Dust and Mud - Photography by Dana Thomas
Pozo Saloon - 1974

Late afternoon sunlight sneaks through the frosted windows. The rays fall across the plank floor, landing on the jukebox in the corner. Decorated with colored glass, brightly backlit with incandescent bulbs and dating from the early 60s, it is filled with 45's of country classics and a smattering of flower-power rock and roll. The room is quiet, the bartender at his station behind the polished wood bar watching a midday gameshow with the sound off. Dust motes float in the sun rays around a hand full of tables, adorned with Tabasco, napkins and bowls of peanuts. Mismatched wooden chairs are tucked haphazardly under the tables waiting expectantly for customers. Neon advertising Hamm's, Busch and Pabst contribute a surreal glow. Signs left behind by traveling salesmen who no longer include the tired tavern on their weekly rounds.

Footsteps crossing the wide roughhewn boards of the front porch force the bartender off his perch as the door swings open for three young men. Lean and dressed identically in green work pants, gray uniform shirts and stacked heeled, black leather boots, they fill the room with unexpected energy. Before they have a chance to shout, "the usual", the bartender instinctively draws three glasses of lager. Collecting the beer and glasses with thanks and comments about the dry, hot and dusty day they settle at the table closest to the jukebox. The tallest sets a handheld radio on the table, adjusting the squelch to silence, while a companion pumps quarters into the jukebox.

As Marty Robbins begins to sing about heartbreak and death in El Paso the three tell stories about wildfires from their past. The first speaks about bravery in the brush of California, the second describes forests in the Sierras exploding in flames, while a third recounts close calls and near disaster. The stories are handed around the table, the jukebox plays and the level of beer in their glasses subsides as they make plans for an evening in town.

Hands signal a second round, as the radio squawks out a fire call, ticking off responding crews, triggering a siren from their station across the narrow country road. Chair legs scrape the wooden floor, dollars are deposited on the table and yelling goodbyes, the three sprint out the door.

The bartender watches the door swing shut, plunging the barroom back into twilight. Looking at the half-filled glass under the tap, he pushes the handle closed and takes a sip as the last of the jukebox selections fades to an end.