Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Lost In America pt.3 - "Crossroads"

Bet y'all thought (hoped) I'd forgotten about my American bletherings. Well, no such luck. Blame the news - who could ignore such an impressive outbreak of credulousness (on both sides of the often-smoke-and-mirrors political 'divide') in New Hampshire? Especially since it followed the finest public show of artificial lachrymosity since bloated, hypocritical, bag o' piss and wind Jimmy Swaggart choked 'em back in order to "beg your forgiveness" in 1988. It almost makes our system look like perfectly representative democracy in action by comparison, even though, technically, both the UK & the US fail on the "representative" part. Still, you'll be relieved to hear that I'm not going to bore everyone senseless by banging-on about the inevitable failings of "first-past-the-post" electoral systems (I save that particular performance for parties, weddings, etc). Instead, I'll leave the last word on the American political process (for now) to the finest satirist ever to grace the world's second-largest 'democracy', Ambrose Bierce:

"Primary, n. A political pot, from which the fire of corruption has long since evaporated the good soup, leaving nothing but scum."

(from "The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary", edited by E.J.Hopkins, 1967)

Now, I'm aware that Bierce may be unknown to a few folk out there (the younger ones, perhaps?), and yes, Jon Stewart and his "Daily Show" cronies do have their moments of brilliance (but also an unfortunate tendency to fawn somewhat over certain guests), but no-one, (not even Lenny Bruce), has managed to match the sustained levels of pointed, skewering genius that is Ambrose Bierce in full flow. And when you take the volume and quality of his other writing into account, too…admittedly it has been a while since he died (well, disappeared, if we're being completely accurate, while heading to Mexico) in 1913, but he's still the greatest the USA has produced - in my (jaded? cynical? plain wrong?) opinion, anyway. To put it another way, Jaco Pastorius is still regarded by many musicians as the finest electric bass player of all time, 20 years after his death. Now, I'm willing to stake my entire collection of instruments on there having existed many more highly talented American electric bass players in the last two decades, than there have been even mediocre satirists during the 94 years since Bierce's demise. So if Jaco can still be king (and, let's face it, he really is), why not Ambrose Bierce, considering the relative lack of competition?

He also makes a pleasingly obscure link into my real topic (!), which is the wonderful little gem known as Madison, Indiana, (Bierce grew up in Indiana, and enlisted in the Ninth Indiana Infantry during the U.S. Civil War. Not that Indiana is a desperately exciting place, on the whole. When it came to designing their commemorative state quarter, for instance, they summed themselves up as the "Crossroads of America". Hmmm. So, when we think of Indiana, let's be confronted immediately by the mental image of a giant intersection, replete with an almost infinite number of flyovers, on/off-ramps, and drivers from Michigan sitting resolutely in the middle lane. Inspiring, no? Not that we're doing much better over here in Fife, where the council's logo is the Forth Bridge - in other words, the escape route to the joys of Edinburgh. Speaks volumes, doesn't it?).

This unassuming town (south on the I-71 from Cincinnati, take a right on 421, heads directly across to it - although taking the 42 through Warsaw, crossing at Markland, and following the 56 "Ohio River Scenic Byway" is definitely prettier. Slower, yes, but then it's not a race, now is it?), still retains the character and charm of that rare commodity, a traditional main street. In fact, the whole place has preserved its 19th-century origins very successfully - hell, it's easy to see why I like it - it's old, (by American standards), has enough museums for several rainy afternoons, and possesses that incredible rarity in the US - a cycling club!

It also happens to be located virtually next door to something far older and, if you're interested in the 'Great/Pretty Good/No' Tae Bad Outdoors', far prettier than a panoply of fine brickwork from 1844, Clifty Falls State Park. Here a pleasing blend of fine scenery and trail hiking awaits the intrepid visitor. After you've stopped-off to 'stuff your guts' at the Clifty Inn, (recommended!), you can take the opportunity to go fossil-spotting, assuming the river's low enough, of course - unless you're one of those bizarrely prepared-for-anything folk, and alongside the emergency rations, first aid kit (including inflatable splints and a portable, solar-charged defibrillator) and bivouac bag, you've brought full snorkelling gear, in which case, enjoy!

A small word of caution, however. Whatever you eventually decide to do with your now-bulging belly and elevated cholesterol, don't - and I can't stress this strongly enough, don't rely on the official map of the place to keep you on the right trail. Oh, it might look simple enough, and everything appears fine when you start out, but once you're down at the canyon bottom, it all changes...trail markers suddenly vanish, your sense of time starts to wander, you hear strange, keening noises that seem to emanate from deep fissures in the rock walls...until you realise it's just the 9-month-old in the baby carrier on your back, who's getting a little fed-up with the whole hiking-down-a-canyon, "oooh, look at the ammonites!" routine, and wants to be somewhere comfy, with an assortment of toys, and where he's the centre of as many adults' attention as possible.
Trying to get up and out of the canyon proved to be the tricky part - and it wasn't only us (he adds, quickly, in his defence). In our efforts to locate the official exit route, we came across three other groups of bewildered tourists, in various states of bedragglement, all of whom had been cruelly deceived by their trail maps. Eventually, I took a "Chief Navigator" (hey, I've done cloud-and-mist covered, zero-visibility hill-walks, using only a compass and the Ordnance Survey's finest as a guide, so there) executive decision, and we started to follow a dried-out streambed up the side of the canyon wall.

Now, I've long been of the opinion that a little bit of 'excitement' just adds to the 'fun' when you're on an 'adventure', but, judging by the looks my wife was giving me - the ones I caught, anyway, while I, lying as flat as I could against the rocks and bracing myself on a tree root, was supporting her foot with my free hand and trying to ignore the baby's repeated expressions of dissatisfaction with the whole situation - we'd overdone it a bit this time. Still, we all made it up to the road without any major mishaps, so no harm done, eh? We never did find out what happened to those other people, though there is a local rumour about some tourists who turned to cannibalism once their supply of "Mountain Dew" and "Peppermint Patties" ran out...
Anyway, getting back to Madison, and somewhere in the vicinity of the supposedly music-related theme of this blog, when we visited the town had a couple of excellent instrument shops, which were practically next door to each other, and well worth a good browse around. If it's 'vintage' kit you're after, then Crawdaddy Music is the place to head for. It had an impressive stock of pre-1950's guitars, alongside a host of other old gear. It was, to be honest, almost being run more like a museum than a shop, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It may, of course, have changed a bit since late 2003, and the other shop certainly has.

I have, uselessly, lost the guy's business card, but back then it was called "Scotty's" (? or "Scott's"? something like that), and we had a great time in there. While I was busily ogling a 5-string Parker Fly bass (nice!), the staff gave our tiny son a pair of sticks (the fools) with which to play around on the top-of-the-range, brand-new Roland digital drum kit at the back of the shop - now that's what I call customer service.(Not, I hasten to add, to be encouraged if you want your stock to retain its value, because whatever he may have lacked in drumming technique, accuracy and control, David certainly compensated for with abundant enthusiasm).

Alas, they now appear to have been taken over by a small regional chain (called Mom's Music), but it might well have the same/similar great people working there, and still be completely deserving of patronage. I just can't offer any guarantees that it hasn't turned into yet another run-of-the-mill, by-the-corporate-book, lowest-common-denominator establishment ("Guitar Center", perhaps?). If anyone out there can end my ignorance on this matter, please feel free to comment!

That's about it for Madison, Indiana, I'm afraid. The baby'll be awake far too soon, small bottom requiring cleansing, etc,etc. There are plenty of odds and ends left for another instalment of the "mid-West music shop travelogues" (sorry), but they'll have to wait for another time.
Happy Trails!

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