Illustration by Kevin Howdeshell, kevincredible.com
Nothing roots you to a time and place like the soundtrack that was blasting out back then… even if it’s still on a cassette.
I got called out recently for having a beat-up old Grateful Dead cassette tape in my car. The implications were obvious—that I still rock a tape deck, still love Jerry and still drive around in a Red Rocks infused state of highway bliss watching all that mountain scenery go by.
I was raised on radio, listening to The Eagles, Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys from the backseat of my parents’ car at the same time all of those spectacular Colorado views were coming together in my mind. It was most likely somewhere on I-70 when I heard Led Zeppelin, Cat Stevens, Bob Marley and Pink Floyd for the first time. And if it wasn’t rock-and-roll, we had the Broncos or the Nuggets game on.
One old Deadhead friend (are there any other kind?) once explained to me that it was because of all those highways and mountains and beaches and sunsets that hippies loved VW vans. “They might be slow,” he said with a patient smile. “But it’s like you’re driving through a movie all of the time.”
In through the out door
It’s funny how the road and rock and roll are so closely linked for me, and certain images always come back paired with certain songs. Like the time a friend’s dad was mad because I’d caught the last lift at Winter Park, and I had to ride home in the back of the station wagon, looking up at the falling snow right next to the speakers as Led Zeppelin came on: “In the evening, when the day is done…”
Or how it felt to be sitting next to that certain brown-haired, brown-eyed girl when her dad played “Surfer Girl,” and how we all had feathered hair, and I thought she was a “fox,” and I couldn’t imagine anything cooler than that sense of us being chauffeured in the back of his Datsun 280Z and holding her hand.
It’s the way I feel any time Tom Petty’s “American Girl” comes on: “…raised on promises!” It’s that sensation of being in a video, or a daydream—living the dream—when you’re driving and you hear one of your favorite songs.
It’s that sense that something timeless is happening, and some other great day or great adventure is just beginning, and all you have to do is step on the gas and turn up the volume.
The Jah Gear
In Jackson Hole once, about to head up out of Wilson to bootpack Glory Bowl and say hello to an old dog whose ashes I spread up there one summer, “Kiss the Children” came on the country station. It was the only time I had ever heard the radio playing Gram Parsons, and at first I thought my friend had put a CD on.
A couple years later, driving through Leadville, I heard another country station playing that song. And as Mt. Massive filled my windshield, I realized that’s where I had been when my wife first called to tell me that old dog was sick, “And he can’t stand up on his own.”
Heading down one hundred highways with a one thousand-track playlist in my heart, it’s starting to seem as if I can’t go anywhere in this state without driving into some audio-fed emotion that has laid dormant until it’s revived by sound.
Like the way I start thinking about the red-haired girl and the flat plains stretching east to Nebraska whenever “Cinnamon Girl” comes on. Or being stuck on top of Poncha Pass in a snowstorm with Salida’s River Rat blaring “Highway to Hell,” rolling into Empire listening to “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” after my buddy Double G’s wedding, or on the way to Reggae on the Rocks listening to the late great Lucky Dube, arguing about things like how fast we were driving compared to how quickly the world was spinning.
“I think reggae is like surf music for skiers,” said the skier riding shotgun. “It’s weird, but something about the rhythm of the beat matches up better than any other music with skiing.”
“Maybe,” the snowboarder in the back answered, “If you like making short turns.”
A Sound to Call Our Own
Speaking of Bob Marley, I think an entire anthropological ethnography should some day be written about this whole Rocky Mountain to Jamaica or South Africa connection. You could title it, Rastas, Shredders and Mountain Towns, or maybe White Audience, Black Band.
At least one friend thinks the whole cross-cultural handshake is based on soul and rhythm, and the fact that whether it’s shralping powder or skanking reggae, both communities are very, very serious about how well they pursue a good time.
Still, no matter how many white rastas you might see (or smell) on the lifts at any resort, and no matter how amazing reggae music is, it still doesn’t feel organic to the mountain scene. Certainly not the way surf owns the trademark on traveling Telecaster solos and tube rides, or skateboarding remains inseparable from the punk sound.
And the truth is that even though they may have hailed from California or Canada, growing up I always still thought of folks like the Eagles and Neil Young as Colorado bands. Which is why it’s so cool to have new bands like the Lumineers and the Strange Americans starting to succeed with their own Denver-bred sound. It’s cool to think that someone else is channeling all that red brick house poetry, alpine inspiration and clear-aired thinking into music, and giving the Mile High City something more than the Broncos and legal weed and great skiing to call its own.
I’m certainly rooting for them. And also for all the other bands they might help to bring along. I’m rooting for the chance to be changing lanes on the way up to Evergreen or watching the wipers as I come down Rabbit Ears Pass, and hear somebody’s brand new equivalent of Rocky Mountain High, and to want to hear that song again and again.
Peter Kray is Elevation Outdoors’ editor-at-large and co-founder of The Gear Institute (gearinstitute.com).