I’ve written before about how music dissolves the imaginary lines we draw between ourselves and others, so that whether it’s swaying with your seat neighbor at Red Rocks or joining a block party dancing in the streets, as long as you’re moving to the same beat, you’re friends.
Before I was Sarah Noel, I was Sarah Kincheloe, and here is an unfailingly Kincheloe trait: we have no problem yucking it up with strangers, with or without music. A few months ago, I was sitting in the Evergreen School of Music listening to my daughters—and many other youngsters—practicing their various instruments through the thin walls. So, it’s a tired mom waiting on an old couch, and a man walks in carrying a guitar: sounds like the start of a great joke. The girl formerly known as Kincheloe makes this crack, and somewhere down the evolutionary line, Kincheloes and Searcys must have developed the same sense of humor, which is to say, corny conversation was easy with Alan Searcy. He counters with a dad joke, and then one to two more witty volleys before diving into life stories.
“It started in 2001,” Alan begins (the story, not his life), “when myself, my brother and two friends went to an Alaskan glacier to do some rock climbing. I got to the top of a route and I radioed down to the camp to put on dinner because we’d be down soon,” he remembers, specifically adding that they were grilling meat. “Someone broke in on the radio frequency and said, ‘Who are you? And how do you have meat?’” Alan, not rattled, asked who he was speaking to, and the reply was, “The Army of Darkness.”
The punchline had purpose: When camping and climbing in remote Alaska, every group is required to report a team name to the park rangers. Alan was a member of Team Duct Tape. The Army of Darkness was living up to their name, interrupting private conversations and suffering with no meat—but they did have alcohol.
“So, we invited them to dinner,” Alan says, “which was awesome because we drank all their liquor.” Music brings people together, and yes, so can a good camp cocktail. As it turns out, The Army of Darkness was also from Colorado, near Montrose. After a night of stories and food, both teams were more like friends than strangers. “We flew out before them, but we left them our leftover butter, coffee and things since they only had freeze-dried food,” says Alan—and a good thing, because Team Duct Tape left just before a storm blew in and The Army of Darkness was left stranded on the glacier longer than they planned.
Really, this is enough to make a good story about unlikely friendships. But why should it end there? “We got back to the lower 48, hooked up with [The Army of Darkness] and went rock climbing,” explains Alan. “Now we meet up, still, in the desert and at undisclosed locations in Utah, Colorado, Canada, Montana, Wyoming.”
Once strangers, now friends-like-family, Team Duct Tape (exclusively from the Front Range) and The Army of Darkness (anyone on the Western Slope) have gotten to know each other outside of survival situations. It turns out they have even more in common than adrenaline rushes and home states: everyone is musical. So when the friends get together, they build up bonfires, cook campfire meals, mix drinks, and then the instruments come out: drums, guitars, banjos, even a French horn. Everyone sings. And over these two decades of great and growing friendship, they’ve essentially written a soundtrack for the journey.
“When something happens, someone will find a song, make it fit that moment, and it becomes a part of The Book,” Alan tells me. The Book being an actual binder of sheet music that they practice from and bring along on their trips so that everyone knows the notes and lyrics. “We take regular songs—though we have written some originals too—and change the words to fit our needs. So, for example, apologies to Johnny Cash, but we have one called ‘Burning Pallet Fire,’ which originated, well, because we dance on burning pallets.” Fittingly, Alan’s Book was burned from sparks launching off one of those pallets. “A lot of the edges are burned and crispy and the binder is partly melted.” He thinks it adds character.
The Book contains more than a hundred numbers that are the songbook of this amazing friendship, and Team Duct Tape and The Army of Darkness are still generating new content. “We kick lyrics and songs back and forth over the internet when they hit us, and try them out at the gatherings. If they’re good enough, they make it into The Book.”
It makes me think of the way we pass down history through hymnals, spirituals, old rock ‘n’ roll. The way music is like a record of who we’ve all been together—and this is especially true as the group grows and ages. Alan brought his own daughters on the climbing trips, and other team members now bring their kids. They’ve been ice climbing, rock climbing, kayaking. They’ve been to deserts, forests, Central and South America. “Our trips are always musical,” Alan says. “That’s the common thread—besides the love and the community,” which is the best depiction of how music works to bind us. “And good tequila.”