For nearly four years I lived in one of the loneliest outposts in the western United States…the Needles Country of Canyonlands in southeastern Utah. Only a few of us lived there year-round, caretakers of some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. This was in the mid-70s and cyberspace had not yet been tapped in rural San Juan County, or anywhere else for that matter. So we lived without telephones, televisions, daily mail or even radio, unless you count the Blanding station that transmitted in Navajo for most of the day. As a young man at the time, I took these deprivations in stride. But for a boy raised in the San Francisco Bay area, the one thing I really missed was current music.
Oh, I had my collection of vinyl records all neatly sorted between bricks and boards on the floor of my government mobile home. And a box full of mix tapes for the car cassette player. But that was stuff I’d brought with me. I could order records through the mail and eventually pick them up in Moab. Or I could drive the 200 miles to Grand Junction, Colorado where I could patronize a real record store. But to keep really current on the music scene, I relied on friends far away to send me tape recordings…usually from records but occasionally just chunks of local radio broadcasts. This infusion of contemporary music was always most welcome…an audio tether to my urban roots.
This became most apparent when my friend Phil sent me a jazz mix tape sometime in late 1977. By then I was living by myself (my longtime lady friend had fled the prior winter), and I was feeling the loneliness and the weight of the surrounding wilderness. Fortunately, my Moab mailbox was often checked by fellow rangers while on supply runs and such was the case on this particular occasion. The padded envelope was brought to my door and I eagerly opened it, finding a nice selection of Herbie Mann, Grover Washington Jr and John Handy. Urban jazz invading the heart of slickrock country.
I played the tape a couple of times at home but its impact wasn’t truly felt until my “weekend” came around and I elected to hit the road. It was late afternoon in late November and the shadows along Indian Creek were long and cold. I drove up the dugway into open sagebrush country and reached highway 191 to Moab as the last light of dusk was fading away. Northward past the Lisbon Valley turnoff. Past Wilson Arch, Past the little outpost of La Sal Junction. At Kane Springs, I popped in the jazz tape and heard those first quite bass lines to Grover Washington’s rendition of A Secret Place…a fine bit of funk as I crested the hill to Spanish Valley and saw the first lights of civilization.
At that moment it didn’t matter that I was driving into a town of less than 5,000 residents, with not one decent restaurant, music or book store, and no real bars (just a state liquor store). When Grover’s sax started playing, I felt like I was heading into an oasis of energy….the hustle and bustle, the neon, the human connection. I was seeing downtown Moab but I was feeling the Bay Area and remembering those nights in the clubs and dance halls of the City. And bittersweet though it was, I knew that I would get a motel room for the night and spend hours on the telephone, and watch whatever was on the telly, and buy my groceries the following day, and head back into the canyon country I loved so much with a renewed sense of who I was, and where I was from, and where I was going. Something in that sweet music had set me up, and satiated a need in me so that I could better appreciate the truly remarkable setting where my life was playing out.
To this day, when I play A Secret Place, I remember that long drive through darkness and that first glimpse of the lights, like stars fallen from the sky and ready for the taking. The sweet music of youth.