Imperfect recollections from an influenced mind of a night of music and magic. The truth lies somewhere between history and this story, but there is no map that could ever lead us back there.
There were fruits and vegetables and weeds and beer and wine. Tim knew people of every municipality and social degree, and their gathering here for his summer party was like a table of contents to a child’s book of fairy tales. Food sunned on every flat surface, from handmade pies and stews to hastily purchased plastic clamshells of cookies and sliced meats. Sweating bottles in cardboard harnesses clung to the hems of every table skirt. Folk music combusted in every grouping with enough oxygen between while musicians popped from one to another like cinders, and no circle was ever left unstoked long enough for instruments to get cold. A porchful of people stomped in adequate time with the music, carefree mimics of the man at the fore calling the dance. We played and drank and laughed and danced all afternoon, and played and drank and danced and ate all evening, and played and drank and watched the dancers dance all night.
It was now some lost hour of the night. Somewhere between days. Some unknowable, ignoble, space between the world of yesterday and the world of tomorrow. When Mother Nature takes it all behind the counter for a swap. Some who could drive home had, most slid down the hill to the small clearing in the tall grasses where a circle tents were staked. The campers zipped themselves into tents and bags while wooden instruments whispered into the creek valley.
Halfway uphill, under the hedge of old maples, Tim’s house drowsily creaked in time with the musicians inside. The modest structure sat like shy timber in the woods, dark brown planks hunched in the shadow of larger grey trunks. The main living area was just two small rooms stacked atop each other, space enough for a mattress—though there wasn’t one, just a sleeping bag—and an end table or bookshelf, which comprised the bulk of the inventory. On the ground level, a small table, a chair and a rough-hewn counter basked before a ruddy black cast iron stove crowned with a warming silver kettle.
The last and youngest of the three rooms was the porch, as wide as the others but much longer, it stretched out toward the valley and it felt like it stretched to the other side. Broad and undressed wooden planks ran the length of the floor, finished only with footsteps from a hundred dancers and the dust of so many seasons in the valley. Patio lights hung in their festive conic hats from staples above screened windows. The large room was empty now except for empty bowls and cartons and a loose ring of folding chairs, empty themselves but for a few in the corner where musicians folded themselves wearily upon their instruments.
Tim had built this house himself thirty or so years before when he and a number of friends purchased this parcel of river valley folded deep into the bluffs of southwest Wisconsin. They established a commune and named it Frog and Toad’s, named for—as Tim explained—those who were there first and those who would inherit the land in time. Whimsical, sure, but an apt manifesto which still seems to inspire the tone of life on this hillside.
Anything powered was run on solar panels that bloomed between the gardens and pond. Electrical appetite was kept low, running a few modest appliances from deep cycle marine batteries. I couldn’t recall anything electric in Tim’s house other than his dozen patio lights.
Just downhill from Tim’s house was his old house, little more than a shed with some scrapped windows and a door. It was the first structure he built after arriving, and speaks to the ethic of this settlement. A few paces westward sits a small shack with large windows opening to the valley. The door at the back introduces short beadboard hallway with a chair and coat rack, beyond which sits a sauna complete with a perimeter of wooden benches, a potbellied stove within a wreath of cordwood, and an old plastic bathtub with a solar camp shower set adjacent to the windows. A metal pail sits next to the stove. To activate the sauna, the stove is fed wood and set alight, and the bucket is filled with water and set atop the stove.
Further westward along the treeline, a cracked and swollen door hangs with effort from a cinder block frame set into the hillside itself, shuttering a root cellar with plank shelves hung on either side. A menagerie of bottles adorns them, containing beers and wines and brandies and whiskeys with unfamiliar and journeyed labels. Everyone on the commune had respective skills and duties, and Tim’s was to curate a collection of drink from his frequent travels.
Tim traveled constantly in those days, playing his music across the breadth of the country. He was on the road as much as he was off of it and existed as little more than rumor for seasons at a time. Impossible to predict, he was a fantastic character anyway. His blue eyes betrayed voluminous experience yet spoke always of impossible joy. Marled brows overflowed the wire rim of his glasses, and his thin nose came to a point over a long white beard. A full head of hair hung as a ponytail between his shoulder blades. A sort of hobo Gandalf, his age was either 60 or 160, but his wiry frame was powerful and spry as if he were 30. His thighs issued from chopped jean shorts like pale hickory—thick and knotted and tall. When his foot tapped along with the music, it thudded hard and loud, a ground full of roots in every beat. He had been everywhere, seen everything, and gleefully sought more.
To describe him was like folklore. On the right kind of day with music and beer he was simply there without arriving, playing music and dancing and outlasting the rest of us and our memories, the whole time casting jigs and reels and polkas like spells and charming a crowd through the steps an antique folk dance. He was supernaturally virile, playing or calling or telling stories as long as the music sustained him. And when the music stopped I couldn’t be truly certain whether he still existed, perhaps summoned to some future place in a distant ritual of rhythm and brew.
In truth Tim traveled as a musician and caller, playing Irish and American and other folk tunes and leading folk dances in the same traditions—square, contra, haymakers. In some dusty civic center, church basement or farmhouse, Tim would herd groups in symmetric shapes like paper snowflakes, folding and twisting and unfolding along his reedy tenor. Then Then with a hatchback full of instruments and a headful of tunes, he’d drive to the next gig in the next state. Whether he was charging his repertoire in Appalachia, protesting injustice in the deep south, or appearing in a rap video filmed on the streets of NYC, the music was his boxcar on the rails of a life given over to serendipity and faith in some divine habit of benevolence.
So as the valley around Frog and Toad’s began to fall asleep, a kettle began to whoop and wheeze with a belly full of boiling water. I didn’t remember ever seeing anyone fill it, or place it on the stove, or even remove it for that matter. I was only aware of the guitar on my lap, of a bottle of beer near where my feet coiled, and a wispy reel floating in the air between us.
There were only perhaps three or four of us still awake. We played tunes with fiddles and flutes well primed from a day full of playing, idling high under knuckles barely awake with bodies less so; drowsy musicians at the wheel, trusting our instruments to drive. We were playing tunes we’d maybe played earlier, maybe played four times before, maybe none. Even the batteries had run out of energy and the patio lights had given in. The only thing I remember distinctly is waking up, on that porch, in that hour, hands still playing, head resting on the upper bout of my guitar, and through dry and heavy eyes seeing Tim across, eyes still merry and steady, an engine running on moonlight with an exhaust of melody.
Here was Tim in his home world, this place between realities, between days, between states of consciousness and otherwise. He was wholly unaffected by the hour, not needing to slow or break. Eventually I relented to the full weight of the night, and like the patio lights, switched off mostly unnoticed, slipping out the sprung door and down the hill to my tent and the mercy of morning. Asleep but somewhat more horizontal now I dreamed to the soft whisper of music in the glen.
The sun rose without mercy or the possibility of sleep in such grassy humidity. So when I finally pried my aching husk from my tent and plodded up to the house, I found him with a pot of coffee, already brewed and already half shared, as awake as when I left him last night and as when I found him yesterday afternoon.