by Christopher Owen
I am what you would call an "advanced amateur," meaning that if I clam, I still have my day job. I play first horn in an excellent community orchestra, in Keene, New Hampshire, where we perform for a loyal and enthusiastic audience, in a refurbished theater with a flashing marquee.
It's a great gig. My colleagues in the orchestra are witty and serious; those qualities produce both warm-hearted laughter and inspired music-making. Sometimes in rehearsal I pray a thanks to God for the gift of music and for the opportunity to play.
I wasn't always an advanced amateur. When I started on the horn again in my late twenties, after a fifteen year hiatus, I was just plain bad. The only prayers of thanksgiving in those days came from my neighbors--when I was done with my daily half-hour honk. Still, I improved, and with lessons I improved even faster. Therefore, when I decided I wanted to ride my bicycle across the United States from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, I also decided that I would need to take my horn. I was determined not to lose any ground in my quest to be a good horn player, and I felt that two months without playing would be too long. The horn would come with me on the bike.
It wasn't a very good horn: a dented silver York with an old soldered repair on the mouthpipe next to a pinhole that I repaired with duct tape, and a piston thumb valve to accompany the clanky pistons. Still it was serviceable, despite its thin reediness in the high register. With the soft case in which the horn was (marginally) protected, I added several pounds to the load I would need to haul for 3600 miles, but it was worth it. By having my horn and practicing every day I would continue to improve my playing. I would also meet people through my music, and in times of loneliness and discouragement, my horn would give me the boost to continue.
At Crescent City, California, after three hours of riding up the west coast of the United States, I dipped the wheels of my bicycle into the Pacific Ocean, had a hamburger and milkshake for dinner, and turned east on US 199. Securely strapped to my bike were all the things I would need for the next two months: tent, sleeping bag, clothes, maps, journal, toothbrush, mouthpiece, music, and horn. Those grand and awesome trees of the temperate rain forest--the redwoods of northern California--formed a cathedral through which I rode. This was the first day of my trip.
That first night, at a state park campground, I put up my small tent and searched for a relatively out-of-the-way place to play my horn. An empty campsite near mine at the edge of the campground seemed the best place; I clothespinned my music to a small tree and sat on a big old redwood log. I consciously relaxed my breathing to focus my attention, and began to play.
Soon two curious children, a boy and a girl, appeared out of the woods to find out what was this sound like a mellow trumpet. In my mind I welcomed these two children who were dressed in shorts and T-shirts for the warm evening. The two children climbed around the log near me, gradually moving closer as they gained courage. When I finished my first tune, the little girl spoke to me.
"What is that thing you're playing?" she asked, digging her red sneaker toe into the soft forest duff and swaying gently back and forth in the perpetual motion of children.
"This is a French horn. Have you ever seen one before?"
Both the girl and the boy shook their heads.
The boy pulled himself up on the log which was as tall as he is. "We're on vacation," he said, as though he might have planned the whole family trip himself.
"Ah, that's very nice," I said. I blew a few notes on the horn to keep my chops warmed up.
"Hey, how do you do that?" asked the little girl. She had stopped fidgeting, and was looking more closely at my horn.
"Well, what you do is: you kind of put your lips together and make a buzzing sound, like this." I pursed my lips and buzzed. The little girl laughed.
"Play some more," she said. I flipped through some of my loose sheets of music, and pinned a simple tune to the sapling branch. While I played, the boy and the girl climbed down, around, and over the redwood log. I felt comforted to have them near, as though they linked me to this ground and this moment. I welcomed their presence in my music.
We talked some more, and then through the trees I could see a man looking at us. "Ben!" he called. "Alice!"
"That's our dad," said Alice. "We need to go. Bye."
Ben and Alice ran back to their father. In the dusk I played a nocturne to close the day, gathered my music and clothespins into the soft horn cover, and went back to my campsite. Day one of my odyssey was complete.
Other moments of my trip were like this, where my horn would be the bridge between other people and me. Near Cleveland, Ohio--some 2500 miles from that first evening in California--I played one morning in a deserted schoolyard. A man and his young son appeared.
"My wife plays that on the piano," said the man, referring to the piece I had just finished, a Liszt transcription. "She sent us to find out where it was coming from. Would you like to come to our house for a cup of coffee?" I said that would be great, and so spent an agreeable morning with the Blakes of Eastlake, Ohio.
Not all encounters were so agreeable. Indeed, some people at some campgrounds were not enthusiastic auditors, having instead hoped to escape the sounds of culture for the sounds of nature. They wanted to hear the wind through the trees, not the wind through my silver York. At Crater Lake National Park, in Oregon, one nice woman walked up to me at the campground's fringe, where I tried to be unobtrusive, and asked if I played in the Portland Symphony. (Either she didn't see the condition of my horn, or mistook it for some valuable, if eccentric, instrument.) In retrospect, I think she was trying to butter me up before asking me to quit filling the Cascade Mountains' silence with Gallay. I apologized and quickly closed up.
Many days on this bicycle trip I played alone. On those days the value of my horn was in its ability to relax and comfort me. A solo cross-continent ride can be lonely, especially out in the big West of the United States, where the range and breadth of the landscape can be matched only by the range and breadth of the well-played horn. At Craters of the Moon National Monument, a wasteland of volcanic clink in southeastern Idaho, I spent one such comforting hour on the horn, playing with reassuring ease and strength after a hard 80-mile day. I played in a bowl; the acoustics of the surrounding igneous formations were flattering. It was like singing in the shower. I was fortified for another day.
Another time that the horn was a comfort to me on this long trip was in the Badlands of South Dakota. There, in the vast openness of western South Dakota, out on the short grass prairie where weather systems are empty of the yearly rainfall needed for trees (having dumped it all on the Rocky Mountains to the west), I battled into a neck-tightening, 25-mile-per-hour headwind that made me feel as though I were biking through hot tar. As the afternoon progressed, angry clouds plumed higher and thicker into flashing thunderheads. In the distance, a little bit to the right of the middle of nowhere (and I mean nowhere, as in no people, no buildings, no traffic, only sky and grass rolling like the ocean to the horizon), I saw the steeple of a church. With a rush of new energy fueled by anxiety about the impending storm, I battled through the headwind toward the steeple. As I approached the church, I could see that it was as solitary and deserted as it had appeared to me from miles away. An eerie stillness accompanied my walk up to the front door: the wind had suddenly become dead calm. Lightning flashed behind the church; I barely reached the count of "2" before the sharp crack and roll of thunder shook the ground: the strike was less than half a mile away.
I pulled on the door. It was unlocked. I quickly wheeled my bike inside, and pulled the door shut behind me. A blast of wind made the church framing creak, and then the rain poured on the roof in torrents. Blue flashes lit the smoky windows like strobes, and the thunder growled and snapped. I unstrapped the old silver York from my bike, and pulled out the Mason Jones book of solos. "Kirchen Aria"--that was the one. I played for the church and for the thunder and the rain; I played to ease my fear of the lightning flash and of the swirling wind. The more I focused on my breath and tone, the calmer I felt, despite the storm. The horn has that kind of power, almost as though it can call down spirits of divine protection.
Five months after I pedaled the last of the 3600 miles to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and dipped my bike in the Atlantic Ocean--the ritual act that signifies the completion of a cross-continent ride--I bought a Paxman. I don't play the old silver York anymore: it sits up in the attic, in its soft black case, waiting patiently for another ride. As I think about that horn, it occurs to me that it might have more miles on the back of a bicycle than any horn in history: in addition to the 3600 miles from California to New Hampshire, it also rode 1000 miles around Nova Scotia, Canada, as well as another 2600 miles from Texas to New Hampshire. That's a long distance traveled.
The other great distance which that horn helped me travel was from the unforgiving terrain of "rank beginner" to the sunnier hills of "advanced amateur." Before I played the silver York, I was without music. Now, however, wherever I go, I know I can make music. I am deeply thankful for that joy. What else do you need for the long journey?
Chris Owen studied privately with Laura Klock (of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) for 5 years, and also attended Kendall Betts' Horn Camp for the first two years of its existence. His "day gig" has been as a high school English teacher, though currently he is studying at Andover Newton Theological School, in Newton, Massachusetts, for a qualification as a pastoral counselor. He is married with a son aged seven months. This article is an excerpt from a yet-unpublished book entitled Pumping Through The Heart: A Bike Ride Across America.