Hard Times Come Again No More

Colorado

A Western Odyssey

Thick darkness. Restless wind. Headlights on a two lane highway. Two orange foxes darting in front of the car. A thump.

The general outcry from several half-asleep people resonates in the vehicle. My heart hurts, just thinking about those poor foxes in pain. What can you do?

“I think that was the turn back there! We missed it!”

It has been a very long car ride.

We rumble down a dirt road, winding through the hill silhouettes that flicker in the headlights. The road guides us to a gate in the darkness, and then to a golden patch in the lights of log cabins. 

*    *    *

I awake in a cozy room with wooden doors like Pa Ingalls built in Little House on the Prairie. A sign on the door says that this cabin is a hundred years old and used to be the cowboys’ barracks. I like to imagine it. 

I step outside. The beauty of the landscape stuns me. Rolling green and golden hills stretching in every direction, the blue sky above, a wind so violent it knocks the sleepiness out of me. 

I dart back into the cabin for a very scanty coat that I happened to stuff into my hangup bag, and then Gretchen and I walk up to the meeting house, ducking into the wind with every step.

Hot coffee has never felt so good. Or homemade sausage and gravy and local eggs. We all sit at the log tables, talking and laughing with the cowboys and cowgirls of the Colorado Cattle Company, famous for its appearance in City Slickers, hearing the history of the gorgeous place, relaxing before our next video shoot. 

*    *    *

The afternoon sun has gone behind the oncoming rain clouds and the wind is more frozen than ever. We drive cross country to the set, a barren riverbed beneath a cliff, with two gnarly trees and bleached driftwood decorating the scene. The sky is grey above the grey ground. The wind whips my black dress around and around my legs. 

I step gingerly through the tall grasses, watching for rattlesnakes, though the veterans say it is too cold for snakes. Sandra, one of the cowgirls of the dude ranch who hails from Switzerland, says she sees 4-6 rattlesnakes a week in summer and always brings a shovel and a knife with her when she goes riding. 

I sit on my missionary organ and feel the wind slowly defeat my jacket as I bury my head into my hood. Sandra brings us hot coffee to warm us in our frozen state. We watch Annie and Jeremiah perform their solos while Paul achieves swift moving shots with the camera in the dry river bed, listen to Graham playing the music over the speakers, read books, huddle.

And then it is time for the group shot. I shiver as I take off the hoodie and the boots and warm mismatched socks (my socks are always mismatched…don’t judge me). Since I am not impoverished or living in the Dust Bowl and therefore do not have any shoes that look like it, I go barefoot. 

I soon regret that decision. The river bed is cold and wet, with sticky clay and sharp pebbles. I set the missionary organ up on its box and we play Hard Times Come Again No More over and over, the wind ripping our curls and tearing around our legs, the cold seeping in till my hands and feet are numb. I dig my toes deep into the clay. 

And then Tim and David are flying the drone above our heads. We are drowning in the music and the wind and the experiences of the man who wrote the song, the passionate cry for peace, all wound up in our memories. The plea is as old as the earth.

Rain begins to drip-drop into the dry river bed, falling off the leaves of the gnarly old trees and splashing in the sage brush. I wince as the dry grass pricks my bare feet on our walk back to the truck. Who could live without shoes? We load up our things and tumble cross-country back to the warmth of our heated cabins, our soft blankets, eating delicious, piping hot burritos.

It sinks into me. The blessedness. 

The Grass on the Prairie

Nebraska

A Western Odyssey

I am in a pretty little attic room at the Prairie Creek Inn, with Victorian furnishings and wallpaper, and a window that overlooks a green Nebraska field glimmering with dew.

I roll out of bed and walk out into the hallway, where the smell of breakfast wafts up the glossy wooden stairs. Gretchen is in Annie’s room, getting beautified for her moment in Where You’ve Always Been, the first music video shoot of the day for our new album American Rhapsody. Outside Paul, Tim, David, and Graham, our incredible, can-do camera team, are consulting with Alex and Mama about scenes. 

Being an avid believer in the happiness induced by a solitary country walk, I set out on my own to peruse the grounds. There are rustling green soybean fields and a hobbit door sprouting out of a hill.

The prairie grasses growing taller than my head; a gravel path running through a small grove; the Lake of Shining Waters spreading before me.

Wildflowers growing by the side of Prairie Creek, and a butterfly resting on one of the pink blossoms. I hear the voices of the children, David, Audrey, Vincenza, and Evangeline, coming from the farm where Benjamin and Berklee are letting them pet the horses. 

Back at the house, I rush through hair and makeup in preparation for a piano shot on Where You’ve Always Been. Through the window, I hear the song coming through the monitor and riding on the wind up to me, and see Gretchen, pristine and slender in her white dress, her hair blowing in the wind, as she sings the song she wrote about Grandma and Grandpa in our old countryside refuge, Zafra, Oklahoma.

And then it’s my turn, playing a grand piano in a bay window overlooking the beautiful Nebraska farmland. The house is over 150 years old and was moved to this location and restored by the innkeeper and his wife. 

I love old houses. You can feel the age in them, like good wine: the memories in the walls, the whispers of a forgotten time that was just as real as ours today.

When the afternoon sun is streaming down the Western side of the sky, Where You’ve Always Been is finished, and we journey into Lincoln, Nebraska. Our very dear friends welcome us into their home, where they have cooked a feast of farm-fresh food for us. It is a much-needed respite from the work of the day, to talk and laugh and enjoy friendship. 

A bit of a shut-eye, a refreshing of makeup and hair (my poor hair…curled two to three times a day for two weeks only to be ravaged by the wind! alas…), and we were off to the uncut Nebraska Grasslands for shot two of the day, The Grass on the Prairie.

The chug-a-lug up the road––which is merely mown grass in a great expanse of virgin grasses––is a bumpy ride, but we do get up there, thanks to our good ole pickup trucks. Once there, the vista is breathtaking.

We are on a race with the sunset. The shimmering silver from the cloud overlay envelopes the green grass, sloping for miles in every direction. The grass is as tall as we are. Annie hurries into her silver evening gown, with a windswept chiffon bustle, and begins to shoot the beginning of the music video in the grass. It is surreal, a picture that one ought to only see in fairy tales, right there before your eyes. 

I change into my pearl-white gown, which was also my wedding dress, and will be immortalized in a prairie sweep with a grand piano from the 1800s (which also weighs 800 pounds and comes with a hydraulic lift…whew!).

I wrap a lace shawl with shimmering pink and blue flowers around me. I feel enchanted, standing in these clothes underneath the sun, playing an ancient piano in the grasslands.

And then crickets start to jump into my skirt. 

And then I realize I really need to relieve myself.

The only thing to do is to embrace my pioneer heritage and to drift off into the grass, away from the cameras and the drone overhead, as far as I can possibly go and still be able to breathe through my fear of rattlesnakes. I once heard of a woman who always wore dresses and never underwear so she could go whenever she wanted to.

Ewwww…

Ahem. After that I go join our friends, who have been a Godsend, helping us set up the scene and cart all of our things to and fro, bug-spray at hand. We watch Annie’s glorious moment, see the power of her performance, and talk about how incredible this whole experience is.

Then they tell me that there are mountain lions in Nebraska.

Planet Earth clips of golden lions crouching down in golden grass flit across my mind. I look around quickly. The dusk is obscuring any definition. I wish I had David Valentine’s childlike peace…when Audrey Jane got scared of mountain lions, David Valentine said, “Don’t worry, Audrey, this is nature! There aren't any lions in nature!” 

And then it’s time for the full group shot. We coalesce in the scene, the wind frolicking in our hair and our skirts, as Paul works the glide camera and the others work the drone. There is only an hour of sun left, but they work fast and creatively.

The sun is gone. We are in rivers of headlights in the grand darkness. We women change out of our evening gowns behind held-up sheets, as the the men tear down the set and get the piano back in the truck bed. We rumble down the road and make friends with the crickets hopping around the car.

Back at the Prairie Creek Inn, I talk with James in my comfortable little room, and am so tired that I black out three times in the midst of our conversation. The weariness finally gets the better of me, and I fall asleep, makeup and all. 

I hear that everyone else had a party in the barn, filming the third music video of the day, Choctaw Cowboy - the acoustic bluegrass piece from American Rhapsody that my sister Gretchen composed - until 2am, regaled by locally grown watermelon and our friends’ homemade chocolate chip cookies. Berklee at the BirchTreeMeadow.com captured this picture in the fun.

As all the Nebraska natives told me, Nebraska is the best-kept secret ever.

A Western Odyssey Begins

Independence, MO

American Rhapsody hits stores on September 11. 

Along with being super excited comes some very simple, predictable brain calculations. 

(New album coming out + 8 potential music videos) + having three weeks off after FASA and a PBS special = cross country road trip!

Only problem is, my husband can’t come for the first week.

Wail!!!

I am not a woman of the strong and independent variety that can separate from their man for weeks at a time and get along all right. When I separate from mine I feel like I’m missing a leg and everybody’s telling me to walk. 

So comes the moment at 4am when James drives me to meet up with everyone at the house. Thankfully everyone is late, so we cuddle on the couch in the dark living room, soaking in the last moments. Alas. There’s always a bubbling fear inside too. What if something happens?

And then the moment when I’m sitting in the car with all my backpacks and purses and drinks and stuff in a mound around me, while mine and James’s hands meet in Tarzan and Jane fashion through the car window.

Then James runs after the car as it drives down the quiet suburb road. Tears well in my eyes. 

8 whole days!!!

There’s only so long I can sit teary-eyed in the back seat, nursing the heart-ache, before I get fed up with myself and pull out a book to read. Unfortunately the book I brought was Til We Have Faces. Reading about Psyche being separated by Cupid, the best husband of all time apparently, is not the best reading fodder right now.

The travel traditions slowly start to sink in. I assimilate into the Bubble, where you leave home, travel, do bunches of stuff, have ridiculous sleep schedules, eat at Panera Bread, Chick-Fil-A, Chipotle, and Cracker Barrel on rotation, dress up, and play music. Then you come back home and everything’s just the same and you feel like you never left at all. They are parallel universes: Road Life, Home Life.

Suddenly Road Life merges with Laura Ingalls Wilder. It jolts me out of my despair. Here I am, traveling over to Independence, Missouri. The whole purport of our Western Odyssey sinks in and Excitement begins to simmer inside of me.

We are actually driving the direction of the Oregon Trail, across three time zones, from Independence MO through Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho/Montana to Washington's Pacific coast. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Memories flit through my head of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, of that children’s manual of the Oregon Trail that I poured over as a nine-year-old girl and wrote a whole book about. Here I am, walking in that place. Independence, MO.

And then I get to put my memories and thoughts outside of me by having to speak them to a camera lens. Freaky.

And then a very dear friend comes by and we talk and talk right there on the pavement of the beginning of the Oregon Trail, and happiness comes back in along with excitement about where this journey will take us.

Can you tell I’ve seen Inside Out? ; ) Emotions! Emoticons! ; ) (do you remember the days where you first saw that colon and parenthesis and thought, What in the world IS that???)

As the sun starts to set behind the Missouri woodlands and the little kids come back sweaty from their wagon ride, we set off again. After seeing a real wagon and sweating bombshells in the Missouri summer simmer, Little House on the Prairie becomes hazed with a kind of traumatic imagination of heat and discomfort…poor pioneers! 

Darkness blankets the sky as we coast into the grasslands of Nebraska. I fall asleep, because that’s what I do when it’s dark and I’m in the car and there’s no iPhone service to watch a TV show with.

What did people do before iPhones!?