“I think the biggest problem was that I wasn’t even able to get up on stage to perform last year. I was thinking they lost faith in me. You see, I was clear up on the range in the mountains turning off a water tank that we had forgotten about for the winter.” Parker looked over at me, hoping I knew what that meant. I looked over at him from the drivers seat as we cruised in gathering darkness down the Pahsimeroi farm to market road.
I nodded. “Yeah. We’ve been there. You got some pipeline up there in that wilderness mountain country, so far and so hard to put in, and it freezes at 40 below zero up there ‘cause you forgot to drain it clear.” I glanced over him. “Then you don’t have nothing next year to water cattle.”
“Exactly.” Parker went on. “So I get way up there in my 4 wheel drive through snow, get it turned off and drained, and on the way back I get totally stuck in a snowdrift out there on the mountain.”
“No cell service up there,” I add.
He nods. “So I’m up in the town Christmas program, and they call my name, and nothing happens.” He grins as he looks down the snowy road, then turns at me. “I think that’s why Eileen didn’t call me back. I stood her up.”
I laughed. “I’m not so sure it would matter in Challis, Parker.”
Challis is our home town. Our mail goes to formerly bustling May, Idaho smack dab in the middle of the high and wide Pahsimeroi Valley. Although May is still a place with a café (the “Cowboy Up”) open 3 afternoons a week next to a dirt runway with tattered windsock, most of the buildings are empty. Post office: closed. Filling stations with the glass gravity dispensers in front: out of gas. Supermarket: vacant, shelves dusty and empty. Log church with cross still upright on the front entryway: empty. Pews still there. Several homes on Main Street still have residents in them, but several are ghosts of what once was, shutters and screen doors banging in the wind.
So it’s in Challis that we do most of our biz. It’s 40 minutes away, with a little over a thousand people. Seat of Custer county, an area the size of Connecticut populated by 4000 some hardy souls, surrounded by trackless wilderness.
Eileen Hardy, and her husband Jack, now retirees, run the Challis Community Christmas Music Program. It’s tomorrow night at the old Junior High (now abandoned and rented out due to lack of kids when the local hard rock mine went bust) at 6 PM, preceded by the Parade of Lights, a grand community business float effort sponsored by the Credit Union, and the Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony.
Eileen knows everyone in town because she used to run the local Farm Bureau Insurance office. The lizardy reach of the likes of Geico has not made it to the remote hinterlands of central Idaho. Even AT&T cell phones have little use here (the local carrier, Custer Telephone Co-op, owned by us locals, has a contract from the big V to let us use their network).
Eileen is a motivator. Her positive outlook on life is contagious, despite her having several health issues lately. Jack, a music man from way back (he actually played with Gordon Lightfoot and Waylon Jennings in the early years) pulls all the sound together, and helps his bride vet the program.
He’ll also accompany several of the musicians with his guitar.
Eileen called me several weeks ago about the Bunkhouse Band playing for the program. “It’s that time of year, again, Glenn. We need to have the Bunkhouse Band in the lineup. And…here’s something else you need to think about. We need Parker to come back. We absolutely need him for ‘Oh Holy Night.’ Could you call your neighbor up the Pahsimeroi and drag him down here off that ranch of his?”
And so I did. Parker, an older rancher from the Valley, runs about 350 Hereford mama cows in mountains wilderness, as we do, and raises some of the best quarter horse flesh in the county. We’ve bought several horses from him.
And last night, rehearsal night, I called him and told him I was picking him up in 10 minutes. I had warned him several weeks ago. And he was ready.
And so, Ethan, Abby, Becky and I, comprising the Bunkhouse Band and Parker made the drive down valley and then up the Salmon River Canyon to Challis. And the Junior high with no students.
It’s got a nice auditorium, and a lovely stage. Hardwood floors. If this year was like the many other years, Custer Country would come out of the woodwork, out of the mountains and canyons, wearing pacboots, muckboots, carhartts, silk scarves, cowboy hats and stormy kromers and jam into this room seating over 300 and pack it to standing room only.
And they would be absolutely quiet and still as the sounds and songs of Christmas unfolded before them. The spirit and magic of it all—and the love would flow like the Salmon River through this room.
But tonight, there is work to do. Jack and son Travis almost jog back and forth from the sound booth to the stage, trailing wires and mics. Eileen is placing participants on stage. As we walk in from the cold, kids, some 20 or so, are filing from the stage after their preschool rendition of “Jingle Bells.”
There are 15 or so numbers that will be sung. And everyone is milling around and talking as people tune instruments, and warm up voices after the single digit cold outside.
My big Bertha (the name of my upright bass) is gently laid down in the middle of the warm stage area so she can warm up to the room temp and I can tune her. Ethan opens guitar case, as does Becky her mandolin, to allow all to acclimate.
This is a sort of family gathering. We shake hands and hug, greeting each other over the sound of practitioners of music on stage—many of these folks we see only one time a year at this one event. It is warm in the auditorium, and Carhartts are shed, uncovering very casual attire, some betraying the work they just finished before coming down to rehearsal.
Eileen hugs us all, despite the busyness, and treats us like her kids. Jack drops wires to say hello and shake a firm hand. Chris comes up and asks me how many elk we have on the ranch. Ethan throws in with Miles and his wife, Bonnie and they chat, catching up on Ethan and Abby’s recent trip to Virginia.
Ron Jones introduces himself to me. I recognize the name. He ranches at the bottom of the Morgan Creek Canyon. He’s singing in the choir.
The choir. A little rag-tag looking, there will be no robes here. They come to the risers, though, and put it out there when called upon. They gather together to perform a lovely Christmas medley in a choral rendition of parts.
Parker takes the mic, and the music starts on “Oh Holy Night.” The monitors (those stage speakers) are way too loud. He can’t hear himself sing. Ethan grabs the mic and bends it close to Parker’s windburnt face. He’s still got his cattle feeding hat on. There’s hay on it.
But then things come together. Parker picks up on it, and everyone is transfixed, and stops talking. There is no sound but his voice and the accompaniment. He hits the notes with finesse and a touch of vibrato as if he was once a seasoned opera singer.
We had no idea. Ethan and I look at each other, amazed. The only loud words we’ve heard him utter before this were the sounds of his yelling at cattle from horseback when they were about to dive into the Pahsimeroi River instead of crossing the bridge like they were meant to.
And now, that same voice ranges into sublime, as he powers perfectly with a steady resonance through the climactic final notes of “Oh Holy Night.”
All fall silent when he finishes. And then, we all burst into applause. And Parker turns, rough face blushing, and says “Does anyone know CPR?”
The Bunkhouse Band tries two songs on the stage. The mics are not working right. My bass isn’t picking up, and then is, vibrating the walls off the place. Ethan’s acoustic guitar sounds a little like Johnny Cash’s through the system, and really resonates.
It drowns us out as we all try “What Child is This?”
Jack yells from the booth to keep on playing, and we do. Abby’s mic never works, so she shares with Becky. Becky’s got lead, forgets the words, scrolls down my pad music, and loses my place. The bass falls out. We laugh as we continue to sing. And play.
And our new family laughs with us.
It doesn’t matter. Nothing does on this night. We spend hours with these people in perfect fellowship with humanity. It is sweet as we leave.
The finale is “Feliz Navidad.” Everyone is up on stage. There are guitars, congas, drums, choir, bass, and everyone belting it out.
Rough. But quite rousing.
The whole thing was a little western, as we say. Chaotic would be an overstatement, but I think you know what I mean. The rehearsals always are.
Tomorrow night, I am guessing, the magic will happen. It always does. All will come together, somehow, as the lights douse in the auditorium, and the audience, full, packed, quiets to soundless. And the sweep, the feeling, the love of Christmas and Peace on Earth will imbibe itself into the hearts of all.