In the late-winter of 1975 I drove a blind piano-tuner from Miami Beach to the East Texas in a Delta 88. Everyone at the Sea Breeze Hotel on Collins Avenue had warned me about Old Bill’s driving. I thought that the old coots had been kidding, but outside of La Grange on Route 71 the blind man ordered me to turn off the highway onto a dirt road. Gene Ammons was playing on the cassette deck.
“This is it.”
“Here?” The cotton fields were bare brown earth.
“My lady friend lives a couple of miles down this road.” Old Bill motioned for me to get out of the car.
“You know where you are?” There wasn’t a single house in sight.
“Road 4123, right?”
“Yeah.” I didn’t ask how he knew, having witnessed the blind man’s extraordinary powers on more than one occasion. I stepped out of the car and Old Bill slid over to the driver’s seat.
“You’re really going to drive?”
“It’s my car. Of course I’m going to drive.”
“You’re not serious?”
“More serious than a heart attack. Good luck, motherfucker.” Old Bill had a way with words.
“You too.” I shivered thinking about the impending car crash.
“Don't worry about me, Hippie Boy. I'll be fine.” The old piano-tuner twisted the wheel, as if he were reading the braille from the pebbles on the road. “Hippie boy, am I pointed straight?”
The white orbs of his eyes blinked with radar precision.
“I left you on the crest of the road. Anything off that is the ditch.” The hard-scrabble two-laner ran straight as a strand of dry spaghetti to the hazy horizon.
“Then I’m good. See you, when I see you.” Old Bill drove off slowly, weaving from side to side.
After a minute the black speck of the wavering Delta 88 was swallowed by its rooster tail of yellow dust.
A half-hour later a trucker stopped and drove me to Austin. We arrived in that college town close to sunset boiling far horizon boiling with splattered palette of color.
“I’m heading for El Paso. Ain’t much between here and there.” The trucker throttled down his big rig.
“I might stay the night here.” I had read about Austin in Rolling Stone magazine.
“If you do, go down to the World Armadillo Headquarters.”
“That's my thinking.” The club had been anointed the musical navel of the Southwest. Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson were regulars at the rock emporium.
“Wish I could check it out with you, but I'm on a schedule.”
"I don't have to be in California for another week."
“Than have that first beer for me.”
"Will do." I jumped down from the cab. The truck hauled out to the west and I hitchhiked into town.
A dented red Ford pickup with Texas plates passed me. Two hippies were in the front. I had long hair. We flashed each other peace signs. They stopped on the shoulder.
“Where you headed?” asked the red-eyed passenger.
“The World Armadillo Headquarters.”
“Us too. We just got done working on the ranch." The driver had a battered straw hat.
"Shovelin’ horse shit all day." The passenger wrinkled his nose.
"And now we want a beer." The driver had a thirst and motioned for me to jump in the back. "Commander Cody’s playing tonight with Asleep At The Wheel.”
“First rounds on me.” I sat in the flatbed. It smelled of cow shit. I smelled the same by the time we reached Barton Springs Road I smelled like cow shit too.
The Armadillo was located next to a roller rink. I brought my bag inside with me. The two hippies knew the man at the door. We entered for free.
I checked my bag with a dazed hippie girl at the coat check and walked inside the enormous club. Billy Bob, the pickup’s driver, informed me, “The Armadillo used to be an armory.”
“The acoustics suck.” His scrawny friend lit up a joint. Marijuana possession was a serious crime in the Lone Star State and Huntsville Prison was infamous for the harshness of incarceration. My hosts could easily be narcs.
“Nothing for me.”
“You sure?” Billie Bob sucked heavily on the thick stick.
“It’s from Oaxaca.” Ray-El wore a battered cowboy hat and shit-covered boots. I stepped away a few feet from them.
“I’m a traveler.” I wasn’t wasting a couple of years in Huntsville Prison for a joint.
“Don’t worry, there ain’t no one gonna bother you in the Armadillo about weed.” Billy Bob passed the reefer to Ray-El, whose inhale expanded his lungs to the bursting point of a thin balloon. Narcs didn’t inhale reefer.
“Cops, lawyers, judges, everyone comes here to hear the music and drink beer. I thought you said that first round was on you.”
I surrendered my caution and bellied up to the bar with the joint in my hand. Lone Star was the beer of choice. I ordered six. I toasted the trucker and told stories about Old Bill. We drank with other cowboy hippies, who were well over 6-feet. Most looked like they had played college football for an angry coach.
I don’t recollect the opening bands, since Billy Bob, Ray-El, and I tossed back shots of tequila to get in the mood for Commander Cody, except Billy Bob had the wrong date. They were playing the next night, but Asleep At The Wheel proved to be a killer band.
Most of the audience watched from the floor, but I was dragged onto the dance floor to perform a country version of the Hustle with a redheaded woman in a filmy black dress.
“You’re new around here.”
“Just got into town today from the East Coast."
"Smells more like Texas to me."
"That must be the cow shit."
"Damn straight, my name’s Ginger. Where y’all stayin’?” she asked after a breath-taking swirl.
“Nowhere.” I hadn’t slept with a woman in over two months. An actress was waiting for me in LA. Hollywood was over a thousand miles from Austin.
“I live on Blanco.” Ginger was thin and still a waif at 25.
“I don’t know where that is.”
“It’s not a walkin’ distance.”
“I don’t have a car.”
“You have your horse here?”
This is the West and a horse is much easier to ride than a cow."
“Funny, we got taxis here. Probably one waiting outside.” Her fingers graced the inside of my elbow. Seduction was her mission. I was an easy target.
“Then let’s go to your place.” I was 23, 5-11 with long brown hair.
Ginger and I were made for each other.
I informed Billy Bob about my plans.
"Quick work. That redhead is a looker."
"You city slickers are fast on your feet." Ray-El winked his approval.
“More she’s fast than me.”
“If you need someplace to stay later, call us.” Billy Bob wrote his telephone number and address on a napkin.
22nd and Chestnut.
“We have a commune. One more or two ain’t gonna kill us.”
“He won’t be needin’ us tonight, but if you do get up our way, just ask for the hippie commune. The peckerwoods will show you the right way, if they don’t shoot you first.”
“Maybe I'll see you tomorrow.” I told them, because tonight I was destined to be deep in the heart of Texas.
Ginger’s house was a bungalow not far from Shoal Creek. The classic western decor testified old cattle money. Ginger’s two family names echoed the importance of their past. Her bed was brass. The sheets were scented with spices. The mattress was soft. I piled my clothes on a chair. My bag was at the foot of the bed.
"Where you headed anyway?"
"Y’all in a hurry."
"Good, because there's nothing west of here, but more Texas."
Ginger lit candles and put Joni Mitchell BLUE on the Marantz stereo. The song was CALIFORNIA from the album BLUE. James Taylor played guitar on the song CALIFORNIA. Our young bodies recreated Eden on her bed and we didn’t fall asleep until dawn.
“Y’all have to leave before noon.” Ginger’s drawl was exhausted by her effort and mine.
"For the West?"
"No, just out of this house."
"Who you expecting?"
"No one in particular."
“Noon it is.” I mentally set an alarm in my head.
The bell failed to go off at noon and Ginger’s violent shaking ended my coma.
“Y’all have to go.” A silk robe was wrapped around last night’s body.
“Now?” I was very comfortable.
“Now.” The demand was urgent.
A pick-up truck door slammed outside. A man’s cowboy boots were lined against the wall.
They looked a size 12.
“My husband is back from the oil field.”
A man called out her name.
I grabbed my bag and clothing.
Ginger pointed to the bedroom’s open window.
“See you at the Armadillo later.”
There was no time for a kiss.
I fled the bungalow naked without a backward glance.
A taxi took me to the commune. The driver knew the house. He came inside to smoke some weed. Billy Bob and his friend were sympathetic about my plight.
“Even cowgirls get tired of fuckin’ cowboys.”
Billie Bob and Ray-El belonged to a vegetarian commune. They introduced me to the clan. The girls came from the Deep South. They smelled of patchouli and didn't shave their legs.
Ginger kept hers smooth with a Lady Schick razor.
That evening we ate a feast of mushed broccoli and peas. My passport into their midst was a big bottle of red wine. They were a big family; eight co-eds from UT, Billie Bob and Ray-El. We all had one plate. That night we saw Commander Cody at the Armadillo.
Ginger arrived at midnight.
“Sorry about this mornin’.”
“Noon, not morning.”
“You poor thang.” She caressed my cheek. “Y’all lit out like a rattlesnake with its tail on fire.”
“I thought it was the right thing to do. What did you’re husband say.”
“My husband is dumber than a cow tied to a stump. A hard worker and a good church person, but not too exciting. Not like you.”
“Yeah, Jo Jo only performs in bed as the Good Book tells him, but I have to fess up that you Yankees are a whole nut her thang.”
“I don’t know about them. I just know about you.”
I told her about Old Bill driving blind. She laughed at all the right parts.
We repeated the previous night with some deviations from the Bible. Ginger loved her Joni Mitchell. A noon departure was cutting it too close for comfort, so I woke with the dawn.
Before leaving I checked the closet. Jo Jo shirts were an XXL. Dumb or not he was a big man.
“Don’t you worry about Jo Jo. He’s roughnecking all week out on the Basin near San Angelo.”
“How far away is that?”
“Two hundred miles.”
Texans drove fast.
Ginger blew me a kiss from bed.
"See you later, Yankee Boy."
I should have been smart and hit the road, but Ginger played men like she had an ace as a hole card.
That week we explored the bars along East Sixth Street. Cowboys and black musicians drank early in that town. Co-eds From the University of Texas served cold beer. I played pool. Eight-Ball was a good way to kill the day.
A cheap hotel room across the Colorado River was a safer place than Ginger's house and I felt deep in the heart of Texas most of the afternoon.
“Y’all done tuckered me out.”
I could barely move and she kissed me on the lips.
I paid the hotel bill.
$20 wasn’t expensive, but my money was going fast with Ginger.
That night Ray-El and Billy Bob met me to eat cheeseburgers at the Victory Grill.
“We have to keep up our strength.” Ray-El liked his meat rare.
“Beans and veggies are animal food.” Billy Bob like his bloody.
It was tough being a vegetarian in Texas.
“You be careful of that Ginger. She’s no maverick.” Billy Bob soaked his burger in chili sauce.
“Huh?” I remembered James Gardener TV show from the 60s.
“She got an old man.” Ray-El draped jalapenos on his.
“And a big one from what I heard.” Billy Bob shook his head.
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere near her house.” Their accent was wearing off on me.
“Maybe not, but Austin is a small city and a smaller town, if you just hang out on East Sixth Street.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
That evening I went to the Armadillo early. The jukebox covered a lot of ground. Jerry Jeff Walker was setting up for the night. The bartenders knew my name. I tipped better than the goat-ropers. Jimmie Lee served me a Lone Star Beer.
“Jo Jo Gammage been lookin’ for you."
“I don’t know any Jo Jo Gammage.” The last name was familiar and I knew why.
“He's Ginger’s old man and he don’t look none too happy.”
“Thanks for the info.” I tipped him $5 and left the Armadillo by the rear exit.
It took me an hour to walk the back roads to Chestnut. The sun was down by the time I arrived at the commune.
The front door had been kicked in by a big boot.
Billy Bob was sporting a black eye.
My bag was at his feet.
“Let me guess. Jo Jo came looking?”
“You got that right. I didn’t say nuttin’, but we don’t want no more trouble. The sisters in the commune has voted you out.”
“Me too.” Ray-El shouted from the living room.
“I understand.” They commune was into peace and love.
Ray-El came to the door. The girls were shadows in the kitchen.
"Let me make a phone call."
"It seems like the right thing to do."
I dialed her number.
There was no answer.
“I vote me out too.” I picked up my bag. "Sorry, ladies."
“I’ll give you a ride to the highway.” Billie Bob handed me my bag.
I didn’t refuse his offer.
Route 71 was more than five miles away from the house.
I kept my eye open for any angry husband.
"One last beer at the 'Dillo."
"You want me to say anythin’ to Ginger."
I liked lying in her bed.
I liked the idea of lying with her again.
With any luck Jo Jo would be working in the north of the Texas Panhandle. Amarillo to Austin was a 500 miles ride.
"Tell her I'll be back in the spring, but don't mention that to her old man."
"I ain't saying nutthin to that redneck peckerwood."
The radio played FREE BIRD by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Billy Bob turned up the volume. We smoked a joint.
The pick-up stopped on the highway.
I grabbed my bag from the back.
It smelled of cow paddy.
I guess I did too.
"You be careful on the road." He handed me a joint.
"Ain't nothin’ much out there."
"Ginger said the same."
"Have a good time in LA and stay away from married women."
"Thanks to the advice."
Billy Bob waited by the side of the road, until a westbound Camaro shuddered to a stop.
I waved good-bye to Billie Bob and got in the car.
The Mexican driver was a Marine headed west. He shifted into first.
"All the way to Camp Pendleton." Second gear came fast.
Anywhere, but Viet-Nam. My war days are over." 3rd gear lasted a second and we were cruising in 4th.
"Glad to hear it."
I told him my name.
His was Chaz. He was listening to a beaner station playing Freddie Fender's WASTED DAYS AND NIGHTS.
You meet any women in Austin."
"One. A redhead named Ginger."
"I love Pelliroja. They make my hot boil. Why you leave?"
"She had a husband. A big gringo."
"Hijo de la chingada, I hate husbands."
"Me too." I missed Ginger. "But I'll be back."
"Good man. Next stop is El Paso. I know a great place for heuvos rancheros."
"Anything in between?" I looked at my map.
"Just a lot of West Texas. Mind if I drive fast?"
"Not at all." I relaxed in the seat and looked back toward Austin.
The lights glowed over the trees.
The road head of us was empty.
Stars wrote a broad path in the night sky.
Chaz stepped on the gas.
There was nothing between here and El Paso, but more Texas.
Just like everyone said.
It was a big state.