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The Music of Salt Creek Spurs Memories of a Life Before

I don’t know how it happened, but a procession of unlikely events swept me onto this shore, and I am suddenly a silver-haired lady walking in the hills of Gaviota. Tired of my thoughts, I click a “random shuffle” of downloaded songs on my phone, and “Salt Creek” comes up, a classic bluegrass tune originally recorded by Bill Monroe in 1964. The first time I heard that song, I was living in Syracuse, New York, and something about its frenzied strumming and the yearning stitched through it appealed to me. Years later, I read a quote from Monroe about the genre, which he described as, “Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin’ … a part of Methodist, Holiness, and Baptist traditions. It’s blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound.” High and lonesome, yes. That was the mood. Blues and jazz? It seemed about right. Bluegrass became a soundtrack for that stage of my life.

Syracuse was called the Salt City, so named for the saline springs on the southern end of Onondaga Lake. Or maybe for the salty tears cried into pillows in the rented rooms of the drafty houses near the university. I was taking classes, but mostly taking flight from a life that didn’t seem to suit me, not that this one did. In fact, maybe Syracuse was a good place for me because it was very hard to love and thus seemed inevitably temporary, which was reassuring. “I won’t end up here,” is what I told myself.

It was like the fling I had with the assistant general manager of the bus company, a confident young man from Utica who had reached his potential at 28 and was very pleased with himself. He understood all the workings of the bus company, oversaw management negotiations with the union, and could drive a 40-foot transit bus if needed. On mornings after sordid nights in budget motels, he bought me scrambled eggs at Denny’s, eyed his wristwatch, got the check, and grinned his satisfied grin. I liked his self-confidence, since I had very little, but I knew he would be temporary, and that was his best feature. Harder to explain was my relationship with the alcoholic professor who cheated on me and punched me in the face. I knew he was temporary too, but sometimes it’s difficult to extricate from psychodrama.

In the meantime, there was bluegrass music. A friend of mine was dating the guitar player in a popular group, and we were sort of regulars in the audience at a campus venue called Jabberwocky. I was friends with a mandolin player named Greg, who had kind eyes; dark, curly hair; and a flair for philosophical banter. I also remember a banjo player named Tony Trischka, who was already drawing notice as a virtuoso. He’s since become famous, apparently considered among the most influential of modern bluegrass artists, Earl Scruggs reborn. But having no music in me, I just listened, high and lonesome. The energy infused me, but I remained motionless, still waiting for my life to begin, a pillar of salt who needed to be turned into a living woman.

The Salt City was not without beauty. You just had to look for it, although the inclement weather made this challenging. Summer and fall were fleeting, but that’s when the trees were lavish with leaves, fragrances lingered in the air, and lakes sparkled. You could climb the Thousand Steps up to the top of a drumlin in Westminster Park … actually, the steps numbered 178, but a thousand sounded more impressive, and with altitude and distance, the city became a dreamy place, as cities tend to do. Alas, the weather was notoriously overcast and snowy, enveloping the world in a kind of miasma. And it’s true the snow could be beautiful when it first fell, but it got old fast. My vague ambitions grew sluggish, and I felt mired. The streets were treacherous with ice and slush, and early morning crews came out and scattered salt, and the buses ran late, and I had to warm my car key with the flame of a match to get it into the frozen lock. It was customary to pack sacks of rock salt into the back of the car for better traction, but one day I substituted 50 pounds of potatoes, which were cheaper, and I thought potentially more useful. By April, they were rotting, and the stench never left, like evidence of a crime. Or just stupidity.

I did six or seven years in Salt City. And I’m not saying that bluegrass music saved me, but it’s one of many things that helped. When everything was stuck, it moved. It moved in a kind of manic way, freighted with sadness, but fleet footed. It was affirmation in a dreary space, looking back but winding its way elsewhere, and I too found a way to leave. Now all these decades later, I walk the hills of Gaviota, a place I had never heard of and could scarcely have imagined, and I’m salty with sweat, but grateful. And I can tell you this: You never know what will fuel you in this implausible world, what music will sustain you, or what you’ll find around the bend if you invent a different story and keep going.