Shortly after my final year in public school began, a bright, beautiful sunset greeted me as I exited my grandparent's house on a Sunday evening in early October. To this day I can't explain why I decided to do it, but I went back inside the house, loaded up a backpack, walked up Route 66 to a gas station my friend Ricky was working at and announced that I was leaving town. Ricky grinned, thinking I was kidding, then saw by my expression that I wasn't. And then he did something unexpected and deeply moving. He handed me a twenty dollar bill and asked me to be careful during the trip. I refused the money but Ricky insisted, telling me he knew I would need it somewhere along the way. So I thanked him, turned and walked south along Route 66 downhill through town, out of town, past the city park and on a bit longer to where the motherroad intersected I-40.
By then the sun had set and nighttime was coming. I walked up the ramp to the westbound lanes of the interstate and began hitchhiking. In addition to the backpack, I was carrying my 5-string banjo and the 12-string guitar my parents had given to me on my thirteenth birthday. A few minutes later, a couple of longhaired hippy types in a box truck picked me up, helped me put my gear in the rear of the box truck. I noticed the box was full of musical instruments, including a huge concert bass drum. They eagerly invited me up into the cab of the truck, indicating that they were in a rush and had to get rolling again right away. I clambered up and sat down between them and we roared off, accelerating fast to catch up with the rest of a caravan of trucks they were traveling with.
Roaring west into dusk, they asked where I was going. I readily admitted I didn't really know. They seemed to like that response and asked what kind of music I liked and what kind of music I played on my guitar and banjo. I told them I liked to play rock and roll on the guitar and Scruggs style bluegrass on the banjo. And as I told them my favorite kinds of music I included recent development of a taste for middle eastern stringed instrument music. That got their attention so they asked what sparked that interest and I told them about recently returning from living in Tehran.
Now they were really interested, so I asked about the musical instruments in the back of their truck. The driver asked me if I had ever heard of a band called the Paul Winter Consort. I told them that I hadn't. The driver pointed a thumb back over his shoulder and asked if I was from that little town near the ramp they had picked me up at. "Yeah, I said. Sort of. I lived there as a kid and then returned this past summer to finish high school there." He nodded and glanced at the other passenger. "We really need to try to find a way to market to these small towns, somehow," he told him.
They passed no judgement regarding my rash actions to leave town before finishing high school and we talked about music, old cars, food and partying. Very friendly guys. Full of energy. Then as we rolled into Shamrock, Texas I let them know I wanted out at the highway 83 exit. They nodded and slowed then stopped on the shoulder to let me out.
The driver asked why I wanted out there. I told him I had decided to go to Cripple Creek, Colorado. "What's in Cripple Creek you want to do?", he asked. I told them I wanted to try to get into a jug band there and perform in the Rocky Mountains for a living. He asked if I would consider joining them to work as a roadie, helping to set up and tear down equipment for concert engagements out west. I thanked them and declined their offer. They nodded again, smiled and helped me get my gear out of the back of the truck. We shook hands and they wished me well on my journey to find fame and fortune.
By then it was nighttime and after walking a couple of miles north on 83 out of town, I hiked a short way out into a field covered in tall, ripe wheat to sleep until morning. I've written about that exciting night and about catching a ride from there the next morning elsewhere in this blog, so I won't repeat it here. About noon the next day I was in the panhandle of Oklahoma walking west on highway 412 between Eva and Boise City. That stretch was bordered by vast, recently harvested and plowed fields of bare sand on either side. At one point I came upon a place where pale sand from the south side of the highway and darker sand from the north side of the highway had blown onto the blacktop pavement. Probing remnants of the dustbowl attempting to touch at the centerline.
This stark sight set me to worrying because it appeared the contrasting fingers of sand had been deposited by shifting winds onto the blacktop days ago and had not been disturbed since then. There were no tire tracks across either invading swath. That stretch of highway apparently did not get much vehicular traffic. Very bad for hitchhikers. Especially hitchhikers running low on water.
"Damn," I thought. "What kind of fix am I in now?". And that thought got me to thinking about other fixes I had gotten myself into since becoming a teenager.
There were several, including my first hitchhiking experience from a pig farm near Chicago all the way south to the same little town the Paul Winter Consort had picked me up at the previous evening. "Why do I do these things?" I wondered aloud as I trudged along westward toward Cripple Creek, taking a tiny sip of water from my near empty canteen.
Fortunately a student attending college at Oklahoma Panhandle State University in Goodwell came barreling along from the east at high speed before the sun set on the third evening I was stuck on that road and picked me up. We talked easily with each other, being almost the same age. I told her I had a classmate who was planning on going to school at Panhandle State when he graduated next year. She asked his name and told me she would keep an eye out for him when he started classes there. I figured Russ would thank me for it. She was pretty.
She let me out at Boise City where I immediately struck out north on highway 385 toward Campo, Colorado. From there I moved quickly north and then west to Pueblo, traveling through the night with a rancher going into the city to buy fencing supplies. I spent little time with my thumb out heading north from Pueblo to Colorado Springs, and two days after escaping the panhandle of Oklahoma, I was in Cripple Creek.
There wasn't much of a live music scene in Cripple Creek. In fact, none at all. A group of hippies picked me up and advise I go to Breckenridge where live musical talent was in demand. So after camping outside Cripple Creek one night, I moved on back north through Florissant, Lake George, Hartsel, Fairplay, and Blue River to finally land in Breckenridge a few days later. By then I was thin and hungry and spent half of the twenty dollars Ricky had given me for food and a fleece-lined bluejeans jacket.
After eating some cheese and crackers, I sat down on a curb and started playing my banjo, hoping to get a tip or two from passersby. A couple of people tossed me a few dollars, then a fellow named Duffy Wilson walked up and stood to listen to me play. When I finished he talked with me for a while and then asked if I would like to see his shop. I told him I would and he led me into a nearby building, up a flight of stairs into a room crammed full of shiny new sound equipment. He asked if I could hang around for a while to go with him after closing time to meet some people at his house just east outside town. I agreed to do that, and I met his friends who were all musicians playing together in a jug band with Duffy. We tried playing together and it went well. I knew a lot of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band tunes which they had been working on too, and we played a few bluegrass tunes like Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Soldiers Joy. I couldn't believe my luck meeting them all so quickly after arriving in Colorado.
And I wondered at how a few days earlier I was near a point of panic at the fix I had gotten myself into while hitchhiking along the desolate length of the Oklahoma panhandle, almost out of water, with no prospects whatsoever. It made me realize that without the fixes I kept getting myself into, I may never have landed in Breckenridge and briefly realized my dream of playing in a jug band in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.