Monday morning my parents and I left Arizona to drive here to Palm Springs for a couple of days. I told them we had to take this back road I'd found on my way over--a secret area where it had seemed that all of the interesting people were living. For example, this most handsome man in the bottom left corner. He is the most rugged man in the Toponah Valley (at least that I met) and sold me a weather rock tied to a leather rope. And then in the top right square is a Native American woman with a puppy--I can't decide which of them is the cutest, but the woman sold me a sweater which I am going to wear before California's season of fire is upon us!
Somehow one the drive, my parents and I missed Toponah completely but ended up in Quartzsite. Quartzsite is a town full of rock-hounders and flea market vendors. "Quartzsite lives because of that freeway," one vendor told me after I told him that we were just passing through. Another of the merchants stopped in his tracks when he saw me saying, "It's a young person! Don't see many of them around here." It sure did seem that way--that the place was populated by mostly old folks living out this specific desert dream...one that rusts with age and gets that specific kind of pretty like all of the vintage items I collected while I was there.
We were driving around town trying to find Silly Al's Pizza, which was Yelp recommended, when my dad, in-line with our "stop-whenever-you-feel-like-it" road-trip rule, made a quick right turn into what looked to be an RV park. He'd seen a sign that said, "Tuesday JAM 1:00." Since it was only 1:30, we thought we'd catch a bit of Quartzsite culture. A man in his lawn chair jumped up to greet us and when he found out we were there for the JAM he told us that if we liked western music at all, that we'd love this event. With that, he let us into the RV community room where, I swear, close to 30 old folks were sitting in a circle in their best western shirts and hats playing banjos, violins, lap harps, and all kinds of guitars. There was an audience of another 30 or so elderly people there to listen. The room was pretty packed and we had to work our way to the free seats on the far side of the room--seats that ensured that we'd be staying until a designated break.
Soon we were all wrapped up in a thready rendition of Blue Eyes Crying by Willie Nelson.
Love is like a dying ember
And only memories remain
And through the ages I'll remember
Blue eyes crying in rain
The way he sang it was so intentional. I was sure he meant it somehow. However the love had been lost, it had obviously never been forgotten.
Next up was a lady in a blue button up blouse with a banjo tucked under her arm. Her pleated pants wrapped around her hips in a loose way, but once she started swinging those hips around like a marble in a bowl, I knew it didn't matter how tight her pants were--that this would truly be a performance.
You never forget real performers after you watch them play their songs. They sing and play well, sure. But mostly, the thing you remember after watching a true performer is that feeling you got when they had you locked into the moment with them. This little lady's hips swiveled and her eyes darted back and forth in the most flirtatious way even though I'm pretty sure she was singing a gospel song. When she gave her first hip swivel, a husband sitting with his wife in front of me broke into a smile and turned to his wife as if she would be enjoying the performance like he was. But her eyes were locked straight forward and the husband quickly wiped the silly grin off his face and kept an unflinching gaze until the end. I was smiling behind them, happy I'd been able to see such a moment.
I just loved that lady performer. She hadn't forgotten that thing she'd refined in her youth. That little hip swivel came as natural as the aging of her body--the two things weren't at odds at all. In the midst of her age, her youth shone through. In fact, I'm pretty sure that she had been touched by the desert-dream rust and aged in that pretty way.
After a sad and mournful rendition of I'll take you back, Kathleen the last performer sang a song called Careless Hands in the key of dog. Well, that's how they said it anyway. With everyone's hearing getting worse and worse, year after year, "the key of D" often got confused with "the key of E" and so the key of dog and the key of echo had become rather colloquial.
The lyrics were so sad. He sang,
Careless hands that broke my heart in two
You held my dreams like worthless grains of sand
Careless hands don't care when dreams slip through
You've brought me joy and dear I loved you so
But all that sunshine didn't make the roses grow
If you don't change someday you'll know the sorrow of
Careless hands that can't hold on to love
Ohhhh, I thought, the desert is holding such ancient pain! It was also confirmed that yes, the desert is where all of the interesting people live. And despite all the songs about love gone wrong and love lost, everyone seemed so happy, huge smiles showering over each sorrowful song. I thought, maybe the songs are just the memories that remain like Willie Nelson said, and that all that hurt of whatever came before gets put to music on Tuesdays at 1:00 p.m. by the people who show, and if you're lucky and can turn your steering wheel quick, you can get there too.