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Recording Herding Cats & The Trip West

I’m back in LA after an amazing trip east to Buffalo where I played with my new band of ebbing and flowing misfits, the Gatos Malos at Sportsmens on November 22, and immediately followed that with going into GCR Audio with the amazing Nick Blagona where we recorded 11 songs live off the floor for the Herding Cats record. Horns were recorded on the last day. I then went up to Nick’s place in Hamilton, Ontario and recorded my lead vocals on all but one track for which I still need to complete a few thoughts on the lyrics. My father, Bruce Jackson, photographed the sessions extensively and the show, so look for a photo book companion piece to Herding Cats as and when. For now, here are a few pictures from rehearsal and in the studio.

My friend Carrie Smith, who lives in Dallas, and I were texting a couple days before I left to drive back to LA, and I said “why don’t you fly up and drive back with me?” She replied “that would be nearly impossible” which in my addled mind means possible, and I said as much. She showed up the next night and off we went. I’d come up with the idea that it’d be interesting to see and photograph the desolation of high plains and a few national parks in the winter. The weather looked clear enough and the temperatures manageable. So we loaded up the car with various supplies, a bunch of cameras in addition to my trusty Nikon that I always travel with and Carrie's Canon. We chewed through 940 miles the first day and stayed in St. Paul, where I met an old friend for a drink that evening – despite being shattered from a long day. On day 2, as we approached North Dakota, a frigid storm blew across the high plains. We watched the temperature gauge drop from 45 and rainy to 16 in just a few hours. The roads were covered in black ice, otherwise known as ice you can’t see. I nearly lost control on one occasion even though I was driving as slowly as I thought I safely could in those conditions.

The storm worsened, difficult as it was to imagine at the time, as the winds howled and rattled the car, and white-out conditions were frequent as we made our way north towards Grand Forks, North Dakota, completing only about 326 miles that day. I’ve never seen so many accidents in such a short time. The 29 North was littered with recently crashed cars and big rigs on both sides of the road. I never imagined being thrilled to be in Grand Forks, but after surviving that white knuckle drive, checking into a hotel there was a tremendous relief.

On day 3 we headed west. The storm had cleared but the roads were very icy, improving as we went west making decent time. We stopped at a mostly abandoned farm town called Knox, where I photographed some of the old buildings, and made a few other stops. It was frigid, but the relatively clear roads after a while were a huge relief. As we got into Montana, the roads got worse again and it was snowing so we called it an early day somewhere near Sidney, Montana, and at some point before then I stopped and bought tire chains, which we fortunately ended up not needing.

I’m not sure what the reasons are for my fascination with old abandoned buildings, but I reckon it’s mostly that I want to know their stories. What happened in them? What was talked about? Why were they abandoned? Sometimes, I have time to research those questions. A few years ago on a similar drive in the summer, I happened upon an abandoned farm house in Montana. The bank records on the floor from the 1940’s gave me a name which I looked up that night, and found out that the old man had passed away and eventually the missus left the farm to work at the liquor store in the nearby town. Here are a couple pics of that farmhouse from 2 summers ago.

Life on those prairies is hard. Each cemetery I've seen in that part of the world had a lot of stones for children, many not even living to be a year old. We later stopped a cemetery in Utah that was similar in that regard. It also might have just been how it was in the 1800’s when medical care wasn’t nearly as available as it is now. But back then people were also significantly more defenseless against the harsh elements, whether it was heat or cold, or both.

On Day 4, we decided to make our way south a little earlier than I’d planned. I really had wanted to go back to that Montana farm house to do take some winter photographs, but the roads were dodgy and it would have slowed us down a lot. So we took the hypotenuse towards Yellowstone National Park, via the Interstate (94 to the 90), loathe as I am to get on those roads – it just made sense, knowing that Yellowstone would be sublime. I’ll drive those county roads through Montana again some other time.

There’s only one road into Yellowstone in the winter. It’s the northwest entrance just past Gardiner, MT on the 89. Last summer I entered the park via the Beartooth Scenic Highway, south of Billings. That road isn’t open in the winter, and if you ever take that route, you’d understand that it’s amazing that road is ever open, given that it reaches 10,947 feet, making it one of the highest roads in North America. The high point is just a little lower in elevation than the glaciers one passes up there. We got to the park before dark, but not by much and drove the 55 or so miles on the only road open in the park to Cooke City, which is at the base of the Beartooth highway and which is the end of the road for cars. Cooke City is populated by snowmobilers this time of year. We stayed two nights at a wonderful place called the Soda Butte Lodge

Cooke City, Montana. Just outside Yellowstone's NE entrance.

and spent as much time in the park as we could, photographing bison, birds, mountains, rivers, elk, wolves and the frozen scenery. It was outstanding and I hated leaving there.

Yours truly at Yellowstone, pic by Carrie Smith.

North Yellowstone

North Yellowstone.

On day six we packed up and headed out early, going back through the park one more time, north nearly to Bozeman as it’s the only way out, and south on the 191 through West Yellowstone and then to the 20 south through Idaho. It was a gorgeous drive and I only wish we could have enjoyed more of it in daylight. We made it down the 15 to somewhere near Fillmore, Utah that day. We left early on Day 7 and marched down the 15 a little ways and headed east on the 70 through Fishlake National Forest to the 89 south. That drive was really gorgeous. South of Panguitch towards Zion Canyon, there were lots of gorgeous old farmhouses to photograph, big open spaces and we could just imagine the brutal history of living on those rocky arid lands. We stopped at the Spry cemetery, up a dirt road south of Panguitch where I took some photographs, and continued to Zion.

Like Yellowstone, Zion is relatively empty in the winter, and reminded me of family trips there in the early 70’s. It’s sublime. Desert bighorn sheep were plentiful, and I’ve never seen them there in the summer with throngs of people everywhere. Carrie photographed the sheep, so I don't have any of those pics. But here are a few from Zion that I took.

There’s nothing like re-entry into LA to brutally wake you up from the dream of an adventure. Because it was a Saturday I knew it’d be better to trudge on to LA after Zion rather than get stuck in Sunday Vegas-to-LA traffic. That last 80 miles is always awful any time of day, however, as you’re reintroduced to high-speed lane-splitting motorcycles blasting by, cars zooming by you on both sides, even the shoulders, trucks driving dangerously fast and so on. It's like a speeded-up video game from hell. I said to Carrie, “I always just try to stay alive on this part of the drive…” The drive into LA was particularly difficult because the traffic patterns had changed due to all the fires raging in the area. We pulled into my driveway around 7:00 p.m. that evening.

Pacific Palisades, CA sunset aided by tragic wildfires.

What a journey.

Cheers for now, M


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