artichoke

Timothy’s Nimbios Residency

Posted by on May 17, 2011

On Sunday, March 27th I drove out of Los Angeles, across California and into Arizona.

I headed up Figueroa Street, across York Blvd. and past Luther Burbank Middle School. This is one of many schools around the country named for a pioneering horticulturist, a skinny hummingbird of a man who developed 800 strains of fruit and flower, but who frustrated the scientific community by keeping most of his records in his head, a man who ate an egg and a slice of bacon for lunch every day while toiling in the service of vegetables, and who is honored 3 blocks from my house in colorful mosaic tile letters that say “fruit and flower show the magic of his mind.” I can only imagine how uncool that slogan seems to most kids in middle school. Our friend and occasional soundman Arlo attended Luther Burbank a few decades ago. This was long before Arlo had ever heard Professor Longhair or James Brown or the Kinks, and before Artichoke played our song about Luther Burbank in his bar.

I took the 210 East to the 15 North, winding up into the high desert through the Cajon pass. I was grooving to one of the CDs my dad had just sent me for this trip. It was Duke Ellington and his band, live at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. I hadn’t heard it since I was a kid.

At Barstow, I turned right onto I – 40 and across the Mojave Desert all the way to Ash Fork, Arizona, where I headed south on route 89. 89A meandered towards my state park destination, and in the late afternoon the road wound down through the old mountain town of Jerome. It looked like a cool place to visit with friends and family.

The Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood was full of recreational vehicles, and a little underwhelming after the mountains I had just seen. But I was looking forward to a rest so I paid the campground fee, pitched my tent, and stood close by the fire as the stars came out and chilly air filled the wide valley. I quietly ran through a few dozen songs, trying not to annoy my nearest camping neighbors, and then I hit the hay. Of course, few people in America sleep on hay anymore. For this car-camping trip, my “hay” consisted of 2 inflatable mats, 2 foam mats, my yoga mat, a furniture blanket, and 2 sleeping bags zipped together.

Monday, March 28th started with an excellent hot shower at the campground. I mention this because I was soon to discover that not all state parks have hot water. This information would be convenient to have before driving to the park. I packed up the car and got an eyeful of the scenery around Sedona. Predictably enough to anyone who knows me, for several hours my brain was pleasantly looping the Pixies’ song “Havalina.”

“Walking in the breeze / On the plains of old Sedona / Arizona / Among the trees.”

I was back on I-40, and cruising East once more. Weather sunny and fine, all the way to New Mexico’s beautiful Santa Rosa Lake State Park. I made camp, hiked a little loop by the lake, dined on hard-boiled eggs, olives, fresh basil, and my precious Trader Joe’s pinot grigio.

But this was not to be a restful night. I finished reading an unsettling book about the Vietnam War called “The Lotus Eaters.” An icy wind whipped through the campgrounds, reviving the dying embers from my fire. I could see the sudden glow through my tent fabric. I got up to pour water on everything, and witnessed little coals hopping into the dry grass like possessed, glowing gerbils bent on arson. This looked ominous. I was freezing my ass off out there, yet in danger of burning down a forest. So I used quite a bit of my drinking water on the fire and all its arson-gerbil babies.

Disaster was averted, but sleep didn’t seem likely. One of the good things about traveling on your own is that you can change plans at any time. You can, for example, suddenly decamp and drive off into the starry night of New Mexico. Bob Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind” sounded perfect.

Texas offers eastbound I-40 just one rest area, on which they spared no expense. True, the surrounding land is flat and bleak, and Tuesday March 29th was gray, rainy and cold. But the main building is a designated tornado shelter made of precious marble of every hue and pattern. I am not kidding. I was awed and slightly confused by all the beautiful stone. Perhaps they were building with the assumption that fine architecture repels tornadoes?

At length – and if you’ve driven through Texas and Oklahoma you will know that to be an apt way to begin this sentence — I reached Okmulgee State Park in Eastern Oklahoma. It was a beautiful big park, but the weather was still cold and gray, and they did not allow fires or supply hot water in the showers. I hiked a couple of miles through a wet lakeside forest of oaks, and got back on the road as night fell.

Arkansas was lusher and wetter still. After passing Little Rock, I was getting bleary-eyed from all the hours looking past rainy headlights, so I found a rest area to spend the night. My 1990 Toyota Camry station wagon is a surprisingly comfortable space for one person to sleep. Outside my car, trucks whooshed through the rain. Tree branches waved, illuminated from underneath by the rest area lights. I slept like a log.

I woke up early on Wednesday March 30th feeling good and drove east. Arkansas flattened out. Signs for the Parkin Archaeological State Park caught my eye and so I followed them up to the park. It was essentially a mound with a gift shop. A student of forestry took my money and showed me a film of the local history. The story fit into the larger history of the Americas, as I see it anyway. To generalize: Europeans arrived, acting as unwitting vectors of powerful Old World diseases. Native peoples were nearly wiped out by these diseases. The conquerors and the conquered alike concluded that the technology, fighting skills, and religions of the newcomers were superior. Smallpox and influenza were powerful missionaries. I seem to recall most textbooks on the subject of American history mentioned the diseases — but almost as an afterthought.

I admired a few of the head pot artifacts on display. One of these head pots was buried just a few feet under the bed of a woman who lived here for 30 years before the land became a state park. We are often closer to relics of the past than we might realize! I took a cold walk around the site of the ancient village, and then headed across the flat low land surrounding the Mississippi River and into Tennessee.

At this point in the narrative, somewhere between Memphis and Nashville with a big Dunkin’ Donuts coffee wedged between handbrake and driver seat, I’ll tell you where I was going and why. Back in 2005, my college friend Michael Erard wrote a piece for the New York Times about the songs of science, with particular focus on my concept record “26 Scientists, Volume One: Anning – Malthus.” Michael continues to write articles and books, such as his exploration of spoken mumblings and fumblings, “Um.” Artichoke and I have released more concept records such as “26 Scientists, Volume Two: Newton – Zeno,” “Bees,” and the kids CD with songbook “26 Animals.”

In the fall of 2010, Michael told me about a songwriter residency at Nimbios at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Bizarrely enough, they were looking for songs about scientists! I checked it out online, applied, and decided to spend April in Knoxville writing 2 songs about scientists for $3,000.

I didn’t know much about the Nimbios program really. It seemed like a fun way for the scientists to publicize their work and involve the wider population. Nimbios Director Louis Gross clearly loved music and was able to include this songwriter residency in the program. For my part, it seemed like an opportunity for a subsidized road trip with a guitar and the chance to make some new geek friends.

Back on the road now. I stopped at the Natchez Trace State Park and Forest to camp. Hot showers? Check. Campfires allowed? Check. Entire 50,000 acres of oak, redbud, and dogwood forest seemingly to myself on a cold and rainy Wednesday? Check. So I found the most stupendously cool campsite in the park on a forested peninsula in the middle of the lake. I gathered a lot of soggy wood and managed to get quite a blaze going as the gray day shaded gradually into night. With wet wood, keeping a fire going is all about critical mass. Dinner was wine, olives, hard-boiled eggs, cheddar cheese and some bell peppers. I played about 30 songs. I had a couple of new ideas, but they were mostly anxious howling things of dubious use to me unless I joined Radiohead. It was just nice to loosen up without anyone else around.

A drizzle began, and I retreated to the car and finished Margaret Drabble’s “Jerusalem the Golden.”

Thursday, March 31st dawned gray and cold. Driving east in North America, one travels in the direction of the weather, and so it might not change much. I limbered up by running across the lake boardwalk a few times and set off for Nasheville. My wife’s friend Celeste lives just to the north of the city, and she had kindly offered to put me up.

I eventually found Celeste’s house on a nice suburban street. She showed me her grandfather’s paintings, her baby, her work room and her husband’s workshop. People who make things with their hands are easy to get into conversation with. We make our own conversations pieces, after all.

Then Celeste drove me to Nasheville’s never-quiet musical center. Some of those clubs have live music 24 / 7. At her prompting, I stepped into a few. I bet some of the bricks behind the bar are dying for a moment’s peace, or at least some Beethoven. Then it was back to Celeste’s house for a party with her friends and some music of our own.

I reached the Nimbios offices in Knoxville on April Fool’s Day. The sun was finally out. Since I was the first songwriter from out of town, Louis Gross found me a “residence for my residency” in Toby Koosman’s apartment. Toby works at Nimbios and DJs a Celtic radio show on WDVX on Sunday evenings.

The people at Nimbios made me welcome and gave me an office with my name on the door and a computer. Being a semi-Luddite without an iPhone or laptop, I was now able to check email and Facebook and such for the first time since leaving Los Angeles.

My first evening in Knoxville, Nimbios Education and Outreach Coordinator Kelly Moran and her fiancé Jason showed me some of the sights, including the Old City. It’s only a few blocks across, but the Old City of Knoxville has its own authentic bricky post-industrial flavor. Some of the clubs looked too fratboy for me, but the Pilot Light and its adjacent music / thrift / record store looked promising. We had pizza in an immense brick barn called Barley’s, and discussed the awesomeness of They Might Be Giants.

On the morning of Saturday, April 2nd, I joined a Nimbios hike in the Great Smokey Mountains. The tulip trees were impressive. They are huge, perfectly straight trees with green tulip-like flowers way up in the sky.

Hiking with botanists and ecologists is a slow, informative affair. One’s normal scope of bullshitting may be reduced somewhat by the presence of so many experts with field guides in hand. (I joke, since usually I am the one with the book. Quite honestly, it was terrific to have real answers to nearly any botanical questions that came to mind.)

By Monday, April 4th, I was feeling fairly settled in. I had some notion of doing some painting, since I figured I couldn’t play guitar all day every day. I found an art store and collected a unique palette of watercolors, a few blocks of hot-pressed paper, and a range of decent brushes. As it turned out, I never did any painting during the month.

That night, I was feeling the need to perform somewhere. I had sort of pictured playing some random sidewalk shows in small towns en route to Tennessee. Maybe I could do something similar in Knoxville’s Old City. I set up my mic stand and a battery-powered amplifier in the shelter of a doorway on the central corner of the Old City.

I’m not really into busking, for the simple reason that passersby only hear ten seconds of a song, and it’s generally pretty unimpressive. And if you are just one dude standing there wailing and strumming, how will it sound? Now I don’t mean in some John Lennon documentary in your mind where it sounds amazing. I mean in this world, where it sounds like a car is going by and you can’t hear the words and then boom! you’ve walked out of earshot. For the singer, it can feel like your songs and your voice are pretty weak.

But once in a while, especially now that I have this little battery-powered amplifier, it’s worth doing. So I set my gear up at dusk in the Old City of Knoxville and played the entire “Bees” record in the album order. Some people honked and cheered as they drove or walked by. A semi-vagabondish guy sat down in front of me. He was Robyn from Illinois, and he sat there for about an hour. The evening got darker, and a strong wind began to blow. With the good sense of a cat or dog, Robyn bid me adieu and high-tailed it for shelter just before a heavy rain began to fall. I did not have those instincts, or perhaps as an artist I chose to ignore them. Also, I had the shelter of my doorway awning. The rainstorm seemed like my audience, and I really dug in for another dozen songs. But finally the storm turned sideways. I grabbed my things and ran for cover.

Tuesday morning, I walked down to the Visitors Center on Gay Street to see the Chapin Sisters play The Blue Plate Special, a daily live radio concert on WDVX. Artichoke had played with the Chapin Sisters a few years ago at Lummis Day. This time it was just the two of them, each playing guitar and singing, and they sounded great.

And then it was back to the Nimbios offices, where Karen Page gave a talk on the functioning of molecular signals in embryonic cells.

I rounded off the day with some recreational wood splitting with Senior Analyist Jane Comiskey and Computing Specialist Eric Carr. Jane wanted the firewood, and Eric wanted the giant oak rounds out of his back yard. And I got to have dinner with Eric’s lovely family too.

On Wednesday April 6th, I walked downtown again with my guitar for a photo shoot for a local paper. I posed beside a realistic bronze sculpture of a huge man rowing a boat. They are calmly sinking into the courtyard in a manner that is both dignified and touchingly tragic. This is not evident in our photograph. But if you visit Knoxville, you should go see it.

Most mornings if nothing else was planned, I worked on music and drank many French-pressed cups of coffee. As I mentioned, I was staying in Toby’s apartment surrounded by students and student housing. Her apartment was #402, coincidentally the same number as my Nimbios office. Apartment #402 sounded good due to its wood floors and general emptiness, and it was a productive place to practice and write.

From these quarters, it was a pleasant walk across the bridge, past the sunsphere and into downtown to the Knoxville YMCA for a yoga class at 12:15. They claimed theirs to be the 2nd oldest Y in the country. It is a beautiful old building and everyone there was friendly.

On Thursday, Eric Carr and Jane Comskey took me for a tour of the dendrochronology lab to look at tree cross sections and chat with some of the researchers. Dendrochronology is a very useful way to study Earth’s recent history.

That night, I headed over to the house of Mike Gilchrist for some guitar noodling. Mike is a mathematical evolutionary biologist and an excellent guitar player. He praised my tunes, but joked that I was too “organismal.” It’s true; I am a bit of a sellout that way. We hung out on his porch as night came.

Catherine Crawley, Nimbios Communications Coordinator, had booked me for a couple live radio shows for the month of April. I would be playing The Blue Plate Special on WDVX, Studio 865 on WUOT, and an internet TV show called 11:00 Rock. I briefly considered getting a full band together, but that began to seem like a lot of work, especially given my Nimbios focus on writing rather than performance.

I decided that the most productive path was to play with a single lead musician of some kind, rather than a mushy band thrown together in haste. And, voila – there was Cathy Carr, flautist and wife of Eric Carr. I had never heard a flute on my music, and it sounded great. Cathy soon had 4 songs ready to go.

Saturday, April 9th arrived hot and beautiful. My car’s AC had died again, but that’s okay for short trips. I drove to Celeste’s friend Tyler’s house on a lake about 40 miles out of town. Celeste and friends came east from Nashville, and we had a party that lasted into the wee hours.

Sunday morning, I eluded a probable hangover by getting up before the hangover was awake. Perhaps some churchgoing teetotaler was its substitute victim. But I guess there’s no point in my feeling bad about not feeling bad. We’ve all had somebody else’s hangover at some point.

So, feeling extremely well, I went back through Knoxville and out east to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to vacation with my family. My parents drove down from New York State and my aunt Lydia came out from Greensboro. We stayed in a big house for a few days, ate things, hiked, and looked at some amazing slides of India that my dad’s father (or my father’s dad, I forget which) had taken when the family was living there in the 1950s. It was a lovely visit.

On Wednesday, April 13th, Catherine Crawley and I met to shoot a little promotional video for the Nimbios residency. I ended up playing guitar in a beautiful flowering dogwood tree in a park near her house. I did my best with some interview questions, and then played the first song I had written for Nimbios. It’s the daydream of a mathematician:

Coffee and Pi

Click to play the song:

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G D A C G D
I guess but I don’t know and this is helpful at parties and so on

G D A C D
A lot of things are beautiful especially when you’re very very very close
A lot of things are beautiful especially when you’re backin’ way up

B E A coffee-drinkin’ machine they call me
B E I am a fiend for that bean
B D a coffee-drinkin’ machine

E F G C G C I see circles color vision
E F G C G D With my circles three dimensions

A D It’s funny how the pi never stops why doesn’t?
A D Funny like the shape of a blur
A D It’s funny how the pi never stops why doesn’t

B D B D Pi stop pi stop pi stop pi stop

G D A C G D
I guess but I don’t know and this is helpful at parties and so on

G D A C D
A lot of things are beautiful especially when you’re very very very close

A lot of things are beautiful especially when you’re backin’ way up

B E A coffee-drinkin’ machine they call me
B E I am a fiend for that bean
B D a coffee-drinkin’ machine

E F G C G C I see circles color vision
E F G C G D With my circles three dimensions

A D It’s funny how the pi never stops why doesn’t?
A D Funny like the shape of a blur
A D It’s funny how the pi never stops why doesn’t?

B D B D Pi stop pi stop pi stop pi stop

F# B A D Well if the pi isn’t stopping for us maybe we should stop for some pie

The song structure might be described as “math rock” in that it has 7 different parts, the first of which uses the numbers of pi to spell out a rhythm. As for the “coffee-drinking machine” bit, someone at Nimbios reminded me of the quotation “a mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems,” attributed to both Alfred Renyi and Paul Erdos.

On Thursday, a bunch of scientists who study eusocial forest insects descended upon Nimbios. Like an exploratory troupe of leafcutter ants, they snacked on cookies and sandwiches in the lobby, and then returned to the conference room to exchange information with complex vocalizations and movements of their upper limbs.

On Friday, April 15th, Mike Gilchrist hosted a party for his students and colleagues. It was raining pretty hard. I had enjoyable conversations with gardeners, herpetologists, and specialists in invasive species. There seemed to be quite a few of that last category, almost to the point of crowding out students of our native species. (Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.)

On a bleaker note, I talked to quite a few scientists at this party about, well, our planetary doom. I personally spend a lot of time feeling crappy about the ongoing mass extinction of species due to habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. If I wanted to be reassured that things were not all that bad after all, this was the wrong party at which to bring up the subject. Maybe it was the alcohol exaggerating; or maybe it was the alcohol releasing the unvarnished truth as they understood it. To summarize: things do not look good for biodiversity on Earth over the next 100 years. The only question left was whether or not homo sapiens would survive the disaster of their own making.

On the morning of Saturday, April 16th, I made a scenic excursion to the northeast corner of Tennessee to visit David and Debbie. They are the parents of my friend Anna, a wonderful artist and musician who plays accordion and sings in Artichoke. I drove a leisurely few hours into the countryside. It was a shiny spring day and a strong wind shook the trees. I made great friends with their dog Tim, walked around their beautiful hilltop farm, and met more than a dozen miniature horses as well as some full-sized ones. David and I hiked around a half-built nuclear power plant, construction of which had ended when the 3-mile island accident made nuclear power unpopular. This was an appropriate hike to take with David, since he is a specialist in setting up various kinds of power plant, with an increasing emphasis on green energy. After dinner we all played music. Debbie plays an upright bass, and David plays anything with strings, and probably a few things without strings too.

On Sunday, I took the back roads back to Knoxville. I stopped at Di’s Diner in St. Clair for eggs and bacon. Everywhere I looked there were churches, churches and more churches, as plentiful as Starbucks in L.A.

On Tuesday, April 19th, Cathy and I played Studio 865 with our host, Todd Steed. Our songs and interview went well. It turns out that Todd is as big a fan of Robyn Hitchcock as I am. That night, I played an impromptu show for a very nice audience at a “drink and draw” event at the Pilot Light in the Old City of Knoxville.

Wednesday morning I walked with Catherine Crawley down to play on 11:00 Rock, an internet television show.

My wife’s cousin Sarah-Kate and her family live down in Atlanta. After the 11:00 Rock taping, I drove down to visit them. Just as I entered Georgia, I was struck by a terrible stench. My windows were down, due to my continued AC-lessness. Wretched air filled the car instantly and there could be no relief until I passed the source. It was like the air from inside an old tire mixed with roadkill putrefaction. Very VERY bad. I increased my speed a bit, but the hellish gusts kept coming. The landscape appeared benign; just rolling hills and rows of big pine trees for miles. I drove even faster to get out of this yuck zone. Likewise, my mind rifled through various explanations. Was this the site of some notorious slaughterhouse entrail dump? Could the entire state of Georgia be cursed? Did this explain CNN’s style of reportage? How could Sarah-Kate and Chad raise a family in this place? Half an hour, or an eternity, passed in this way.

At the point when fresh air was no longer possible to imagine, I passed a big animal transport truck, the kind with horizontal ventilation slats. It appeared empty. As I pulled even with the truck, the stench turned off instantly. Georgia was sweet again. What horror was that truck carrying? I had to pee and the car was low on gas, but I dared not stop for any reason lest I fall behind the hell truck and never emerge from its toxic trail.

The rest of the visit was lovely. I reached Sarah-Kate and Chad’s house on a large lot among tall trees. We ate and drank, played kids songs, and visited the High Museum of Art. Highlights for me would be “Along the River, Winter” by John Henry Twachtman and “Still Life with Fish” by William Merritt Chase.

Back in the Ville of Knox, I had dinner with Catherine, Rick, and their daughter Hanna. Rick is a biologist and musician. Catherine is my exact contemporary. We borrowed their neighbor’s dog and took him for a walk around one of the nicest neighborhoods I have ever spent time in. The evening wound down nicely until I was sprawled on their floor with a tambourine and a guitar. Rick had a guitar too, and Hanna chimed in with a harmonica.

In Knoxville’s Fort Sanders neighborhood, between my apartment and my office, there flourishes the James Agee Park. This is a small but densely planted garden where I often sat on a bench and worked on songs. The first evening I did this, I heard a voice coming from somewhere above my head, saying hello and then saying nice things about my playing. Randall was speaking from the inky shadows (as they say on Car Talk) of a balcony high up in the imposing brick house adjacent to the park. Over the course of more evenings and afternoons, I became friends with Randall and Wes, who lived in that house and were the founders and caretakers of James Agee Park. The park was impressively full of birds and flowers, a great place to observe spring in Eastern Tennessee. Back in L.A. I often work on music in my own back yard. The James Agee Park gave me a similar creative spot.

On Saturday afternoon, Cathy Carr and I performed at a little party at Randall and Wes’ house. It was a catered wine and snacky thing for a group of seven women, benefactors of the arts or some such. We played five songs and then stayed to socialize. The wine and company were good.

On this occasion and many others over the month in Knoxville, I found myself in the dubious position of speaking as an ambassador for Los Angeles. My adopted hometown gets quite a bad reputation, mostly self-inflicted by the television it exports. But it seems to me that television paints an unflattering portrait of every part of our nation. Would these southern belles want me to believe the tube-derived stereotypes of the deep south? I doubt it. All over America, people are disgusted by the television coming from L.A. but they keep watching it. And what may be worse is that on some level, they really believe it. So there I was, the ambassador to Tennessee from Southern California, who grew up without a television in the woods of New York State, and who now watched it only on Netflix, responding to decades of accumulated imagery which made up the colossal semi-fiction called Los Angeles. So I could say anything I liked — which is what I tend to do anyway. I’m usually an effervescent guy at gatherings, happy to talk to almost anybody, accepting of the fact that nearly everything we say will be forgotten by the end of the… eventually, the party relocated to someone else’s house in a different part of Knoxville. Then there were just 6 of us playing pool. It got late, and one of the seven women (who works in television, of course) and her studly shirtless contractor dude kindly put me up in their guest room.

On Sunday morning, studly shirtless contractor dude made me coffee and told me his life story as we sat in the bright sunshine on their deck. My favorite bit was that he didn’t care about material possessions, but that he was on his 58th motorcycle.

That afternoon, Cathy and Eric hosted a farewell party for me at their house. Eric and I started with some more wood splitting. I had hoped we might be done with his big oak tree before my month was up, but some of those knottier rounds really slowed us down. Soon, quite a few Nimbios people showed up. Jane Comiskey gave me Donald Culross Peattie’s “A Natural History of Western Trees” and “A Natural History of Trees: of Eastern and Central North America.” These books are simultaneously zealous and scientific, with fascinating accounts of man’s history in relation to each arboreal species. I would recommend them to anyone who likes trees. And I would conclude that Jane is a sweety.

The party got into high gear. I cut up a watermelon. Dave Brubeck was on the stereo. A massive impossible-looking “Where’s Waldo?” puzzle was being assembled. Emma and Natalie Carr were joined by superfriend Hanna, and little girl chaos ensued. After a walk around the Carr’s Fountain City neighborhood, Cathy and I played a little concert on their front lawn. It was a lovely party and I was missing this Nimbios community already.

But even more than that, I was missing Allison and my own home. Sunday night, I packed up my Nimbios office, room #402. I wrote a farewell on the dry erase board. I left printed copies of my 2 songs. Back at Toby’s apartment, the other #402, I did laundry, hard-boiled my remaining eggs, and organized all my camping and traveling stuff. I was ready.

Monday, April 25th, the date of my final Knoxville performance, had arrived. I packed the car for my cross-country drive and then made my way to The Visitor’s Center on Gay Street for sound check at 10:30. Cathy and I rehearsed our songs while the place was still mostly empty.

And then it was showtime for us on the Blue Plate Special, live on WDVX. A bunch of Nimbios scientists sat in the audience off to the right. The Carr and Crawley families filled the front row. We started with “Trash Day.” I sang the verses a comfortable octave lower than I usually do, and Cathy’s lead flute parts sounded great. In the middle of our set, the friendly tattooed cowboy-booted Blue Plate hostess Red Hickey interviewed me about Artichoke and the Nimbios songwriting residency. Then I performed “Coffee and Pi,” with Cathy holding up her fingers to indicate the digits of pi as I played that rhythm. It’s hard to see that stuff on the radio, admittedly, but it seemed like a funny gimmick for attentive mathematicians in the room. I finished the set with “Our Back Yard Is Full of Cats,” a mellow song from “Historic Highland Park” which is an account of some of the animals seen in my Los Angeles back yard as evening falls. On this occasion, the song functioned as a fond farewell to Knoxville and my Nimbios friends.

I hit the road around 2:00, heading north on I–75 towards Lexington for a different path home. The mechanic had said that my repressurized AC would probably last most of the way back to L.A.. I made a celebratory call to Allison announcing my departure from Knoxville. I bet I’m not the first to notice that road trips are far less isolating in the age of the cell phone.

The afternoon was sunny and beautiful. But the wind was picking up, so I called my mom to see about tornadoes and other severe weather that might be in my path. This had been a stormy spring throughout the South. A few days earlier the Louisville airport had been hit by a twister, and as I passed through that city the Ohio River was visibly high. I continued on into Indiana through a series of thunderstorms, past low fields covered with standing water. Quite a few interstate signs had been blown over. Thick steel posts were sheared in half. With all this rain, camping would not be too thrilling; and so I kept going. The city of St. Louis was foggy and mysterious in the dark, the shining arch partly visible in the tempest. I – 70 took me into Missouri. The thunderstorms got pretty intense along this stretch. They seemed to go well with Beethoven’s symphonies. Eventually, I pulled off at a rest area to sleep.

The next morning, my desire to see art in Kansas City was thwarted by it being Tuesday, when museums are closed. So across Kansas I motored. I called Artichoke guitar player Nick Reiter, native of this wide state, to see what I might conveniently see. He suggested the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas. I found my way to that little town under the big blue sky. A makeshift sign on the office door at the Garden of Eden said “back in 10 minutes.” I doubted this, so I slipped a couple bucks into the door and gave myself a tour of the grounds. The curious house was in the shape of a log cabin, except the “logs” were lengths of postrock limestone. Trees were scarce in this part of Kansas, and I had seen quite a few fence posts made of this stone. Around the house stood a forest of fanciful concrete sculptures. Gates, gargoyles and lampposts sprang up everywhere, like characters from an Edward Gorey book. There were faded newspaper clippings in a case in the back yard, showing the old dude at age 80 with his 20-year-old bride. Kudos, free thinker!

Onward, through Colby and into Colorado. My CDs of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” came to an end. Around 1979, the original radio series had a big impact on my family in the woods of New York State. Lacking television to memorize, my brother Ian and I applied those magpie portions of our young brains to Monty Python records, Stan Freeburg, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide. In my adult life I listen to the Hitchhiker’s radio series in its entirety every 10 years or so. It’s still awesome stuff; dense, twisty, and with great sound effects. I later married Tricia McMillan, I mean Allison Achauer.

Down the road, the western sky looked very black. Camping was dubious again. Maybe I could cross half of Colorado and reach my brother’s place up in Nederland that night? I called Ian to let him know that I would be a day early.

I passed through series of awesome thunderstorms, each backlit by the setting sun. By Denver, the windshield was bleary and so were my eyes. I followed the winding road up through Boulder Canyon above 8,000 feet into Nederland – and into winter!

Ian and his Manx cat live in a house on the side of a mountain above Nederland. His main project in recent years has been founding and running Rollinsville Automotive. Ian’s shop must be one of the highest places you can get your car fixed in the world. Indeed, Rollinsville is even higher, colder, and smaller than Nederland, at an elevation of 9300 feet and a population of 181 as of the last census. There is a post office, general store, and an old brothel which is now the rather nice Stage Stop Inn.

On Wednesday, April 27th Ian had to get up very early and deal with some broken equipment at the shop. Getting up at the crack of dawn to work on cars in the freezing wind sounded like a drag to this California boy. So I spent the morning down at the Denver Art Museum. There were some excellent landscapes to be seen.

Back at Rollinsville Automotive, the dudes were toiling to diagnose and repair the innards of various vehicles. Perhaps I should mention that I am not the brother with knowledge or experience in the field of automotive repair. I watched with awe as they transplanted an auto-spleen, inflated a truck-liver to its proper turgidity, and revved up a fast-beating jeep-heart until life-giving jeep-blood coursed through its throbbing jeep-veins. The warm, solvent-infused air was filled with the mutterings and low howls of the grease monkeys. These must have been Old World grease monkeys, for they lacked tails and spoke a dialect of Mechanic unfamiliar to me.

Evening came. The grease monkeys grew mellow, and put down their wrenches. Ian invited some friends to his automotive jungle for a little concert. When I picked up my guitar, I discovered that it had cracked in half along an old break where the neck meets the body. Luckily, I was able to borrow a guitar from Steve, the owner of the resuscitated Jeep-creature, and we had a fun time.

Thursday morning motored West through the Rockies on I-70. As I descended into Utah, I came to this shocking — even scandalous — realization: Steve Malkmus’ records with the Jicks are just as good as Pavement records. I know that half the people reading this will say “who?” and the other half will say “bull hockey.” But a third half just might take another listen to Malkmus’ half-dozen post-Pavement records and say “dude –listen to that guitar!” The only flaw in all these songs (pointed out to me by Allison) is his reference to a “Doric arch.” I can only blame the Greeks for not building any.

I went South on 191 through eastern Utah. My AC was dead again, so there was much windy buffeting. The scenery was stupendous. I saw a formation that resembled a Mexican hat. Sure enough, ten minutes later I passed through Mexican Hat. The wind was unrelenting. Around Tuba City, dust was visibly blowing across the road. I passed through Flagstaff just after sunset, and slept at a rest area near Kingman.

Friday, April 29th I woke early at the rest area, staunched a sudden nosebleed with the assistance of a friendly evangelizing janitor, and got home before noon. The traveling was over. Now I just had to write this account and record my two songs properly.

Dr. Edmund Schulman and the Bristlecone Pine

Here’s the song (click to play):

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(these are the guitar chords with capo at 3rd fret)

whistling instrumental 2x GD D7 G F G

G D since time unknown the bristlecones have kept themselves alive
D7 G F G way up in the mountains of the West
G D (except for clones) these oldest living organisms thrive
D7 G F G extremely harsh conditions suit them best

G D C G F G just below the tree line stand the groves of bristlecone pine
G D C G F G just below the tree line twistin’ in the blue of the sky

G D Dr. Edmund Schulman studied climate over time
D7 G F G he found the bristlecone in ‘53
G D dendrochronologists counted rings oh so sublime
D7 G F G they spoke I awe of these most ancient trees

G D C G F G just below the tree line stand the groves of bristlecone pine
G D C G F G just below the tree line twistin’ in the blue of the sky

A# F G F G but climate change may wipe them out
A# F D higher temperatures and drought
B7 gonna put them to the test
E7 and there may be no niche left

whistling instrumental 2x G D D7 G F G

G D Schulman and his colleagues made a timeline of the past
D7 G F G sharing with the world their treasure trove
G D but Schulman was cut down in his prime by a heart attack
D7 G F G the U.S. Forest Service named a grove for him

double-length chorus F G F G