Russ Ringsak

Traveling and Feelin' All Right

August 1, 2003

We finished off this last season with a six-week cross-country tour starting on May 20th, a Tuesday morning, and as the crew loaded the trailer out of the Fitzgerald Theater, I walked over to Mickey's Diner for breakfast—their motto is "You Are What You Eat: Be All You Can Be"—and at the counter next to me a weathered old guy in a tattered plaid jacket was dispensing advice to a rough-looking younger guy:

"... Now, if a man never marries, ever in his whole life, and never has kids ... he can work six months of the year and travel the other six months. Comfortable. No problem. I know men who do this."

"Travel," said the other, 35 or so, his age hard to tell in all the lines and lumps there, "Travel is what me and my ex-wife are gonna do. I love to travel. We both do. Next month, soon as she gets out of jail, we're takin' off. We're travelin' ... West Coast, Alaska, who knows? We're outta here ... we're gone ..."

"What's she in jail for?" said the first man.

He smiled a gap-toothed but non-committal smile, as if it were a complex question he could never completely answer. "Oh ... all kindsa stuff ... you know ... different things ..." He shrugged the shrug that guys shrug when they're waiting for a multiple-offender ex-wife to get out of prison so they can go traveling to, say, Alaska. Or someplace.

My own journey was specifically targeted—Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Bend, Kalamazoo, and western Massachusetts, in that order, with Friday and Saturday shows in Los Angeles making that one a short week. We hired another driver for the coast-to-coast run, my old pal Tom, and we got it there Tuesday noon. I wrote a piece about that and it made it onto the broadcast, and I was flooded with requests for copies; actually two requests, but if you are accustomed to one e-mail a week and you suddenly get two, that's a flood. Because if the Mississippi doubles its size in a week ... well, anyway, here's the letter:

My co-driver Tom Gohman and I left Washington, D.C., Saturday night on I-66, crossing Manassas Run and climbing into the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, and stopped at White's Truck Stop on Interstate 81 for dinner, three hours after the show at Wolf Trap. We were able to do that because the stagehands at Wolf Trap loaded out the show in record time. We were due into Los Angeles by Wednesday.

I drove that first short leg, and then Tom took it for five hours, through the Appalachians, past Clinch Mountain and into Tennessee. In the sleeper of a semi tractor, you become a Margarita, and the truck is the shaker, and it's hard to say if you even sleep at all, but when Tom pulls over at the rest area the sun is out. I take the wheel and pick up Interstate 40 through Knoxville Sunday morning and Nashville and cross the Tennessee River full of rain and stop for fuel at Sugar Tree.

A trailer tire is looking bad and we stop in south Memphis to replace it. We cross the great double-arch steel bridge on I-55 and head into Arkansas, where the corn is up and looking good. West of the Mississippi, the landscape opens up and you can see what people are up to. You're out of the woods now, and you see fields and towns and laundry on the line and back yards with old cars rusting away. Arkansas has good signage, like the Hog Trough Liquor Store and the Pig Trail Scenic Byway. And then you're in the Ozark Mountains east of Fort Smith, lush and serenely beautiful.

Tom takes the wheel and I retire to the bunkhouse, waking up in western Oklahoma in time to enjoy a terrific lightning storm and a heavy downpour. We're past Oklahoma City, on the ghost of Route 66, which has more Web sites devoted to it than the Orient Express.

The rains have put a great green cover on the country, even brightening up some of the harsh desert of the Texas Panhandle. We stop for Sunday dinner at a truck stop in Amarillo, where the idea of sleeping without an engine running hits us and I grab the top bunk and he the lower, like a couple of vagrants in a small-town jail cell; we sleep like old rocks.

Monday morning in New Mexico the truck throws a long shadow down the road ahead of itself. Signs at a rest area warn us to supervise our children and keep our pets out of the toilets, and to WATCH FOR SNAKES. To the south is the largest flat piece of ground in the U.S., a plateau of 35,000 square miles, the Jano Estacado. At Santa Rosa you see a billboard advertising the Dancing Eagle Casino, hundreds of miles ahead, whose motto is THE TRUCK STOPS HERE.

Near Moriarity, New Mexico, a sign tells us that the Great Plains end and the basin and range country begins; we are at 6,500 feet, having risen steadily from 300 feet at Memphis on mostly flat land. We stay in high country all the way through the upland meadows and the rich evergreen forests of Arizona, through the San Francisco Mountains, the Juniper Mountains, the Aquarius and the Hulalapai, all the way to Kingman. It's Monday night and we're ahead of schedule, and we get a couple of rooms and steak dinners and next day cruise easy through the Sacramento Mountains and the Mojave Desert, through Barstow and past the San Gabriels into this gigantic city on the coast.

We carried the Prairie Home house and mixing boards and radio gear and Gary Raynor's bass and Rich Dworsky's Hammond organ up and over old mountains and through farmland and forests, across rivers of every size, across lakes and swampland; through new mountains, past fresh volcanic ash and painted cliffs and across three deserts. All in less than three days. It is a remarkable country, with past and future both so close that even a couple of old freight-haulers can see them.

Tom flew back Wednesday to his steel-hauling job, and Sunday I took the back way up to central Oregon along the east side of the Sierras, away from the California freeways. Stopped in Virginia City for the night, had breakfast in Reno with a couple of cops, and then took a memorable two-lane ride up to Bend. The beauty of the hard peaks and mountain lakes and pastures of northern California—so sparse, so majestic and so contrary to the rest of the state—makes one sympathetic to their wishes to secede and be left alone. And with their population spread this thin one also knows they haven't a gerbil's chance in a roomful of cats, and they are doomed to an ongoing existence of taxation without representation.

I expected Bend to be an old rough-hewn place, lying between loggers and cowboys, and found it instead to be heavily infiltrated with slim persons who favor traffic circles, sensitive landscaping, and healthy lifestyles: joggers, bicyclists, kayakers, runners, and dog-walkers, each with their own particular style of public exercise wear. Lots of tone and style in the old downtown there.

But there's another side. The truck had been overheating and pulling hard in the mountains and there is a first-rate little truck stop on the south end of Bend: Jake's, where I had them pressure wash the bugs and cottonwood seed out of the radiator and change the clogged fuel filter, curing both problems while I sat and had a monster breakfast. And that's the only kind of breakfast Jake's serves.

In Kalamazoo I found the basement of the old Gibson factory, where 14 or so craftsmen now build Heritage Guitars, five a day and how fine they are. That night I heard one played in a local band in a basement bar. The Heritage is one of those best-kept secrets and I had to have that sound and that finish, and a couple of weeks later located one, a model 535, which I find easy to pick up and hard to set down. It has become First Guitar in my small collection of five, and two previous favorites are now up for sale.

I left there Saturday night and made Tanglewood Sunday night, parked the rig, and flew home Monday. June is a great month in Minnesota and it's hard not to be there for it, even if you just have time to mow the lawn and pull weeds out of the raspberries. Flew back for the season finale, where the crowd demanded encores in a fever approaching that of a rock concert, and later that night the rig was "Westbound And Down" like Jerry Reed on the New York tollway and I was "Feelin' All Right" like Joe Cocker.

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