Strangers in a Strange Land

In 2001, after completing the Mammoth Lakes Jazz Jubilee, Anne and I rented a Toyota sedan with clarinetist Bob Draga to drive to Helena, Montana, for a private fundraising event at the Barrister, a beautiful B&B owned by our friend and former lawyer, Nick Jacques. This was before the days of searching for routes on your phone or even using a GPS; armed with our trusty Rand-McNally we set off on the 15-hour journey. Our time between gigs was generous, so we planned to stop over somewhere slightly past the midpoint. Our friend Tom Hazzard, founder of the Sun Valley Jazz Jamboree, suggested Wells, Nevada, as a place to stop, averring it had a good hotel, restaurant and entertainment.

We set off mid-morning, wheels checked and gas tank full. I was piloting while Bob slept in the passenger seat, chair reclined back (Bob is a great driver, but I volunteered to do the first shift and whenever he’s not driving, he’s almost instantly asleep). That left Anne behind me in the back seat, as usual working on paperwork, detailing the next day’s events and navigating for me. The ride started out great. The weather was fine, the scenery unparalleled. I was even able to set the car at a speed so the bumps in the road timed with Bob’s snores making for a syncopated symphonic sound.

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In between Bob’s naps, he regaled us with stories of his early days as a festival musician running his famed Garden Avenue Seven and also his experiences running a restaurant in Florida featuring live music—I’ll ask him to guest one day in this column to share some of them. About five hours into the trip, I wearily abdicated the driver’s seat to Bob, settling into the back seat (time for Anne to get up front!) for a bit of shut-eye myself. My repose was short-lived.

“Hey, Barney! The gas tank is almost empty; the warning light’s on!” Bob bellowed from the driver’s seat.

“Not possible, Dragon…the gauge hasn’t budged in over three hours; this car gets great mileage!”

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“You idiot, you’ve been looking at the temperature gauge!!!”

Sure enough, I had mistaken one gauge for another and the needle was on the lowest rung of the “E.” Now, I could defend myself by mentioning this rental was probably the 25th car I’d driven that year and each model’s dashboard set-up bears no resemblance to any other model but with the great scenery and the open roads (speed limit? 80 or faster!) I’ll honestly say I was paying NO attention to mundanities such as fuel level.

Anne was earnestly looking at the road map, striving to ascertain our exact location. “What do you mean,” Bob mocked, “that 40-foot cactus we just passed isn’t on there?!?” The mile markers finally revealed our location and Anne warned, “Drive conservatively to save gas, Bob; we’ve got another 50 miles before we reach anything with a name.” So, we slowed down to 55, being passed by grandmas in jalopies and even some kids on scooters, all offering helpful encouragement like “Get this cheap foreign hunk-a-junk off the road!” “What are you, LOST?” “My ’58 Ford pickup will tear you apart!!”

Having endured the slings and arrows of the mobile chamber of commerce, we wheezed into a gas station, crawled to the pump and turned the car off. Bob tried to turn it back on and, no go. We had JUST made it!

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Tank full, we motored toward our final destination of the day, the bustling metropolis of Wells. [N.B. This was over 20 years ago; in the following years, it has grown to a town population size of 1300 with its own airport!] We were an hour behind schedule and Anne expressed concern that there would be no rooms left for us at the only hotel in town. “Town” turned out to be the hotel (one car out in front: the desk clerk’s) an attached bar and, across the street, what looked to be an old dance hall. I grimly intoned, “There just might be room at the inn…”

The Nevada Hotel and Murphy’s Bar on Front Street in Wells
The Nevada Hotel and Murphy’s Bar on Front Street in Wells, Nevada. Much of this district was destroyed on February 22, 2008, when a 6.0 quake struck the area. (courtesy nevadaappeal.com)

We entered the lobby and an elderly lady (OK, this was twenty years ago, she was likely only a couple of years older than I am now) greeted us and informed us there were indeed two rooms available but they both faced the street and would we be okay with the traffic noise? I asked, “How often do people stop in for the night?” and she allowed their last guest was from two weekends ago.

“He stayed for two nights” the lady marveled. “He liked the entertainment and became close to one of the girls.”

Bob asked, “What do you do for entertainment around here?”

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“Well,” she answered, “the only thing besides the restirint and bar through that door behind ya is that building across the street. The lady who runs it is a friend of mine. Not that you’d be much interisted, young lady, but you gen’men will be treated real well; she lines up them girls and you can take your pick. But mind you tip gen’rously, y’hear?” She shook her head, “Them girls work hard; Lord I just don’ know how they do it.”

Strangers in a Strange Land
Bella’s Hacienda Ranch in Wells, Nevada. (photo courtesy Bella’s via Facebook)

Anne was laughing quietly out of sight of our proprietress/tour guide and whispered, “You two fellers have a great time; I’m going to the bar for a drink.” We politely thanked our hostess, avowing we would certainly contemplate the adventures to be sampled across the street, and followed her into the next room.

Anne had recently discovered (though I don’t know how) the pleasures of single malt whiskey and saw a bottle of Glenlivet behind the bar. We sat at a table, and Anne ordered the whiskey neat. “Well, I won’t be sloppy about it,” the waitress snarled. “No,” Anne quickly responded, “I mean, no ice, please”

The waitress finished taking our orders (beer for me; Jack Daniel’s for Bob) and shortly came back with our drinks. Mine was a beer from the Carter administration, Bob’s had been sampled by Mr. Daniel’s himself and Anne’s was a FULL tumbler (must have been 12 ounces) of Glenlivet. “Don’t worry, honey,” I greedily offered, “I’ll help you with that!”

The rest of the evening became a blur. Bob eventually charmed his way behind the bar and started serving those cowboys (yes: with the garb, language and attitude I’d only previously experienced watching an old western) who wandered in for something to eat and a respite from the “entertainment” across the street. Anne and I were busy wading through our shared schooner of whiskey, having finished a—not surprisingly—delicious steak dinner with all the trimmings.

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Well-fed and watered, I was feeling expansive and decided it was time to offer some entertainment of my own on the battered upright that was backed up against the wall across from the bar. I sat down and ran my fingers across the (real) ivory keys. Some of the notes actually worked! I assessed the crowd of five and decided “Harlem Strut” or “Clothesline Ballet” wasn’t the right material for this joint so I started playing “Crazy” in my best Floyd Cramer imitation.

All conversation stopped. After I began the second chorus, the burliest of the cowpokes (how fun to be able to write that word in a column!) sauntered over, put a tenner on the piano and drawled, “This is for you to STOP playing. Don’t give up your day job, pardner.” Tail-between my legs, I slinked back to my seat.

Anne recognized my pride had been hurt (“Maybe I wasn’t lively enough? Would “Hey, Good Lookin’’ have been a better choice?) and comforted me with the bill for our meals and drinks. Two steak dinners and four drinks—Bob didn’t eat and had disappeared someplace: I never did find out where—cost $17.95.

I said, “That should’ve been what the whiskey alone cost!”

Anne laughed: “Our waitress never poured a drink with no ice before, so she filled it up to the level it would have been with ice. When I asked her how much the drink was, she charged me what she charges for all hard-liquor drinks: $2.00! I even got a to-go cup for the rest!”

Mentioning rest, we had a fitful one; as it happens, the front-desk lady wasn’t joking about facing the street: overnight trucking through town was constant and LOUD! After an unbelievably good breakfast ($4.95 for the two of us) we went looking for Bob. We found him in the car, back in the passenger seat with a beatific smile on his face, supplying a surfeit of stentorian snores. Asking no questions, we started north and had a great visit and gig at the Barrister—though not nearly as memorable as our journey there.

Jeff Barnhart is an internationally renowned pianist, vocalist, arranger, bandleader, recording artist, ASCAP composer, educator and entertainer. Visit him online at www.jeffbarnhart.com. Email: [email protected]

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