~ In Memory of Ralph Conkey - High Country Hunter & Wilderness Guide Extraordinaire ~
A couple of decades ago I trekked into the Wimenuche Wilderness from the southern end of the Rio Grande Reservoir in Colorado to see, touch and drink from the headwaters of the Rio Grande. I had rafted and canoed the river at several different places in the lowlands, including a stretch along the US-Mexico border at Big Bend National Park between Daniel's Ranch and Boquillas Crossing. Someone was shooting at people floating the Rio Grande down in the canyons beyond the crossing back then, so I went no further. There were also warnings about toxicity level of the water in the river there, so I tried my best to minimize contact with it. Now I wanted to see where it began–clean, clear and cold from rain and snowmelt dripping on stone high in the Rockies.
Ralph Conkey, friendly and highly experienced hunter, wilderness guide and manager of the Rio Grande Reservoir at the time, set me up with a young guide, Jason (who was all of thirteen years old) a couple of horses and a mule to carry me and my gear into the wilderness area as remaining daylight and as weather permitted before Jason had to drop me off and head back down to Ralph's place.
Upon meeting Ralph, he invited me into his house for a cup of coffee and conversation. I think he wanted to make sure he wasn't about to leave an inexperienced idiot high in the wilderness to die a few days later. We talked for about an hour about this and that, where I had solo hiked before in the Wimenuche and where I wanted to go into it now. Apparently satisfied I wasn't too stupid to get myself killed up there and with daylight burning, he helped Jason get the mounts saddled, pack mule loaded and off we went.
As we road up trail #818 from Ralph's, Jason described his experiences working with Ralph from day one when he set him loose out in a valley meadow one early summer morning with nothing but a canteen and a rope to chase down horses and mules, to present time serving as my guide. I forget where Jason said he was from (someplace in Mississippi, I think) but I do remember him telling me he had never been on a horse before going to work for Ralph. That impressed me because Jason, as young as he was, was a competent horseman and guide. He pointed out geological features as we road around the Rio Grande Pyramid and past various places like The Window.
Just as Jason and I reached a spot on a western-facing slope between Rincon La Vaca and Rincon La Osa, afternoon thunderstorms gathering to the west suddenly forced us to stop and unload as quickly as possible. I immediately set to work putting up my little backpacker's tent while Jason prepared to leave, hoping to get away before the storm hit, but was too late. I had the tent set up just as it started pouring, fat bolts of lightning striking the slopes all around us, so after securing the horses and mule nearby, he dove into the tent with me and we sat on the sleeping pad to insulate us from the ground in case lightning struck close by. He was soaked and shivering so I wrapped my sleeping bag around him and we sat wide-eyed watching the storm rage on outside. There were several lightning strikes within a few hundred feet of us but luckily none hit close enough to zap us or the mounts and pack mule. The storm passed within thirty minutes and Jason quickly set off back downslope to Ralphs. It was late in the afternoon and I worried about him making it back before dark. He was carrying nothing but a canteen. I offered to let him camp overnight with me but he declined, saying Ralph was expecting him back that evening.
I settled down and cooked supper before taking a short hike to get an idea of my surroundings and a path to take in the morning. I decided I would hike over the ridge and down into Rincon La Osa to set camp for extended exploration of that canyon. I was sore from the long ride up but slept soundly after taking an aspirin with a hot cup of camomile tea. At sunrise I packed up and hiked over the ridge to a little unnamed cirque, set camp at a respectable distance from its crystal clear waters and immediately began exploration. At one point that first day alone there, I decided to hike up to a nearby peak to get a look at the Rio Grande Pyramid and other features. I made it up to the peak okay, but on the way back to camp I took a different route down that led to a faint game trail across a rockslide consisting of fractured stones no larger than a football. It looked pretty jinky and I was leery of crossing the slide, so I sat beside it for a long time pondering my situation. I was getting pretty tired from the long hike up to the peak and did not see any easy way around it, up or downhill, so I got up and began easing across it. Everything was going well until I was about three quarters of the way across when I felt a strange movement beneath my feet and the rocky slope began to slide.
"Holy shit!" I thought as I accelerated to cover the remaining distance to the far side of the rockslide–about twenty yards, well within sight but desperately far away as my situation rapidly deteriorated–"I'm going to die on day one and make Ralph wish he had never agreed to have Jason haul my stupid ass up here".
Somehow moving at a dash, stepping on stones not yet in motion with superhuman grace and agility fueled by adrenaline, I managed to get within a few feet of the edge before leaping as hard as I could to long jump and land on stable, grassy ground at its edge. Gasping thin air, I rolled and scrambled further away from the slide before turning to watch it slowly stop moving. Still breathing hard, I drew in and expelled a long, loud, very deep sigh of relief, then sat there for a long time thinking of what had just happened and marveling at my stupidity and luck–as I have many times before and since.
Returning to camp at the unnamed cirque just before sunset, exhausted but extremely happy to be alive, I savored a dinner of freeze-dried chili cooked on a trusty little diesel-fueled backpacker stove followed by freeze dried strawberries eaten straight from the bag for desert as I watched a tiny, black, short-tailed vole swim along the edges of the cirque's rocky shoreline. As night wrapped us in darkness and stars appeared overhead, I hoped Jason had made it safely back to Ralph's again, all too aware of just how damn dangerous the Rocky Mountains could be to solo travelers.
The remainder of my time in Rincon La Osa was enjoyable and incident free, and I eventually returned to that area a few years later with intentions of stopping by to visit with Ralph Conkey. An acquaintance in Creede informed me that Ralph had been recently injured pretty badly when one of his mules had kicked him (in the head, if I recall correctly) and was not able to visit with anyone.
About a decade later while living in a small casita in Cerrillos, New Mexico, I thought of that high county trek and of Ralph and began composing a 5-string banjo instrumental to commemorate the memory of that journey, to memory of Ralph, and of surviving the rockslide crossing. Titling the piece "Loose Rock", its an attempt to tell the tale of surviving the rockslide crossing musically with each passage and phrase describing it all. Now I've decided to create a tutorial for playing the piece in this blog.
So if you decide to learn this tune, you can imagine a reckless backpacker scrambling across scree all alone in the wilderness, wondering if he would live to tell about it. The tutorial will guide learners through phrases of the tune which correlate to each stage of the actual experience of crossing the rockslide. And if you enjoy playing the tune after learning it, let your notes ring out true and clear in memory of Ralph Conkey–high country hunter and wilderness guide extraordinaire.
So here we go!
A lot of 5-string banjo players use fingerpicks on their plucking hand and do a great job with them (e.g. Bela Fleck). I never could. I just grow the fingernails of my right hand out a little bit for playing this tune, file them with a sapphire file, and sand them to glassy smoothness with ultra-fine grit sandpaper. I like the control and tone I can get this way better than I can using fingerpicks. I don't grow them very long or they tend to break too easily. For this tune, you will use the thumb and first three fingers. The little finger sits out. I keep the nail on my little finger long for playing fingerstyle guitar and for maintenance of interior nose space, but it serves only to steady my right hand by placing it on the head of the banjo as I'm playing three-finger style.
On my fretting (left) hand––the one zipping up and down the fretboard pressing, hammering, sliding, and pulling off strings behind frets––I keep all of the nails short to prevent accidental snagging of adjacent strings, even the little one. I rarely use my left hand for nose maintenance.
This is the tuning I use for this piece:
1st String: D 2nd String: B♭ (low B flat) 3rd String: G 4th String: D
5th String: B♭ (high B flat)
NOTE: The 5th string (adjusted by the peg at the fifth fret on the neck) is tuned to the same pitch obtained when fretting the first string at the eighth fret. Be careful tuning the fifth string up to this pitch or you'll break the string. I've done it a few times!
The Chords of LOOSE ROCK
This tune consists of five chords: G min, E♭, C maj, D maj, and C min played in various orders. Don't worry about what order they are played in right now. Just learn to fret and strum and pluck at them in different ways for starters until you are comfortable getting to each one smoothly so that they sound clearly when played. Practice playing them in all kinds of different order which sound good to your ears.
BANJO PLAYING TIP #1
As you learn to hold and play these chords keep one major thing in mind: keep your touch light!
Many new students of the banjo tend to press down far too forcefully on the strings to hold a chord or note and also pluck the strings far too forcefully to play the chords or notes. So keep it light and you will naturally begin to feel your bluegrass banjo playing finesse emerge and improve as you partner with the banjo instead of trying to be its dictator.
COMING UP SOON
Over the next few days or weeks or however long it takes to make them, I will be adding YouTube videos to this page for the next parts of this tutorial with each video detailing how to play a phrase of the tune correlating to a phase of the experience which inspired it. There will be seven videos, one for each of the seven musically descriptive phrases of the tune:
Phrase One: Blithely walking through the forest without a care in the world.
Phase Two: Coming upon the scree field, sizing it up, and checking out options to go around it.
Phrase Three: Carefully starting across the scree field.
Phrase Four: Picking up a little speed moving across the scree as overconfidence sets in.
Phrase Five: Realizing the scree is moving beneath my feet.
Phrase Six: The all out, mad-man dash across the last part of the scree field, the final leap, and the roll and scramble on all fours to safe ground on the other side.
Phrase Seven: Breathing a huge sigh of relief at having survived yet another close call. Have fun!
PART I: Phrase One - Walking Through the Forest
For each musical phrase of the tune, tablature will be provided showing fretting patterns and plucking finger sequences as described in the image below:
Here is tablature for the first phrase of the tune. It is 8 measures (also called bars) long:
Notice the suggestion to play these first 8 bars with feeling by imagining yourself hiking at a leisurely pace through forested land. You do not necessarily have to play to the beat of a metronome here. Feel free to be as expressive as you want to.
VIDEO (coming soon)
PART II: Phrase Two - Coming Upon the Scree Field
So far you've learned the core set of chords involved in playing this tune. Tths part gets into playing the first melodic phrase. Each pair of bars in the tab below represents discovery, looking across the scree field, looking up slope to see how far it is around it that way, looking down slope to see how far that way, then across the scree and deciding to just cross the damned thing to save time and energy.
Put feeling into this phrase just as you did the first phrase except instead of expressing complete bliss of a morning hike through the forest, add a little angst over the prospect of either going around the scree field or crossing it.
PLAYING HINT: Notice that for every pair of bars for the first six bars, the first 12 notes of each pair of bars are exactly the same each time. Exactly the same.