I was 24 years old when I left Mississippi headed west with a backpack, guitar, one pair of boots, and a Jack Kerouac-infused dream to see America. While on a stopover in Manitou Springs, I happened upon a Thursday night open mic at the Ancient Mariner.
It seemed as good a place as any to sing for mountain folks, so I sauntered in and signed up. I sat by myself in the corner most of the night. It was obvious that the place was filled with a lot of old friends having the kinds of interactions you only see in a truly great neighborhood bar.
There was no way for me to know the level of musical talent that had graced that stage in the 20 years before I walked past the "customer is never right" sign, including the late, great Townes Van Zandt, whom I would later learn had played there when it was called the Pioneer Inn, back before its Ancient Mariner heyday would begin.
I can't recall what I played that night, almost 15 years ago, other than Lennon's "Working Class Hero," which elicited an invitation to sit at a table with some guys who would become lifelong friends.
In a few months' time, we would together form the band Creating a Newsense, eventually playing hundreds of shows, traveling the country, dodging the authorities, and spreading a uniquely Manitou vibe at every stop.
I got my start at the Mariner; in fact my first three shows in Colorado were there. I have since played hundreds of nights at that bar — hosting open mics and songwriter showcases, doing solo shows, playing in bands that include Newsense, Southern Discomfort, The Ruxton Ramblers, Large Marge, the Pine Creek SK, my own current band, and others I'll probably never remember.
Through all of that, what has mattered, more than the countless hours of paying dues, are the countless lifelong friends that I have made while sitting at that old copper-top bar. We are a family of misfits, natives and transplants that have loved, lost, laughed and languished together at the Mariner.
I could fill every page of this publication with stories of this legendary institution on the west side; many readers could no doubt do the same. I will miss the sound of that old wood floor, never forget the crack of the pool ball while I sing Townes songs to an otherwise empty Tuesday night in January.
This Friday through Sunday, more than a dozen bands and solo artists will be taking part in a closing-weekend tribute to the venue's more than three-decade legacy, with Creating a Newsense reforming for the Sunday finale.
My thanks to the proprietor, Anne Stinson, for giving me my start, and to all the patrons there who went from fans to friends to family. Mostly, thanks for the memories.
Fare thee well, Captain, we'll keep Manitou weird.