I just returned from another visit to one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever seen, Medicine Bow National Forest and the Snowy Mountain Range in southern Wyoming. It was my third visit to this lesser known part of Wyoming and although I’m getting to know it pretty well it never ceases to amaze me. At an observation area in the pass between the highest peaks at over 10,000 feet elevation you can see a landscape that is unchanged since people first settled there. Way to the south the tops of the northern Rockies in Colorado over a hundred miles away stand in silence. In front of you the sheer face of Medicine Bow Peak and farther away, Sugarloaf Peak stand in stark beauty. Below them are lakes and pine trees and rock formations that tweak the imagination. So what does all this have to do with music?
I brought a guitar along this time because I missed having one so much last year on my trip about this time. With the certainty that I’d have no problem finding overhead bin space on my flights to and from Denver due to the airlines having way fewer passengers these days I stuck my Martin M-36 in a good quality gig bag, selected a few important accessories like extra strings, a capo, tuner, picks and other stuff in a bag and stuck those in there too. Sure enough, the gate attendants and the flight attendants didn’t bat an eye when I boarded; on the flight out they even asked me if I’d like to stash it in their small coat closet. I was so very glad to have that guitar along.
When I arrived at my first place to stay, the wonderful Copperline Lodge in Saratoga, Wyoming I notice a guitar hanging on the wall as I was checking in. The lady who took my information said, oh yes, that’s the owner Dan’s guitar and anyone is welcome to play it. Shortly after that I met Dan Pont, and we struck up an immediate connection when he learned I was a guitarist. We vowed to do some playing together, which we did a couple of times. Now this may sound very strange, but just sitting around playing with another guitarist and swapping songs is something I rarely get a chance to do these days. There are many reasons for this, most of them my own fault. For some reason, over the years playing guitar purely for the joy it brings never seems to make it into my daily agenda with teaching, figuring out songs for my students and playing gigs (my long-time weekly gig at the Daily Brew Café is an exception in terms of pure fun….it is!) taking up my musical mind. While I have recreational guitarist friends around here we never seem to be able to get together for some reason. So those evenings of playing with Dan at the Copperline were something of a revelation, a rediscovery of an essential part of why I started playing guitar in the first place: to make a connection with another person. And that is something that’s truly spiritual.
As I stood on the edge of a lake high up in the Snowies, the only sound was my fly line dancing through the air as I cast. Most days up there it’s very windy but on a couple days I experienced totally calm conditions – and utter and complete silence. With almost no people anywhere near me with their attendant noise and even the birds silent the air (what there was of it at 9000+ feet!) seemed to press against my eardrums. In my every-day life back here at home there is truly never a moment, day or night, when somewhere in the distance or closer by there are sounds. You get used to that of course but your brain can’t help but commit to listening to them on some level. But up there in those mountains I felt my brain become free. And that, my friends, is truly a spiritual experience.
As I allowed myself to become one with the silence a strange and wonderful thing began to happen. Somewhere from deep inside I began hearing music. Not anything I could recognize, just pure musical sounds, sometimes single notes from an unknown instrument, sometimes many musical sounds melding together. It was so all-encompassing I found that I had to remind myself to breathe. And even the sound of my breath seemed intrusive to what I was hearing. I stopped casting my fly rod and just stood there on the edge of that lake, with the mountains rising above me. It was glorious and transcendent.
More than once this happened over the course of my twelve days in Wyoming. It happened along a tiny creek in the pine trees. It happened when I stopped by the side of a long, long gravel road with the prairie stretching out for miles and miles in every direction.
Although organized religion was a big part of my youth as I grew older I rejected its structure and rules. Over many, many years I came to form my own very private feelings about the nature of spirituality and I never share them with anyone, even those I love because they are mine and mine alone. Over my time on this particular trip to Wyoming those feelings were confirmed. The joy of making music with a new friend, the complete silence that allowed complete vulnerability, and the certainty that those feelings of spirituality were not a delusion will sustain me in these troubled times in which we live.
So now I can say with more surety than ever that I am beginning to know what Uncle Irv was talking about when he said he heard God’s music. I heard a tiny bit of it. I hope I hear more.
Peace & good music,