Sutter Creek

Author’s note: Below, I tried, and actually succeeded in writing what I was intending to write about. Unfortunately, it’s turned out all inarticulate and rambly [yes, M, that *was* a Firefly reference]. Ah well. Maybe it’s like the Hitchiker’s Guide instructions for flying: “Throw yourself at the ground and miss.” Maybe the magic only happens when you miss…

This blog really ought to be called “But what I really meant to write about is…” because, as far as I can tell, when I sit down to write about something, gyroscopic precession takes over and the post goes off in a direction 90 degrees away from the thing I was trying to put my finger on.

In this case, I think what I mean to write about is small towns. The towns you drive through on your way from one place to another, except that you don’t, because these towns aren’t really on the way to anywhere. They’re just, well, where they happen to be. Sutter Creek, California is a good example. It’s Gold Country, or was, and is trying to make the best of it. The old main street is nicely preserved, with an antique shop or two, a handful of quaint “Wine Bar and Café”-type establishments alternating with places like “J.D.’s Steakhouse” and “The Pioneer Saloon”, the straight-out-of-the-last-century American Exchange Hotel and the Sutter Creek Theater.

It was actually the theater that brought us here – kind of a long story, or no it’s not. Here’s the scoop: It was back in Seattle, as a grad student, that I inadvertently discovered, that I was a folkie. Sure, I’d been raised on the stuff – Joan Baez, Dylan, Pete Seeger, but that was all campfire music, and I hadn’t realized that there was any more to it than that. But one day my housemate Kathryn (hi K!) handed me a Christine Lavin cassette and said “Here – I don’t know why, but I think you’ll like this.”

It was “Good Thing He Can’t Read My Mind”. It was… kind a weird. But compelling. I saw her at a “Four Bitchin’ Babes” concert and immediately got hooked on the rest of the vein – Patty Larkin, Cheryl Wheeler. David Wilcox – it just grew. And then there was Uncle Bonsai. You can’t describe Uncle Bonsai and hope to not both appall and mislead people. They (yes, “they”, not “he” – Andy Ratshin on guitar, Arni Adler and Ashley O’Keeffe) were a trio with amazing harmonies, a twisted sense of humor and absolutely no shame. They played the clubs in Seattle with the occasional free concert on the lawn at the zoo.

Look, rather than me trying to explain, go to YouTube, and plan to spend a few minutes listening to them. And yes, listen to That Song. Oh wait, with Uncle Bonsai, there are a few different songs that could be considered “That Song”.

Done? It’s okay, we’ve all done it – you go online to listen to a folk song, and then suddenly it’s two hours later and you’ve followed the acoustic garden path of “related videos” down unknown alleys and suddenly caught yourself on that tutorial of offensive Bulgarian drinking songs. But hopefully you listened to a couple of Uncle Bonsai tunes before things came off the rails. The “Woodland Park Zoo Concert” ones are nicely representative.

So, UB quickly became a staple at grad school – lots of us actually got hooked. Then they had that farewell concert at the zoo in 1989 – Arni was something like 8 months pregnant and she kept bumping into the mic stand with her belly. Was a fabulous, memorable evening.

Right. So, now fast forward now about… 22 years. Devon and I arm-wrestling over plans to spent the kids’ vacation up at Tahoe, at her parents’ house. We’d invited bunches of friends with appropriately-aged kids to come up and spend parts of the break with us, and avoiding tears in the space-time continuum required us to arrive up at Tahoe no later than Sunday afternoon. Fine.

Then came the email notice that after 20 years, Uncle Bonsai had launched a reunion tour and was going to be in Berkeley… you guessed it: Sunday evening. Cue marital strife.

But maybe there was still a way – after a few weeks of teeth gnashing and negotiations, I happened to click through to the UB tour page and noticed that on Friday, they were playing at the Sutter Creek Theater. Google-to-the-rescue and it turned out that Sutter Creek was a quaint little old touristified mining town about – would you believe it? – a half hour out of the way on the drive up to Tahoe.

Plan B kicked in pretty quickly: we’d drive up to Sutter Creek on Friday afternoon, see the show, spend the night in town, and continue up to Tahoe in the morning. Added bonus was getting to drag our progeny to the show and inflict Uncle Bonsai and Christine Lavin on a whole new generation. What’s not to like?

We had a few more wrinkles, and settled on Plan L, or maybe M by the time Friday rolled around. Devon loaded up the car and headed out shortly after we’d pushed the kids out the door to school. I picked them up after their respective half-days-before-winter-break, and piled them into the plane. It’s almost a four hour drive up to Sutter Creek, but only a 45 minute flight – hey, did I mention there’s a quiet little airport just south of town? – so we landed probably 20 or so minutes after Devon arrived.

Somewhere around Plan G or H, I’d noticed that Sutter Creek was also about 30 minutes away from Calaveras County airport, where Andrew Turpen and Steve Cook of the Calaveras Airplane Company have been diligently restoring our beloved Skyranger. Devon hadn’t seen the Skyranger in probably six or so years, since long before I’d hauled it away from the guys down in Hollister who were diligently not restoring the plane.

So we tacked a side-leg into the excursion to stop by and see Andrew and Steve.

Things went astoundingly according to plan. Andrew and Steve were charming as ever – some day I need to really write properly about them. Really incredible guys – a couple of true craftsmen dedicated to restoring antique aircraft, working their art at a small airport on a hill tucked away in the heart of gold country.

Got back to Sutter Creek, checked into the hotel and went wandering Main Street for something to eat. Not a long wander: up one side of the street for a block, and back down the other. Passing the Theater, a couple of folks were steering bits of equipment in the door. I looked at the man and said “Oh my – you’re Andy Ratshin! [guitarist and songwriter for Uncle Bonsai] And… Christine Lavin!” Ratshin gave me a tell-me-something-I-don’t-know look.

I asked if there was anything we could do to help.

“You wanna help us haul stuff into the theater?”

Get to play roadie for my grad school folk heroes? Absolutely. So Devon, Miranda, Jeremy and I made a trip or two hauling guitars, speakers and boxes of CDs into the tiny theater. It was a gorgeous little theater; the kind you’d imagine finding in a small one-horse town 100 years ago.

Anyhow – after gawking awkwardly a bit in my best fanboy style, it became clear that our work there was done, and the musicians were kind of wishing we would go away so they could start doing that preparation stuff that they do before a show. We excused ourselves and hunted down some dinner for the kids.

The show: the crowd was tiny – perhaps 50 people all told, and show was delightful. I’m not going to try to do a review here, it was just a heck of a lot of fun. Jeremy timed out about during the intermission (after Christine and one of her guests played a set), and Miranda made it all the way through.

Gotta say, though – hearing Arni’s voice again, live and on stage, after all these years, gave me shivers. Really. Like having a photograph speak to you. Ashley wasn’t touring this time around – newcomer Patrice O’Neill was filling in her shoes, quite ably. But Arni’s voice. Wow.

I stuck around after the show a bit while Devon and Miranda headed back across the street to the hotel. Caught Arni in the hall and once again went all fanboy. We chatted a bit about the “farewell concert” 20-odd years ago – the big round blob that was in her belly is now in college. She was pleased to see that we’d brought our offspring – “I could tell she was sharp: she laughed at all the ‘right’ places.” That was gratifying too.

But I was starting to feel in the way again. I thanked her, and Andy and Christine again and made my way back to the room, humming something or another from the evening.

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