Hot dusty highway
About four hours from his next overnight stop, something on the dash caught his eye. He looked down to notice that the temperature gauge had jumped to 'very hot', Angelina Jolie hot. This was one of Bill’s worst nightmares - car trouble while on a rural highway. Bill typically kept a car for 6-10 years. That is an invitation for something to break down in the complex parts and systems in a car. Now, it was happening. And on an interstate highway sliced between thousands of acres of farmland. A nightmare for sure, but Bill had his dog and the determination to make it through this ordeal.
Bill looked up from the dash - an exit ramp was just ahead. He took it, unsure of what was going on, but he didn't want to be on the Interstate with a hot car. He slowed onto a dirt road coming up to the service road from the south. It was a beautiful day. The sky was bright blue, there were only a few wispy white clouds, and one could see for miles over dry farmland. The land was dusty due to the drought. He stopped admiring the scenery and walked to the front of the car and popped open the hood. There was a bit of steam, so Bill let the engine cool. Meanwhile, he called the Dodge Roadside Assistance number that was stored conveniently in his phone. It was Sunday and he was in, well, Bill wasn't real sure where he was. Somewhere in the Texas Panhandle. He had left Amarillo about an hour earlier and was not yet at the Oklahoma border. Bill didn't know what the middle of nowhere looks like, nor had he been to the boondocks, but he now knew what the plains of the Texas Panhandle look like. Flat fields of some khaki-colored crop.
The national Dodge service operator provided no help since she couldn't find Bill’s location on a map and couldn't find a Dodge dealer open on Sunday. About then, coming up the dirt road, in front of a plume of road dust, was a pickup truck, the Official National Vehicle of these here parts. The driver stopped at Bill’s car. He really had very little choice since Bill stood in the middle of the road and blocked his path. He was just what you would imagine a seasoned Texas plains farmer to look like. Yep, just like that. He was an absolute Google of information. He knew exactly where they were, what towns were nearby, where the closest Dodge dealer was, hotels. You search for it - he knew. Bill now had the name, Fenton Motors, of his best repair option. But it was 30 miles away. Due north, up Texas Highway 71. By this time, the car engine had cooled off and it started right up. They agreed that Bill might be able to drive on for 30 minutes or so, stop, let the engine cool, and move another 30 miles. That would get him home by early evening. Since he couldn't reach anyone by phone (Sunday afternoon in the middle of nowhere), that seemed like Bill’s best option.
They each started their vehicle and drove off. The farmer continued up the hot dusty road. Bill drove along the service road to the next entrance ramp. But, just as he was about to enter I-40, the temp needle jumped to Angelina again. He stopped right there. This plan wasn't going to work. This time, there was a scary grinding sound coming from somewhere in front of Bill. He looked back to see if the farmer was still close by, but the dust trail confirmed that he was on his way and out of sight. Alone, just he and his dog and a busted automobile. Bill found enough calm to call Fenton Motors in Pampa, Texas to listen to the recording on the far end of the telephone line. The voice stated that if you needed a tow, to call Delaney Brothers. Brilliant move for a car dealer out here. Have a special Sunday and evening recording that guides people in need. Bill called the number the voice recited on the recording. But, it was Sunday. It rang a couple of times, and then, a human voice. Not a recording, a person. It was Harley. He took note of Bill’s location and said he'd be there in about 30 minutes. What a relief.
30 minutes is not long, even on the plains of west Texas. Bill had just spent two full days driving from Los Angeles. Bill was a studio musician in Nashville. In the background of a country song, one of the voices in the chorus or guitar sounds could be Bill’s. He liked what he did, but he wanted more. He wanted to perform his own songs, instead of always singing songs by someone else. About two weeks ago, during a lull in his schedule, Bill responded to a job notice that his good friend had told him about. It was a respected talent agency that could help Bill reach his goals, at least, the next step. But it was in Los Angeles. No video submission, no zoom interview. In person. Bill got an audition about 4 days later. He took his guitar and his dog, which meant having to drive, rather than fly. But that's okay, he likes road trips and this one would take him over parts of old Route 66 on into Albuquerque in time to see the sky filled with hot-air balloons.
He drove across the mountains and stayed with Megan, a friend in Los Angeles, an actor who had been in a few films and several Geico commercials.
The audition went well, Bill was told he was good, his songs were fresh and original, just what they were looking for. Two of the people sitting at a large desk made some ‘suggestions’ for Bill - work out, lose a bit of weight, and get a styled haircut and some different clothes. He thanked them and they agreed to talk further in a few days.
Bill and Megan went to Venice Beach so they and his dog could walk the boardwalk along the ocean. Bill shared his concerns about remaking his image. Megan had gone through a similar makeover after she arrived and auditioned for “young professional woman with a husband, a 10 year old, and a toddler.”
Bill wasn’t so sure about their trying to fit him into a ‘type’. He didn’t want to be so manufactured and ‘fake’ that he was uncomfortable with himself. It was like a country boy putting on a tuxedo and being told to look natural. He was concerned it would hinder his songwriting, which was often earthy and real. Nothing was determined during that walk. Bill felt the drive back across mountains, deserts, and forests would provide a welcome opportunity and time to be alone with his thoughts.
The trip home from LA was more 66 exploration and an evening at the Grand Canyon. Then on to Tucumcari, New Mexico for dinner at Denny's and a night's sleep at the Pony Soldier motel (they have a liberal pet policy). The Pony Soldier was a 50s/60s era motel, one of the first motels a westbound traveler on Route 66 would encounter. In the Route 66 heyday, that allowed the motel to charge a little bit more. Now that traffic was on I-40, the rates were very reasonable. Bill realized that the next day he would be traveling next to the Santa Fe Railroad tracks and right through what was once the epicenter of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The next morning was sunny and Bill was filled with anticipation to get home that afternoon. But, the trip would not be over quite so soon. He was now walking with his dog back up a rural entrance ramp. A young couple with a small child in a white pickup came down the ramp. The driver asked if Bill needed help. Bill told them of the coming tow truck, thanked them, and made a mental note of the kindness of these strangers who went out of their way to make sure he and his dog were okay. The truck turned around in the grass between the ramp and the freeway, went back up the shoulder of the ramp, waved goodbye, and disappeared on the dusty side road.
Bill opened up the back of the Dodge Nitro, a type of SUV, and let Manhattan out so she could walk around a bit. She was being very patient and accommodating during these stops in their trip. She had probably sensed the tension in Bill’s voice. They sat in the open rear of the Nitro to escape the heat and dusty wind. To their relief, Harley arrived and efficiently winched the Dodge up onto the ramp bed of his rather large tow truck. Bill hoisted Manhattan up into the back seat of the truck and then climbed up to the front seat. Harley said it would be about 30 miles to Fenton Motors, the repair shop. It felt like much longer - they shared little, Harley and Bill. While Bill loved to travel to other cultures and parts of the country and the world, Harley had probably never left this part of Texas. But, he was a good guy. He mentioned that he normally didn't work on Sundays, but happened to be in the office to pick up something when the phone rang. He took Bill’s call. If he hadn't, Bill wasn’t sure what his plan would have been. Hitchhike (with a dog) back to Amarillo? But, he did take the call. And Bill was very glad to be riding up in the cab of that truck, with an air conditioner, looking out over the fields of the panhandle. He did learn about new hay baling techniques.
Bill asked where they were headed. Pampa, replied Harley. Pampa Texas? Bill thought to himself. Whoa. He had read that Woody Guthrie had spent a few years in Pampa, but Bill knew only that it was somewhere in Texas. Bill was more familiar with Guthrie’s time in California (the Dust Bowl Ballads) and New York City (This Land is Your Land).
And now Bill was going to Pampa. The trip with Harley was no longer boring. It was exciting. Bill would get to see where Woody played his guitar and wrote several songs. Since it was a Sunday, Bill figured he’d have most of Monday to go to downtown Pampa.
Harley called his girlfriend and asked her to call the motel and make a reservation for Bill for the night. There was only one motel in Pampa that accepted pets. She did. Harley‘s wife was certainly kind and considerate and willing to help. Later, during the conversation with Bill, Harley did allude to some tension at home which may have helped explain why Harley was willing to be away from home on a Sunday. He met Pam in college. The country boy and the city girl. She moved out west with Harley so that he would be close to his family, where he grew up, and still had some friends from his days as the high school football star.
Harley took Bill to Fenton Motors Dodge, opened the locked gate to the storage lot (tow truck drivers had such access), and parked Bill’s car towards the front of the lot, by the service bays. Bill retrieved his guitar and suitcase from the car and left the key under the mat, as Harley had instructed. Harley then drove to the motel and waited patiently while Bill wrestled Manhattan and his luggage down from the back seat. Harley refused a tip. Profuse thanks to Harley and his wife. Bill checked in to a very nice new motel, settled into the room, and took Manhattan for a walk. Bill was a bit anxious - how serious would the car repair be? How long would it take? What if they had to order parts from another dealer, in another city? He made some contingency plans. He could just stay at the motel for another night and drive back when the car was ready. Or he could rent a car, drive home, and return later.
He walked a couple of blocks to a drug store for dog food and a few snacks. Back in the cool comfort of the motel room, Bill researched more about Woody’s time in Pampa. While in college at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Bill would hang out at a folk club where he first heard of Guthrie. Buddy Holly’s hometown, Lubbock, was the music center for much of West Texas. Bill had learned to play the guitar and became quite good at it. Sitting on the front porches of the farmhouses in the Panhandle, Bill would strum, sing, and write music of the prairies. He had heard some of the old timers talk of Guthrie and that he once lived in the area. Woody Guthrie was an inspiration and mentor for Bill. But he never grasped that he would one day be in Pampa with time to kill. Bill might not of had the opportunity if his car hadn't broken down.
Bill’s thoughts were more focused on what might happen the next day - he tried to get some sleep. He wasn't too successful. Nightmares of car repair, the warning light on the dash, and realizing he was alone on the prairie. He woke up early and got a small styrofoam cup of coffee and a bagel from the motel's breakfast buffet in the lobby. The service department at Fenton Motors opened at 8:00 am. Bill waited until 8:10 before calling. Marilyn, the service rep, was very nice and had already taken the Nitro from the fenced lot to the shop for diagnosis. She said she'd call Bill as soon as they figured out what was wrong with the car. Bill didn’t mind the trip delay as much - he now had a mission. And was glad for having the time to do it.
Bill and Manhattan headed off to downtown Pampa. It wasn’t very far from the motel, so they walked. On the edge of downtown, they stopped for breakfast at Finley’s Fountain Cafe. Bill was enjoying the decor of antiques, some from the oil boom days, some from railroads, some from Route 66. They reminded him of what Guthrie might have seen. Outside, Manhattan stood next to a wooden church pew bench with two crusty farmers that were wheat deep into solving the world’s problems and griping the weather. The younger man immediately took to Manhattan, petting and cuddling her head in his lap.
Bill ate pretty fast, even for him. He joined Manhattan and told the men why he was in town. One of the men mentioned that his father had played with Woody. With two other musicians, Woody began his musical career by forming the Corn Cob Trio and later the Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band. The Trio played outside of the Harris Drug Store, starting in the summer of 1929. The excitement of seeing the old drug store eased some of Bill’s anxiety about car breakdowns.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, named after the soon to be elected President, arrived in Pampa in a vacant box car. Okemah, where the Guthrie’s had lived, had crashed a bit once the oil fields played out. His dad had moved to Pampa a few years earlier for work. Pampa had become a vibrant working town due to agriculture, the railroad, and the oil fields discovered in 1916.
Woody’s free spirit couldn’t be contained in his hometown. His mother had recently died, school had bored him, and he had dreams. Dreams that just couldn’t find root in small-town Oklahoma. He itched to go west and join his dad in Texas. Woody was only 17, but he had traveled by rail before. He and his friends in Okemah would go to the railyard, find an empty box car, and jump up in. They would get in a corner to be the least visible in case a railroad watchman was making the rounds checking for vagabonds and hobos.
It was the same Santa Fe Railroad that brought early pioneers in 1888 to this prairie water stop, named Glasgow by early Scottish pioneers. The name was later changed to Pampa. The prairie grass reminded early town leaders of the pampas grasslands of South America.
Woody stayed with his dad, sometimes missing the familiarity of Okemah, where his dad taught Woody some of the basics of the guitar. They would often play together in the evening on the back porch. Woody would always be an Okie. But Woody was excited about the new adventures and opportunities in Texas. Woody was in Pampa for his final year of high school, but he rarely went. He found a job working the counter inside the Harris Drug Store, making fizzes, malteds, and sody waters, and selling small bottles of Jake, an in-house drink of moonshine and ginger. It was Prohibition and there was a provision that one could get a pint of alcohol every ten days with a prescription from a doctor. This gave Harris and other small drugstores a legal way to sell liquor.
Woody found a beat-up old guitar in the back of the store that a customer had left, probably in exchange for a drink. When he wasn’t making drinks, he sat on a bench outside the drug store to sing, and play his ‘new’ guitar. Jeff, a well-known fiddler in town, would mentor Woody, who tried to figure out how to play the old songs he remembered his mother singing. The shoe shine man from next door would come over and play some blues. Woody called him Spider Fingers because “his fingers walked up and down the guitar neck like a tarantula”.
The many tales Woody heard at the counter found their way into his songs. If the weather was bad, or he needed a table to write on, he would go to the relatively new Pampa Library on the second floor of the City Hall. While the book selection was a bit slim, Woody spent much time reading stories and biographies, influencing his growth as a songwriter, poet, and balladeer. Woody started writing more songs; ‘hobo songs’ he called them.
April 14, 1935 was Black Sunday. Massive clouds of dust caused by poor soil practices and years of drought rolled into the Panhandle. Pampa was completely engulfed. Already weakened by the Great Depression, farms failed and shops closed. Like many others, Woody planned to hit the highway, Route 66, to go further west to look for work. Thousands of migrants from the Midwest, Oklahoma, and Texas were refugees in their own country.
Woody eventually made it to California by riding the freight trains, hitchhiking, and even walking; taking whatever small jobs he could scrounge. He felt an obligation to support his Pampa family - wife Mary and their three children: Gwendolyn, Sue, and Bill, who later died after his car was struck by a train in Los Angeles. He was 23. The separation of miles was too big a hurdle though, Woody and Mary divorced a couple of years later.
During his few years in California, Woody busked for common folk and sang at refugee work camps. He realized his politics began leaning to the left. The next dream itching at him was to enhance his music and writing by hanging out in Greenwich Village, New York City. Woody Guthrie drove cross country, back on Route 66 with a stop to visit his father, who had just moved back to Oklahoma from Pampa.
Bill paid his tab at Finleys with some crinkled bills he stashed in his pocket as he left the motel room. “Thanks for comin in!” Bill turned and waved, “It was very good. Have a good day.” Stepping outside to the clean morning air, Bill encouraged Manhattan to take another drink of water. He returned the water bowl to its spot next to the bench and said goodbye to the two guys. Bill and his dog headed south, past the main commercial center of older buildings. Many of the buildings were the same as in Woody’s time. As they crossed the railroad tracks, Bill paused to gaze up and down the tracks. He was imagining Woody jumping down from a boxcar, possibly right near where they were standing. Right there. The same point in space but decades apart and miles of progress. In the next block of shops, still on the same street as Finley’s, was the Harris Drug Store. Bill froze in a time warp of history. The brick building was the same. The letters painted over the door, on the brick, by Woody Guthrie had been touched up, but there they were. There were chairs out front, right where Woody sang and strummed. Bill was transported to another chapter. One that excited him. He felt such a clear inspiration, almost as if Woody was speaking directly to him from the chair. The Harris Drug Store was now the Woody Guthrie Folk Music Center; there was a State of Texas Historical Marker in front. It was closed on Mondays, but Bill wasn’t too disappointed. He could find most of the info online. He relished being right where Woody played his guitar and sang for the people of Pampa and for the people passing through.
On their way back to the motel, Bill stepped into a touristy gift shop. He ignored the Texas shaped coffee mugs, the postcards of armadillos and rabbits, and the bumper stickers. He did step up to the counter with a Dr Pepper, a bag of chips, and a bottle of water for Manhattan. As he was about to open the door, Woody’s image caught his eye. He went back to the counter to pay for a paperback book about Woody Guthrie’s life and a CD of his music for the trip back to Nashville. Bill and his dog walked to where the old City Hall Library stood and they each lay on the grass to enjoy their snacks. Manhattan napped and Bill read a few pages in his new book. They were at the site where Woody spent time in the library reading, writing, and forming his future career.
Woody made common music for the common man, and Bill felt a connection to him now that he was able to experience a segment of Woody’s journey. From the appreciation of Woody and his very real, folk truths, it was clear that Los Angeles wasn’t for Bill at this time, or maybe ever. He called the agency to thank them for a great experience and to turn down their invitation for a second audition. They told Bill they were disappointed, they thought he was a winner, a talented singer and writer. Bill was buoyed by their compliments. But his pilgrimage to Pampa was a significant step for Bill to get to know himself better. He was now working from his own dreams and his own convictions. He wanted to continue to write and perform in Nashville; staying true to his new direction.
Bill’s pocket vibrated. He thought maybe it was LA calling back.
“Hey, this is Marilyn from Fenton Motors, is this Bill?”
“Yep, that’s me.” Bill replied with some concern about the hassle of repairs.
“We looked over the car. It was just a broken water pump and we happen to have one in stock. The car should be ready by early afternoon.” Just enough time for Bill and Manhattan to walk home, check out, and get to the repair shop.
Hallelujah. Bill will soon be on his way home. Another Dust Bowl refugee on the old dusty highway. From Pampa, it was a twelve hour drive to Nashville. But, with his new appreciation, Bill would stop in Okemah in eastern Oklahoma (about four hours from Pampa) to see Woody’s childhood home. He played the CD Dust Bowl Ballads along the way. The song Bill repeated most often was written just before Woody left Pampa:
It's a hot old dusty highway
For a dust bowl refugee.
Here today and on our way
Down that mountain, 'cross the desert,
It's a never-ending highway
For a dust bowl refugee.
And I wonder, will I always
Be a dust bowl refugee?
Dust Bowl Refugee
Songwriter: Woody Guthrie
Lyrics © T.R.O. Inc., Universal Music Publishing Group
© James Robert Watson, PhD, 2016, 2022