It’s the intermediate future that doesn’t look so hot. I have just been given notice from my job at a publisher that produces two magazines: one for acoustic guitar players and the other about fretless, bowed instruments. Fiddles. Of late, the economic slowdown has begun to show itself in the dwindling size of the magazines, then September 11 came and things started to seriously stall. Layoffs. Me. Shit.
Despite the fact that Vick and I had been planning this trip since last November, I seriously considered calling it off. But, as Patrick said, life goes on. And since my accommodations are going to be at the Toyota Motel and I’ll be eating baloney for the duration, he says it doesn’t look to be a very expensive adventure.
OK, he’s talked me into it.
Shadows gather behind the mountains and I breathe in the cool desert air as it rushes through the cab, wondering what kind of plans the gods have in store for me. Driving always frees me up, makes me optimistic. It’s as if the windshield is a big lens through which I can view the world, and it never fails to open my soul. I drive through the night and stop in Eureka, Nevada, when the needle on the gas reads below a quarter tank. Not enough to get to Ely, no gas stations open, no services for 70 miles. Time to sleep.
Mean Vick and I met 13 years ago working at the same financial district office in San Francisco, surrounded by Reagan-era power mongers and their toadies. Nothing encourages bonding faster than a shared hate for your employer. We stayed friends after we left that job, surviving earthquakes (’89), divorce (mine), breakups (both of us), and lots of address and job switches. Her career path took her out of the Bay Area, to Japan as an English teacher for the better part of a year, then to Flagstaff to work on her Master’s Degree in Teaching. Her degree was stalled by a big, kilt-wearing cowboy named Matt, with long hair and a cute scar on his right cheek, whom she had met at a flea market. She was smitten. They got married within a year and settled in Laramie, Wyoming.
What Are Friends For Anyway?
I haven’t seen Vick for over a year, so it is with great anticipation I finally pull into the parking lot of the bluegrass festival at 4 o’clock the next afternoon. Lugging the cooler full of beer, dry roast peanuts and cheddar cheese—road trip hors d’oeuvres—I cross the lawn and spot my old pal. As I sit down next to her, it seems, as it does with the best of friends, that time has never passed.
“How long you been driving?” she asks. “You look like hell.”
“Weren’t you wearing that shirt last time I saw you?” I offer.
“Got any beer?” she retorts.
“Might. If you’re nice to me.”
Between songs we talk about the drive, the stifling heat (102, but falling) and if we think our husbands mind that we have left them for the weekend (not really, no). The lawn of the festival is surrounded by the best cliffs Kanab has to offer and that’s saying a lot. Kanab is in the middle of some of the most stunning geological formations in the lower 48. Just driving down Highway 89 from Orderville, you encounter swirling orange bluffs, a hundred feet high, with lush farmland at their base. Cliffs line the highway as you drive south, all of them a crazy mosh of orange, purple, ochre and brick red that turn even more intense in the intense rains that can pound the area in the late summer. And if that doesn’t thrill you, then the hoodooos of Bryce Canyon or Capitol Reef offer an even better show. Settling back and taking in all that majesty in, along with the music and companionship, I feel better than I have in weeks.
Until the last announcement of the day.
“OK now,” the emcee says in his folksy way. “Tomorrow will be a big day. We’ve got music going all day, from 11 until 6. You’ll see some homegrown Utah talent, along with some favorites that were here last year from West Virginia and Tennessee. Of course, we’ll start the day with the fiddle contest, commencing at 10.”
My palms start to sweat at the mention of this because I know what Vick is thinking. I avoid looking at her and keep my eyes trained on the emcee.
“Two categories, one for kids, one for adults. You can sign up back there at the event tent, and give up your $5 entry fee to Kathleen. Or is it $10 tonight, Kathleen? You buy groceries tonight, right? Heh, heh. Go ahead and sign on up.”
All Your Tricks
If I had known learning the fiddle was so difficult when I charged into it, I probably would have chosen an easier hobby. Like maybe learning Sanskrit. Or taxidermy. But I was seduced by the sound, and boy, did it look fun. Once I was into it, though, I realized the people that I admired were even better than I thought, because they made it look so easy. I’m at the stage where, if I can make it through “Clinch Mountain Backstep” and my teacher’s eyes don’t roll back in their sockets, it’s a good session.
At the camp, I busy myself tidying up our spot, putting empties and trash in the cooler. I can see Vick’s conspiratorial little feet, very pointedly not busy. Only one way to deal with this. I straighten up and say one word.
“Did you bring your fiddle?” she asks.
“Liar. I saw it when I went to your truck to get the peanuts.”
“Liar.” I fire back. “You never got peanuts because we already had the peanuts.” For some reason, we always resort to this Beave-and-Wally type of exchange when we disagree. “Stop looking at my junk.”
“Just tell me why not,” she persists.
“I forgot my rosin.”
“We’ll buy some tomorrow.”
“I don’t have a tuner.”
“Somebody here will help you tune up.”
I need to come up with something technical, something I’ve read in one of the magazines my soon-to-be-former employer publishes. Ooh, I have one. With all the authority I can muster, I square my shoulders, look her in the eyes, and declare in a low, sure tone, “My bow hair (dramatic pause) has bugs.”
She doesn’t even flinch. “Do you expect me to fall for that?” she asks.
“You don’t even know what bow-hair bugs are.”
“It sounds like something printed in that magazine you work at.”
That’s the thing about really good friends. After a while, they’re on to all your tricks.
How Mean Vick Got Her Name
Fiddle contests are a lot of fun to watch. People of all ages and abilities enter, from the six-year-old prodigy to the senior citizen who took the instrument back up after the kids went off to college. I like watching the seniors best. When they’re competing, it seems like nerves aren’t even part of the equation. They’re there to have fun and entertain. Jamming in the lobby, their faces are open and happy.
On the other hand, I am not a relaxed elder entertainer. Ego is involved. I imagine some judges feigning farting noises with their armpits for each other while I play, and the other judges, trying unsuccessfully to stifle giggles, attempt the schoolroom trick of turning their mirth into coughing sounds.
Oh, yeah—for sure, that’s what would happen to me.
“Besides,” Vick says, bringing me back to Kanab, “you’re not that bad.”
Mean Vick came by her moniker honestly. For instance, she didn’t get along with her sister’s basset hound, Sadie. So Vick would feed Sadie saltines smeared with peanut butter, then go ring the doorbell, knowing full well the dog wouldn’t be able to manage a good bark with his mouth all stuck together. She’d ring and ring, Sadie would chew and try to bark and slobber instead. I couldn’t hazard a guess as to who pissed the other one off first in that bad relationship, but I think I know.
Another time, she had the idea to paint my boyfriend’s nails bright red while he was napping, leave an empty bottle of nail polish remover by the sink, then exit for the night. We thought it was hilarious. Quivering with outrage the next morning, he told me to choose between him and Mean Vick. That was seven years ago, I’m sure he’s still mad about it, and I’m here with Vick.
Eating dinner that night at a little Mexican restaurant, over tostadas and Coronas we talk about husbands and school and work and my impending lack of the latter. I’ve lost jobs before, but they were just that—jobs. This one feels more like a calling, a real career, and I’m taking the loss very personally. Driving to Utah, taking pictures of old buildings and signs, talking to gas station attendants and checkout clerks, took me out of myself. But now, sitting still, even in my beloved Kanab, I feel the clouds gather.
Ice cream. Even though I’m not a big sweets eater, I need ice cream. We pay the bill and walk to the biggest souvenir store in town, which also just happened to have a freezer full of Häagen-Dazs .We walk out of the store savoring our treats, talked out for now and a little tired. I look up at the vault of the desert evening sky, navy blue in the east turning to azure straight above turning to light turquoise and then gold to the west. I am finally there. I set aside the turn of events at work. It’s time to forget the other stuff and, as the song says, keep my lamp trimmed and burning.
Saturday breaks clear and hot. I slept well in the back of the pickup, and am looking forward to a cup of coffee at the outdoor clothing/book/coffee shop up the street. But I knew, like I know Bill Monroe from Marilyn Monroe, that Vick is going to ask me first thing. And she does. I’m ready.
“Morning. So are you going to. . . .”
It is a great and wonderful thing to silence Vick, and I did. For a minute.
“Yup. I’ll need some coffee, though, or I’ll hurl.”
It’s nearly 9. We have an hour to get the coffee and sign up. As we drive up the street to the coffee shop, she asks, “So what made you decide?”
I know she is going to ask this, too. “Well, I guess, what the hell, I brought my fiddle, nobody knows me, and I need to do this.”
“Cool,” she says. “Let’s go sign up.”
At the sign-up tent, Kathleen names off the categories. “Under 18, and 18 and over,” she states simply. She smiles a little, but it’s clear what she’s thinking “How hard can that be?” Truth is, I’m nervous. Going for a little levity to relieve the tension, I ask, “Is there a category for old and not very good?”
Kathleen’s pencil pauses in mid-air, but her head doesn’t move. She looks at me from under her brows, and repeats slowly “Under 18 or 18 and over.”
Good thing I amuse myself.
I wander over to the edge of the lawn to practice and calm down. There’s a little boy about six years old, earnestly rehearsing his selections. I hate to bother him, but I really don’t have a tuner and I need to get an A-note to tune up. He has the whole getup—cowboy hat, shirt, Wrangler jeans, pointy boots. Even though they make 1/2 size and 3/4 size fiddles for kids, his still looks more like a stand-up bass in proportion to is little body. He’s very serious about the whole thing as he gives me an “A” like an old pro. In fact, he’s handling his tension a lot better than I am, or at least he isn’t babbling and making lame attempts at jokes. I thank him and he nods his cowboy hatted-head and wanders away, resuming practice.
The contest begins promptly at 10 o’clock. At 10:20, they call the adult contestants behind the stage to line up. We assemble, whisper to each other a bit, mostly try to stay collected.
Backstage at a fiddle contest is different than backstage at a play. I’ve been in several community-theater productions, and the atmosphere just before the curtain goes up is charged like crazy. There’s also a sense of solidarity that comes from achieving a goal together that was set in motion a long before. Cast members hug, kiss, and hold hands the last couple minutes before showtime. Here, I had the feeling that if I try to hold anybody’s hand before going onstage today, I might get a poke in the snoot with a bow tip.
I’m catching on quickly to the contestant’s solitary ways.
Before I know it, Dave is announcing my number. I take the stage and try not to jump the gun, let the sound woman adjust the mic to my height. As I wait, I try to practice all the things for staying calm that I had learned in theater. Breathe. Feel the floor beneath your feet. Breathe again. Try and keep in the moment. And most of all, have fun.
Good advice, but often, there’s a gap between knowing all those methods and putting them into practice, and that gap is where a novice’s strategies can disappear, like coins disappearing into the deepest recesses of the sofa.
As I lift my bow, I feel those dimes and nickels slip out of my mental pockets. What’s the first song? For the love of God, what am I thinking? In my mind, I can see the judges, getting ready to mime the armpit fart for each other. I hate Vick. This is her fault. OK, now, breathe. Oh, wait. Wait! “Cripple Creek”! I throw out some taters to begin “Cripple Creek,” start tapping my foot, and let out the first tentative notes of my first tune of my first fiddle contest. All along, I never stop silently coaching myself. Deep breaths. That’s it. Just like playing at home. Entertain these folks. OK, good. Now the “Tennessee Waltz,” and I think it’s just lucky for me that my hand is shaking, because it sounds like vibrato. Third and last song, my favorite, the down-and-dirty “Milk Cow Blues.” I think I can do this.
I’m doing it!
And, like all experiences in which you’re a little out of your head, like an accident or talking to a stranger you find attractive, it’s over before you know it. Adrenaline surges through me as I go over to where Vick is sitting. I feel like I’m capable of anything. Perform an appendectomy before lunch? Bring the scalpel. Paddle the length Colorado River in an inner tube? Okey dokey. Vick pats me on the back and I laugh out loud from sheer relief.
Whoa, what a rush.
The next day, I find some petrified wood and bits of arrowheads as we rockhound at Panguich Lake. Stopping at Buffalo Java in the red-brick town of Panguich, we both send postcards to mutual friends in the Bay Area. Some of the pictures that I had snapped along Highway 50 turn out very well. One is of a sign that was old but still held its deep crimson hue, in the shape of a shield and reading Cafe 50. The sign looks great against the cobalt blue desert sky. It’s framed and hanging on the wall of my office, right next to the thing that makes me rub my feet together and crinkle my nose and giggle like a kid—the plaque that reads, “First Place: Judy Zimola. Fiddle Champ of Southwest Utah.”
Inspired by Carol Burnett, Judy Zimola wanted to be a comedian since she was 7. To that end, she tried musical theatre, singing telegrams, and what she thought were amusing presentations at her company staff meetings. She now
works as a freelance production artist. Judy plays fiddle, hikes the southwest as often as she can, and tortures, er, entertains her husband and two stepdaughters with stories about her girlhood in Nebraska.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.