When I lived in North Carolina a while back, I heard a couple of stories about what it was like there during the Depression. In classic songwriter fashion, I remembered the stories better than I remembered exactly where they came from or how they fit together.
My friend Sam told the first story. He was as good as a good old boy can come, just as sweethearted as any country boy you’ll find. Loved his grandmother. His father had made it into Alcoholics Anonymous, thus sparing himself and his son the cycle of violence and destitution that goes along with a strong affinity for moonshine.
And I’m not kidding when I say moonshine. Sam would talk about how back in the day, bootlegging was the only way anyone in those parts could make any money. That’s why alcoholism was so rampant in the poverty-stricken Appalachians, and he felt pretty lucky that his dad had given him a boost out of the cycle and into college, where Sam discovered that he could make a living teaching kids how to rock climb with Outward Bound. (“You mean I can get paid to do this!?”)
Sam’s uncle used to tell him about the Depression. The uncle was a child at the time and oblivious to economic realities. What he did know was that everyone was always at home because they weren’t off working. The family was always together. And they always had great food to eat because they grew everything they needed.
The other story was relayed in a newspaper column (or maybe it was on the radio, I can’t remember). The voice was an old woman’s, in conversation with an old man, and all I remember is the punch line: “We had everything but money.” Back then people knew how to grow their own food, make their own clothes, chairs, homes, log chinking, tools, soap. You know the story.
Here’s another story: when I spent my first winter in Ridgway, I landed a job editing the new edition of a really great little history book called Ridgway Recipes and Remembrances. Great stories of how the old timers made it happen around here, who they were, what they were like: Marie Scott, Huphyllis Sherbino, the Potters, the Lowerys, etc. I took my job seriously and set about updating some of the contemporary history, which led to a long phone call with Don Batchelder. I remember one thing in particular about that conversation: he seemed to think that one of the biggest threats to Ridgway was the constant traffic on Sherman. Now that I live here I couldn’t agree more.
Here’s what I think: running out of oil could be the best thing to happen to Ridgway, the Rocky Mountains and the planet. Especially if we do it with grace, making sure that we don’t blow our wad, making sure that we use the last precious drops carefully and for the right things, not just burning them heedlessly and needlessly on stupid wars, shopping trips to Denver, and unnecessary plastic objects.
Running out of oil could cut down on traffic on Sherman, for one. It could reduce or eliminate our constant hurrying from one place, thought or situation to the next. It could cut down on the spread of noxious weeds, including the human variety, that are often distributed via automobile. It could cut down on the spread of virulent disease, as we cease to roam the globe at will and actually spend some time and intention getting from one place to the next.
I don’t know about you, but the one thing that I, and most of the people I know, complain about the most is how busy we are. We hardly have time for each other, we’re so busy working, paying, traveling, playing. Many of those are good things, but we end up overlooking the simple pleasures of life, such as a good meal in the company of the ones we love.
Maybe I’m naïve in thinking that economic recession and the end of oil will force people back onto their inner resources. There are plenty of armchair theorists brighter than myself who think we’re all a bunch of rats in a cage about to tear into each other for the last morsel of genetically modified corn. I think that’s just the dark side getting the better of our thinking. We can let catastrophe get the best of us, or we can rise to the occasion and find in it an excuse to come together for the common good. Read Ridgway Recipes and Remembrances and find out how the old timers dealt with hard times.
Some of you have been paying attention to the columns in these pages and know that I’m not the first to postulate this slower-is-better theory. Garrison Keillor actually beat me to it not long ago. One of his predictions for what some might call the end of the world (Bah humbug! No such thing, I say! Change perhaps, and drastic, yes.), is that sales of banjos would rise. I’m about to check his theory out. I’ll be spending this week in Lyons at the Rocky Grass Bluegrass Academy, learning how to make the best of the time I’ll eventually save when gas is $15 per gallon and it’s too expensive to go running around like a chicken with my head cut off all the time. I plan to spend as much time as I can doing one of the things I love the most: sitting on my front porch in my grandmother’s rocking chair, playing guitar and watching the sun set on the Cimarrons.
Come join me if you’d like, and bring a banjo if you’ve got one.