This must be the place: I’ll eat when I’m hungry, I’ll drink when I’m dry, and when I get thirsty I’ll lay down and cry
Emerging from his merchandise table at The Grey Eagle in Asheville last week, legendary troubadour Ramblin’ Jack Elliott moseyed on over to where I stood in the lobby. With a signature grin rolling across his face, the 91-year-old folk hero extended his hand and said he was looking forward to our interview backstage.
Ever since he was 15 years old and ran away from home in Brooklyn to join a touring rodeo on the carnival circuit — learning guitar from a rodeo clown named Brahmer Rogers — Elliott has roamed the high peaks and low valleys from California to Maine, Alaska to Florida, and seemingly everywhere in-between.
Elliott’s travels and exploits are deeply inspiring to me. He’s in the same boat of heroes of mine, including the likes of Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Woody Guthrie, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, John Prine, etc. These larger-than-life characters of the written word, eternally wandering and pondering, something at the heart of my continued journey.
I’ve been an endlessly curious and innocently mischievous individual as far back as I can remember. When I was able to walk as a toddler, I’d run away from my mother at the department store to check something out somewhere else. So much so, I got strapped with a child harness for a time to keep me within reach.
Once I could ride a bike, I’d be gone all day, pedaling around my small town on the Canadian Border, peeking into abandon buildings and cruising down dirt roads through vast cornfields. Heck, we even had an old rundown 19th century military fort on Lake Champlain that we’d waltz into on occasion.
Once I got my driver’s license, I never looked back, never once into the rearview mirror of my life before McDonald’s paychecks working grill in the summer to pay for gasoline, concert tickets and a bag of weed. Then, I took off to college in Connecticut, some 300 miles from my Upstate New York starting line.
From there, I wandered around New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. Live shows. Hiking. Dive bars. Beloved dining establishments. Visit other colleges and party in other dorms. Maybe a night game at Fenway Park in Boston, perhaps take the Metro-North down to Manhattan and catch the Yankees. Who knows? Who cares? Life is meant to be lived.
Now, at age 37, I’m on the road with a reckless abandon as much as ever before, and all while writing it all down. Forty-nine states under my belt as of last check, with just the elusive Alaska in my crosshairs to be knocked off soon enough. In college, I lived abroad in Ireland and bounced around Europe for a period. But, these days, the unknown corners of America remain enticing and tantalizing.
Hanging out with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott the other day conjured such vivid memories of my first real deal disappearing act into the heart of America. Sure, my first solo road trip was from Upstate New York to East Tennessee to attend Bonnaroo 2005. And, yes, I’d seen parts of the West before. But, I’d never driven cross-country until I was 22 years old and just accepting my first writing job at the Teton Valley News in Driggs, Idaho.
The day after Christmas 2007, I packed up my rusty GMC Sonoma pickup and pulled out of the driveway of my parents’ farmhouse in Plattsburgh. Whatever didn’t fit in the back of the truck didn’t come with me.
Three garbage bags of clothes and bedding. Two boxes of books. One cooler. Skiing equipment. Running shoes. And a handful of precious mementos, of which was a small brass elephant named “Hubert,” purchased at a Puerto Rican flea market in New Haven, Connecticut.
Just before I exited the North Country, I rolled into the small hamlet of Wadhams, New York, swinging by my ole buddy Rob’s parents’ farmhouse. He wanted to leave town, too, so I left just enough room in the bed of the truck for his guitar case and duffle bag of clothes.
Rob said goodbye to his family and we hit the highway, making our way along Interstate 90 through the Midwest, down to Kentucky via I-64, merge onto I-70, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado, up through Wyoming, eventually over the Teton Pass and into Eastern Idaho by the following Friday night, only to start work at the newspaper come Monday morning.
Some excerpts from my journals during that road trip:
“Dec. 31, 2007 (2:37 p.m. Burlington, Colorado)
Crossing into Colorado, a sense of unknown freedom crept up my spine. I was finally West. The ground and sky was a blur of wind, snow, and cloud cover. The only way one could tell where the horizon ended and the heavens began was from innumerable oil derricks dotting the endless prairie, as if time itself was frozen until spring.”
“Jan. 2, 2008 (2:31 p.m. Togwotee Pass, Wyoming)
It was a steady run through Lander and the Arapahoe & Shoshone Tribe reservation. Native children played in quiet front yards, holding their ragged jackets against the crisp winds rolling along the valley floor. Deep canyons and steep buttes exposed the natural history of the land. The ancient rock, colored in bright red, pink, and brown, resembled juicy steaks piled high and far into the distance. The truck huffed and puffed through the mountains. Ascending the Togwotee Pass and sliding towards Moran, the immense peaks of the Teton Range came into view. Rays of sunshine seemed to collide with the range, sprinkling down upon the ruffled blanket of dirt that surrounded Jackson Hole like a welcoming doormat to the gates of heaven. They were as breathtaking as I remembered. Rob was speechless. I pulled over. ‘Man, would you look at that,’ he said. ‘You were right, you were right. It is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what to say.’ ‘Say ‘cheers’,’ I replied, handing him the bottle of bourbon from the back seat. We sat on the tailgate and saluted to the Tetons, the unknown strangers in the valley below who will soon make our acquaintance, someday become friends, perhaps even soulmates.”
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.