Sam McManis

Discoveries: Sugar Pine Railroad ride is crazy good fun

With all due regret, I must ask you to come along with me on one of those touristy train rides featuring a steam-belching locomotive that chuffs and jerks at a painfully slow pace as it traverses a landscape clear-cut by rapacious lumber companies in days of yore.

Sure, you can take that attitude. I certainly did before I stepped aboard the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad’s “Moonlight Special” excursion, which departs twice weekly in summer and fall. You and I, we’re much too cool, too ironically detached, to lower our brows. We find it hard to enjoy the simple pleasure of trying to saw through a steak or chicken breast with a plastic knife without spilling lemonade on the vinyl red-checked table cloth, of enduring groan-inducing jokes from the conductor (“Don’t throw anything or anybody off the train”), of witnessing hard-core railroad enthusiasts geeking out over the majesty of a 1928 Shay steam engine.

But what if I were to tell you that, by the end of the night, you will have dropped all that posturing and given yourself over to a truly fun experience?

What if I were to promise that you’d find yourself, devoid of self-consciousness, swaying with the crowd while a four-piece band performs an Elvis Presley-tinged version of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”?

What if I were to predict you’d find yourself standing in line to buy the band’s CD afterward?

What if I were to suggest that you’d end up bonding with a couple of über-train lovers visiting from Orange County, who’ve ridden the rails everywhere from The Ghan in Australia to the White Pass in the Yukon?

What if, incredibly, you actually enjoyed yourself?

All that came to pass, I’m happy to report, and the reason is simple: That four-piece band, called Sugar Pine, featuring two acoustic guitarists, a banjo player and tambourine-shaking chanteuse, willed it so. They took control of a crowd of about 100 tourists one late August evening and won them over.

How’d they do it?

By being warm, embracing, funny and a wee bit edgy, not to mention possessing mad musical chops and nicely blended folk harmony – that’s how. They took a bunch of tourists, heavy on families with young children but peppered with aging boomers as well, who mostly stared down into their paper plates during the pre-ride barbecue and, two hours later, had them literally howling at the moon and singing along to hoary folk chestnuts without guilt-tripping them into submission.

Sugar Pine, the band, clearly knows it stuff, and its audience. It should. The two lead singers and guitarists, Chuck Thrapp and Dave Novell, have been doing it for 32 years. Yes, two nights a week around the campfire in summer and fall for 32 years, harmony singer Robyn Flory a mere 28 years. The newbie and relative youngster is banjo player Jeff Gurule, who joined the group last summer. They all have day jobs, of course. Novell’s a building contractor, Thrapp a plumbing contractor, Flory a school teacher, Gurule a wildlife and plant biologist.

Thrapp and Novell are the Lennon and McCartney of this group. They met in the early 1980s at a construction site in North Fork. They started playing guitar at lunch just for themselves, until the local burger stand owner heard them and offered them free food for lunchtime concerts. Around that time, at an open mike night at an Oakhurst restaurant, Thrapp’s singer-songwriter stylings caught the attention of Max Stouffer, who owns Sugar Pine Railroad.

So began a three-decade gig. Now, let’s be honest: Many such bands-for-hire at tourist traps are hacks just going through the motions, plowing through “This Land Is Your Land” and “Home on the Range” as if half-asleep, making sure the audience remains that way as well.

But Sugar Pine infused each song with boundless enthusiasm, a verve that transformed the hokey to heartfelt. After all, it’s not the songs that teeter on the trite – Neil Young and Crazy Horse, after all, do a killer version of “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain”; check it out on YouTube – but the presentation. Somehow, playing “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “You Are My Sunshine” never gets old for these guys.

“We’ve been doing this for half our lives,” Thrapp said. “This is one of the things life has taught me: People want to play. We admire people with courage enough to be a fool. The example I always use is Robin Williams. Or Red Skelton. In a world where you set up your whole life not to be foolish, we’ve set up a space to be foolish where you don’t care. People come to the railroad and they get into another world. It’s a vacation, a special time for them. They can let their guard down and allow themselves to be foolish.”

It doesn’t happen right away. Early on, people dutifully stood in line for their barbecue plate and didn’t pay much attention to Sugar Pine warbling across from the picnic tables.

But I did. My first clue that this band was different hit me as soon as I walked up. Sugar Pine was in the midst of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” I had to laugh as the incongruity of hearing the verse beginning, “Paranoia strikes deep/Into your life it will creep” at a wholesome barbecue. No one seemed to mind; there was scattered applause. A few songs later, seguing from hippie to redneck, the band launched into “Sweet Home Alabama,” with its pro-Gov. George Wallace lyrics. Again, scattered applause.

Most tourists were preoccupied sawing into their steaks. Either that, or checking out the locomotive. After all, the train, not the band, was supposed to be the star. I chatted up Vic and Sue Thies, of Mission Viejo, who have ridden the rails all over the world and boast an elaborate backyard garden railroad. They didn’t need livening up. They’d been on the Sugar Pine Railroad before and knew what a treat awaited.

The actual 4-mile trip on the narrow-gauge line was informative and eye-catching – heartening to see that the clear-cut forest has bounced back so well – but the crowd still seemed detached as dusk fell. We were led to a clearing, where a campfire roared and Sugar Pine faced the audience on benches in a woodsy amphitheater.

Maybe it was the wood smoke, or the sparks from the campfire, rising into the air, but the crowd warmed to Sugar Pine. Sure, this was a captive audience – the only way back to the parking lot was on the train – but people young and old were won over. They played one of Thrapp’s original songs, an ode to the Sugar Pine Railroad attraction and its founder, Lucy Stouffer, and then the band reached deep into the American songbook.

If folks were embarrassed, they didn’t show it. No eye-rolling, just foot-stomping and hand-clapping.

At one point, Flory coerced four ’tween girls to sing harmony with “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and they not only did that but cracked themselves up by performing elaborate dance moves. Then Thrapp instructed the audience to howl like a wolf during “Home on the Range,” saying, “People spend thousands of dollars in therapy to do this; we’re giving it to you absolutely free.” The full-throated howls that followed would’ve scared away any real predator. Novell later segued into his faux-Elvis mode, eliciting giggles from those of a certain age. When he wiped his brow with a handkerchief, a la the late, fat Elvis, and tossed it into the crowd, people fought over it.

“You know what,” said Will Sharp, who, along with wife, Ruth, had traveled from Tucson to visit Yosemite, “they made our trip. They livened us up. And they’re talented.”

The couple sounded surprised. They shouldn’t have been. Thirty-two years of practice makes perfect.

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