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Toxic Town USA - Part One

Updated: Jun 5, 2018


Growing up, I lived in several places from small towns of meager populations to a sprawling city of more than four million people. A central core element of each one is their toxicity. Size wasn't a limiting factor in toxicity level. A small town can be just as toxic as a large metropolis. Poisons abound in any region of condensed population, both physically and societally. It's bad enough that humanity habitually saturates its living spaces and essential resources with deadly agents of countless kinds, we also saturate our collective society with innumerable toxic behaviors gleefully directed at one another.

At the turn of the century I began working on a documentary project which at first seemed to be a good-hearted, happy-ending story about a married couple's long struggles to achieve self-employment nirvana in a tiny rural town doing something they loved doing together. I had become acquainted with this couple before their goal was realized and enjoyed visiting with them whenever I could. They had both led interesting lives before meeting each other in the mid 1980s–one as a performing road musician, the other living the communal life of a consummate California flower child. Working together, they tried many different ways to make a living including opening a health food store, a pair of antiques shops and a music shop specializing in Martin Guitars, but all of their various independent business ventures failed to provide enough income to sustain them. Locals just never seemed to need or want to conduct business in their establishments and travelers zooming east and west on the interstate highway showed no interest in taking the exit into town to come shop in their stores either. They were living hand-to-mouth, eating cheap food, wearing old clothes and rarely going beyond the limits of the little town they lived and worked in to do anything else.

A few years after we all met for the first time, I stopped in for a visit with them on my way north and west to begin working for a hot new dot-com company in Colorado. They told me about how a helicopter had recently landed in town carrying TV news reporters who emerged and interviewed them about what they were now doing together, had put their story on air and how tour groups of people from foreign countries traveling along old Route 66 between Chicago and Santa Monica were now flocking into town just to come see them on a regular basis. They had finally found their niche and it was providing income they could actually live on.

Then they put on a short show to demonstrate what they were up to and it blew me away. They had been working together steadily and fervently to develop a musical performance set and were calling themselves The Mediocre Music Makers presenting their show for people from countries around the globe traveling along Route 66 and now eagerly stopping in at their little shop for a taste of old-fashioned Americana mixed with a bit of "redneck" silliness. They were all over the internet on travel blogs and on a new thing called YouTube. Googling their names yielded hundreds of thousands of search results specifically about them, their show and their Sandhills Curiosity Shop where nothing was for sale, not even themselves where visitors could come see "Rednecks work and play in their own environment". They were now earning a good living on tips alone, seemed happier than ever to be working together at it and appeared to be thriving. I was flabbergasted, to say the least, and intrigued.

After working at the hot new dot-com company for eight months, it went bust and began shutting down. I was laid off and suddenly found myself facing unemployment fifteen years into my career life as a professional. While making ends meet performing as a solo singer/songwriter along the Front Range and westward a little deeper into the Rockies during spring and summer of the new century, I searched for a new job in my field of professional expertise and wondered what the hell was I going to do next.

From somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind, an idea began forming to make a documentary about Harley and Annabelle. I floated the idea with them after they had performed for me on their patch of arid mesa land above Villanueva and they seemed eager to cooperate in any way they could.

I eventually landed a new job working for a state agency and did that for a few years as I prepared to start my own business and begin plans for making the documentary. During those years of formulating thought, a dark side of the story of The Mediocre Music Makers was emerging. The inevitable toxicity of the small town they lived and worked in had begun pressing incessantly and perniciously in on their success. Societal forces were making moves to push them and their burgeoning little Route 66 tourist-attracting business out of the way so something else deemed bigger, better and brighter could take its place.

Harley and Annabelle were now under siege by those forces, fighting for survival.

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