From Cactus to St. Practice
A note from Martin McCormack
A Switchback fan and friend, Norm Weitzman, was there to pick us up and was gracious enough to let us crash at his home in Scottsdale. Norm is a snowbird, someone who leaves their northern digs as soon as the last leaf falls and stays south until the first leaf buds. Over the next week we were to discover that there are hundreds of thousands of these folks living in the strange but wonderful world of Snowbirddom. These places are all over the Phoenix area, from upscale gated villages with waterfalls of reclaimed grey water to towns of carefully manicured trailers, where the median age is 70 and you better know a thing or two about pickleball.
Norm drove us around to a place where fans Donna and Bill Miner from Ohio had moved. They’re the hardier stock, the “year-rounders” who stay south during the summer and get to see why Phoenix is also called “The Valley of the Sun.” Even on a late January day, the sun penetrates and I was surprised to find that I was getting warm as we cruised into their village in Norm’s convertible with the top down. American flags and Canadian flags festooned the drive and there were even what you could call North American flags, which some enterprising person created by sewing half a Canadian and half an American flag together. The energy was part resort, part retirement community, and all Mayberry, RFD.
|After visiting with Donna and Bill we headed to the Phoenix Irish Cultural Center and introduced ourselves there. This has to be one of the most beautiful cultural centers ever built, with replicas of a Norman tower home and Irish cottages. We met with Mary, the director, who discussed the possibility of our playing an event there, and with Pat McCrossan, who is the local artisan and director of music at the cultural center. Pat gave us a tour of the rehearsal rooms and told us how his top Irish speaker and instructor was a Mexican-American lady who fell in love with the language!|
Our percussionist Keith Riker drove down from Colorado with his pickup and trailer. Exhausted from the drive, he nearly expanded Norm’s garage into the neighbor’s as he backed in. We got him unpacked and settled at Norm’s hacienda, and after having a nice dinner, we made plans for a group hike in the Sonoran Desert. Keith, who has a love of all things southwest, explained to me that the Sonoran Desert is the one that has the saguaro cactus. Those are the cacti one would see in the Road Runner cartoons. They truly are something to see. The desert itself is incredibly diverse, with a lot various types of cacti, small trees, and even some stubborn flowers. The ground is pretty much rock, from boulders to pebbles, all haphazardly strewn as if a bored giant tossed them there.
We took advantage of our one free day to do some hiking with Norm. Almost immediately we lost Keith, who took off like a greyhound down the path to reunite with the saguaro. It was a five mile hike and we passed by people of all ages enjoying the desert. One English gentleman huffed and puffed by us muttering, “This is like the bloody Bataan death march.” It was not the easiest trail due to the rocks, but all in all one could stop, rest, and look out over the view of Phoenix and marvel at those amazing saguaros. By the time Brian, Norm, and I came in to the trailhead, Keith was blissfully watching us come in, his love affair with the Sonoran reignited.
The next day we bid Norm adieu and headed south toward Green Valley. Green Valley sits in what is called the Chihuahuan Desert, which has more yucca plants along with some grass and scrub. It is about 30 miles north of the Mexican border and so we were immediately aware of Border Patrol vehicles all around. Brian’s Aunt Gail lives in Green Valley, and we were welcomed immediately for a nice lunch at the “19th hole.” Most folks were retirees; in fact, all the folks in the restaurant were retirees, except for the very pleasant staff.
Our evening performance took place at the West Social Center. All the seats in the theater were taken and we had a great sound check. I had to laugh when we discovered we were to perform an American Roots-Celtic Show program as I had thought the evening was strictly Irish music. Keith, Brian, and I changed our set list literally minutes before curtain. The folks in charge of the theater were top-notch and we felt very welcomed. We ended up performing two encores. One lady couldn’t get enough of Keith. “Stand up,” she said, “I wanna see ya.” Keith good-naturedly stood on top of his cajon, which is a wooden percussion box. The audience laughed and clapped for him.
As we headed back to the hotel for the evening, we noticed low flying helicopters in the sky. The desert mountains had a coating of snow at their crests, and it was fairly chilly for that far south. I thought about all the people who try to cross the desert. So many die of thirst and heat, but I think winter could be just as bad. The desert truly is friends with no one, I concluded.
We drove onward the next day, heading toward our show in Colorado Springs. It was a travel day, and so we started out by taking a dirt road that led us through the backcountry of Green Valley. The area is open range, and every so often we would come upon an Angus standing in the middle of the road and staring as if we were a round bale of hay. Keith would roll down the window and say, “Hey there, lady,” and that was enough to get the cow moving. Keith also pointed out the century plant, a cactus-like creation that spends its energy making one blossoming shoot. It takes years and once bloomed, that is essentially it for the plant. Up the hillside stood the ghostly stems of past plants.
We made it back onto blacktop and turned off a little overlook. Here, the signs of illegal immigration were all around, discarded bottles, food containers, and some other items of human existence were strewn about in a mess. It was a shock to the eye as it jarred with the stark beauty of the desert. We quickly returned to the truck and headed across Arizona to New Mexico. Our route paralleled the border, and we watched unmanned blimps stationed over the border. Our travel into New Mexico was interrupted by a border checkpoint. A young guy dressed in military fatigues asked us if we were U.S. citizens. “Yup,” said Keith and we drove on. It felt a long way from Chicago at that point.
Heading north we stopped off in the famous town of Hatch to fill up on gas and take in the fields that lie alongside the Rio Grande River. These are the fields that grow the famous Hatch chilies that once roasted are divine additions to any chili, picante sauce, huevos rancheros, you name it. Brian and I usually try to head back to the Midwest with a bag or two of these. Along the street there were stores that sold many different kinds of chilies. I wanted to hang around for a longer time and inspect each shop, but the road beckoned and we had to make tracks north to Albuquerque.
Brian’s cousins welcomed us to Albuquerque, and we got to meet another side of the FitzGerald clan. Nora and her husband Alex have a beautiful adobe that looks over the foothills that surround the area. We spent the night all camped out on their living room floor, and after a nice breakfast and some coffee we headed north to Colorado Springs.
Keith made a detour so we could visit the town of Santa Fe. I totally fell in love with this historic community. It has a huge plaza that is filled with western art galleries, boutiques, and Navaho artisans out plying their silverwork. Houses were festooned with dried bunches of chilies, and the close, clustered adobe structures were beautiful. Keith pointed out that there are two styles of adobe. One is called Colonial, which were built during the time the Spanish were in charge of the region, and the other is Southwest Territorial, which were built during the time New Mexico was a territory of the United States. The former has thick walls, old unpainted wooden doors with thick iron hinges, and windows placed deep into the walls. The latter has every window and door framed in painted white wood and has painted doors. Both homes have clay tile roofs which gives the overall neighborhood a romantic feeling. I wished we had more time there but we had to keep moving north.
We arrived in Colorado Springs for our concert. Owners John and Cindy Hooton have taken this theater which was built in the 1950’s and lovingly restored it. The acoustics are wonderful as the building itself is basically a dome. We decided to put on a “St. Practice Day” sort of concert featuring Switchback Irish originals and traditional Celtic music. Joining us were the members of the Celtic Steps, a great group of Irish dancers. These young people had just come from a competition earlier that day and were heading for the world championships in about a month. They wowed the audience and us with their fantastic steps. We certainly want to work with them again the next time we visit Colorado. The audience was treated to a very intimate concert of the Rocky Mountain Combo, featuring some fancy spoon work by Keith. We ended the evening hanging out in the lobby with the audience and talking about music and Colorado and handing out blinking buttons.
We had breakfast with long time STeam member Cathy Osmundson, who had recently moved to Colorado with her boyfriend. Cathy has been a great help in working with Switchback over the years. As part of STeam she has personally put up posters, contacted radio stations and hit the phone lines to get people to come to our shows. We are fortunate that she is now in one of the states we often tour. I like to say that Switchback is only as good as our volunteer organization STeam. It’s always an added pleasure to our travels when we are able to meet Switchback friends along the way.
We then visited with our friend Candyce who is the manager for the Air Force Academy’s cultural arts and entertainment. It was a great afternoon visiting the Academy and seeing firsthand the challenges of providing entertainment for 4000 plus cadets and staff. The Academy is basically a town unto itself and is both inspiring and overwhelming at the same time. We spent some time visiting some of the more famous parts of the Academy, such as the “spires” which houses the various places of worship. Candyce is a living example of the high caliber of person that comes from the Academy. Her husband was lost in Vietnam and her son is now a “full-bird” colonel in the Air Force. She looks on all the cadets as her kids. We talked about Falling Water River Symphony as a performance at the Academy. We hope we get the chance.
It had been a great tour; we were pretty tired the next day as we battled traffic to Denver International Airport. We saluted our brother Keith, grabbed our bags, and scurried into a huge mass of humanity, most of whom were carrying ski bags.
We missed our flight and were next outbound on a jet that took us first to Minneapolis. There it was — the snow, the cold, the baggage handlers all bundled up and looking pretty ornery, clouds of breath mingling with the heat of the jets. At last we continued on to Chicago, happy to be back to our wives and content to contend with the Midwest winter.