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Grab them from the stack, give them a spin

Driving up the pass recently was no walk in the park, let me tell you.

It was after the last day of school before spring break and I was on my way to Fort Garland, the predetermined dropoff spot where my brood would climb into their mom’s car and give me over a week of kid-free fun.

Over the pass and through the valley to baby mama’s car we’d go. And then, nine days of debauched delight — hours of pre-season baseball and NBA playoff games, a fridge full of beer, a night or two at the brewery, with all my voluptuary excess capped off by going into kid’s rooms with large garbage bags to surreptitiously scrap old toys and other accumulated keepsake garbage.

One wonders how I could have ever survived the week-long binge of being boring.

However, before raising those questions, I needed to survive the trip up the pass in the midst of a spring snowstorm.

I hit it before CDOT had a chance to put the blades to the road and making our way to the top of the pass was a matter of weaving in and out between cars spinning wheels and semis dead in the snow, to suddenly realize that yeah, maybe chains were a good idea. A semi jackknifed on one side, another listing helplessly across two lanes and a BMW spitting futile snowballs just ten yards away (with a dented fender to show for how it snuggled in cozily along a semi), driving up the hill was like negative pinball — navigating through bumpers and scoring points for not hitting anything.

I have to confess, I was a bit out of my mind after I hit the hairpin turn at the overlook. As soon as I ended the curve, I fishtailed, “Oh crap,” I said, as I nearly slid into the next lane, careening uphill, ahead of me a semi gently sliding downhill as was the nitwit with New Mexico plates, both spinning their wheels in defiance of gravity, reason, and the realities of a Wolf Creek spring.

Daunted as I was by the wreckage all over the road, I possessed a modicum of steel nerve. Despite two kids in the back seat giggling with grabass and a kid up front asking me about avalanches and death by driving over a cliff, I tried to make my way through the mess in front of me. A modicum: a percent of metal to a good deal of spaghetti.

It’s just a good thing that guns were in shorter supply than guts.

It didn’t help that KSUT was yammering inanely about double-cord sweaters as the kids prattled about in the backseat.

God love Public Radio. but for frick’s sake, they’re like my mom, a talent for the wrong crap at exactly the wrong time: jabbering by some twit with a bald head and a gray ponytail (covered with an engineer’s cap) or a phone call in the midst of dinner. I mean, don’t these people consider I have a schedule? And my contingencies? And my need to deal with crisis?

Heckuva job, Brownie.

In the midst of the veritable whiteout and chugging up the hill obtusely, I suddenly realized two things: I had Low 4 in the truck and Van Morrison in the CD player.

Dropping it into Low 4 was a revelation. Really, I had used it once in the entire time I’ve had the truck — Low 4 being like the emergency 20-dollar bill you keep in your wallet that you never use because no emergency is dire enough — ending our diagonal ascent and making our way to the top, dodging the suckers spinning their way to nowhere.

As soon as I dropped the gears, I slapped the stereo from KSUT’s hideous jabbering to a CD. In the slot was Van Morrison’s St. Dominic’s Preview and, immediately, “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)” blasted from the speakers.

It was one of those moments in life for which the word “serendipity” was coined: The song was a nostrum for my anxiety as I pulled out of a futile uphill trudge and steered the truck into a direction that had some purpose.

In fact, everything changed with the album. My grip loosened up on the steering wheel; the weather went from being ugly as the mountains became beautiful; and, most importantly, the kids went from being boisterous to taking a few moments of quiet contemplation, something of Van Morrison soothing their savage breasts.

“Why is he saying ‘Listen to the lion’?” Eldest daughter asked (my child who has had a fascination with The Lion King since she was barely three).

I made the connection with Simba for her but Van Morrison’s inner search for bravery lifted me up, out of the snow and past the wreckage around me just as “I Will Be There” assured me that the pass was but a momentary obstacle.

Hitting the pinnacle, the sign announcing the summit, the power of, “As we gaze out on... as we gaze out on... St. Dominic’s preview ...,” opened up everything, my eyes and mind and heart and the realm of possibility.

Satori. Perfection. Enlightenment “You got everything in the world you ever wanted/Right about now your face should wear a smile/That’s the way it all should happen/When you’re in, when you’re in the state you’re in.”

I make the drive to Fort Garland several times a year and I confess that the trek through the valley is not a favorite drive of mine. It’s long and boring, there are too many towns to drive through (to kill the momentum), too many patrols inhibiting my lead foot.

More than that, too many San Luis valley denizens dallying on the road, driving as though the rotation of the earth will carry them wherever they’re in no hurry to go. Add to that the New Mexico plates that ride bumpers and pass on double-yellow lines and the trip is, always, an endeavor that breaks the backs of saints; in the words of Melville, “O, how cheerfully we consign ourselves to the road to perdition.”

Knowing I’m about to fray my nerves on that trip, I usually plan my music selections carefully, picking out CDs that I know will serve as aural Valium, soothing enough to sever homicidal impulses yet sufficiently buoyant to sustain me through hours of monotonous landscape and podunk towns (hamlets built, I’m convinced, to help us appreciate Pagosa).

I’m not exaggerating when I say that a great deal of consideration goes into selections for the valley soundtrack.

This time, however, I was careless with time and planning, grabbing random disks from sundry stacks occupying my living room. Honestly, I wasn’t aware of what I was snatching up, they were just taken based on their intrinsic availability and assurance that the stack they came from would not tumble to the floor — as if I was playing several quick games of Jingo.

Again, serendipity, the magic of the moment. Aside from the aforementioned Van Morrison, I’d grabbed Caribou’s Andorra, George Frideric Handel’s Water Music, and Wilco’s A Ghost is Born. Had I spent my usual diligence in making selections, I could not have come close to the perfection of what made it into my player that day.

Just a few miles east of the snow shed, Van Morrison ended — as did the storm. With dry roads ahead, I dropped the truck out of four-wheel drive and popped Water Music into the player to carry us through the canyon.

What a perfect soundtrack for meandering beside the Rio Grande. Handel composed the piece (a collection of three suites, actually) on a commission from King George I, to be played on a barge as the king and his friends floated down the River Thames. Heading from the pass into South Fork, it was easy to picture us on that barge as the dark walls of the canyon and trees blurred by, the river rushing with the full force of spring thaw.

“What is this, daddy?” a small voice asked, as the opening notes announced the Overture to “Suite in F major” and the beginning of the work.

As always, I was silent, letting them guess. With the fifth movement of the suite (“Air”), there was some recognition, if not a bit of argument between the three, on what they were hearing. Middle Child was convinced it was Bach while Mister was certain it was Mozart. Eldest listened, silently, knowing more would come and that she would have the correct answer.

And with the first “Allegro” for the “Suite in G major,” she got it right. A bit easy, I thought, snatching the right answer from the most recognizable movement but kudos, nonetheless.

“Water Music!” she exclaimed, throwing her hands up excitedly, waving them like the flippers of a happy seal. Although she couldn’t remember it was Handel, she got the important part right, earning a tussle of her hair from the driver’s side.

By the time we arrived in Fort Garland, we were a couple of cuts into Caribou’s Andorra. A few weeks ago I mentioned that Caribou currently has my favorite single “Odessa” on XMU (and remains so — it can be downloaded at, the first cut on Andorra was one of my favorite singles of 2007.

It should be a testament of the album’s strength that I listened to it again, immediately after it finished, on my way back to Pagosa. Electronic, psychedelic, infused with Beach Boy-ish harmonies and superb pop sensibilities, the album feels fresh and original every time I listen to it. The final cut, the 11-plus minute “Niobe” (which I had to listen to a third time on my way back), feels as if the stinking corpse of Pink Floyd was dredged up and shocked back to life with 21st-century vitality.

The trip ended with Wilco’s A Ghost is Born. Although not as groundbreaking as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost is Born has (I think) stronger songs than the previous album. Beginning with the Neil Young-ish “At Least That’s What You Said” and ending with the masterful “Less Than You Think” (a 15-minute rave-up to match almost any 1960s “super session”), the real showpiece of the album is the gorgeous “Muzzle of Bees.” Why that song is not a staple of Classic Rock radio is a testament to the myopia of AOR programmers and the staleness of that format. It is, without a doubt, one of the best singles of the last decade.

Arriving home, just before dark, on dry roads and under clear skies, I breathed a sigh of relief at having been given a nine-day reprieve from being a full-time single dad — and felt my heart grow a little heavier for missing them.

I popped the cap off a beer, put Van Morrison on my stereo and sank into my “daddy chair” as I considered what I’d do for the next week or so.

Apparently, planning didn’t work to well for me. Perhaps, I thought, I just needed to blindly grab things out the stack and give them a spin.