Category Archives: Road Trips

Merri’s out-of- town calling gigs and other jaunts.

Iceland 2023, aka Puffin Paradise!

Atlantic Puffin, Photos by Merri Rudd, unless otherwise noted

During the fall of 2022 an email arrived in my inbox stating that our longtime friend Dave Mehlman had been named “tour guide of the year” for Naturalist Journeys, a small company that specializes in nature tours around the world. “Hmmm,” I said to Mark, “I wonder what other tours Dave is leading?” Iceland in June 2023 was one of Dave’s upcoming trips. In the past Dave had taken his friends, including us, to Ecuador, Guatemala and Peru, but we had never been on a tour with strangers.

I emailed the Iceland trip link to Susan, my best friend of 50 years, and Paul, her husband, in Tallahassee and said, “Iceland, anyone?” A few days later Susan replied, “We’re in!” Susan, Paul, Mark and I had planned our own trip to Belize in 2013. Then Susan and I celebrated our 60th birthdays with a group that went to Costa Rica. Now we looked forward to a new adventure.

Mer and Susan, Nashville TN, circa 1970s, unknown photographer
Susan and Mer, Gullfoss Falls, Iceland June 2023, photo by ??

Next I sent the Iceland link to John Stewart, Mark’s friend of 60 years who lives in London, England. John’s wife Meg could not go, but John wanted to. I had hoped to fill the entire 10-person tour with our friends, but I wrote Naturalist Journeys and asked if I could proceed with recruiting more travelers. They wrote back, “Merri, please stop, we’re now full.” Oh, well, at least we created a buffer of our besties for the tour.

During the next six months, we bought airline tickets (Icelandair flies nonstop to Keflavik, Iceland from Denver, Seattle, JFK, Chicago and other cities), planned a few extra days ahead of the tour, did research, watched videos about Iceland, and bought some recommended items of clothing. Mark and John decided to stay four days after the tour ended, rent a Jeep and head east toward waterfalls, glaciers, rivers and parks that we would not visit on our tour. Mark reserved two nights at 1×6 Guesthouse in Keflavik, which they loved, and two nights at Holiday Houses near Vik, which they did not love. Mark, Dave, and I planned two nights in Reykjavik at the Hotel Reykjavik Centrum, which was a delightful small hotel close to birding areas, museums, restaurants, pubs, and the harbor.

Mark and I left our little dog with our trusty housesitter Brie and headed to Denver on June 10. We had a four-hour layover, then an eight-hour nonstop flight from Denver to Reykjavik. In the airport, we kept seeing a guy walk by. I said to Mark, “That looks like Gary King (son of our former NM Governor and former Attorney General himself). What are the odds?” Naaaa, it couldn’t be. We boarded the plane and seated behind us were the guy and his wife. “Excuse me,” Mark said, “are you Gary King?” “Why, yes, I am…” What are the odds?! Pretty good, I guess. Such a typical small world New Mexico story. I greeted Gary and Yolanda (we knew each other from campaign trails long ago and Gary was our friend Mary Smith’s boss for years), texted Mary a photo, then settled in for an eight-hour flight.

Photo by Susan Robinson

We arrived at 6am Reykjavik time, midnight our time. Dave’s flight arrived an hour later, so we entered the country, claimed our luggage, withdrew some Krona, the unique currency of Iceland, (we needn’t have done that; American dollars, Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted in Iceland) from the ATM and settled in to wait for Dave. Dave got to us about 7:30am and we boarded our Flybus to the BSI Terminal, a 40-minute ride. There we caught a local shuttle for a short trip to City Hall, Bus Stop 1, about a block from Hotel Reykjavik Centrum, our home for the next two nights. The hotel staff was awesome and let us check in early for a $35 fee. We didn’t want to sleep until that night, so we deposited our luggage in our rooms and met in the lobby to take a walk.

City Hall near Tjörnin

A block away was Tjörnin, a series of three or four ponds with lots of waterfowl and songbirds in the nearby copse. During the first hour, we saw eight life birds (never before seen by us), so we were happy. Unlike Central and South America, which host thousands of bird species, Iceland has only 90 or so regular bird species. Our Iceland Ebird Trip Report contains 78 species, 58 of which were lifers for me. Click on the link to view species with our photos.

Reykjavik & Tjörnin

Reykjavik is beautiful and very walkable. We walked everywhere–to morning coffee, to various restaurants, to the harbor, to museums, to the murals we admired.

30 Feet High at Least!

I texted our former neighbor Deirdre a photo of this mural and she texted back, “I follow that artist on Instagram!” (Yes! T-Mobile works in Iceland at no additional charge for unlimited data and texts, at least, on our Magenta plan.) And WiFi in Iceland is underground fiber optics. Speeds there were ten times as fast as our plan with CenturyLink. America could learn a thing or two from Icelanders.

Yummy Fish & Chips

We ate lunch at Mandi’s Middle Eastern restaurant, which was delicious. Then Dave and I napped while Mark blogged. Later we walked to the harbor, saw people clad in swishing nylon coveralls going out in small whale-watching boats, watched numerous families of common eiders with their newly hatched chicks, and got fish and chips at a food truck on the wharf. We ate our delectable meal outdoors even though it was a bit chilly. Then we stopped at Slippbarinn, a pub along the harbor. Although it is light 24/7 in Iceland during June, Mark and I had these Soft Sleep Masks. We were in bed by 8:30pm and slept for thirteen hours.

The next morning we had great coffee (cappuccino with a foam bear!) and pastries at IDA Bokakaffi, Vesturgata 2a, Grófin 101, Reykjavík, a charming shop that is also a bookstore.

Beautiful & Delicious!

Then I revisited Tjörnin and explored Cemetery Holavallagardur, established in 1838, a block from the hotel. “Remember me as you walk by, for as you are, so once was I. And as I am, so you shall be. Prepare yourself to follow me.” If ever there were a cemetery to do justice to this poem, it’s this one, a mystical, tree-filled, moss-covered eternal sanctuary with many old headstones and lots of flowers. The cemetery also hosted dozens of birds and their newly fledged young, like this redwing:

Redwing Parent & Spawn

Susan and Paul arrived at the hotel in time for lunch; John was due later that afternoon. All six of us stayed at the Centrum.

Dave awaits his stew

We walked to Arctic Street Food for loaves of brown bread hollowed out and filled with lamb stew or seafood stew. A few had Icelandic beer with lunch. A self-described “ginger boy” with red hair and blue eyes served us and was very excited to discover some of us lived in New Mexico. He had lived in Arizona with his family for a while, but returned to Iceland.

Nature Rocks!

We all walked to the Maritime Museum, which Paul and Dave visited. On the way Mark, Dave and I showed our favorite street murals. Then Susan and I went to the Reykjavik  Art Museum while Mark went back to Centrum to journal and wait for John. When John arrived, we all walked back to Slippbarinn for dinner and beers. Afterwards we got gelato near the Centrum and toured the cemetery.

Cemetery Holavallagardur

Since Susan and Paul were very tired, we had an early night and reconvened the next day to repeat our coffee/pastry breakfast. We were to meet the rest of our tour group with Daniel Bergmann, our local Icelandic guide and renowned photographer/birder. Someone’s late flight delayed our start, so I took a few folks to Tjörnin.

Candice and Tim from Denver arrived at City Hall, Bus Stop 1, where we were meeting Daniel. On board the van were Daphne from Arizona, Sandy and Tim from Chicago, and Peter and Brenda from Spokane. We headed out of Reykjavik to our first bird stop, Bakkatjörn. Scopes emerged, bird views and “oohs” and “aahs” commenced. We stopped for lunch and landed at Staðarsveit–Ytritunga, complete with shorebirds and harbor seals.

Harbor Seals Sunning

On to Kast Guesthouse located in the quiet countryside of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. This was home for the next three nights. Our group occupied most of a new wing at one end. Dinner was fish or lamb, soup and vegetarian options. Breakfast was delicious with the best homemade brown seeded bread I’ve ever eaten, a variety of cold cuts, Skyr yogurt, cereal, hard-boiled eggs and other goodies. Plenty of coffee and tea was provided. You can ask for sack lunches.

Whale Watching
Dave & Mark at Sea
Ducky at Sea

The next morning we loaded ourselves and day gear onto the van for a drive to Ólafsvík for a whale-watching boat trip with Láki Tours.  One never knows if one will see any whales, but it was worth the risk. We rode a big boat with lots of other tourists besides our group. We all dressed in polypropylene (or some rubbery material) coveralls, which were bulky but helped keep us warm. Presumably we would have floated a while if the ship had capsized (it did not). Orca, humpback, sperm and minke whales were possible in the sea. We saw our first puffin floating on the waves, northern gannets, various gulls, kittiwakes, and murres.

Sperm Whale
Sperm Whale Spout
Sperm Whale Tail

Suddenly the crew spotted the spout of a sperm whale fairly close to our boat. The boat turned sideways and cut its engines. We watched as the whale swam, blew water from its spout, and ultimately dived down into the ocean, its tail flashing farewell. It was so beautiful that I cried and I looked for Susan, who was crying and looking for me. (We also cried when a resplendent quetzal burst from the Monte Verde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica near us.) Sometimes nature’s beauty overwhelms us. We observed three more sperm whales and after about four hours, returned toward the dock. The crew gave a short lecture about different types of whales, their feeding habits, and why we should boycott restaurants that serve whale. Hunting has decimated whale populations.

Nesting Razorbills (Brünnich’s guillemots to Europeans)
Murre Cliffs
Arctic Fox on Tundra, photo by Mark Justice Hinton
Nesting Common Murres (Common Guillemots to Europeans)

After lunch we visited Svörtuloft,  cliffs filled with nests of northern fulmars, black-legged kittiwakes, common and thick-billed murres (John, I mean “guillemots”!), and razorbills (aka Brünnich’s guillemots to Europeans).  We studied the different marks on bills, observed the social structure, then  drove through the western region of Snæfellsjökull National Park to return to Kast Guesthouse for dinner. At one point we stopped to watch an Arctic fox wend its way across the mossy rocks on the tundra.

Dinner at Kast Guesthouse

The following day the van departed at 8:30am to tour other parts of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, including Hraunsfjörður, home to several nesting European golden-plovers. Here my disaster occurred when the van door was shut before I was completely seated, jamming my Canon PowerShot SX50HS camera between the door and my hip.

My camera was unusable early on day three of the tour. While I was in shock, Mark walked up with a Canon PowerShot SX70HS camera belonging to John. John, ever the chivalrous one, said he was too burdened switching among the camera, scope and binocs; that I had helped him choose this camera; that I was the better photographer; and that I should use his camera until I left Iceland. I wept with relief and gratitude. Later our group ate a picnic  lunch in a woodland with Icelandic horses grazing nearby.

Icelandic Horse & Foal

We then visited  Daniel’s hometown of Stykkishólmur, Vesturland, where the Norwegian House had an exhibit of Daniel’s phenomenal photographs. He gave me permission to photograph one of his photos and his accompanying book about gyrfalcons shown in the museum.

Daniel’s Photo Exhibit & Book
Daniel: saving the environment one golf ball at a time

Daniel is mostly quiet, humble and funny as hell, but he is also an amazing photographer, birder and conservationist. Having a local guide on our tour was a real plus. Daniel knows every cliff, every pond, every bush where a bird, rare or otherwise, might be lurking. It’s because of him that we were in the presence of 78 species, not all of which everyone saw. He also brings a library of books about wildflowers, geology, geysers and other Icelandic treasures in case people have questions or want to learn more. He kept us away from the massive busses and tourist sights and showed gems of his country we would not have known about without him.

Lighthouse Súgandisey

Later most of us walked up, up, up a hill to the Lighthouse Súgandisey with a vast view of cruise ships, ocean, and cliffs. We searched for a white-tailed eagle, which is so scarce, we cannot share locations or other details. On the way home, Daniel got a report that a rare king eider had been spotted where we had seen the harbor seals. It was just across the lake from Kast Guesthouse, so right on the way home. Daniel spotted it immediately, and Mark and a few others actually got a photo with its head raised rather than tucked into its back. Wow!!!

Rare King Eider, photo by Mark Justice Hinton

We stopped at one more pond with a rare common pochard on the way home when Paul, a nonbirder, asked, “Daniel, are you SURE there isn’t another place to stop between here and Kast to look for birds?” The entire vanful of people erupted into laughter. To the Kast Guesthouse we went (without more stops), tired but happy to be home, eat dinner and go to sleep.

European golden-plover
Kolugljúfur Falls

We bid  “bless” to Kast Guesthouse (but not before I took a walk through the farmland and spotted some European golden-plovers in the mist). We headed out in the rainy fog toward Akureyri in the far north of Iceland, stopping at a cascading waterfall on the way. Candice noticed a crashed drone at the bottom of the cliff below the falls. Sometimes karma IS a bitch. We arrived at the Lamb Inn in Akureyri mid-afternoon.  Most of us joined Daniel for a woodsy walk at Kjarnaskógur, a short distance away.

At dinner Johannes, the proprietor/owner of the Lamb Inn, welcomed us at dinner, then left to sing with his choir. He first performed for us a cappella an old folk song in Icelandic. Dinner was delicious and Luna, the main staff person, was a whirlwind–keeping service flowing and problem-solving along the way. Food is locally sourced, and the ice cream was some of the best I’ve ever tasted.

Lamb Inn Breakfast Spread

Breakfast was quite the spread; only half of it fit into one photo. The van left at 8:30am to explore the northern coast of Iceland.  Daniel searched the cliffs for rare gyrfalcons, the national bird of Iceland. We observed one from afar.

John from London, England

We stopped at Vestmannsvatn, the only known location of an Arctic loon that has returned there for five seasons. Another pond in the Lake Mývatn Kálfaströnd region revealed barrow‘s goldeneyes, Eurasian green-winged teal, whimbrels and other birds. Here’s John, my camera hero, striding between the lakes.  We spent a lot of time in this area, ending at Laxá í Mývatnssveit, a rushing creek featuring harlequin ducks at close range, long-tailed ducks, wagtails, and barrow’s goldeneyes.

Eventually we headed back toward the Lamb Inn for dinner, stopping for a short visit to Goðafoss,  ‘Waterfall of the Gods’ (or Chieftain) between Akureyri and Lake Mývatn. Iceland’s energy comes from hydroelectric and geothermal plants. For a desert dweller, seeing so much water was a bit daunting. Ultimately, the power and thunder of the water truly astounded me. This was our first stop full of other tourists, but it was worth the crowds.

Rainbow below Goðafoss
Lamb at Lamb Inn

After breakfast and a stroll around the Lamb Inn (aptly named and a working farm, I believe), we headed to a pond at a hydroelectric plant, then to Daufhylur with dozens of barrow’s goldeneyes, and on to Kaldbakstjarnir, where a rare Eurasian coot dwelt. As Daniel was driving toward a lunch  spot, he saw a pullout on the side of the road. He said, “Let’s stop here. There may be a puffin or two on the cliffs.” We jumped out of the van and saw thousands of puffins and other seabirds. Way to undersell it, Daniel! Puffins were everywhere, in groups, alone, flying, floating on the sea. They seemed to be very social and gentle creatures. We sat at the edge of the cliffs, enthralled, for a half hour, then off we drove to lunch.

Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður NP, Pond is Below Cliffs
Barrow’s Goldeneye Display

On to Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður National Park –Ásbyrgi–we went, where we observed a barrow’s goldeneye displaying in a pond, literally kicking up his heels. Red-necked phalaropes and a Eurasian wren also gave us close-up views. We ended in Kópasker, on the edge of the ocean, with black sand beaches.

Kópasker Black Sand Beach

Finally, we headed off to the Sel Hótel Mývatn for an elegant dinner, buffet or a la carte. Near the hotel a gyrfalcon perched on a rock right beside the road. I took two shots through the UV-darkened van window before a white wagtail dive-bombed the gyrfalcon and both flew off. What a startlingly sublime gift from the universe! Since we were arriving back at the Lamb Inn late, we hoped to see a short-eared owl but did not.

It was never dark while we were in Iceland, except for one five-mile tunnel, so I don’t know how the birds and other critters know when to eat or sleep. Even when the sun sets at midnight and rises at 2am,  it’s twilight but not dark, which can be disconcerting. In winter the sun rises around 11am  and sets around 4pm. However, due to the darkness, one can observe the northern lights during the winter months. Even if the northern lights were visible in the summer, one couldn’t see them due to the endless light.

Nighttime at Lamb Inn
Steaming Fumarole

We departed from the Lamb Inn around 9am, admired some long-tailed ducks in the lake, then drove east to F35 south. The rest of the day we were “off road” on gravel with wide views of glaciers, tundra, geothermal wonders, and lava. We stopped at Hveravellir for lunch and a beautiful view of snow buntings, but we did not soak in the adjacent geothermal fumaroles . A boardwalk led us past burbling, steaming water and baby geysers. Hveravellir is an active volcanic area in the highlands of Iceland. As we continued south, we viewed two giant glaciers,  Hofsjökull and Langjökull.

Glacial Wonderland

Distinguishing clouds from snow can be challenging. The landscapes are vast, desolate, and uninhabited.


Our last stop of the day was Gullfoss, a world-famous falls in the Hvítá river canyon. Hundreds of tourists trudge either to an overlook or beside the falls. Susan and I opted for the closer view where mist drenches humans and our equipment. The roar of the voluminous water is deafening at times, but the majesty is spectacular. Click here to learn about Sigridur Tomasdottir, a female environmentalist who helped make Gullfoss a nature reserve instead of a hydroelectric plant. Sometimes one person CAN make a difference.

We reached the Stracta Hotel in Hella in south Iceland in time for an abundant buffet dinner. This was our home for the last three nights of our tour. The Hella volcano was across the street, dormant but expected to erupt any day. It was long overdue, given its past eruptions schedules.

The next morning, after a bounteous breakfast buffet, we departed early for a ferry ride to Westman Islands to search for more puffins. This was also Sandy’s birthday, so I did a French braid in her hair and gave her my Sirius chocolate mint candy bar. The weather was cold and drizzly as we boarded the gigantic Herjólfur Ferry. Its hull opens to allow vehicles to be driven inside and parked. The ferry is electric and very plush with a coffee bar, restaurant and numerous bathrooms (or water closets, as much of Europe says).  Comfortable seats and bunk beds are inside the ferry, along with giant windows. In better weather one can stand outside and watch Iceland recede and the Westman Islands appear. Seabirds glide by and bob on the waves.

Daniel drove the van out of the ferry’s belly and we climbed onboard. First stop: Puffin Point. Puffins tend to hang around there in the morning and late in the afternoon. Mid-afternoon they fly out to sea to cool off and feed, so plan your visit to the point accordingly. We spent two hours there with puffins, nesting black guillemots, a meadow pipit and sheep grazing on the hillside.

Sheep by Puffin Point

Taking a bad photo of a puffin is difficult; they are so photogenic and cooperative. Several of us have hundreds of photos and are reluctant to delete any of them. The puffin population has declined 70% in the past thirty years. Despite the recent
Smithsonian Magazine article about locals helping baby puffins find the sea, some Westman Island residents hunt them for food in a nod to traditional customs. Some encourage foreign tourists to have a  traditional Icelandic experience by eating puffins. That plus climate change have drastically impacted the puffin population. Enjoy them while you still can, folks. And support conservation organizations that help preserve populations.

Fish Chum Frenzy
Candice’s Requested WIldflower Montage, photo by MR

Leaving the puffins, we meandered to a spot on Heimaey where thousands of fulmars and other birds were in a frenzy, feeding on chum from the adjacent fish processing facility. We observed a multitude of seabirds there until lunchtime. Clouds rolled in during the afternoon and most puffins had left Puffin Point when we returned on our way back to the ferry. But we got to observe a few fly in and out from the ocean to their nesting sites in the cliff and disappear into burrows surrounded by rocks, sheep and bright green grass. Wildflowers were abundant as well. A quick tour of a tiny medical museum, church and memorial for sailors lost at sea completed our tour of the Westman Islands. We returned to the ferry and the Stracta Hotel for dinner.

Our last full day of the tour, Mark and I declined to get on the van. We were weary of driving places and decided to walk to local spots, eat lunch outdoors, use the saunas/hot tubs at the hotel, and not be in a vehicle at all for one day. It was the solstice after all. We walked to the river about 1/4 mile from the hotel and saw twenty or so common Icelandic  birds. Wildflowers lined the river and the day was sunny and warm.

Iceland weather was unseasonably warm and sunny for most of the two weeks we were there. We had brought wool, rain gear, down puffy coats and other items to keep us warm. We found ourselves wishing for short-sleeved shirts and shorts much of the time. We might have needed the warm and rain gear, but I suppose we lucked out. After the tour ended, Mark and John encountered fog, rain, and cold. So they experienced all the various conditions that Iceland offers in the summer. Shortly after they left Iceland, 5″ of snow fell near where they stayed by Vik. And the following week a volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula erupted. Be prepared for anything; layers of clothing are essential.

Mark Enjoys Lava ’47 Pizza

We ate lunch locally and then soaked in the outdoor hot tub. After a few more afternoon walks, our group returned. Mark and I had pre-dinner, a sourdough crust pizza from a food truck, Lava ’47. “The Hawk” was what we ordered, and it was scrumptious. Later we joined our group for our last buffet dinner at the Stracta.

Our final day, we loaded all of our luggage into the van. We drove in a misty rain to the Reykjanes Peninsula and the Garðskagaviti Lighthouse built in 1897. “Something smells fishy” is a well-known saying, perhaps originating at this spot. The fishy smell was overpowering, but we saw lots of seabirds before heading to lunch in Keflavik. After lunch the sun appeared, and Daniel gathered us by an old boat for a group photo to commemorate our tour.

Photo by Daniel Bergmann

Then off to the airport eight of us headed, leaving Mark, John, Susan, Paul and Dave behind.

To give an idea of where we toured in Iceland, here is a map with points marked:

My trip home was fraught with thunderstorms, delays, downgrades, tornadoes and other obstacles. Seeing the city lights of Albuquerque at 11pm was a bit disorienting after two weeks without darkness. But I adjusted and made it home before midnight (6am Iceland time), petted the little dog, showered and went to bed. Thanks to Daniel, Dave, Mark, Susan, Paul, John, Sandy, Chicago Tim, Candice, Denver Tim, Daphne, Brenda and Peter for a sensational Iceland adventure!

Albuquerque at Night

— Finis —

(c) 2023, Merri Rudd, All Rights Reserved

A Stellar Experience

I’m late posting a report about the 2008 Stellar Days and Nights weekend. I hope I can remember stories from two weeks ago.

Dave, Noralyn, Hamish and I hit the road the morning of February 21, and despite a little detour in Española through the San Ildefonso Pueblo (“Dave, the shadows are wrong if we’re supposed to be heading north.” “Does this look right?” “Well, I don’t remember ever driving through the Pueblo before.”), we made it to Stellar by 4 p.m. We oohed and aahed at the herd of 15 elk of all sizes framed against the snowy piñons along the highway, saw multiple hawks and eagles perched on posts watching for lunch, and drove into the occasional vortex of whirling snow as we travelled farther north.

The Stellar weekend is located at the Adventure Unlimited Ranches, an 1,100 acre facility nestled in the foothills of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. “Bring snowshoes,” the organizers advised. We did and were glad. The Ranch sits outside Buena Vista, Colorado, about a 300-mile drive straight north of Albuquerque on Highway 285. It’s in a rural spot with the last several miles on a dirt, ice-splotched road. A frozen snow-covered lake is just below Valerie Lodge, where the eating and dancing and hanging out occur. The log lodge has a great wooden dance floor, giant windows with views of the Arkansas River Valley and surrounding mountains, and a large fireplace, which was lit all weekend long.

Valerie Lodge
Valerie Lodge, Photo by Merri Rudd

A distant 14,000′ peak peeked over the mountains beyond the lake and caught the last light of the setting sun. I have attended many camps before, but none in as beautiful a setting as Stellar. Did I mention there were about 4′ of snow already there? And we were at 8,600′ elevation surrounded by fragrant evergreens? I saw snowshoe hare tracks and scat, and one dancer actually saw the hare, blending in with the snow. Although it was well below freezing at night, I never wore all of the layers that I brought.

Over 100 participants, including 20 New Mexicans, stayed in heated log cabins with bathrooms. People skiied, snowshoed and tromped back and forth between the cabins and dance hall. I especially enjoyed snowshoeing to the lodge in my queen’s costume and long velvet skirt.

The staff consisted of Eden MacAdam-Somer & Larry Unger (who comprise a band called Notorious), Erika Gerety, Bruce Thomson, John Brinduse, Peter Esherick, and Gary Blank (Albuquerque’s own Hands Five), Jim Borzym teaching waltzing, Ron Sommers, the ace sound engineer, and me, teaching and calling contra and English country dance all weekend. That I still had my voice after this calling marathon is a testament to Ron’s skill.

Notorious, Hands Five, Merri
Stellar Staff, Photo courtesy of Peter Esherick

Eleanor Fahrney, the main organizer of Stellar, presented our mission at the staff meeting before Thursday’s dinner. Her six “Points” (like a star/snowflake has) of Stellar were Inclusivity, Quality, Keeping the Traditions Alive, Rejuvenating, Individualized, and Fun. Eleanor had help–other organizers and volunteers to whom she delegated tasks nicely (“I’m getting into this delegating thing,” she announced toward the end of the weekend). The best thing about the weekend for me was discovering that contra and English and square dancing really do have a next generation of energetic and talented leaders like Eleanor, Wendy Graham, Chad Filipski, and Andrea Earley-Coen (formerly with the midwest band Pig’s Eye Landing)–in the middle of rural Colorado, no less. They’re young (some aren’t even 30 yet), they’re energetic, they’re creative, and they love the traditions of folk music and dance.

We started dancing at 7:30 Thursday night and hardly stopped until 11:30 Sunday morning. Eden on fiddle and Larry on guitar and banjo are supremely skilled musicians; together they are musical synergy, feeding off each other and driving each other. They go places musically that most musicians can only imagine. Larry and Eden go there every set. At times they sound like a band of 5 or 6 musicians; their energy and skill take the crowd to dance nirvana. Toward the end of the weekend, Gary and Peter sat in with them on percussion and bass. During my ‘thank you’s’ on Sunday morn, I said that working with Eden and Larry was like skiing down a really steep, wild and wooly hill. But I knew I’d arrive at the bottom safely every time. And so I did. I wrote them when I got home and said I hope they wake up every morning grateful for the gifts they’ve been given.

Eden & Larry
Notorious, aka Eden & Larry, Photo by Merri Rudd

During a couples’ dancing workshop, Larry realized he’d left his Zweifacher music at home. So he sat at the back of the stage, lined music stave sheets in his lap, and created a new tune, “The Merri Zweifacher.” Brilliant.

English country dance requires one to move in totally different ways from contra dancing. In English dance one floats above the floor, leaning slightly forward, feet following. I like to say that you are “leading with your heart.” One challenge of introducing English country dance to contra dancers is to hold their interest. The uninitiated think that English country dance is “slow, boring contra dance.” How wrong they are! Mary Devlin of Portland, Oregon helped me create the two workshops that I taught. Plus I had done lots of “research” at Oklahoma City’s recent English weekend. For the first English workshop on Friday morning, Elegant English: A Proper Primer, I presented:

  • Lover’s Knot to the tune Black & Grey
  • Midnight Ramble
  • Take a Dance
  • Yellow Stockings (in 9/8 slip jig time)
  • Leah’s Waltz to the tune Amelia, in sets of three couples, and
  • Female Saylor
  • About half of the weekend’s dancers attended the English workshops, some dancing English for the first time (the rest were off sleeping, snowshoeing, skiing, singing, jamming, or soaking in the hot springs). Many were surprised at the exuberance of the dances. Others enjoyed the intense moments of eye contact and discovery of the various story lines of the dances. I reminded them that these great moments could also be found in other dance forms. Several reluctant contra dancers recognized the error of their ways and reported to me (with some surprise) that they “now love English country dance.”

    On Saturday morn, in my resplendent maroon and pink queen’s gown, I presented the second English workshop, Digging Deeper into English: By George, I think I’ve got it!, with these dances:

  • Indian Queen in 2/2 time
  • Well Hall in 3/2 time, one of my favorite dances for illustrating the great ‘moments’ of connection inherent to English dance
  • Jack’s Health (I made a movie of this one so I could remember how good the dancers looked)
  • Key to the Cellar, a triple minor dance that we did twice in Oklahoma, and
  • Fenterlarick, a modern English dance to the tune Nancy’s Fancy
  • A retired schoolteacher approached me at the end of the second workshop. She said she really enjoyed how I captured the dancers’ attention with my enthusiasm and love for English dance, which she felt was strongly evident. I stood silently for a moment, then with tears filling my eyes, I said, “For twenty years, I set a bad example on the dance floor with my disdain for English country dance. And then one day about five years ago, I ‘got’ it. I LOVE English now, and I’m trying to make up for all the harm I did before.” “Well,” she said, “don’t worry. You’re more than making up for it now.” Readers can judge for themselves the joy on these English dancers’ faces.

    Morning English Workshop
    Morning English Workshop, Photo by Merri Rudd

    Hands Five, who debuted in Albuquerque on January 1, 2005, have quickly risen to notoriety in the contra dance world. Their original fiddler was 17-year-old Ryan, who headed off to the northwest for college a year later. Bruce Thomson, one of New Mexico’s finest and most diverse fiddlers (only slightly older than 17 and with whom I’ve been calling for more than 15 years), took over. Joined by Peter Esherick on hammer dulcimer, Erika Gerety on bass, John Brinduse on guitar (and this weekend keyboard!), and Gary Blank on percussion and a haunting, full-sized didgeridoo, Hands Five know how to rev up the dance energy. Their repertoire is eclectic and entertaining. They love to play for both concerts and dances and most of them love to dance. They understand how music and dance fit together. They study tempos, matching tunes to dances, and ‘zinging’ the dancers with the tunes. I recommended Hands Five to Eleanor when she hired me last year, and I wondered how they’d fare alongside a band as seasoned as Notorious. I wonder no more. Hands Five shined; they rose to the occasion; pick your metaphor–they were stars.

    The dancers were stars too. They handled everything that Jim and I threw at them with good nature and enthusiasm. They forgave my mistakes, such as “sing on the side,” shouting “la la la la” in unison. They laughed and twirled and spun and appeared to have a grand time. We didn’t stick to my Plan A (we never do), but we did dances such as Peter Stix’s What are Hands Four?, Ted Sanella’s Love and Kisses, Cary Ravitz’s Snake in the Hey, Maliza’s Magical Mystery Motion, and Gypsy Star, Carol Ormand’s Stars of Alberta and Coray’s Silver Jubilee, Kathy Anderson’s Weave the Line, Danish Dessert, and Tropical Gentleman, William Watson’s The Devil’s Backbone, Martin Sirk’s Venus & Mars, Tom Hinds’ Batja’s Breakdown and The Tease, Robert Cromartie’s M.A.D. About Dancing, Mary Devlin’s Triplet to Eugene, Gene Hubert’s Halliehurst, Becky Hill’s The Eyes Have It and Smooth Sailing, Devin Nordberg’s Devin’s Settlement, Bob Isaacs’ Cure for the Clap, Joseph Pimentel’s Ramsay Chase, Susan Kevra’s Trip to Phan Reel, and my own Convolution. Of course, no Stellar weekend would be complete without Al Olson’s Eleanor’s Reel, named for Stellar’s Eleanor (I arranged ahead for her husband Andrew to dance this one with her). And The Dreaded Swing….

    These are only some of the dances that I called. All in all, I taught about 60 dances throughout the weekend, except for the last half hour of Friday night, when Eleanor leaped onto stage and called so I could go to sleep. Calling the weekend was fun, but it would have been more fun if I’d been able to dance more. I’m encouraging the organizers to hire two callers next year to share the work and the fun! I am looking forward to being one of three callers at Oregon’s Northwest Passage Camp, along with Bruce Hamilton and Sue Rosen. Notorious and Phantom Power will play.

    We couldn’t have maintained our energy all weekend without the gourmet meals provided by nationally known chef Annie Johnston from Bend, Oregon. She has been feeding dancers for twenty years–homemade frittatas, blueberry cobbler, foccacio, soups, Moroccan coconut chicken, rosemary bread, fudge caramel upside down cake, apricot almond poppy seed coffeecake, and other spectacular treats. Despite Annie’s decadent dishes, I didn’t gain any weight. Apparently, hurling my energy from the stage to the dancers burns off calories! Annie will be cooking for the Northwest Passage weekend too.

    Late Saturday night after hanging out in front of the big fireplace with wired dancers, I snowshoed back to my cabin. The bright light of stars pierced the pitch dark sky. Snow fell gently. I could barely breathe for fear of disturbing the beauty of the night. It was still snowing the next morning, and the Durango folks reported that they were leaving after breakfast, before the farewell dance, to make it over the pass before the snow made the roads difficult. But I looked out at the dancers (still three lines of dancers those last two hours), and I saw a few Durangoans dancing. “I thought you were heading home,” I said. “Yep, we are, any minute.” They stayed until the end, until Eden led us in a farewell song. Then people sledded their luggage to the road, packed their cars, said their good-byes, and headed out into the swirling snow, with tunes and songs and dances just a memory in their minds. And we four did the same, recounting stories and images and the joy of music and dance all the way home.

    We Four
    Merri, Noralyn, Dave & Hamish in Farewell Snowstorm

    The staff did not have a debriefing meeting to evaluate whether we accomplished Eleanor’s six Points. But I’m pretty sure if you polled those present, most would agree, “It was an amazing weekend, filled with awesome food, camaraderie, music and dance.” Perhaps some of them will post comments to this entry and share their own stories.

    Merri Rudd
    Albuquerque, NM

    Bare Necessities in Oooooooo-kla-homa!

    I just spent a whole weekend in Oklahoma City at an English country dance weekend. It was fantastic!

    My long-time dance friends know that this is a remarkable declaration. I failed to embrace English country dance for more than 20 years, and only in the last five years have I discovered its beauty, nuance, and grace.

    Eight New Mexicans attended the event, along with about 75 other dancers from Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, Colorado, Kansas, and other spots. Meg, Kit, Mary, and I flew. Richard Wilson drove 1,000 miles with daughters Karina and Lily and family friend Mia. Karina is in her early 20’s and has become quite an accomplished dance fiddler. We stayed at local homes with wonderful hospitality. Our hostess extraordinaire Cia pampered us with meals and stories, and we were delighted to find tasty and affordable Indian and Vietnamese food around town.

    Bare Necessities, THE premier English dance band in the world, flew in from various states for the event. Jacqueline Schwab played piano while calling the dances. Peter Barnes on flute, English horn, and penny whistle, Mary Lea on fiddle, and Earl Gaddis on fiddle rounded out the band. English country dance music is rooted in the 1600 and 1700’s, with some modern compositions thrown in. The music swells, transcends, and heartbreakingly evokes simpler and more peaceful times. The dances, each of which matches a particular tune, were danced in England in castles and villages. The dances immigrated to America along with the dancers. They require grace and precision with “moments” of connection with one’s partner and others. Many of the dances are jubilant, some are elegant, all are fun. Dance moves immortal through time.

    It wasn’t until lunch at Lido’s on Saturday that Earl mentioned casually that he had 104 fever. Taking his temperature after his meal revealed that it had dropped to 99-something. During lunch we told him and Jacqueline about Karina, whose radiant fiddling is the hope for the future of English dance in New Mexico.

    Most of the dancers who attended the weekend were somewhat or greatly experienced. However, a few new dancers braved the weekend and happily survived. We danced three hours Friday night, had a two and a half hour workshop Saturday morn, 3-hour workshop Saturday afrternoon, and fancy final ball Saturday evening. Surprisingly, I did not take an Advil, get a blister, or suffer any consequences from leaping and twirling and gliding about with vigor and exuberance. I had not planned to wear the “period dress” requested, but not required. However, a few days before we travelled, I found a maroon velvet queen’s costume with regal gold trim for $7 at the thrift store. AND it was machine washable.

    Mary, Kit, Merri, Meg (photo by Richard Letts from Austin)

    During the Saturday night dance, I heard an especially beautiful waltz flowing from the stage. I looked over and observed that Karina was playing fiddle with Bare Necessities and Earl was nowhere to be seen! Astonished, I sat out one dance to watch her fingers silently pluck the strings, rehearsing the tune while Jacqueline taught the dance. I admired Karina’s serenity and joy playing with these new-to-her musicians. I studied the communication between the musicians, and how each dropped out to showcase the others. Afterwards, Karina was euphoric and thanked us for “talking her up” to the band. “We’re very proud of you,” I replied.

    Peter Barnes (in period dress?), Mary Lea, Karina, Jacqueline Schwab
    photo by Mary Beath

    It turned out that Earl was lying on his stomach behind the stage with 5 acupuncture needles protruding from the base of his skull. His fever had rekindled, and he needed help. Luckily for Earl, one of the dancers present was also a doctor and acupunturist. With needles still visible, he played the last few tunes of the night and proclaimed that he hadn’t felt this fine in several days.

    The organizers of this weekend, Carol Barry and Kevin Barrett, created a memorable event from the beautifully decorated hall to the excellent sound to the ambiance of long ago. Even the name tags were brilliantly inventive, laminated paper with a washer, a magnet, and double stick tape.

    As they might say in Shakespeare’s day…”Huzzah!!!”

    Saturday’s Ball (Richard and Lily Wilson in foreground)
    Photo by Mary Beath

    Wasatch Wiggle Report

    Imagine travelling 600 miles to a remote mountain resort outside Salt Lake City, Utah to be the guest caller at a dance weekend you’ve never attended. You’ll be working with a band you’ve never heard play and calling for dancers you’ve never seen dance. Will they know how to dance? Does the band know the kinds of tunes you need? How will you be received? Luckily, I didn’t spend much time worrying about any of these things. If I had, it would have been a waste of time. The weekend worked out just fine.

    I just wrote this blurb for the Bag o’ Tricks’, my band for the weekend, web page.

    “I was hired to call a dance weekend in Utah with Bag o’ Tricks. Neither the band nor I had ever encountered one another. I was in for a mighty pleasant surprise–I absolutely adored working with Bag o’ Tricks! Anita Anderson, Dave Bartley, and Sande Gillette are hugely talented, supremely cooperative, eager to please, hilarious, upbeat and amazingly versatile. Need a rowdy, southern, tune? Done. Slinky, sexy, jazzy? Done, done, done. Flowing, mixed, African/Egyptian? No problem. English country? Anita will help you teach by lightly playing piano during the walk-throughs. And they authored half the tunes they play. An added bonus: all band members are delightful, good-hearted human beings and lots of fun to hang out with. I’d work with them again in a heartbeat!”

    Bag o’ Tricks’ fiddler Sande Gillette replied,

    “Thank you so much for all your kind words. The feeling is definitely mutual — we had so much fun working with you and experiencing your wide range of styles, your amazing ability to make people not only comfortable but ready to also try something new, and your fun sense of humor. We saw behind the scenes how much preparation and thought you had given to the weekend, but you have the great ability to make it all seem spontaneous — a recipe for success for dancers, musicians, caller, and camp. I hope we have the opportunity to work with you somewhere again soon!!!!”

    Those two quotes summarize the success of the weekend. But I’ll share a few more details.

    I was walking out of my room at the quaint Brighton Lodge, when I rounded a corner and saw two people, one of whom (Dave Bartley) I recognized from the Wiggle web page. “Are you Mary?” I asked the other person. “Are you Merri?” she replied. It was Dave and his wife Mary, returning from a hike. We hugged and immediately took to each other. These two have been married for 17 years, and both radiate exceptionally good kharma:

    Mary & Dave Bartley, Photo by Merri Rudd, (c) 2006

    The Wasatch Wiggle camp is set at 9,000′ elevation and the dance hall is up a steep hill from the Brighton Lodge. The Wasatch Mountain Club built the dark wood facility in 1921, I think, with various add-ons since then. It has low ceilings, good acoustics, a great wood floor, and two large posts down the middle of the room that scared me as I watched the dancers. No one knocked themselves unconscious dancing into the posts, I’m happy to report.

    My Albuquerque friends and long-time travelling companions Melissa and Lew joined me at the Wiggle. An extra surprise: Richard Riger from Albuquerque signed up at the last minute to help Nancy from Texas gain admittance to the weekend. It was his first out-of-state camp, and he blogged about it at Most of the other dancers hailed from Utah, with a smattering from Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Georgia.

    The organizers, Brenda, Tom, Melanie, Lori, and Debbie, have created a very welcoming weekend. It’s a small camp (65 dancers) in a woodsy setting. Communal eating at long tables fosters more camaraderie than urban camps, where everyone stays at different places. Head Honcho and Chief Chef Brenda provided a variety of tasty and nutritious food–from homemade granola to burgers (and veggie burgers) cooked over open grills on the back patio–yum! Salads, homemade peach cobbler, served warm with ice cream, brownies, sweet handmade breakfast tamales, and healthy main dishes rounded out the menu.

    At least 6 and maybe 10 folks were there who were also at the Maymadness weekend I co-called in Prescott, Arizona a few months earlier. This time, however, there was not a second caller with whom to share the weekend. I was the guest caller for the weekend. I called three hours Friday night, taught three workshops Saturday, including English country, then called all but one hour of the Saturday evening dance. Called the Sunday farewell dance and then taught a two-hour caller’s workshop after camp officially ended. I called lots of interesting and some complex dances, many different than my Arizona program. I couldn’t stump the dancers; they looked great! Although I did go onto the dance floor a few times to avert some confusion…

    On Saturday I’m heading down the path through the woods back to my room, when a lady approaches me. “I love English!,” she beamed. “Oh? Cool. How long have you been dancing it?” I asked. “First time was your workshop just now.” Ha!!! Another one hooked. For someone who hated English dance for 20 years (me), it shocks me that I love English enough to teach it now. Joseph Pimentel, one of my English dance coaches, is “thrilled” I’m leading English dance. He loves English country dance too and has taught it much longer than I have. What was great about the Wiggle weekend is that the band really liked playing English music, some of which was 400 years old. And the dancers were enthusiastic about dancing English too, which is not always the case with contra dancers. These dancers looked elegantly English and seemed to enjoy the nuance and saucy “moments” that English country dance provides. Whoever has been leading them locally has done a great job encouraging them to embrace multiple dance forms. Huzzah to the local dance leaders!

    Sande (fiddle), Dave (mandolin), Anita (piano)
    Photo by Merri Rudd, (c) 2006 (if someone sends me a better photo of all of us, I’ll post it!)

    The Bellows Fellows (2 accordians and a guitar) played for a few workshops and one hour of the Saturday evening dance.

    Bellows Fellows and Tom’s Bass Hand, Photo by Merri Rudd, (c) 2006

    I made a little movie of them playing MUSIC FOR A FOUND HARMONIUM, quite amazing. John and Dori from California taught a Scandinavian workshop. They are excellent and graceful teachers.

    Eight students attended my calling workshop after the camp, a few calling for the first time ever. It was really fun! Callers don’t come to the stage to copy dance cards anymore. Instead they take a digital photo of the sheet or card for later use. I wonder if other callers have noticed this?

    My favorite feedback from the camp e-evaluations was, “Merri was quite good, better than I expected. Excellent decision, hiring her! Bands were good too. And I even enjoyed the Scandinavian workshop, something I don’t usually like.” I’m happy that I can pleasantly surprise folks on occasion!

    Although my throat muscles were sore for several days after, I didn’t get hoarse or have laryngitis. Sound guys were great! I will spare readers stories about music in the key of P, the hungry, hungry flies, and stumbling about in the dark looking for the trail to the lodge, while avoiding holes in the road where water flowed UNDER the road surface.

    Melissa, Lew, Mark and I camped together for 3 nights afterwards in Utah. Then Melissa and Lew headed back to Albuquerque. Mark and I stayed out another week or so, camping in WY and CO. One evening we spent two hours watching a great horned owl catch, kill, eat, rest, regurgitate, drink from the river, and finally roost on a fence post, silouhetted by the setting sun. Our last morning, we encountered a mama deer and 2 spotted fawns nursing in the middle of the forest road.

    Photo by Mark Justice Hinton, (c) 2006

    Whether she had twins or had taken in an orphaned fawn, either way, it was breath-taking. A few hours later we arrived back to the noisy, crowded urban world.

    That’s my report for now. Unfortunately, I had to turn off the “comment” function on my blog due to spammers taking advantage. But email me anytime with comments, and I’ll be happy to post them.

    Merri Rudd

    MayMadness 2006

    You would think that on a one-hour, nonstop flight between Albuquerque and Phoenix, it would be difficult to lose a suitcase. Yet there I was on May 19, standing at the Southwest Lost Luggage desk, saying, “but my outfits and dance shoes are in that suitcase and I have to be on stage tonight.” A further complication was that the dance weekend was two hours away in Prescott, Arizona.

    This was the 15th annual MayMadness dance weekend, I’d been preparing for several months to entertain 250 dancers, along with caller Seth Tepfer of Atlanta, the Hotpoint String Band from Ohio, and the Privy Tippers from Tucson, Arizona.

    I did at least have the foresight to carry my dance program onboard, plus fudge and pecan cookies for the bands. So I wasn’t entirely up the proverbial creek with no paddle. But my toothbrush was in that suitcase!

    One of the Tippers and I drove up to Prescott, checked in and went over to the dance hall. Banners were up in the giant gymnasium, and the sound crew was doing sound checks. I had nothing to unpack, so hung around the hall and did a sound check. My first introduction to Seth was when he walked into the dance hall as I was asking for a mike condom (that gray foam thing that fits over the microphone head). Well, what else is it called?!

    A bunch of us crew and organizers walked to a Chinese restaurant for dinner, where Seth and I chatted briefly about how to run the Saturday morning waltz workshop: I wanted to be Vanna White to his lead. Southwest called to tell me my suitcase had NOT gone on to California as originally thought, but instead never made it onto the plane in Albuquerque. They would send it on a later flight, then drive it up to Prescott on the shuttle. Seth called fun dances the first half of the Friday night dance with Hotpoint. I was on at 9:30 with the Tippers. Someone reported from the hotel that my suitcase was in town, but when I walked over, no such luck. I went back to dance, still in my airplane clothes. My suitcase arrived a few minutes before I was due on stage, so I was wrinkled, but ready, teeth brushed.

    The Tippers, Jacquie Wohl on fiddle, her longtime hubby Craig Tinney on guitar, JerryRay Weinert on bass, and Dave Firestine on mandolin, and I have done half a dozen gigs. We love working together. But if I could leave my body and float off to observe myself on stage, directing 250 dancers and a band, I’m sure I would run screaming out of the dance hall. Calling is not for sissies. You are teacher, cuer, band director, programmer, stage personality, and trouble-shooter, sometimes simultaneously. All of this happens in the space of 32 seconds, which is about one time through the AABB structure of the dance tune. Yikes! It looks easy if all goes well, but it’s not as easy as it looks. To borrow from a “Futurama” episode where Bender plays god, “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”

    I called an intermediate program, Swell Dance, Seth’s dance Will You Marry Me?, Kathy Anderson’s Weave the Line, Bob Isaacs’ Cure for the Clap, Pinewoods Crossing, Gene Hubert’s Firecracker, and Carol Ormand’s You Can’t Get There from Here. Teaching and calling seven dances in an hour and a half is pretty amazing for me–we did quick walk-through’s and I didn’t run dances too long given the heat and altitude (mile high). I watched how well the dancers danced and thought, “Ut, oh, I have nothing to teach them tomorrow in my workshops.”

    What was especially cool was having 10 New Mexicans out on the dance floor egging me on. Lonnie, Julie, Chole and Judy showed up from Las Cruces. Bob & Linda, Joli, Larry, Laine, and Chris showed up from Albuquerque. Their smiling faces buoyed me all weekend.

    My Beloved Privy Tippers
    Tippers & Merri, Photo by Lonnie Ludeman (c) 2006

    At the catered breakfast the next morn, I randomly wandered and asked dancers for their ‘pet peeves’ on the dance floor. “Twirling me out of the line,” “bending my wrist back so it hurts,” “avoiding eye contact,” “not being there on time.” Voila! I had the makings of a workshop. First Seth called a “hot squares” workshop, then we co-taught the waltz workshop. Actually, I was Vanna, chipping in occasionally and walking around observing frame and posture and heart to heart alignment. Seth taught the step, framing, turns, and a ‘pause’ to accent the dance. At the end a dancer came up to me and asked, “do you know how to do that waltz pivot step?” “Sure,” I said, “It’s like a zwiefacher, waltz, 2, 3, waltz, 2, 3, pivot, pivot, pivot, pivot.” I danced this move with him and his eyes gleamed. “YES! That’s what I wanted to remember. Thanks!” Later that day a friend and I did that same move, adding a ‘pause’ at the end of the pivots. What fun! A new combo move!

    We had a catered lunch for everyone at the dance hall. Then it was my turn to work with Hotpoint, who played for both of my afternoon workshops. The first one, Timing is Everything, Better Never Than Late, I started with some of the pet peeves I’d gathered earlier that morning. I had everyone close their eyes and clap on the #1 beat of music. No cheating! Clapping was scattered until everyone settled into the music. Then I had them, depending on their birth months, dance early, on time, and late, so they could all feel the jaggedness of discordance. It’s hard for good dancers to dance badly, so I suspect this was a challenge for many, to deliberately dance off time. When the tune switched, all danced on time. I polled them to see which way they enjoyed more. After that came a few more dances to accentuate and practice the timing of various moves.

    The second workshop was Dancing Transcendently, no NOT transcendentally! People thought we were going to meditate, so I read them the workshop description to make my goals more clear. “Nuance is the key to making dance sublime. Sometimes the art of dancing can be lost in all the twirls, flourishes, and rowdiness. This dance workshop will focus on making you stand up, stretch out, lean back and discover an elegance, grace, and beauty you never knew you had.”

    My calling teacher, Bill “Doc” Litchman, laments that we are losing the “art of dance” or the “elegance of dance.” So I sometimes teach workshops to remind people just how beautiful dance can be with gentle leads, small flourishes, flows, and treating each partner like a queen or king, if only for 32 seconds. I talked to them about the yoga principle of standing as if a string is coming up out of the crown of one’s head. This causes one’s shoulders to move back and the body to rise, creating a grace of movement akin to that found in English dance. And most important, it opens one’s heart to the joy of the music, infusing the dancer with an even greater connection to the band. I forgot to tell the dancers this last, most important point. I used four dances to illustrate these principles, Evan Shepherd’s Wedding Rings, Kathy Anderson’s Tropical Gentleman, Tony Parkes’ Hey Fever, and Tom Hinds’ Scooter.

    Hotpoint is a master at choosing just exactly the right set of tunes for a particular dance, so the music for both workshops was wonderful. It is quite a treat for me to work with national caliber bands, such as Hotpoint. Members include Mark Burhans on fiddle, Hilarie Burhans, QUEEN (no kidding) of the banjo, Marlene Shostak on piano, Nick Wieland on bass, and wild man Mark Hellenberg on multiple percussion.

    It is because of Hotpoint’s piano player Marlene that I am on the bigger stages at all. She heard me call one dance at a workshop in Houston in January 2003. The workshop allowed “baby callers” to call a dance with the “big band.” I called Don Flaherty’s Slapping the Wood. At the end, Marlene jumped off the stage, ran over to me, and exclaimed, “You’re no baby caller! That was great!! Who are you?” Until that moment, I never saw myself as worthy of the big stage, but something about Marlene’s willingness to take the time to make a kind remark, set me on my way. An Austin dance organizer was there too and hired me to teach a workshop and call an evening dance in Austin in September 2003. Based on that performance, Austin hired me to call my first dance weekend in November 2004, the 8th annual Fire Ant Frolic, with Rodney Miller and Airdance playing. I probably prepared over 100 hours for that gig, with the helpful, and infinitely patient, email and telephone coaching of Becky Hill and David Millstone. My essay about Austin and Airdance is now over 7,000 words and not yet complete. Suffice it to say, the weekend with Airdance made the “top ten best moments of my life” list.

    Back to Prescott…by then it was 5 p.m., and a bunch of us were going out to dinner. Back at the hotel, I realized I had no energy left to sit up and interact with more people at dinner, so I begged Seth to bring me carry out, and I lay down for a while. This turned out to be smart. After scarfing spicy ginger chicken, Thai style, I walked across to the hall. I was on first with the Tippers Saturday night.

    Callers live for moments of magic, yet can’t plan to make magic happen. Once I stood on stage with a classical violist from Bolivia, Willy Sucre. He had just come from playing Handel’s Messiah for 3 hours, and wanted to end the night doing something fun. So he stood in with Gemma DeRagon and friends. He wasn’t familiar with the music, but he listened, then started improvising right beside me. The hair stood up on my arms, and I marveled at how the music energized the dancers. Magic. Another time I taught the Mennonite group how to do contra corners (don’t tell them it’s hard) in three-couple sets (a relatively safe formation). A 6-year-old girl, now in her 20s, picked it right up, and was beaming as she did a full contra corners with her sixsome. Magic.

    That first half of Saturday night’s dance felt magic to me. The dancers could do no wrong. The Tippers’ tunes were scintillating. We started with a triple medley, no walk through. We never looked back. We did the Devil’s Backbone, Eleanor’s Reel, a triple progression, A Rollin’ and A Tumblin’, Sicilian Gypsy, and Trip to Phan Reel. The dancers performed everything flawlessly. The band played Music for a Found Harmonium, Dancing Bear, and other driving tunes. Magic. Then Seth and Hotpoint were on, and all hell broke loose. Hotpoint is so dynamic and rhythmic, it’s hard not to go wild. Seth called one of my dances “Convolution,” that I had never danced before. It was chaotic, and I thought maybe I should take it off my web site. Later I figured out a little fix and wrote a new, even more convoluted version. One of the dancers said it was his favorite dance of the weekend. He must enjoy chaos. :-)

    Sunday morning Seth and I decided to reward the dancers with a program quickly accessible to the dancers, then get out of their way and let them connect to the music. My flow session featured Al’s Safeway Produce, the Dreaded Swing (photo below), Eyes Have It, and Venus and Mars. Seth then connected them to their inner klutz with gender benders and other fun games. Both Seth and I called the farewell dance with Hotpoint, sharing a medley of three dances with no walk through’s. We ended with Smooth Sailing and Daisies and Delphiniums. And the 15th annual Maymadness came to a reluctant end.

    The Dreaded Swing
    The Dreaded Swing, Photo by Merri Rudd (c) 2006

    The MayMadness organizers, Terri Eichelberger, Steve Appel, Warren Miller, Leslie Loomis, and countless others, put on a welcoming, riveting weekend with great music, dance, and food. They deserve the dancers’ adoration and praise.

    Seth and I headed back to Phoenix with Bill and Judy Norman, sharing stories and laughter. We ate a big Ethiopian dinner, then flew our separate ways. My suitcase, of course, made it home just fine.

    Twenty-five photos of the weekend’s events and players are posted at:

    This is my full report. Let me know what you think.

    Merri Rudd

    Wilderness, Oh Boy!

    Many “small world” events populate my life. My past dogs me. Old beaus show up 2,000 miles from where they ought to be. Almost any random stranger on the streets of Albuquerque knows someone I know. The woman in the pool in Ouray, CO discusses an appellate tax case I worked on that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    But few of my life history stories run as deep and long as my relationship with Bill and Sally Meadows. Bill was my first boss at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN in 1976. A few days after he hired me, my dad died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. “Take all the time you need,” Bill said. “You can start whenever you get back.” And that was that. We’ve been loyal and heartfelt friends for 30 years. Sally has shared our relationship all 30 years, and I have profound ties with her too. She has one of the best social consciences I know and is active with Common Cause and other worthy groups.

    Bill Meadows, circa 1978
    Photo by Merri Rudd, (c) 2006

    To honor my dad’s memory, Bill gave me a membership in the Sierra Club in 1977. In our non-working hours, we both volunteered for various non-profit environmental organizations. My beau at the time was a botanist with the Tennessee Heritage Program, and he and I led botany hikes on weekends. Bill helped me get my next job at the Tennessee Environmental Council. After 20 years at Vanderbilt, he worked at Sweetbriar College for a few years, then at the Sierra Club as development director.

    But he came into his ‘national conservation leader’ own when he became president of the Wilderness Society. Yes, THE Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C. with offices scattered across America, many in the west. If you read a news article about proposed drilling for oil on the Arctic National Refuge, chances are you’ll read a quote from Bill Meadows. Check out legislative battles on ‘the hill’ in Washington, and Bill will have testified. At least a quarter of the U.S. Senators know him personally. Interview a consortium of groups who love wilderness, and Bill has probably meddled in some of their meetings and policy strategizing. We think he’s a big deal; he thinks there’s always more to do.

    The Wilderness Society has had two meetings of its Governing Council and staff in Albuquerque, one in 2000 and one a few days ago. And so I came to be one of the 20 or so wilderness society staff, governing council members, and a few locals, including trip leader Albuquerque City Council President Martin Heinrich, who traipsed onto America’s newest federally designated wilderness area, Ojito, near the Zia Pueblo off Highway 550. Mark and I had hiked several times on the periphery of Ojito, the “ACEC,” area of critical environmental concern, but never where we were on May 13. I was struck part by awe and part by irony at the moment. I felt history being made as I watched national conservation leaders hike on the new wilderness. But I was also mindful of the not-inconsiderable impact that 40+ human feet were having on the area.

    Down the Two-Track, Now Closed to Vehicles
    Photo by Mark Justice Hinton (c) 2006

    Bill and Sally have two Vanderbilt classmates now living in Albuquerque, who joined us on the hike–Robert and Diane Fleming. In typical “small world” fashion, Robert is a local dance fiddler and has played for several dances I’ve called.

    The two-track trail ended at several flat (not vertical) panels of petroglyphs and the site of a recent seismosaur excavation. Most of us opted to hike off the edge of the cliff down to the wilderness floor below, over a sandy arroyo, up a hill, off another rocky cliff and over to some of the lowest elevation ponderosa pine trees in the state, complete with hoodoos and a perfectly shaded lunch spot. Along the way we observed gastroliths (jet black “dinosaur barf” stones, aka gizzard grinders), rare lavender blazing star flowers (looked a lot like a long-throated phlox), the bark of a walking stick cholla stripped by a porcupine (?), and Cabezon Peak off in the distance. Not to mention other mountain ranges spanning 100’s of square miles–Redondo Peak, Sandia Wilderness, Jemez Mountains, and more.

    Heinrich, Hoodoo, and Ponderosa at Ojito, 5/13/06
    Photo by Merri Rudd, (c) 2006

    We wandered in the wilderness for about three hours, then hit the dirt road where vans transported us home. I brought almond fudge, lemon cookies and a bag of ice cubes for the end of trip and also passed around 30-year-old photos of Bill. Many of his staff were not yet born when those photos of us were taken!

    Bill says he likes to be out in the thick of things to get a “sense of place” and to be inspired to find new partnerships to preserve and protect wilderness areas. Bill shaped my own environmental conscience, awareness, and longtime love of the outdoors. We know there is much more to do, but Bill has shown us how to lead the pack in pursuit of wilderness preservation. Bill, we’re darn proud to know you. If we were wolves, you’d be our alpha male.

    Mark, Bill, Merri Ojito 5/13/06
    Photo by Robert Fleming, (c) 2006

    Bosque & Ruthie Report

    I’m back from my Las Cruces trip to hear Ruthie Foster and Eric Bibb in concert. The Bosque was mostly deserted. A few looky-loo humans with monster lenses, the usual two bald eagles stuck to the tree in the middle pond in the middle loop. I watch them and the black phoebes, kinglets, and assorted ducks as I chow down my pastrami sandwich, trying not to eat the buzzing honeybee that wants a bite.

    The Bosque presents various sights, like a familiar box of assorted chocolates. Harriers cruising, white tail bars glowing in the sun; Canada geese sucking up debris from the canal; the colorful pheasant on the side of the road; homebound cranes pecking through the tall tan grasses; red-winged blackbirds chortling; meadowlarks singing melody; a tiny marsh wren flitting through the reeds, sipping water. I walk east down a perpendicular side road, chasing a hunting harrier. She dives, grabs a mouse, hunkers down on the matted yellow grass for the “early bird special.” Blackbirds move en masse from one tree to the next as I approach. I try not to take it personally. I have to leave before the evening fly-in to make it to the concert in time.

    I am driving down the interstate. I feel the wheels of my car stretch and elongate, sprout hooves. I ride on, galloping my steed down the road, hooves clopping rhythmically on the concrete pavement, through the sunlight and the desert landscape, wind in my face, steering reins in my hands, toward Ruthie Foster and food for my soul.

    “I see what you mean,” says Laura, one of my Las Cruces concert companions, at the end of the concert. “It was amazing. I can’t imagine how that voice comes out of her body.” Ruthie has hooked another 300 or 400 folks. They held their collective breaths as she sang.

    Ruthie was joined by her long-time companion and friend Cyd Cassone on percussion. Ruthie almost cried on stage as she introduced her song CROSSOVER. She talked of the civil rights marchers as they tried to cross the bridge from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama in the 1960’s. She, Odetta and Richie Havens were asked to create a soundtrack for the documentary “Where Do We Go From Here” about the civil rights movement. At the end of the introduction, Ruthie said, “I send this out to our sister Coretta Scott King.” Ruthie didn’t have to say that Coretta died a few days ago; we all knew. We got to sing along on the chorus.

    CROSSOVER (listen here:
    …..I’m gonna plant my feet
    no matter what hangs over me
    gonna stand up for freedom,
    go down in history.
    When I want to roam,
    I’ll never be far from home.
    I’m gonna keep holdin’ on,
    singing my song,
    No matter what’s goin’ on
    I’m gonna keep movin’ strong.


    I’m gonna plant my feet,
    keep my eyes on the prize
    gonna climb higher and higher
    to keep the dream alive.
    When I can’t go on,
    you’ve got to carry on.
    Oh you gotta keep holdin’ on
    singin’ your song
    no matter what’s goin’ on
    you gotta keep movin’ strong.

    CHORUS: You gotta cross over (and overcome)
    You gotta cross over (and overcome)
    You gotta cross over (and overcome)
    And overcome.
    Oh, you gotta cross over (and overcome)
    You gotta cross over (and overcome)
    You gotta cross over (and overcome)
    And overcome….

    CROSSOVER, lyrics and music written by Ruthie Foster

    I had never heard Eric Bibb sing. [My husband reminds me that I DID hear Eric sing once when he opened in Albuquerque for Odetta. OK, so I didn’t remember having heard Eric sing.] Picture a strikingly handsome, young man in shiny brown loafers, faded jeans, an orange sweatshirt, and a dapper flat felt hat. He sings alone, accompanies himself on guitar. He gently marches in place, knees rising deliberately, feet placed back down exactly. He is probably setting his tempo and rhythm, but to me it appears as if he is calling the music up from the soles of his feet, and sending the songs out through his voice, instrument, and heart. True soul music. Smooth mellifluous voice.

    He and Ruthie, joined by Cyd on percussion, end the concert with a duet “For You,” written by Eric. “This song didn’t come alive,” Eric explains, “until it met Ruthie.” It is on his new CD “Friends.” Ruthie reins in her power to collaborate with Eric. You can tell that doing so challenges her.

    I came home today. As I crossed the bridge over the Rio Grande, I looked for eagles in the shoreside cottonwoods and tried to ignore the dilapidated green couch sitting in the middle of the river. When I got home, I learned that Ruthie and Eric will be singing in Socorro tonight at the NM Tech campus. Oops, I could have driven only 160 miles instead of 498. However…I enjoyed spending time with Lonnie and Julie, Laura, Ruth, Judy, Mark and Chris in Cruces. Ruthie, Cyd and Eric will be in Farmington, Clovis and Alamosa over the next week. and have details. Travel to hear them if you can; you won’t regret it.

    Ruthie, Here I Come!

    With almost daily reminders to ‘carpe diem’ while I’m alive and relatively healthy, I took the plunge and got a ticket to the Ruthie Foster/Eric Bibb concert in Las Cruces, New Mexico on February 2. They’ll also be in Albuquerque on February 4, but I’m calling a dance that night. I suggested to Hands Five that I find another caller for the dance so I could attend the Albuquerque concert. But the band wasn’t too keen about being pawned off on another caller. Plus, Hands Five is really fun to work with, and we’ve already had a 2-hour practice.

    I will stop at my favorite place in New Mexico on the way down to Cruces, the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge. I never know what wonders I’ll encounter there. Being at the Bosque is almost as much a treasure hunt as the thrift store. Once I saw a coyote with his entire face stuffed inside a snow-white goose carcass. When he emerged momentarily after tossing the carcass around gleefully, his snout was smeared with blood. Another time a tanager flashed across the windshield, his startling scarlet color one I’d never seen before. Years ago, right over my head, the one whooping crane on site flew in with a flock of sandhill cranes, the whooper’s giant breast gleaming with the peachy pink setting sunlight.

    snow geese at sunset
    Photo by Merri Rudd

    Or the deer that seems nailed to place along the back trail because I’ve seen her several times in the exact spot. Or the muskrat paddling in the lagoon, the vermillion flycatcher winging its way up the middle loop, the merlin ripping apart the meadowlark, the eagle shredding a duck. The latter images may seem gruesome, but they are the ebb and flow of the Bosque. Maybe I’ll stop at Percha Dam Campground and listen for the owls in the secret tree or the red-winged blackbirds in the cattails. An opening act for Ruthie.

    I am taking this trip because Ruthie’s singing “restoreth my soul.” I am taking this trip to honor the memory of Mike Smith and his love of good music. And I am taking this trip to fuel my own sense of adventure. I love gliding down the highway, alone, not knowing what will happen next. When I find out, I will post another entry.