Some towns just won’t let you wallow. I was recently in Winnemucca Nevada with a case of melancholy hanging just around the edges of my senses. I’d already forewarned my companions, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Logan “Red” Ledger that my favorite sign appears in that windblown western town: Girls! Girls! Girls! Truckers Get Off Here! But for some reason I never spotted the sign and I was distracted by Jack’s pointing and story-telling about the rodeo in town.
Despite the world-class company, I just couldn’t kick the blues, though I was careful not to share it with my compadres. We had whittled down from four to three and Winnemucca was our last stop before heading home. Our 16-day tour of the West was a multi-generational swap of stories, jokes, secrets and music. 60 years spanned the three of us.
We limped into town on fumes, having neglected to get gas before the long empty stretch from Wyoming and past Salt Lake City and Elko. We stopped at the first gas station off the highway just past the rodeo grounds. My eyeballs were floating so I was not only happy for the gas. After sprinting from the car and then in a more leisurely pace returning, I noticed an old motel across the street. Old doesn’t do it justice. It was vintage. Red tiled roof, whitewashed walls, a big leafy green tree spread out generously in the middle of the parking lot. Both Jack and I looked wistfully at it and wondered if our motel would be as charming. We were performing at the Martin Hotel the next night and enjoying Bill Sims’ hospitality. Bill is the main organizer of Great Basin Entertainment, I’d met him the previous year when travelling with Jim Nunally.
We drove down the wide boulevard, Jack pointing out a museum inside a casino and a saddle shop he hoped we’d have time to stop in. Then a block past the Griddle – we agreed that was our breakfast spot – we turned left and spotted a sign right out of the Jetsons! The Town House Motel: spunky, with a bright ray of a blue-green star on a high post, it announced proudly that it is AAA approved, has King Beds, and WiFi. The only lighted up neon on the sign was “No.” Gotta love that. Our hosts were Ana Marie, a Basque born in Navarra Spain, and her husband Tom, an Air Force veteran. There were photos of sheep and statues of sheep so we would not miss the Basque connection. I liked the black sheep best and they were featured in each vignette.
A group of bikers were happily talking outside my room, my neighbors for the night. The men looked forbidding, bald with bandannas and tattoos, but reacted to a friendly smile with the broadest of grins. They went to bed early. I overheard one of them calling his father and sharing news of their road-trip. My room was light and neat and the bed comfy. Blues stay away from me!
After we unloaded the car and scattered for some rest, I took a ramble, sadness still hanging at my heels. But Winnemucca kept presenting me with visual surprises and friendly smiles and interesting characters, so I kept skittering along just looking for something cold to drink. I stopped at the Griddle and watched what appeared to be a mother-daughter team scraping the old paint off the old sign and refreshing it with new paint, working under the neon. The younger one sort of boyish and with a tattoo of Bob Marley (?) on her leg, dark short hair swept up in a black bandanna. She seemed sort of tough but very pretty. They worked steadily away and the sign looked jaunty in its repair. I spotted a café sign down the block and peered in longingly at the windows, realizing it was 7pm and mostly these types of places were closed. Ambled on to the Tortilla Shop by the gas station and found them handcrafting about a dozen different kinds of beautiful tortillas, in fresh greens and light rose colors from the herbs I guess. A young woman there gave me some hibiscus tea and commented on my hair (it has blue streaks in it), laughing and sorry to hear I had gotten my hair cut and dyed over 350 miles away. No chance of her dropping in for the same.
I rehearsed a bit with Logan and then trundled him off to the Martin Hotel for a dinner, he was beaming on his return having eaten more food in one sitting than ever before in his life. Lamb shanks, mmm. Worked on a new song that night, learning Jack’s version of Maple on the Hill (JE Mainer version rather than the Stanley Brothers I was familiar with). My neighbors laughed and joked on the white plastic chairs outside my room, I was cheered by their company.
Woke still fending off the blues the next morning and decided to try out the secret recipe hotcakes at the Griddle. Glad to see the sign painters finishing up their work, felt like running into old friends. Sat in a booth and started writing some notes on what I saw. A trio of not-so-young people walked out onto the sidewalk talking about Burning Man and I thought they looked very self-conscious of their trendiness. Like they figured they fit right into this western outlaw town, but it wasn’t true. A woman near my age crossed the diner just to ask how I had made my shorts (they are cast-offs with a dye pattern) and the two ladies near me at the counter, one and two generations older than me, weighed in on how it was done. (Old jeans, cut off, stencil created and bleach applied.) Then chuckled at how people don’t know how to hem anymore: one of them pointed out I could cut those straggling strings hanging from the bottom of my shorts, but I informed her I paid extra for those.
Winnemucca – place where you absolutely are not allowed to wallow in your melodrama! Just minutes apart, a warm interaction or a sweet and surprising sight. Like the white light post, looking also newly painted, with a merry blue cutout of Chief Winnemucca. Or Princess Winnemucca, one of the Griddle waitresses speculated. A lanky long-leggedy man crossing the street with loose jeans and a wonderful belt buckle and a bald head with US flag bandanna (saw lots of those).
The show at the Martin Hotel went great – packed house of friendly people, including “Red” the train engineer, a recent veteran of recent wars, mouthy women clearly in their element, beautiful girls on the arms of handsome, quiet young cowboys (sighing and exchanging looks, squeezing arms during the love songs), folks who drove from Salt Lake City who I thought viewed me and my original songs dubiously but later told me they had seen Kate Wolf 30 years ago and didn’t I just remind them of her (oh Lordy I do wish!). What humor in that room. When a phone rang in the midst of a quite lovely song, they roared with laughter because the culprit was so embarrassed and hangdog. There were Gary and Pauline and many stories about their dogs – Jack and I seem to relish the dog stories, they rolled on. Bill having done his research on us all made gracious introductions, including identifying where I was born, went to school and my last real job (Mother Jones magazine).
That night, to celebrate the end of the tour, we brought out sparklers bought at a truck stop in Wyoming. Two folks from the show intercepted us in the parking lot so we handed them sparklers too and we all cheered as they lit up the night. Falling asleep to the friendly talk in the parking lot, I loved Winnemucca for its character and generosity and surprises.
A wild, loud storm rolled through in the middle of the night and capped it all off. I counted the seconds between lightning strikes and thunder-claps until there was no space and the sound and light and rain crashed down from the skies, a show far surpassing any us mere mortals could do. It was beautiful and strangely calming, an outer storm to put into perspective an inner one.
So in homage to Winnemucca, I have a song in the works. To capture the jauntiness of the place, the surprise of a grin from a tough customer, the new paint carefully applied to a vintage sign, sparklers lighting up a threatening dark night, black sheep in amongst the soft white others.