I’d been having nightly dreams I couldn’t recall but somehow woke up happy. It was the strangest thing considering how overwhelmed I often felt when “dealing” with my life. And then I had one where she told me just to let it all unfold… – JHF
OH NO, NOT THAT! I thought about it half a second, turned right on US 160 in Fort Garland, Colorado and pulled off onto the shoulder. Stunned and shaking, ready to die, I glanced behind me at the empty seat. Eighty miles from Taos and I’d forgotten the bouzouki. A whole week spent getting ready for the trip. My brilliant plan to play it at the gravesite 1,000 miles away in Iowa. The car had been ready for days. Best packing job I ever did. I’d even gotten out the case and set it right behind the instrument, bragged to my pro musician friends, and told the whole damn world.
Kathy used to sit and listen to me improvise. More and more as days dissolved and there was less that she could do. She always smiled and paid attention. (Real musicians rule.) After she died it took a long time to make arrangements for the stone. A year later I buried her ashes next to her parents in Keota, Iowa on a cold wet day in April, vowing to come back every year to visit. This past April (‘23) I simply couldn’t face it. Summer came and mostly went. I was worried about expenses and the car and whether I could still do 600 miles a day all by myself. The worst thing would have been to wait until it got too cold but I was hoping for a sign, and then I thought about the music. Suddenly I was happy and excited. I restrung the bouzouki, arranged for sister Mary to come from Arizona to house-sit, got shiny new lug nuts for the Vibe, and made my reservations. With one insane exception, my best-planned trip was underway. There was plenty of food for four whole days. And now the old fool sat beside the road with blinkers on while traffic streamed by heading for La Veta Pass like we’d done together all the time for over 20 years…
I could have gone back for the bouzouki. But driving hours in the dark on back roads in Kansas at the end of a longer 760 mile first day or wrecking all my reservations, blowing up the trip? My sister was already ensconced in Llano Quemado. The weather was clearing. The engine ran like wolves on meth screaming up the grades at 5,000 rpm in 3rd. The goddamn tank was full. I felt I’d let us down the worst way possible, but even here there had to be a purpose. Grateful no one else could see inside my head, I eased back onto the pavement and lit out for the pass as real men do.
With one brief exception—two hours between Kearney and Lincoln on I-80—I didn’t use any interstates between Taos and eastern Iowa. Instead I drove just north of Rocky Ford to Ordway and jumped on CO 96, a nifty two-lane road with no one on it that follows a loop of the Santa Fe Trail. You wouldn’t know that from half-abandoned villages like Haswell—see large image at the top—unless you stopped and read the signs. From there I worked my way farther north through Eades and Kit Carson to US 40. Named like that I thought it might be crowded but I was wrong. Just another empty two-lane road, smooth and quiet as it swooped across the prairie. The posted limit was 65 and I drove 70-75 without a hitch. Soon I came to Cheyenne Wells, a county seat I knew to stop at because old courthouses are perfect places to find immaculate public restrooms. I parked beside the lawn to clean the bug splats from my windshield and eat a sandwich. So damn calm and quiet. Not a single person in the courthouse either. This is the view from the front steps. They even have a Telephone Museum (?), the little brick building on the right. I captured the image at 3:12 p.m on a Tuesday, which ought to tell you something—but hey, what’s not to like?
Tales of the unconscious… The way things open up from not suppressing inner whispers. Beautiful empty highways in the middle of nowhere I had ever been, the 16-year-old car I’d fixed myself that ran so well. By Cheyenne Wells I’d already racked up almost 40 miles per gallon. In northern Kansas an evil detour added 90 minutes to my road time, so I still had to manage back roads in the dark to get to Kearney. The parking lot at the four-story Days Inn & Suites was all but full by then. The only space I saw was all the way in back beside a door that needed a room card. After walking all the way around the building to the lobby entrance, I discovered that my quiet room with king-sized bed was on the first floor only six steps from that same door. Whew. Neither did I need to prowl the main drag for a burger joint because I’d made my own and packed them in the cooler. All I had to do was microwave one in the room and doom-scroll in my underwear.
The next two days were mostly Iowa and went quite well. (More on that below the roses.) The last time was on different roads, however, and might as well have been another planet. I’d just buried my true love’s ashes in the mud, circling the cemetery twice and blubbering because I couldn’t bear to leave. Driving away from Keota then was horrible. It felt like I was leaving her, of course, as if she were still alive back there but I could never see her again. So primal, terrifying, and true. (That’s when I promised to come back every year and bring her flowers.) On the way back to my motel in Sigourney, I also had to pass a farm with a “FUCK BIDEN” banner hanging from a silo right beside the road. The contrast between the Iowa that shaped my wife’s experience growing up and the one I’d just buried her in then couldn’t have been more brutal. Over the years I’d met most of the relatives beside her in the dark brown dirt—grandmother, parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins—and absorbed their history. In a trance of loving recollection, she’d often told me stories that inoculated me to some extent against diseases of the Farrs, but that Iowa was gone. I wondered why the lot of them just didn’t rise up from the ground and fly away. Oh right, I guess they did.
This time I made a clever job of finding routes across the state whose slogan used to be “A Place to Grow.” Kathy was so proud of that. After crossing the Missouri River at Nebraska City, I found a startling primal landscape of woods and fields I’d never driven through before. The road curved through a tunnel of forest climbing from the river. Every little valley had a real stream running through it with huge green trees along the banks. The little towns I saw were clean and prosperous. The mini-marts featured 15% ethanol gas and there were plenty of new trucks to put it in. The homogeneity was impressive and scary wherever I went—quiet tree-lined streets, women walking by themselves for exercise, the slow creep of pickups heading for the square—but here and there were signs of pushback. A silly mailbox, perhaps. Motorcycles and hot rod shops. A general sense of niceness prevailed although the speed limit on back roads was only 55 mph. The people I passed didn’t honk and flash their lights like happened on a different trip through Iowa—I’m not speeding, you shouldn’t either—but maybe they were just surprised and never had a chance.
By now I’d almost forgotten about the bouzouki and was looking forward to visiting the gravesite, both of which were gratifying. The rest of the day to my motel in Sigourney was calm and uneventful until I visited the cemetery in Keota that evening 10 miles farther down the road. Had a hard time finding the damn place, too, like all those years gone by when checking out the family plots with Katy Jane—guess I know what that means now. For the record, it’s at the north end of Davis Street running parallel to “downtown” (population less than 900) just off Broadway. If you see grain elevators, then you’ve come too far.
I’ve been confused and lost a lot these last two years. (Longer than that, the raven squawks…) Overall my life has been a series of adventures telling me to cut it out, be kind, and follow my heart. I probably did, too. Haven’t been without a partner for 50 years at least and now I am. No woman, no kids, no pets, it must be time for me. Imagine how hard it might be to convince someone half-way normal or even more advanced of this, however. Even I know I’m probably full of it. Who manifests the best that they can be on autopilot? Who lives with someone else as equals if they don’t? Sometimes I think impermanence and joy are the only human truths but I know nothing. I do feel better though. Good luck raining down. Not worried about the world. Why the hell Keota, though? (She forgives me, it’s all right.) Most everyone who loved her there in Iowa is gone. The same for me back East. There’s a row of gravestones that say “Farr” but my surviving siblings live in TX and AZ. That’s okay I guess. When people worship FORM instead of what they really are, you blow it up again. That’s why God invented artists.
Day Three. After checking out from my motel, I stopped at the florist shop on the square in Sigourney to buy a dozen red and yellow roses. New Mexico flag colors as well as having personal significance. The owner was chatty and remembered me. I was in better shape this time and we shared graveyard flower stories. (Where am I?)
About an hour went by at the cemetery that morning. The roses were so smashing—power of ritual sacrifice aside—that I was still uneasy about just plopping them down. Happily I found one of those plastic vases on a spike beside one of her cousins’ graves and borrowed it to give the blooms another day or two. There should have been a stream beside the cemetery but the woods were too dense to hunt for it, so I filled the vase with apple juice and sang the song I wrote for her in ‘21. A cappella, obviously. The funny thing was, I had the strangest feeling that the tragedy had ebbed a bit, as if I were part of something bigger that included her, you know? Maybe my own angel wings were ready to sprout between my shoulder blades to carry me home. I spoke out loud that I had things to do so not yet please, and then we shared tequila. Mine was a slug from the bottle, hers a splash I poured onto the stone. I may have been observed. Somewhere in this chain of events the town maintenance man drove slowly by. After I’d had my tequila, a different truck appeared and did the same. The sheriff’s deputy, I believe. Oh right, Iowa. Or me.
The last two days on the road were glorious. Returning to New Mexico usually is. I stopped wherever I wanted and even made some U-turns. One of them was on US 40 at small but mighty Wallace, Kansas where I barreled past the Fort Wallace Museum I’d planned to see and almost didn’t. Pam the helpful guide let me wander like I wanted and I found this stagecoach. To put it mildly, I was stunned. All those Western movies I had seen, black & white TV shows, the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, my God. There were carpeted steps to the door on the other side where a sign invited me to “have a look.” Not easy, since the last step wasn’t really high enough, but I clambered up inside and sat a good long while. I was in a sacred place. The temple of my childhood. A grown man come full circle, full of peace. I couldn’t believe how good it felt and almost cried.
The blessing carried me all the way back over La Veta Pass and down the Rio Grande to Taos and the old adobe. Only later when I thought about it did I realize I probably wasn’t supposed to actually sit inside… That’s why the last step wasn’t high enough! Nothing would have stopped me, though. No one else was there and it was meant to be so Johnny could come home.