It’s a dry heat. We’re going down. Down from Carter Ranch Festival and the edge of high altitude summer solstice coolness. We’ve downed too many chocolate espresso beans, and we’re riding an unyielding edge, Yukon winding down the mountain road. Before us lie a dried out San Joaquin Valley, high fire danger hills in the Grapevine, and a sullen heat in Los Angeles.
Which is why we’ve stalled till afternoon, leisurely breakfast at the delightful Sugar Pines restaurant in downtown Mariposa, hanging and ruminating with Rob’s super cool childhood pal Andy Bove. Holding back the inevitable. It’s time to hit the road. Our faithful Yukon has picked up BBC/NPR radio, and we’re getting the ruling elite’s bemused take on the Egyptian elections. We’re mildly dehydrated and gently hung over. It’s a good moment to contemplate the coming scarcity, the drying up of aquifers, the northern march of desertification, the Euro bankers with nothing, sitting at the global poker table with bluff and attitude, the U.S. treasury bills that will float into worthlessness, the collapse of culture and accumulated wisdom. Damn, these espresso morsels are tasty. Off to the left the Indian casino looks like a dark fortress from a Batman movie, nestled in the pines. Steve Miller coming soon.
Twenty four hours ago we were on this very road, mountains bound. It’s the summer of travel, busier than the last few years. In two days we leave for Ireland and UK, and we’ve been sweating logistics, money, outwitting the airlines with excess musical baggage. Jumping in the Yukon felt like an afterthought. But Carter Ranch wove its magical spell.
It was just yesterday. Rob, Paul L, and Victoria made the final turn onto Carter Road fashionably late, pulling into the dusty festival grounds at, we kid you not, 4:20. We had been delayed by research into our ongoing thesis, The Cultural Incompatibility of Rural America and Decent Espresso. The research was spontaneous, a result of choices made on the journey. The choice not to drink coffee before leaving Highland Park. The passing up of numerous Starbucks on the 5 and 99. The lack of will to seek out the dozens of Starbucks that no doubt populate Fresno, just out of sight of the freeway mass that rushes you through town. And now we’re jonesing. We are addicts.
Highway 41, north and east mountainward, golden dead grass and water indifferent ancient oaks. We casually discuss coffee options with the muted bravado of WWII bomber pilots contemplating a suicide mission over desperate 1944 Germany. In the back of our minds: will we have to settle for watery drip coffee at a clueless diner?
In Oakhurst we decide this is our last chance. Rob busts out the iPhone, which tells us there’s a Peet’s Coffee just around the bend. This is too good to be true. As it turns out. We’re in a phantom zone that exists only on the web. Peet’s is a chimera, shimmering heat waves in a cracked parking lot, existing only as a beeping blue dot on the Google map. We pull into a bookstore coffee house. Drip grind only. We blow this town, wind through the trees to Mariposa, driving right past the Triangle Road turnoff to the festival. But lo, in another country mile, out in the middle of woods and dry meadows, we spy a coffee roaster in intriguing old houses tucked below the highway. How much the sweeter are our insistent withdrawal symptoms, now that relief is at hand. And with the improbable promise of urban sophistication. Is our thesis about to be destroyed? We hope so.
Alas, the coffee roasting compound is a fraud, a rural huckster site sustained only by its remoteness. The roaster is a gruff imposing shaved head patriarch of indeterminate nationality, with what appear to be his daughters or daughter-like patriarchal followers attending the counter in the cool and dark roaster shop. They only sell beans. Ah. But they’ll brew us on the house cups. Ah! Paul L orders his with milk, which meets with an overamped scorn from the proprietor and a mysterious young acolyte who has wandered in. They reluctantly dig up some evaporated milk, promising that this brew is so rich and dark that milk is a mere insult.
The coffee arrives, in glass mugs. You can read a newspaper through the thin brown liquid. We exchange glances, take a sip, as the roastmeister expounds on his theory, his unique flash roast method vs. traditional roasting. He herds us into the inner sanctum, a white room with a complex array of big metal chambers and hoppers. He insists we watch the roasting process, which takes only five minutes. Rob bolts immediately; Paul L stays in the room, sipping what he swears is one of the worst cups of coffee ever. We sneak away, feeling like we’ve narrowly escaped a cult of multiple wives and brainwashed assistants. We feel pity for the next round of victims, pulling eagerly off the road as we race away.
Down the road, the winding road, we hit Mariposa, check into the very cool good vibe Riverrock Hotel, order what prove to be reasonably good and anticlimactic cappucinos. The sinister rural roaster coffee has kicked in, its bland flavorlessness disguising a wicked caffeine punch. We race back to Triangle Road and up dusty roads to the fest.
Friends, next year let your cares melt away at the Carter Ranch Music Festival. It really happens. The round amphitheater bowl meadow and ringing oaks, the genuine kindness and good taste of Adam Finney and family and the Carter family hosts, the tie dyed volunteers and crew, the locals camped out under canopies and digging the music, the dancers who rise when a two step or funky beat kicks in–this is global localism at its best. We dig some tunes, grab a quick vocal rehearsal with Marc Doten, who’s been camping out with girlfriend Michelle and the Atomic Sherpas band. Hawks and Sherpas in the evening, for what must be the third year in a row. None of us can remember exactly how many years we’ve been coming here. We always have that much fun.
We set up on the oak shaded stage, and launch the first show of the Ireland UK version of the Hawks: Rob and Paul L, Marc on bass, and Victoria on drums. It feels great, melodic and purposeful, and we build to a rocking finish and dancers descend from the hills and gather in front of the stage, kick up dust and sing along. It’s fun to watch the crowd rock to Victoria, whose lovely and diminutive elegance belies the fierce groove when it’s time to rock, and we do rock. We do Good N Foolish Times for an encore, hang out with the crowd at the side of the stage. A beautiful willowy local enchantress, Cheyenne, has made colorful and beautifully knit wool caps for the band, and a hand bag for Victoria. We don them and wear them for the rest of the night. Thank you, Cheyenne!
Job well done, it’s kick back and party time as the moon rises over the oaks and surrounding pines. We pass around a giant beer jug, small whiskey, Rob and Andy climb the oak over the stage as the Atomic Sherpas hit the stage. We’ve seen many Sherpas shows over the years, alway ferocious and powerful. But something has happened in the last year. There’s a new depth, added dynamic range, delights like a long and mesmerizing scat singing break from trombonist, virtuoso drumming and guitar, leader Vince’s assured blowing and bandleading, and Marc Doten’s demented keyboard icing on the cake. Every festival this year has produced a dazzling band, and this time we know them well.
In two days we leave aridity behind. Gray and green emerald Isle, land of Brendan Behan and his holy namesake, where they pour great kettles of boiling water into teapots stocked with black tea, where the holy wells and raths and cairns remind us of the vanity of it all, where bitter history rests, sweetened by surrender, the renunciation of empire, where the fiddle still has the final say. We’re excited. Virgin Atlantic, be kind to the American troubadors. We aim to please our ancestral grounds.