My final fond memory of the 2009-10 hockey season: being seated in Bar Louie, hard by Verizon Center, and taking in the optimism-infusing action of Caps-Habs game 4 with my pal Stephen Pepper, the maestro of Japers’ Rink radio. The beer tasted especially sweet that night. Pepper, a transplanted New Yorker, was in D.C. on business then, and deep in the night over victory suds he and I discussed schedules that would return him to D.C. on weekends for home playoff games, deep in spring, of course. I couldn’t wait to watch more playoff puck with my pal Pepper.
Tomorrow, as with most other Saturday mornings, I’ll spend an hour listening to Pepper’s engaging take on Caps’ hockey on Internet radio, but I’ll be a bit detached, a bit distracted, from the proceedings. I’ll be thinking especially about my New York chum wrapping up his program and hastily hopping on a plane bound for Denver, where later in the day he’ll meet me for five days R&R&R (rest, relaxation, and Rush concerts), in pursuit of snow and song in the Rocky Mountains.
We’re calling it our healing journey.
In addition to sharing a passion for pucks and stress-relieving spirits Pepper and I are rockers. Indie, prog-rock, classic rock, we just dig jamming. Above all, though, we are long-time portraits of air-drumming exuberance and embarrassment (particularly in our elder years): we are Rushies. A little before the Montreal series Pepper and I learned of Rush performing a late-summer gig at Red Rocks, which is simply planet Earth’s greatest music venue. I first saw Rush at Red Rocks in the summer of 2007, and afterward I vowed never to miss another of the band’s performances there.
It was a formative experience: ominous lightning strikes pelted the expansive view of the Plains in plain view beyond the amphitheater, while swirling winds billowing through long Lee locks cast a working man’s hard labor look on the band’s frontman, broadcast in high drama on side-stage high-def screens. Nature that night seemed to be trying to match the electrical and sonic bombast of rock’s most accomplished power trio. I became acutely aware of being witness to a performance that could not be replicated anywhere else.
Our pilgrimage will afford Pepper not only his first-ever visit to Red Rocks but to Colorado itself, and not long after checking into our digs we’ll point our rental car toward Rocky Mountain National Park and the 12,000-plus feet of elevation there that could deliver us to a much-needed immersion in mountaintop snowpacks. When I visited the park three summers back in late June I arrived upon 10-foot snowdrifts that actually halted car traffic until massive plows could clear the roads. The largest truck tires I’ve ever seen — two tall people tall — guide snow removal vehicles high up in the Rocky Mountains, and those drivers I think have some of the most frightening work imaginable: in whiteout conditions, in autumn and winter, remaining on meagerly defined, wildly weaving roads carved narrowly into the mountains, with certain death the outcome of error-turns at thousand-foot precipices.
I was lucky to score to score two quality seats to Rush’s Monday night gig at Red Rocks, and the show sold out so quickly that the band scheduled a second show for Wednesday night. I knew what I had to do next — text Pepper:
Instead of a long weekend in Colorado, how about a full-on Rocky Mountain sonic high of nearly a week?
Added (though unnecessary) incentive: Rush, on what it was calling its Time Machine Tour this summer, would be playing the entirety of its seminal ‘Moving Pictures’ album of 1981, from start to finish. That meant we’d be beholding the symphonic, 11-minute ode to New York and London residents, ‘The Camera Eye,’ a track Rush hasn’t played live since 1983. Late April text to Pepper:
‘The Camera Eye’ in humidity-free, perhaps even sweatshirt conditions in the venue God Himself wants to hear music, with Colorado microbrews in hand . . . and twice! . . . You may not return home to Mrs. Pepper.
A brief word addressed to Mrs. Pepper, a relative newlywed, sending off this weekend, with her blessings, her husband across the country to attend rock concerts and recreate in my company: you rock.
Selling Pepper on sticking around for a second Rush show at Red Rocks was like moving snowcones to children in searing heat at the National Zoo this summer. Now we had seriously special travel plans.
In early May Pepper and I were in the throes of something approaching an existential crisis over the Caps’ first-round flameout, but in a virtual instant we had a sonic salve by which to heal. Soon thereafter there was the release of, for people like Pepper and me, the highly anticipated documentary about the band, ‘Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage.’ Pepper got to attend its U.S. debut at the Tribeca Film Festival not far from his Big Apple home. I swore him to reviewer silence until I got to see the film, which of course he honored.
There is something magically magnificent about having a novel destination event etched into distant summer about which two buddies can incessantly email and text their rapture all summer long. This Pepper and I did. We did it on commuting trains to and from work, during lunch breaks, on bar stools, deep into weekend evenings when excessive wine led us to neighbor-complaining loud playings of ‘Caress of Steel.’ In our middle age we became young again by virtue of this scheme, articulating in our messaging a passion for the band of our lives just as if we were freshman college roommates who’d arrived at our dorm room one August both bearing ’2112′ posters.
There’s an obvious and defining indulgence to such a pilgrimage by two pals, and as its arrival dawns I’m growing nostalgic about the weight of its meaning as it has come to define my summer. In the midst of expressing our mutual exhilaration related to this cross-country, once-in-a-lifetime venture, Pepper and I related to one another, virtually daily, milestone moments we’d accumulated over the years associated with Rush’s music. Not just ’80s concert fun but the emotional weight of individual songs we’d carried with us over decades. Some songs necessarily delivered reminiscences of girls of other eras. Stop playing that band, they’d invariably say, (for women hate Rush) and so like all other male Rushies we’d stop seeing them.
This iconic Canadian band has grown quite old, while remaining remarkably relevant, and Pepper and I have grown old with them. This, too, we will celebrate together for much of the next week.
We’ve filled out our trip’s agenda to include a day of white water rafting (a first experience for us both) and some Colorado brew touring. We’re also making a stop at the literature-famed Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for Stephen King’s ‘The Shining,’ for a haunted dinner one night.
And need I say it: as Washington (and New York’s) summer quickly morphed into a cauldron of unrelenting Africa heat our Rocky Mountain destination’s skin-soothing climate offered salvation appeal. Pepper and I are packing sweatshirts for the Rush shows, as we are forecast to see temps in the 50s at night.
Pepper back at April’s game 4 was a first-order chum, a terrific beer and blogging buddy, but tomorrow I’ll await his arrival at the Denver Airport as my new-found soulmate in song and great friend. I can’t wait to see his arrival smile at the gate and buy him his first Colorado vacation beer. Thank you, hockey, for introducing us.