Wandering and Wondering

I rode over to Indiana a few weeks ago to play for an outside wedding reception in Aurora, Ind. Elaine Crow, known also as "Ma," was doing the gig with me, and she drove up a steep hill to get to th

Nov 30, 2000 at 2:06 pm

I rode over to Indiana a few weeks ago to play for an outside wedding reception in Aurora, Ind. Elaine Crow, known also as "Ma," was doing the gig with me, and she drove up a steep hill to get to the party area.

We got out of the car, stretched a little and got our guitar cases and headed for the bluff of the hill. The view was magnificent. We could see Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana in one sweeping panorama.

The Ohio River curled like a thick ribbon through the hills half-hidden by the low, roiling thunderclouds. Neither one of us said a word. We just looked. Nature had snuck up from the rear and hit me in the head again to remind me to look and to see.

Back in the late 1970s, I stood way out on a flat rock at the top of a mountain in Elizabethton, Tenn. The pink and white dogwood trees were thick with delicate, Asian-looking petals, and everything in front of me was a different shade of tender green, tangled vines like fanned-out paint-store samples. The sky was pale blue with a faint blush of shell streaked here and there.

All of us were young then. The view wasn't marked by any signs to indicate that anything spectacular was at hand.

Back then, the Katie Laur Band had a Ford Econoline van, dark green, a long dude with no power steering and no air conditioning. We were happy as clams in it, at least for a while. We went to southeastern Virginia along the ridge of the Smokey Mountains, to the Carter Family Fold in Scott County, Va., where we'd race to clamber to the top of the high hill overlooking the valley. "Poor Valley" was what people called it, because there was no coal and the ground was too rocky to farm.

Instead, there was a quality of stillness I've never felt before or since. Everything was silent except for peeper frogs, insects and birds. It was a place untouched by the march of human progress.

I remember driving through the Red River Gorge park coming back from the tiny Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, down toward the Cumberland. The women's dorm, where I was housed, was like a housewife's fantasy. One common room for everyone to meet, usually in big pink hair curlers. I watched TV with them, while one of them made something from a Betty Crocker book of recipes. Some of them read movie magazines, which I hadn't seen in years.

The poverty that small college was dealing with was appalling. When we left there, after putting on a show in an ancient auditorium, young women walked me back to the van, insisting on carrying my guitar, smiling up at me like I was Emmylou Harris. They pressed packaged cookies and soft drinks on me.

After we pulled out the long driveway, I cried. I was lying on the mattress in the back of the van, and microphone stands were rolling from side to side as my tears slid down the pillow. I was sheltered by a canopy of treetops so dense I could barely see the sun, and I was getting restless. How did you learn to live with ambiguity?

Lately, I've been unexpectedly riveted by the light through my northeast window — all of Liberty Hill, the narrow-fronted houses climbing higher and higher through the trees. The fading sun illuminates one portion of the hill. It glints off the flat roof of the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, and everywhere the light hits is washed in grace.

Views aren't just in Tuscany or some place far away. They're everywhere when you look, when you take the time to see.

My grandfather, Mason Ward, was a blind fiddle player. He lost his sight when he was in his late 30s because of glaucoma. After that, he got a little money from the government and fed his family with his garden and by playing fiddle for square dances.

After World War II, he was hired by a team of surveyors from the state of Tennessee. He would go out in the morning with the surveyors in a wagon. He'd describe the landscape with remarkable accuracy. Going on up the road a bit, he'd ask, "Do you see a white house or a cornfield?" When they answered, he could tell them whose property it was and where the boundaries were.

Once, the band and the long green van were at a rest stop in Wisconsin at 2 in the morning, heading for St. Paul, Minn., in order to appear on Garrison Keillor's radio show. I was sleepy. We had driven straight through from Chicago, and I could tell by the fanatically cleaned rest stops that we were a long way from home.

The air smelled like something bottled and clear. I stumbled to the map that says, "You Are Here," but Jeff Roberts blocked my way.

"Don't even look," he said, kindly. "You won't learn anything worth knowin'."

CONTACT KATIE LAUR: [email protected]