The Sorrow of Ste Marie

Sault Ste Marie was a perfect disappointment. And I mean that as a compliment. It was absolute perfection.

Locks

From Sault St Marie all the way to Coeur d’Alene
Angels on the freeway speak to me
Crosses on the road
With names that I don’t know
A million whispers telling me where to go

It was over a decade ago that I was sitting in the grass at the Sweet Pea Festival in Bozeman, Montana. The band was Mick Sterling and Kevin Bowe with the Okemah Prophets. They played a good set, and I liked them enough to walk up to the stage and buy a copy of their live album “Doin’ It For the People.”

But I still believe in the glory of Saint Marie
Coming down
To shed her grace on me

It’s a good album with some great tracks. They do a cover of the “Cocaine Blues” that I prefer to Johnny Cash’s version. It was the album where I first heard “There Stands the Glass,” a terrific country song if ever there was one. But one song stood out more than any other. It’s an original. It has to be, because there is zero record of it anywhere except on this particular album. It’s called “Sault Ste. Marie,” and it’s the only reason I know how to correctly pronounce the name of that town (Soo Saint Marie).

From Galveston Bay all the way to Grand Marais
Highway signs whispering the way
Don’t matter where you’re bound,
They won’t let you turn around
Getting up and falling down right where you lay

The song is also to blame for why I went up to the upper peninsula of Michigan in the first place. It’s true, I had heard that the beaches were lovely. It’s true, I figured I could always go to Chicago another time. But honestly, I had to see Sault Ste. Marie. The song was a regular road trip anthem. And not the sunshine and good times sort of anthem. “Sault Ste. Marie” is the kind of song you play at night. You play it in the rain. You play it when the journey is long and the path is rough. “Sault Ste. Marie” is the song that convinces you to keep going when you’d rather just give up. I had to see the town that would inspire such a song.

And I still believe in the glory of Saint Marie
Coming down
To shed her grace on me

I arrived in Sault Set. Marie in the late afternoon. It was gray and cold and windy. The town is small, but not quaint. It’s a border town, but not the kind that attracts tourists. It’s the kind you imagine to be full of people looking to get out.

Boat Spectators

I asked the manager at the hotel what there was to see, and he recommended the locks. I spent some time in the locks museum, mostly to get out of the freezing weather. Near the river the wind was strong and bitterly cold – worse than anything I’d felt in months. I waited on the platform with the other tourists for the next big boat to come in. The locks at Sault Ste. Marie allow large ships to move between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, along St. Mary’s River. The boats are big and the locks are small, which means the ships move slow. It was easily an hour between the time we first saw the big ship come around the bend and when it began to lower into the locks. People took pictures. A few girls old enough to know better were giggling over their own photos and the phallic nature of the ship. I watched the flags flapping furiously in the wind. It was mildly interesting. It was terribly dreary. 

Flags

I’m the last of the true believers
In the past and the fallen leaders
Can’t let go even though I know
I been long since left behind,
Left for dead, and left for blind
Maybe I’ve lost my mind but I do not think so

And that’s why it was perfect. The song “Sault Ste. Marie” reminds me of the underlying sadness of the open road. The road is not a home. The road is not where you intend to be. Even when it’s about the journey and not the destination, the destination is always there in the distance. Sometimes the highway gets long and lonely and endless. Sometimes it’s dark, sometimes it rains. Sometimes it feels like your whole life has become a never-ending parade of the world’s most dismal gas stations. But that’s when you put on a song like “Sault Ste. Marie,” fling your arms out to the side, and tell yourself, “Yes I am here. Yes I am aching. Yes there are miles to go. Yes, yes, yes. And I will keep going, because at this moment, this sad, sorry town is exactly where I ought to be.”

And I still believe in the sorrow of Saint Marie
Coming down
To shed her grace on me

She’s gonna shed her grace on me

______________________

NOTE: An additional fact you should know is that Mick Sterling and Kevin Bowe are absolute dolls. Because the song isn’t well known, there was nowhere online for me to confirm that I had correctly transcribed the lyrics for this post. I emailed them and they responded the next day with the lyrics AND a couple bonus MP3s of the song, both in studio recordings and a sweet version by Three Dog Night with the London Philharmonic.

Check out them out: Mick SterlingKevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets

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American Road Trip Playlist

Some years back my friends and I went to Yakima for a weekend. We had to take multiple cars, and I offered to be one of the drivers. I spent hours crafting a lengthy and diverse playlist and burning it to several CDs. My friend Jon, on the other hand, insisted that his car listen to the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive for two hours straight. Jon claimed that it was the ideal song to play on repeat during a road trip, and believe it or not the reports from his passengers corroborated this. I was thinking I might test it out by listening to the song on repeat while driving the length of an entire state. A small state. Like Rhode Island.

But since I can’t listen to the Gibb brothers nonstop for four months, I need a few more hits on my playlist. Imagine what a waste it would be to take off on such a grand adventure without a soundtrack. Here’s my list so far:

1. 1000 Miles Per Hour by OK Go

If there’s one song that has been on my road trip playlist since the first day I heard it, it’s this.

Something about the chorus just makes me want to abandon all my plans and drive off towards the east.

2. Rock’n Me by the Steve Miller Band

This is one of those classic songs that you might not realize you already know.

3. Route 66

I’m still looking for the best version of the song Route 66, since my travels will take me along the old highway. There’s Nat King Cole and Chuck Berry of course, as well as what always seems to be an oddly ironic cover by the Rolling Stones. I would have sworn Ella Fitzgerald did a famous recording of it, but it’s possible I’m just remembering Natalie Cole.

4. Lost and Found by Katie Herzig

I’m still considering this one. It starts to have that road-trip-freedom vibe near the end, though if you pay too much attention to the lyrics it is about something else entirely.

5. Cruz by Christina Aguilera

For the absolute, straight-forward, “I’m outta here” ballad.

Doin' It for the People

6. Sault Ste Marie by Mick Sterling with Kevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets

I picked up a live recording of these guys several years ago at at the Sweet Pea Festival in Bozeman, MT. While I love the whole CD, the song that I want to put one when I’m driving late at night is “Sault Ste Marie.” I credit this song wholly and specifically for why I’m even bothering to go to Sault Saint Marie on this trip. I didn’t know the place existed before this song. I can’t find the live recording anywhere online, but you can listen to a preview of the studio version on iTunes.

7. The One I Love by Greg Laswell

Because every playlist needs something chipper but bitterweet.

8. Down in the Valley by The Head and the Heart

One final song that was added to my list recently also has the benefit of coming with a road trip themed music video. Though I’ve never been a specific fan of The Head and The Heart, it will be nice to know that I’m bringing a little bit of Seattle with me the whole way.