The Shunned Country
esearch Journal: I’ve been sent to get the feel for thousands of square miles of sparsely populated land commonly known as “Up-North.” The purpose of this excursion is to gather enough information to write a bright and fun travel story for a regional magazine. A different publication, Stylus Magazine, has sent Bob Drake along for the ride—supposedly he knows some things about the countryside and is pretty good on the banjo.
Day 1: We got off to a late start, reaching the highway that demarcates the southern border of Up-North, around 4 p.m. While the term “Up-North” has been used for generations, Bob insists on calling the area, “The Shunned Country.” I find the connotation a bit negative. I have to say, though I don’t really know him, I think Bob is quite strange. As we came to our first town, he suddenly started picking some demonically fast banjo. Then he sang: “not many normal folks live around here any more, having had one too many strange things show up at their door.” It seemed like a nice enough town, but maybe he was right, that old guy on the tractor did have a weird look about him. We drove on.
It was nearly 8pm by the time we came to the next settlement. I was sure I could find a decent place to stay and perhaps even a good conversation and cocktail in this quaint lakeside town. But Bob started up again “Nobody around here is willing to discuss the events that led them to dynamite the graveyard.” While I found this disturbing, I was tired and decided to take my chances. I made a mental note not to bring up the blasting incident with any of the locals then checked into a guest lodge for the evening.
Day 2: I thought it prudent to learn a little about Bob before embarking on a 7-day journey with the man so before we left I hit the Internet for info. Bob’s website provides limited biographical information, but has sections reserved for his music, photography and “furry art.” As I clicked on the art section, I was greeted with the following warning: “If homoerotic fantasy art featuring imaginary or cartoon animals would offend you, do not enter.” I think this warning provides adequate description of what I saw once I proceeded, so I’ll forgo any color, but it appears Bob fancies canines. It appears he’s French too.
After breakfast, I decided to take a hike to find some of the area’s famed waterfalls, but as we reached the trailhead, Bob warned me of what lay ahead: “Acres of stinging nettles…hedges of toxic shrubs.” If you’ve seen one waterfall you’ve seen them all. I decided to forego the hike and drive on.
As we continued down the road, I thought Bob might be trying to lighten the mood a bit as he started a folky, finger-picked, guitar ditty he calls “Puppy.” It begins as a tale about a cute little black puppy that follows some people home but then—suddenly, startlingly—he lurched into a most awful cacophony and muttered something about how the puppy had grown four feet tall. I swerved, nearly clipping someone’s large-mouth bass mailbox.
Day 3: I didn’t sleep well. Bob’s got me on edge. The silences between his morbid musical outbursts are almost as long as the songs themselves. He’s got 52 songs about the Shunned Country that add up to 45 minutes. Who’s ever heard of such a thing? I find myself hyper-aware of every sound and peripheral movement; I never know what’s coming next. Bob is a gifted musician to be sure, a one man Zappa ensemble, but he prefers to treat his ideas like frightening leaps from behind the least expected places. He says that if he could change he would become a bear and go on a rampage then go home and watch movies and sleep. I guess I prefer him the way he is.
Today, I listened to Bob go on and on about all sorts of horrible things regarding the Shunned Country. Horrible things: a “megalith of forgotten purpose,” wallpaper made of “weird stuff no one knows how to make anymore,” a skeleton of “a thing no one had ever seen before, “pale things found fumbling,” etc.
Day 4: I came to the Shunned Country to write about tranquil encounters with nature and bucolic towns, but all I’ve found are frightening run-ins with the supernatural and settlements where everyone is either dead or insane. Thank God Bob has been along to point all of this out. Besides, I really dig his micro-music. I found it uncomfortably abrupt at first but know I’m impressed by the fact that he can create songs with multiple sections that clock in at under a minute. I was supposed to stay up here another three days but Bob warned me, “don’t linger longly or things may start going wrongly.” There’s a cloud of indescribable color hanging over a hill near the hotel and if Bob’s right, “it’s been lingering up there for at least two weeks…and it leaks.” I’m out of here.
Reviewed by: Mario Quadracci
Reviewed on: 2005-06-06