Arcata Eye Scene

A-town art, music, theatre. Mostly music. Updated Wednesdays.

Ross Rowley: Set Up and Tear Down – Jan. 9, 2008

New Year’s Eve. The night more amateur partiers pour into bars and clubs than any other time of year, except for maybe, Halloween. After playing music for so many New Year’s Eve parties, the celebrations all kind of blend into one another.

Although, one year stands out most in my memory.

The popular country band I played in was booked for a grand celebration at the Loleta Fireman’s Pavilion. A Eureka club owner planned to rent that facility for our band, while in his downtown club he would have DJs spin tracks for his usual crowd. At the Fireman’s Pavilion, he spared no expense on decorations, had two fully stocked bars in place and hired extra cocktail waitresses to work the room.

This being in the mid-1990s and the height of the Garth Brooks-era of country music, four or five hundred people were expected to show up for a night of merriment. Other country music events held at the Loleta Fireman’s Pavilion earlier that year had proven to be quite successful. The cowboy bachelor auction in June of that year drew over 600 young country people to the place. In September, those young country hunks, the Nashville-groomed Marcy Brothers had drawn nearly the same amount. So, New Year’s Eve surely must have held grand expectations for a large attendance of men in tight Wrangler jeans and their equally tight fitting Rockies jeans-adorned dates.

But, that year, Mother Nature had something altogether different planned for the event. It began raining the week before and just would not let up. The nearby creeks and low lands were all flooded. We had been holding telephone conversations with the club owner all morning. He kept pushing us to play. He had too much invested to call off the evening. And the creeks kept rising. We made plans to take sleeping bags with us in case of Hell or high water.

After much dithering, we decided to caravan down to Loleta during the daytime to set up and prepare for the questionable onslaught of New Year’s Eve celebrants. As we rounded the corner headed south near College of the Redwoods, we saw the Caltrans road signs flashing “Flooded Roadway.” As we crawled past the McBride Ranch (Humboldt Bay Wildlife Refuge), we saw a highway patrol car. And then, we saw trouble. The flooded roadway, from an overflowing Salmon Creek, was keeping cars at bay. As the highway patrol officer turned each car around, we approached with a hopeful look in our eyes. Amazingly, the officer heard our story and let us through. The water was only a few inches deep at that point and with our trucks loaded with band gear, there was no fear of us floating out into the cow fields. Yet, the rain kept coming down.

When we arrived at the dance hall, the bartenders had also arrived early to set up. They too had to ford Salmon Creek like a scene out of the TV show Wagon Train.

After we had set up our gear, we had one of the band members drive out to Hookton Road to see if the situation had become either worse or hopefully, better. His report was not good. Caltrans had closed everything off as the entire highway and field had now flooded from the bottom of Loleta Hill, all across Beatrice and up to CR. One entire lake.

Oh, great… A payphone call was made again to the club owner to see if he had changed his mind, but to no avail. And the rain poured forth.

Nine o’clock started to roll around and we were staring at a barren hall with just the band members, bartenders and cocktail waitresses. Pretty soon, the Fortuna contingent of country fans started arriving. The south end of Highway 101 was still open and a little rain was surely not going to dampen their New Year’s party mood. After all, there was some dancin’ and drinkin’ to be done and that was that.

By our first set break at 9:45 p.m., we amazingly had around 40 or 50 people in the Loleta Fireman’s Pavilion. That seems like a pretty small crowd in a place that holds over four hundred folks, but they were all having a good time and we knew the night would not end early.

Standing around on the porch, we noted the sound of a convoy of four wheel drive pickups coming down Loleta Drive.

There must have been eight to 10 trucks, each loaded with cowboys and cowgirls blasting their Alan Jackson CDs and looking for fun. We recognized some of the trucks as belonging to our Blue Lake and McKinleyville fans.

As they pulled up to the hall and ran for the cover of the building, we were flabbergasted as to how they made it down to Loleta since the highway patrol had closed Highway 101 at Hookton Road due to the flooding. Seeing the blockade, one of the cowboys got a wild hair and said “Boys, we’re going up over Tompkins Hill.” A creek spilling over its banks doesn’t stop country music fans in 4×4’s from getting to the party. The all caravaned around to Tompkins Hill Road to find the county road department had closed the road. They just ignored the signs and each of them plowed through the high water, made it over the top to the southern entrance to Loleta.

As depicted in country video after country video, fans of country music revel in getting out of a tough situations using their rigs. Whether it’s mudboggin’, tractor pullin’ or off-roadin’, country music fans know how to “git-er-done.” (Don’t mind my use of the colloquial exclamation borrowed from the Redneck Hickus clan)  Laugh and scoff and scorn all you like, but at the time, we were glad to see them. We got to talking further and they promised to haul us out of Loleta when the night was over, if we liked.

The night was slow due to the horrible rainstorm and flooding, the partiers still had fun. As we sang “Auld Lang Syne” and continued thorough until 1 a.m., we received notes the storm had subsided at around 11 p.m. and by 2 a.m., the CHP were letting one lane of traffic through. The club owner took a terrible loss on the night, but still paid us our fee.

If you followed country music in the mid 1990s, you know of the Garth Brooks anthem, “Friends In Low Places.” That night, as we all bellowed the chorus, revelers and band alike, I felt a stronger kinship to that particular crowd.

Because, I knew if it had come to Hell and high water, these cowboys and cowgirls would have figured a way to bail us out. To quote the lyrics:

“…I’m not big on social graces, think I’ll slip on down to the oasis, Oh, I’ve got friends in low places.”

That night, it was so true.

Ross Rowley’s stories appear most weeks in the Eye

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