An Itch To Go~
After spending summer vacation with everyone I cared about being with in Sayre and my parents and brothers returned to Tehran, it was time to return to the boring grind of public school. I was a senior at last but the coming year of school still seemed like nothing less than an eternal sentence even though I was back among friends and my loving grandparents, and as October approached, the weather cooled only a little, remaining sunny and delightfully mild. I suddenly, inextricably got an itch to go. So one evening I let only one person know I was leaving town with nothing but some clothes and sleeping bag stuffed into a cheap, orange nylon backpack purchased at Gibson's Discount Center, and my guitar and banjo. I stopped at the DX gas station to tell Ricky and he expressed some concern about my impulsive decision, asking me where I was going. I told him Cripple Creek in Colorado and he gave me $20 of his own, hard-earned cash without hesitation and insisted I take it before watching me tramp off toward the interstate. I didn't look back but I'm sure he was grinning even as he was shaking his head. He understood.
The walk from the DX station near the north end of town, across the river bridge out to the interstate south of town took more than an hour but as soon as the sun was setting in orange and white glory, I stood on the shoulder near Mr. Fitch's old Route 66 snake pit tourist attraction, stuck out my thumb and within seconds a large box truck pulled over and stopped in a cloud of dust and highway debris. It was traveling with the roadie caravan transporting gear for the Paul Winter Consort. They not only stopped but the two guys in the truck both jumped out, greeted me cheerfully and helped me put my backpack, guitar and banjo in the truck's large cargo box in back. That worried me a little as they eagerly urged me to get up into the cab and we headed out at high speed to catch up with their caravan. But as we caught up to it the conversation was friendly, lively and rich. My fear subsided. They told me about the Paul Winter Consort and that they were going to San Francisco to perform, asking if I wanted to come along and become a roadie. I told them I had just recently been to San Francisco but was on my way to Cripple Creek now to seek fame and fortune there. They laughed at that but didn't argue over my foolishness and we continued talking on as we wheeled west into the final vestiges of an amazing Texas panhandle sunset.
I thought a bit more logically about what I was doing and began wondering if I was just flat crazy. I thought about Jimmy and where he might be now, wondering if this was the direction he took when he left Sayre just a few years prior to my departure without telling anyone where he was going, and hadn't contacted family or friends since then. I wondered if I might run into him out there somewhere but seriously doubted I could avoid contacting my own family and some of my closest friends (the Williams family), eventually, after I was rich and famous and a singer/songwriter superstar.
I asked if I could be dropped off at Shamrock because I wanted to head north from there to the southeastern corner of Colorado rather than try heading north from Amarillo or someplace further west on I-40. I wanted to make the journey on back roads in case my grandfather, who was an agent with the Oklahoma ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control Board), wouldn't hesitate to use any official leverage he could to get state troopers on the lookout for me along major highways. So I walked north up highway 83, in the dark of night from the Shamrock exit toward Twitty just a few miles away. Traffic was light on that lonely road at that hour and none that drove past even slowed down for a look at me. But someone must have noticed me.
I finally gave up trying to get a ride and walked out into a field full of tall wheat ripe for harvest and settled down between guitar and banjo for some sleep. I didn't sleep well at first as regrets crept into my dreams. A short time later I was awakened by flashing lights and the sound of diesel engines revving a short distance away directly in front of me. Convinced it was a combine bearing down on me as it was starting late harvest of the field before sunrise, I sprang to my feet, shouldered my backpack, grabbed guitar and banjo and prepared to sprint away deeper into the wheat in the opposite direction. But just as I was about to take my first lurching step in that direction I heard a man's authoritative voice say "Have you seen a hitchhiker out here tonight?"
I dropped back to the ground like a rock and held my breath. It wasn't the diesel engine and lights of a combine, it was a highway patrol car and an 18-wheel diesel rig pulling a reefer on the highway.
"Damn!" I thought. "Pa did send out an APB for me and this is one of the roadblocks for it!"
Thinking my great adventure was over barely before it had begun, I stayed still and listened to the highway patrol officer stopping each rare vehicle driving north toward Twitty, asking if they had seen a hitchhiker and then sending them on their way. I was terrified and eventually belly crawled away as silently as I could, deeper into the wheat until the sound of the officer's voice faded and only the loudest vehicle engine noises were reaching my ears. Then I fell asleep, completely exhausted from fear and the long crawl.
I woke at dawn and lay still for almost an hour listening for sounds of activity at the roadblock but heard nothing except a bobwhite and meadow larks greeting the morning sun. Carefully sitting up and then kneeling just enough to peek over the fat heads of wheat which would certainly soon be combine harvested, I looked toward the highway only to find it completely deserted. No highway patrol. No roadblock. No idling diesel rigs. Nothing. No one.
Quickly shouldering my backpack, I grabbed my instruments, dashed through the tall wheat back to the highway and began hoofing north with my thumb stuck out at every passing vehicle and a broad, friendly smile genuinely stretched across my young face. The third automobile to go by stopped and opened a door. It was an old, weathered Ford station wagon, circa 1957. Our family had traveled many thousands of miles in something similar. Inside sat a family of black people. A mother, her three sons and daughter. I thanked them profusely for their kindness, put my backpack and instruments through the roll-down window in the very back seat beside the youngest of the three sons, and sat down in the middle-back seat beside the two oldest sons. The daughter stared at me from the front passenger seat.
"Where you goin'?" she asked.
"Cripple Creek," I replied. She glanced at her mother and rolled her eyes. I just grinned at them all.
They were returning home from a boxing match the oldest son had just competed in victoriously. He talked the least, only saying "I'm a boxer." while the rest of the family went on about the fight and how he had thoroughly trounced his opponent in less than four rounds. I smiled a lot and congratulated him on his achievement but mostly stayed silent unless asked a direct question. They talked about boxing and their travels to and from matches all the way to the middle of the panhandle of Oklahoma where they let me out on a deserted stretch of highway 412 near their home near Eva. The mother wished me well on my journey and told me not to keep my family worrying forever about where I had disappeared to. I promised I wouldn't, thanked them for the long, generous ride up the entire length of the panhandle of Texas and watched their old station wagon trundle up a narrow dirt track to a small house surrounded by nothing but sandy, shortgrass scrubland and tumbleweeds.
Turning my attention back to the highway, I stared west to see nothing but gray pavement with long drifts of tawny sand laced with cockleburs and goatheads stretching across it at frequent intervals. None of the drifts had any tire tracks cutting across them. It was just past noon, dry and hot, so I drank a little water from my canteen (I had no food with me) and started walking west toward Boise City where I intended to turn north on 385, then west again at Lamar on highway 50 to reach Pueblo. From there I would head north to the Front Range and at Colorado Springs I would take the Old Gold Camp Road to Victor and Cripple Creek. And I did that, reaching Cripple Creek three days later, by foot and thumb, playing my banjo for appreciative drivers who picked me up specifically because they wanted to hear some real banjo music played by a real, live banjo player. Thanks to tunes like Earl Scruggs' Foggy Mountain Breakdown, The Ballad of Jed Clampett , Soldier's Joy, Cripple Creek and Dueling Banjos (which I gladly played solo any time then) and the kind hearts of those who gave me nice, long rides, the trek to Cripple Creek was an enjoyable one. But Cripple Creek turned out to be pretty creepy.
A van of hippies picked me up in Colorado Springs and took me to Cripple Creek. Along the way I asked about jobs in Cripple Creek. They informed me the best way to make money was to sleep with people. To prostitute myself. I nodded and struggled to suppress the shudder coursing through me. When they let me out near the Imperial Hotel (which my parents had briefly considered purchasing in the mid 1960s) I looked left, then right and then started out of town on highway 67 back toward Colorado Springs. I was picked up by a recently married couple who convinced me to go with them to Breckenridge where a major building boom was underway. Hotels and ski resorts were being built at breakneck speed to accommodate the burgeoning ski tourism industry. I agreed and arrived in Breckenridge a day later, sat down on a street corner, took my banjo out of its case and started playing it. It just seemed to be the thing to do at the time.
Duffy Wilson's Very Sound Shop~
A handsome, good looking young man that looked to be only a few years older than me walked up from across the street and listened to me playing then clapped when I finished a rendition of Cripple Creek (couldn't get that strange place out of my head) and then asked me who I played with.
"What do you mean?" I replied.
"What band, I haven't seen you in any of the ones around here."
"Oh," I said. "No one. Just me. I just got into town a few minutes ago."
"Hitchhiked?" he asked.
I nodded, sheepishly.
"Cool," he replied. "Want to come jam with us and crash at my house?"
"Sure, that sounds like fun!" I said, jumping to my feet and casing the banjo.
"I'm Duffy Wilson," he said, reaching out to shake my hand. We shook and I told him my name. He led me back across the street where a friend was waiting for him (I vaguely remember his first name being Jim). Duffy introduced us and Jim complimented me on my banjo playing, asking who taught me. I told him I taught myself and he and Duffy exchanged a funny look with each other.
"You taught yourself to play Scruggs style?" Jim asked. I nodded again and said "I have a copy of Earl's book and slowed his records down to 33 1/3rd RPM to figure out the notes."
They exchanged looks again then asked me to follow them and led me into a building, upstairs and into a shop called Very Sound filled with sound equipment: amplifiers, PAs, microphones (really nice ones) and speakers of all sizes that set me to drooling.
"This is my shop. I sell and rent sound equipment." Duffy said, "We're just starting up our band. Your banjo picking would fit right in."
Jim nodded in agreement. "Sort of a jug band, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, like that."
I grinned as goosebumps rose on my arms and a thrill raced up my spine. A band. And they want me to join it just like that! Whoa! I was so glad I decided on the spur of the moment to sit down and play my banjo on the street right outside his shop. Might not be that long before I call home to tell everyone I'm a famous musician recording albums and touring the world!