With aching fingers and throbbing hands, I grip the small chisels, files, and rasps I need to carve the gentle curves of my ukulele’s neck. Then I sand the Acacia wood that makes up its body until it’s as smooth as a tumbled river rock. My body hurts from the intensity of building this miniature musical instrument at RockyGrass Academy, a series of music classes and an instrument-building workshop held at Lyon’s Planet Bluegrass, but I persist.
On the last day, the neck cracks. Then, the fret board breaks. But I keep at it, working with the wood to create something, because giving up means letting the greatest loss I have experienced—the devastation of my hometown, Lyons, caused by the 500-year flood of 2013—submerge me.
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Over the course of four days in September 2013, floodwaters turned the two St. Vrain Rivers that meet in Lyons into one giant, thunderous moving body of water. Hundred-foot trees and dozens of crushed cars torpedoed through buildings, leaving us with 20 percent fewer homes, no sewage system or electricity, and few people. Ninety-five percent of Lyons’ residents were displaced for at least two and a half months.
I stayed, camping out at my house with a generator, a Porta Potty, and cases of Red Cross–supplied bottled water. I felt compelled to do whatever I could to volunteer. I cleaned homes and businesses, including my favorite local stomping grounds, Planet Bluegrass.
It was at “the Planet,” in 2008, that I had my first experience as a student luthier. I built my mandolin. It produces reverberating tremolos and a woodsy timbre that is unique because of the braces carved specifically to resonate with the “voice” of the wood used. It is my most valuable possession, and I bring it with me everywhere.
Since the floods, I have regularly carried it 100 yards from my house, down the hill, to the now rocky, treeless banks of the South St. Vrain River. There, I play tunes I’ve heard at the Planet, such as “Will the Circle be Unbroken” and “Amazing Grace.”
At first, as I helped clean up the rest of Lyons, I couldn’t return to the Planet. It’s a festival venue in town but also a music mecca for Colorado. Lyons is home to a plethora of musicians, in large part because this venue exists. I had already watched our bike paths, parks, and businesses be ripped away. I couldn’t also confront the Planet’s Wildflower Pavilion and grounds as a jumbled mess of concrete chunks and muck.
But about a month after the floods, I eventually found myself working there every Saturday alongside dozens of volunteers. I hauled away metal, tree limbs, and other detritus that I peeled layer by layer off of trees by the river’s edge. Months passed. The Planet was reconstructed, recontoured, and laid with sod.
It was tangible evidence of Lyons’ rebirth. When musicians, Academy students, festivarians, and our community came together the second week in July for RockyGrass 2014, it was with a deep sense of gratitude and awe. Outsiders who hadn’t seen four feet of water drown the Planet might not realize anything ever happened there, but every Lyons resident knew what had been saved.
We’ve made a lot of progress in Lyons. Some people even say we are a model disaster town for our speedy recovery. After being awarded millions of grant dollars to restore our parks and trails, we’ve renovated a large part of one of our two main recreation areas, Meadow Park. The community is involved in every aspect of the recovery process, from those focused on affordable housing to people working to develop the Shop Local, Shop Lyons efforts.
But, really, we’re not OK—yet. Too many people are broke; too many are homeless. A year out, many are barely hanging onto their businesses. Others have yet to receive FEMA or insurance money, leaving them stuck in RVs or other peoples’ basements while their homes become increasingly moldy.
So we still suffer the pain of loss and change on a daily basis. But many residents have found catharsis in creativity. Five local female musicians formed a band called the Watergirls, which has performed on eTown and played a gospel set to a teary-eyed audience the last Sunday morning of RockyGrass. Other musicians have organized weekly dance parties and music-inspired house parties. And I built my uke. After 30-plus hours of intense carving, sanding, and gluing, I own a lustrous instrument that vibrates in my hands when people talk or sing. The first uke ever to be built at Colorado’s most storied festival venue, it is, for me, a small part of the post-flood rebirth of that musical mecca and the town in which it lies.