Roads

My Alter Ego, Deeply Contemplating The West


Return of The Grievous Angel

Won’t you scratch my itch sweet Annie Rich
And welcome me back to town
Come out on your porch and I’ll step into your parlor
And I’ll show you how it all went down
Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels
And a good saloon in every single town
Oh, and I remember something you once told me
And I’ll be damned if it did not come true
Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down
And they all lead me straight back home to you
Cause I headed West to grow up with the country
Across those prairies with their waves of grain
And I saw my devil,
And I saw my deep blue sea
And I thought about a calico bonnet from
Cheyenne to Tennessee
We flew straight across that river bridge,
Last night half past two
The switchman waved his lantern goodbye
And good day as we went rolling through
Billboards and truck stops pass by the grievous angel
And now I know just what I have to do
And the man on the radio won’t leave me alone now
He wants to take my money for something
That I’ve never been shown
And I saw my devil,
And I saw my deep blue sea
And I thought about a calico bonnet from
Cheyenne to Tennessee
The news I could bring I met up with the king
On his head an amphetamine crown
He talked about about unbuckling that old bible belt
And lighted out for some desert town
Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels
And a good saloon in every single town
Oh, but I remembered something you once told me
And I’ll be be damned if it did not come true
Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down
And they all lead me straight back home to you
Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down
And they all lead me straight back home to you
–Gram Parsons
Twenty thousand roads indeed. I love Return of The Grievous Angel, and I love Gram Parsons for writing it. I also love hearing Gram (the granddaddy of Country Rock) mix up his raw nasal twang with Emmy Lou’s beatific vocals. But I liked it when Lucinda Williams sang it too. Raw, earthy, and unapologetic (thirty or so years later), rocking out with David Crosby. I think it was David Crosby, who also does this incredible, mellifluous duet with Nancy Griffith on “Tecumseh Valley,” which is one of my favorite songs and which, of course, was written by Townes Van Zandt.
What I love more than the song itself is the meaning it has come to have for me. At the age of eighteen, I too headed West “to grow up with the country.” Up until that point, I had never been farther West than Ohio. My entire short life had been spent on the East coast. And not only that, nobody in my family had much of an interest in the West. It was a place you went on vacation. Maybe to take the waters or dehumidify your lungs if you had TB. But God forbid that you would actually live there. I was born in New Jersey, grew up in Nova Scotia, and attended a girls’ prep school in a affluent Boston suburb. By my senior year in highschool, I still had no aspirations of seeing the West. My intention was to stay in New England and attend Bowdoin College, where Hawthorne, Longfellow, not to mention my own father and brother had gone before me. Only I didn’t get in. The big R. Rejection. Shock, horror. I hadn’t planned on it. Nor had I planned on getting rejected from my back up school, The University of Vermont. (As fate would have it 24 years later, I now live in Vermont.) So it was with some disbelief and nervous apprehension that I found myself heading into an unknown country with a few suitcases and my sheltered identity still very much intact. My extreme back up school was The University of Colorado. A place I held a fairly dim view of. Some popular party school out West, somewhere. I only applied because my highschool roommate was going there. Her mother, a divorcee, had moved to Ward, a burnt-out enclave of hippies wrapped up in a smattering of miners’ cabins high above the Boulder flatirons (who probably were thinking about the trippy calico bonnet of Parsons’ drug-hazed imagination.) My roommate talked about Ward, and all of the strange characters who dwelled there incessantly. The mention of the place scared me. To my young, uncultured mind, the West seemed a place crawling with vaqueros and the salty-throated troubadours I had heard wailing on 8-track tapes back home in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. I envisioned the drooping mustaches and fro hair of the likes of Jim Croce, not to mention Bad Bad Leroy Brown and his fabled El Camino (or was it an El Dorado?) pimping along the South side of Chicago. Chicago, Colorado, Montana. It was all the same. Somewhere other. Other than the East, that is.
Twenty-four years have passed since I headed West to grow up with the country. And grow up I did. And stayed, for 18 years. It would take a singularly important family event (the birth of my niece in 2001) to coax me home. By then, at age 36 (as I’m fond of saying now), if you looked carefully you could “see my skidmarks etched into the interstate all the way from New Mexico to Massachusetts.” By now I had certainly seen more than my fair share of devils AND deep blue seas. I had experienced death, shattered love, betrayal, redemption…such cliches and yet so altogether true of the transient nature of life as it dips through light and shadow. I had literally gone west a child and was coming home an adult. It was time, one of my friends had remarked. To come home, she meant. I thought so too, and if I felt a creeping apprehension easing up my neck, I was determined to dismiss it. It was only later that I would recall the vague disquiet I had felt upon heading out to the Rocky Mountains in 1984. Flash forward to 2001 and I was downright shell shocked. As I packed up my clothes and scattered belongings in my small apartment on Maynard Street in the old Santa Fe barrio, my helpful neighbor (a native of Virginia who had come west for the first time to do a little growing up herself) and I took frequent breaks from packing to sit in front of the boob tube, where we sat hunched in disbelief. In wordless tandem we took in the incomprehensible explosions of a funereal fourth of July, coupled with images of ruined airplanes bursting into flame and falling through the jaws of the earth. The horror of 9/11. I would be driving north of this city of madness to New England. Back home. All of this was going on out there in what was now (these many years later) for me The Other. The East.
The next few years on the East coast passed like a surreal dream. All of the life passages that seemed to have eluded me out West, such as a stable relationship, happy home life and motherhood suddenly fell neatly and easily into my lap. Suddenly, all of the battles and hardships I had endured in my adopted Western homeland seemed to seamlessly melt away. I remembered my “back east” values and began to again savor my lofty eastern identity. I even regained a healthy dose of privileged eastern prejudice. There was a reason, wasn’t there, that Harvard, Yale, Boston Children’s Hospital, maple syrup, the first thanksgiving, not to mention the great Dr. Seuss himself (among numerous other superior bastions of all that is good in the world) all hail from New England? I wondered why I’d endured so many laborious growing pains in the West; struggles amounting to either a monumental birth or formation of character. Or both.
“See,” my sister said, “I told you. You just needed to come home. Look how much easier and better it’s all been for you here.” My sister had enjoyed her own odyssey in California and was relieved to be shut of it and the West, thank you very much. She had hunkered down in Emily Dickinson’s intellectually charged birthplace in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she remains to this day. A fitting dwelling for the daughter of a professor, himself a product of Harvard and Yale. She thinks of her time in the West little, if at all. Sometimes I envy her that.
But for me, there’s still that debt of gratitude owed to the one who raised me up. To the country that gave me free rein of its wide open spaces, where I galloped to the finish of a 50 mile endurance race through cactus and ponderosa pine and where I danced the two-step in slick leather cowboy boots, hooting above the mandolin’s tremolo. Where I gaped in awe at cotton candy pink sunsets and silver Eldorado nights, and where, oh where, the lyrical music of old Texas flatpickers and pedal steel players informed me and shaped me and helped me to become who I am: a very Eastern girl with a very big heart in the West. Specifically the Southwest. Even more specifically, New Mexico.
And I know they’ll all be there waiting for me when I head out next week…the truckers, the kickers and the cowboy angels. The long haulers rolling down the highway, tooting their horns. The kickers at the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, snapping their heels together and spinning their broomstick skirts round as the fiddler bows hard on The Orange Blossom Special. The cowboy angels only a few miles out of town, sitting their butts down hard in the the diminutive wooden booths at The Horseman’s Cafe, long Wrangler-clad legs and Stetsons alike nearly touching, their mouths curling smoke rings from the hottest chiles in Santa Fe, chased back by a coupla cold Negro Modelos. They’ll be waiting for me, just as I’ve been waiting for them. Twenty Thousand Roads will lead me back to you twenty thousand times, oh Enchanted Land. I’ll be damned.