Concow wildfire survivor and musician Garr1son
This old road/ It’s a long, long lonely way/ This old road/ Is bound to get me some day/ But I know I’m goin’ home/ And I know there ain’t no other way/ But this old road.
—“This Old Road,” by Concow musician Garr1son (cdbaby.com/garr1son)
The shy, reclusive Concow musician, Garr1son—“spelled with a 1”—had invited me and his buddy bassist Chuck Holland (formerly of Magalia Hillbillies) out to his property so that we could see exactly what’s become of his life in the aftermath of the July 2008 wildfires. I was helping to put on a small benefit concert for Garr1son, and since accepting help from others was difficult for him, he really wanted us to see that his needs were real. So plans were made for the three of us to rehearse a few of his tunes at his property to perform at the benefit.
After squeezing ourselves and our instruments into his tiny hatchback, Garr1son plunged his squeaky rig down Green Forest Lane, the rutted, rugged dirt road leading to his property. The sickening irony of the road’s name sunk in as we bounced our way through the moonscape surrounding us. A few signs of neighbors rebuilding sheds and water towers appeared as Garr1son explained how the flames had been on both sides of the skinny road when he fled the fires. The air was so thick with smoke and ash that he couldn’t see out of his windshield. He had to point a flashlight toward the embankment on one side of the road, and let it guide him out. He admitted that the only thing that saved him was his years of experience driving home from bars at 2 in the morning.
Garr1son stood among the remnants of the cinderblock foundation of what was once the 3,000-square-foot home he built alone, by hand, over the previous 30 years. He tells the story of the frightening hours before he vacated his property as the flames were rapidly advancing. Despite a zero-hour warning from his neighbor, Garr1son braved the ash-choked air for another two hours. He’d already packed his computer hard drives, one of his guitars and his cat into his hatchback, but it wasn’t until the trees on the hillside above started exploding (joining the propane tanks that were doing the same in the distance) that he finally made his move.
Standing around the open hatchback, listening to a recording Garr1son had made on a neighbor’s answering machine of a couple of his tunes, I had to force myself not to look around too much. I couldn’t have played a single note if I would have dwelled on the fact that I was standing in the burned-out heart of the man in front of me. As the red sun set behind the charcoal poles littered around the lot at the very end of Green Forest Lane, the three of us got lost in the groove of Garr1son’s bittersweet blues.
Of course, this is just one post-wildfire story. Garr1son’s loss is no more or less tragic than any other person’s or family’s. And the reality is that we have another year of drought and there will soon be new wildfires. And there is fear (and anger) among the still-devastated and disarmingly exposed victims of Concow that they will be largely forgotten.
The benefit was at Café Coda last Sunday night, and we raised only a few bucks, but Garr1son was unfazed. In fact, if I hadn’t insisted he take his half, he would have given all of the proceeds to Concow Phoenix Project. The very real benefit of the show was that a man who had had only one visitor to his home in the last 10 years, and who had been working alone from dawn to dusk on his devastated property every day for the past nine months, was able to take a break and enjoy a relaxed night of music with a group of friendly strangers. And, of course, the big bonus was that an eclectic cross section of the Chico music community got to hear Garr1son sing, and the overwhelming consensus was “Where’s this guy been?” It was a pleasure for me to share the stage with the man and witness his emotional, resonant, cigarette-enhanced growl captivate the roomful of musicians.
After spending just a little time with the man, I got a glimpse of his very passionate and independent spirit, and have been touched by his exceedingly humble and sweet demeanor, and I am very grateful that he made what was for him a tremendous effort to bring his music and his story to my little office in Chico. My hope is that we can continue stay in contact and become friends. Garr1son seems like a good person to know.