Sometimes it’s a jolt to my system to hear myself saying, yes, to this life, this precise moment here on this hillside on this frozen land. Fires in the wood stove. Blinds drawn down to conserve heat. Nothing has ever looked colder to me than the Skedaddle Mountains frosted in silver.
I’ve been driving out to an empty stretch of road that cuts across the Smoke Creek, then to the Black Rock Desert. These days I come out here to catch the early morning light and the way the rocks throw their shadows across the ground, but I began coming out here because of Dave Brubeck.
Last December, when the jazz legend died, rumors about his wrangling roots in this area began to circulate. My editor at the weekly newspaper said “See what you can dig up.”
I began at the logical place. Heard’s Market, one of the few general stores left in this part of the country, sits on an empty stretch of Highway 395 between the ranching communities of Standish and Litchfield. It’s been here for close to 60 years and has been up for sale at least half of them. Everett Heard, now in his 80s still stands behind the counter, although his son has been taking on more responsibility.
Yes, of course, he’d heard of the Brubecks, he said when I asked. The Brubecks were one of the area’s founding families, although they’ve been gone now for a while. On a piece of scrap paper, Everett sketched out a complicated genealogy that began with two sisters, Louisa and Mary Grass. Mary married a Litch, the founder of our current Litchfield, he said. The other sister, Louisa, married Lewis Brubeck, proprietor of the Amedee Hotel, Dave’s grandfather. Lewis and Louisa eventually left the area with their family for Concord. There, son Pete, met and married Elizabeth Ivey, who once had aspirations to be a concert pianist, but instead contented herself with teaching piano and introducing all her children, including youngest son, Dave, to the world of music.
In the tangled web of relations that are the foundation of this ranching community, nearly everyone who has been here for more than a generation, claims some connection to the Brubecks. Yes, there were signs of the Brubecks, they said, but you have to look where nothing now is, to the vanished town of Amedee, near Wendel, but you will probably not see any trace of it. There’s a Brubeck Spring out there and a graveyard somewhere with a marker bearing the name of Brubeck’s aunt.
Brubeck’s “Time Out” isn’t the first jazz album I listened to, but, as a child, it’s the first one that made sense. My mother had the recording. She also had Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Leonard Bernstein, albums I also listened to with varying degrees of appreciation. But it was Brubeck who gave me a lifelong love of the smokey sounds of sax and piano. “Take Five” was still relatively new and as a young girl curled up in my parents’ living room, the song conjured up a life in lands I’d never seen. Even then I longed for escape.
The story ran. A few locals called to correct some of my genealogy errors and tell me their relation to the Grass sisters. I moved onto other assignments. But Brubeck refused to go away.
I keep driving out there. It’s even colder now and the ground is often muddy, so I can’t hike everywhere I’d like, but I love the subtle shades of this place. It’s almost like being in a black and white world. So I take my camera and tell myself I come for the light, but maybe there’s some part of me still searching for the strains of jazz in the desert.
Link to Lassen County Time article, Chasing Legends: Dave Brubeck’s Lassen County Roots