In 1972, when I was twenty-seven years old, Young Life, Inc. fired me for heresy. I’d made the mistake of putting Buddha and Jesus in the same sentence, and while I tried to remind them that I was a folk singer, not a preacher, they insisted that my “message” had become “confusing” as I tried to navigate the troubled confluence of a historic religion with real life experience. “Confusing” was an understatement. Tragically, I had come up with a sense of “Christ” as being an ineffable presence, not so much tied to a historic event as to the immediate spiritual aspect of emotional life, and this seemed to me similar to the Buddhists’ seeking of a state of Nirvana. Silly me. The salvation story starts and ends with the cross, with Jesus’ sacrifice two thousand years ago, and only intersects with your current condition through his holy name. It’s not a state of enlightenment or seeking enlightenment. You are a sinner, straight up. It’s all and only about accepting the story line as fact. I thought I could accept the story line and still try to find some nameless spiritual essence hovering around me, and this seemed similar to some Eastern religious practices. So I threw in a Buddha, and that slammed the door behind me.
Being nearly broke and condemned to Hell, I stumbled out of the office of the Executive Director and looked at the sky. But nothing spoke to me.
Being condemned to Hell should have been far worse than being broke, the but latter condition was more immediate, so I picked up the want ads. But, reconsidering, I thought that perhaps putting some distance between me and the firing squad might be smart, so I determined to head out of town. That started a truly bizarre sequence of events which I’m sure I deserved.
So, on a pretty April afternoon I found myself shouldering a ponderous backpack, basically a shipping trunk with shoulder straps, climbing on a tall, spindly, thin-wheeled, ten-speed bicycle, and precariously pedaling south down Nevada Avenue, out of Colorado Springs to Highway 115 and off through the pinyon-juniper desert of Fort Carson towards Cañon City. I was headed south, but I didn’t know why, and I didn’t have a car. And “down south” sounded like easier pedaling than “up north.” Once out of town, I figured I could find some kind of job. Since my guitar wouldn’t fit in my gargantuan piece of luggage, I tried strapping it on top, but the center of gravity was so high I could barely walk, let alone ride a bike. But I figured my days as a folk singing sensation for Jesus were over anyway.
I pedaled a few miles beside this curious landscape, bordered on one side by unexploded ordinance from aerial bombardment by dud bombs that rested millimeters below the surface of the soil, waiting for some hapless bunny or lizard set them off with their tiny feet to blow the living shit out of everything in the vicinity. Cars flashed by dangerously close to my left elbow. My attention turned to the sparse and puzzling debris somehow left along the highway’s edge. Some of it was not puzzling, of course—hamburger sacks, candy wrappers, coke bottles, the refuse of a society not yet conscious of environmental quality and the aesthetic of the natural landscape. But a doll’s leg? And a needle threader? And a toilet plunger?
It was about this time that the first rude blast of a passing car horn scared me off the shoulder. As I raised my head to look at the car, I saw two young men about my age, giving me the finger out the window and shouting, “Hey! Fucking fag!”
That brought me to a stop. How could these strangers make a diagnosis of my gender preference out here on the highway under a huge backpack beside unexploded ordnance? And how could they mistake bike riding for copulation? It struck me at the time, and has ever since, that anyone who yells this sort of thing must be dealing with a good deal of unconscious material about their own sexuality, and I imagine that it must be emotionally momentous for them. I’ve learned that when they shout or start in with God’s vindictive about Sodom and Gomorrah you know they’ve been fondling someone’s behind. It’s a standard thing, really. Jimmy Swaggart. Ted Haggard. Bill Gothard. The Duggers. Your priest. When you see a bicyclist heading south in the Spring, it should be obvious that he’s trying to grow. But, no. He’s fucking his bicycle, lamenting that he doesn’t have a vagina.
Although at the time it was unnerving to be bellowed at by gender-ambiguous ruffians, I was used to it. Long before my brief career as a folk-singing evangelist, I was a butterfly collector, which put me in casual contact with people like this, people who often seemed to want to acquaint themselves to me in a sort of moronic way, telling me how much they despised me while at the same time showing me too much of their own wounded souls. I learned to distinguish between honest questioning and efforts to humiliate, and it opened an interesting game of diagnosing the problems of my detractors. Nowadays, I play this game not just with my detractors, but with anyone who sends out signals to the community at large. My favorites are the homeowners who trim their evergreens into perfect spheres or blocks, or who try to make their homes appear uninhabited. This is a lot of information to be handing out to your neighbors, and I can usually tell a lot about a person’s upbringing as well as his genetics just by looking at his yard and garden, although my daughter doesn’t believe me. I should have been a mentalist.
Well, the miles ran on into miles and I finally came to Florence, a little town that, at the time, failed of both quaintness and uniqueness, and I couldn’t bear to stay in it so I pedaled on through and up an endless pass over the Wet Mountains. I was young and strong and could keep pedaling forever, I thought. Nightfall caught up with me halfway up the pass, however, as I had spent too much time looking for doll parts and toilet plungers, but I was satisfied to stop and reconnoiter.
I wasn’t entirely sure what reconnoitering actually was, but I was trying to reconnoiter about my bicycle and my path on the map to see how many miles I had accomplished and how few hideous individuals I had encountered thus far—only one car full of cretins with sexual problems, and they had kept driving, as if shouting one insult would have any lasting effect, although of course, here I am forty-three years later still commenting on it. This process of reconnoitering isn’t always supportive of your illusions about yourself. I should have done some serious reconnoitering about being fired by the Triune Godhead, but instead I began to reconnoiter about my last few minutes, standing on the roadside with my huge pack having crashed to the ground, crushing my thin aluminum plate and bowl, standing with my bicycle off the edge of the poor asphalt, and suddenly becoming conscious that I needed to find a place to sleep without fear of molestation of some sort, including that by grazing cattle or horses. I hate waking up at midnight under a bright moon, face to face with a horse, blowing clouds of dust and snot into my face as it grazes on the stubble a yard in front of my sleeping bag. He would be off with a wave of the hand, but still, it’s hard to get back to sleep once you’ve been disturbed by some nocturnal creature with huge nostrils.
I hauled my bicycle off the road and shoved it under a fence into private property, muscled my backpack over the barbed wire, then climbed through and dragged my belongings into a pine grove that was free of manure piles and was well hidden from the road. I decided not to pitch a tent, as that would be too easily seen, instead throwing a ground cover down to put my sleeping bag on. Then, as the sky darkened, I stoked up my camp stove and put a big pan of soup on to boil. And then, like magic, without even the slightest breeze, the whole system tipped on its side and bumped to the ground with a slurry of soup washing over the pitted soil toward my sleeping bag. I leapt to pull my bag out of the way, and uttered a little “Shit!” I accidentally kicked the stove into the weeds, where it started a little fire that I had to stamp out with my boots. “Shit!” I repeated.
I never have been proud of the fact that when things go suddenly wrong, the first word out of my mouth is an ugly one, and often that one, and sometimes I think about Islam, and how you’re supposed to die with the name of Allah on your breath. You know about that? The name of Allah? Oddly, they don’t say what it is. They say to die with Allah’s name on your lips. But what is Allah’s name, anyway? Why don’t they tell us? You can see why I didn’t make it in Young Life. But where was I?
A few cow pies decorated the stream bank, but I gamely filled my canteen, gently pushing it to the bottom and tilting it enough to allow the water to flow into the mouth, and trying to screen out the various particles of debris floating on the surface of the stream. It may be hard to believe, but this was still a time when you could drink right out of the creek without fear of bacterial or protozoan infestations that would leave you lifeless. People in the West today can’t imagine life without Giardia, but I was there to see it, and there I was at that moment, not even reconnoitering about it, filling my canteen, which was still several years away from being a plastic water bottle, when I heard a rustle across the creek and looked up. It was The Rancher.
Now, other things beside the quality of stream water have changed in the last forty years, and one of the changes that makes me the sickest is the attitude of private property holders toward trespassers. Back then, if you were out in the wide world doing something constructive or creative or harmless or chasing some little dream and you had to crash for the night, well, you just crashed for the night, and if The Rancher could see that you meant no harm to his cattle or fences or the quality of his stream water then he just drove on by.
Or in this case, he just said, “Y’all campin’ hair for the naaht?” He had a West Texas drawl, like you’d hear in Amarillo or Lubbock, so I figured he’d moved up here into greener cattle country.
I said, “I’m riding a bike south, and couldn’t make it over the pass before nightfall. Just spilled soup on my sleeping bag.”
“Umm.” he shook his head in faint sympathy. “I got some calves out here I’d appreciate if you don’t scare ’em.”
“I’m a vegetarian,” I said. “I’ll be out at daybreak.”
He nodded again, “Sleep taaht.”
That’s how an exchange went in those days. Nowadays, it would be more like, “You know this is private property?” And I would say, “I was just needing a little sleep. I’ll stay out of sight.” And the Modern Rancher, usually a ranch-sitter from New York or Ohio, would say, “Not here. This is private property. If you’re not outta here in five minutes I’ll call the Sheriff.” And although he might not be packing heat in a holster, he would certainly have a gun in his car if not in the back of his belt. And the Sheriff, who would have somewhere between ten and thirty meth labs cooking in his county that very night, would have plenty of time to drive out to the ranch and escort some completely nonthreatening twenty-seven-year-old back onto the State easement, where it would also be illegal to camp for some other reason. Of course, if I were black, he’d tase me and kill me outright for some weird reason that the State Attorney would find acceptable. In this day and age, it’s better to organize your trip so you don’t get caught at the foot of a pass at nightfall. Or at least have some sort of plan. I’m sure you’ve noticed that I had no plan, I was just heading south.
It also caught my attention that this very macho rancher said, “Sleep tight,” which is a blessing that my mother always used in my youth. I have heard other cultures say “Sleep well,” or “Go well,” and the idea of sleeping “tight” has intrigued me. I know it’s supposed to mean to sleep deeply and without disturbance by bad dreams or interruptions from the conscious world, but why “tight?” This word has a few interesting shades of meaning, but if you look for good antonyms, it seems that “loose” and “sober” are the obvious ones. So are we sleeping drunk? Or just not loose?
I pictured him going back to the ranch house and tucking in his little girl, and he tickled her and teased her a little about her one-legged doll, and she teased him about his lost toilet plunger, and then he kissed her on the cheek and said, “Sleep tight.” And I felt pretty good about the world in spite of my lost soup. In my memory I still call that the “Lost Soup Camp,” and I wonder how my life might have changed if I hadn’t spilled my soup. Probably not at all, but you can’t help reconnoitering. Maybe the rancher wouldn’t have seen me, so I wouldn’t have felt compelled to leave the camp and get on the road quite as early the next morning, and then my whole life would have been behind by an hour, and I might not have encountered the evangelist in the bathtub.
Anyway, the next morning I got up at daybreak, boiled up a small pot of water for oatmeal, taking pains to keep the pot safe from the capricious will of gravity, then reloaded my huge transatlantic trunk of a backpack and hauled my sleepy self back to the road and onto my spindly bicycle.
It’s hard but necessary to think back to those days when I was the only bicycle on the road. Literally, the only one on those highways. In the days of this story, there were no recreational bicyclists like today. If I did this again now, I’d be passed up and left in the dust by dozens if not hundreds of cyclists powering up the pass in their spandex just for the sheer pain of the experience. Out here in the Pikes Peak area, many of them would be extreme athletes from the Olympic Training Center, but this was in the days when there was no pressing reason to be bicycling, and it got everyone’s attention, everyone meaning the very occasional sexual harasser heading for Lake Isabel.
The long uphill grade that morning was around three hundred miles. Or, well, I exaggerate. Twenty? But there was no respite, no occasional dips where I could gain speed and coast a bit. It was excruciation on top of misery, and a few miles up the pass I ran out of steam, and stopped to see if my legs were still attached to my body, when a road crew—mostly Latinos—came into view below me, dieseling up the pass on the back of a painting truck, and as they passed they yelled at me, “Hey, chico, get a horse!” and “Arriba! Arriba!” and “What are you waiting for? ¡Ándale!” And they all had a good laugh on me, standing there sweating, holding my bike up and balancing under my burdens. I gave them a sarcastic round of applause as they passed. I hadn’t realized that “south” would be so uphill. So much for “down south.”
Oatmeal, with apologies to the Quaker Oats company, is utterly worthless in small quantities. It must be eaten in huge measure to make any difference. Heading out to challenge a mountain pass with a steamer trunk on your back is foolish with a breakfast of a little blob of congealed slurry that is mostly water. What a joke.
As I pressed ahead I found it necessary to forget everything about nature and the beauty of the day. I focused on the road under my front wheel, watching the gravel and small debris, the occasional cigarette butt and candy wrapper, the erosional sands that spilled across the highway from the uphill side of the road cut, appear and disappear. I didn’t hear any birds, I didn’t see any butterflies, and as the miles rolled beneath me I didn’t have any sense of distance. I stood on the pedals when I had to, which was a lot, making a rhythm of my breathing, wheezing out melodies like “A Hard Raieeee…. eeeen’s a’gonna… faaaaaallll” and “Theee… wind howls like… a hammer…, The night was… raining…, My love is… like a… raven at my… window with a… barooken… leg.” That last line made me laugh because it’s supposed to be “wing,” not “leg,” but laughter is not good when you have to work that hard. I sensed “leg” coming and still breathed it. I laughed and lost my rhythm. Bob Dylan was so incredible! Why didn’t he think of “leg?”
Three-fourths of the way up that pass there is finally a downhill stretch that makes you think maybe you’re over the top, but soon it goes up again, and after a few more miles of uphill, I could no longer bear the pain. I stopped again, this time literally starving. I had burned off my “breakfast” and the last of the fat from my lean legs, and had begun metabolizing my muscles. I knew I would soon die if I didn’t eat, and it was only then that I appreciated that I had packed far too little finger food in my giant load of goods. I’d eaten all my snacks the previous day, when I didn’t need them, and I couldn’t see stopping to make a fire to boil water to cook up some stew or beans when I was so close to the top of the pass. But I could pedal no farther. I was done. Should have gone down north.
I unzipped a few of the pouches on my pack, listlessly seeking some little ort that I might have missed earlier, but there were no surprises, and I was reduced to sitting spiritless on the roadside, head in hands, measuring my sophomoric stupidity against that of the ants and tiny grasshoppers that suddenly appeared in my consciousness around me. Aha! Ants and grasshoppers were both edible, I imagined in my delirium. Then I spotted some dull yellow-brown object in the road, and realized that it was an apple core, probably thrown out by the road crewmen or the sexual perverts, and, almost as if I were hovering over my body, watching, I picked it up, flicked a pill bug off, and began eating it, savoring the sugars beneath the browning flesh, crunching up the leathery core, spitting out the seeds, and thanking God, whoever or whenever he was, for a very tiny favor. I mean, really tiny.
Of course the apple core was nasty and not enough to really matter, but I wandered across the road a little to see if there were more of these leavings, and it was then that I realized how close to the top of the pass I was. There was a deception about the course of the road, and it was suddenly clear that I was almost to San Isabel. I shouldered my immense burden with a new vigor, stumbled a few times getting on my spindly bike, and anguished over the next ridge and into view of houses.
The only promising business establishment in San Isabel was a small cafe, which would have served my needs grandly, but it was closed and dark. I climbed the few steps to the entrance, shielded the windows from the bright reflections, and peered pitifully into the darkness, immediately spotting a large glass-front display of candy at the cash register. I knocked on the window and stared for a time at the kitchen doors for any sign of life, but there was none. I knocked again, louder and longer, and called out, “Halloo?” But there was nothing.
At that point I think I must have whispered some tragic little oath, because a gravelly, cancer-infused woman’s voice harshed from a stoop behind me. “What the hell? You need somethin’?”
“Oh my God,” I said, reaching both hands toward her like the hopeless beggar I was, “You are an angel and I am a starving man.”
“Well,” she said, “ya might be starvin’. Ya look like ya haven’t eaten in fifteen years.”
I told her that I had run out of food, and that the candy bar display right in there by the register would save my life.
She rolled her eyes a little and snorted. “Well, hell. Let me get a key.” She withdrew, went around the corner, reappeared in no particular hurry, worked on the lock and key for a while, but became frustrated as she jiggled the key unsuccessfully in the lock. I could hear her muttering, “I told that idiot eight times to get this tumbler fixed…”
Too much smoking and hard living in the full sunlight had given her a leathery sort of aura, but I wanted to be sure she knew how worthwhile her efforts were, so I said, “You don’t know how much this means to me—”
But she cut me off with an agitated, raspy gargle, “A goddamn candy bar?”
And I said, “Actually, I would buy quite a number of them.”
She rolled her eyes again and gurgled, “Jesus.”
The key finally turned and I bought a large handful of snickers, mounds, tootsie rolls, and butterfingers and paid well beyond their worth to reward the lady for her trouble. I said, “You don’t know what this means to me.”
She hacked up a big wad of loose phlegm, coughed it into a Kleenex, which she shoved into her pocket, and said, “God, you’re so dramatic.” I nodded and backed out of the store. She shook her head and added a little, “Hell.” Then, as I left under the huge pack, she barked out, “Why don’t you keep some food in that monstrosity? It looks like you’re carryin’ a ‘arm-wire’ over the Andes!” The joke was wasted on me. I’d never heard of an armoire, and she anticipated Fitzcarraldo by eleven years.
I forced large mouthfuls of chocolate down as I pedaled, gasping for breath and slopping some water down my chin to wash it down, and began the next leg of my journey, now mixed with some relaxing level and downhill stretches, and began enjoying the breeze for the first time all day.
It is amazing how much a few candy bars can change one’s life, and although it only works for a short time, that was all the time I needed. The debilitating sugar crash that would inevitably follow was to be reckoned with later. For now I was off the back edge of the pass and whirling down the smooth highway at a horrific speed, banking low into the corners across the bright, fresh double yellow lines to short-cut the turns, feeling very wonderful and renewed, but soon realizing that I was building up speed faster than good sense would advise, and that my attempts at slowing were producing a high-pitched whine and vibration on the wheels, but little change in speed. Under the tonnage of my backpack, I produced some serious inertia. It was a wild ride, alternately pleasurable and risking fatal crashes, until one long straight stretch came into view, and there in the road lay a vanishing row of orange cones beside the fresh yellow paint lines. The cones stretched into the distance and around a bend, and I weaved in and out of them a little as I rode, gliding on a smooth flight path toward Rye.
As I turned the bend, I could finally see, far in the distance, the free Mexican road crew. They had pulled off for a siesta and were sitting in the shade of the truck, and when they saw me coming they all stood up, and as I approached them I rose straight up on my pedals, let go of the handle bars, stretched my arms out wide, and cruised past like a hero champion. They all applauded, and shouted things like, “¡La tortuga ha llegado!” And one said, “¡Aquí viene! ¡Allá va!” and they all laughed.
The only part of the trip that I timed was that seven-mile stretch down to Rye that I made in twelve minutes. I didn’t time the top seven-mile stretch up the pass, but now I glided along, the wind racing past my ears, sucking out my breath and burning my face, cruising into Rye, and then past, and then on down to the Interstate and on to Walsenburg. I had made a remarkable ride, back in those days. Modern Olympians, without backpacks, do this sort of ride routinely. I still brag about my one ride. It was about self discovery.
Walsenburg was my kind of town, small enough to walk across if you needed to, and without any reason to need to. It lay lazily in the sun, with a big loop of freight cars circling much of the downtown, being pushed past some loading towers, and I thought that someday I would ride that freight west across the mountains to some other little town even smaller than Walsenburg, and I’d camp by the tracks somewhere like a real hobo, and let the world just go on by. And one day I did that, but I’ll have to tell that story later.
Not until I rode into Walsenburg, finished for the day, did I remember that I knew someone from that very town, although only through a single visit to the Young Life Camp. He was Pastor Richards, a supporter of Young Life, sympathetic to its mission but only marginally involved because he was a preacher on his own steam and didn’t want to compete with himself for the youth of the town. He was also a developer, and having these two professions was no strain whatever because he was the Calvinistic type who believed that God rewarded him with success everywhere he turned, and why not rake in the big bucks that the poor local congregation couldn’t pony up to support his lavish lifestyle? “Obviously,” he was known to say, “God does not want me to be poor. I mean, just look.”
Richards was an entrepreneur with ADHD, but back then we hadn’t heard of those terms, so we just called him a greedy, narcissistic, sleep-deprived son of a bitch with an Icarician ego that aimed him at some unlikely religious mission that seemed to overwhelm him with emotion at times. For him, everything in the whole of the earth seemed to constellate around his next move, and it was all buoyed up by his boasts about his last move. He had built up his local Baptist church from a dying, hopeless clot of rag-tag hangers-on to a bustling, vivacious congregation of almost two hundred, all with mindless, middle-American blandness, all coming to hear him preach every Sunday because there was simply nothing like him in the country as far as any eye could see. I can’t remember the name of his church, but it was something like, “Saint Peter’s Baptist Pentecostal Methodist Church of Jesus Christ,” to include as many cults as he could identify in those parts, and his impassioned sermons were peppered with rants and rampages through scripture, fervid warnings of damnation, and always the inevitable breakdown into sobs of repentance and tears of victory, mood shifts typical of a bipolar personality on steroids, and come to think of it, I think he probably was taking some sort of illicit prescription drugs. He was a televangelist without a television hook-up, but clearly he dreamed in that direction. He craved ever bigger crowds, more exposure, more fame and money, a bigger church, a bigger town. Stardom! “I’ll never rest,” he exclaimed, “until I have the biggest church in the state!” He had a long way to go.
But Richards was also a dull and unappealing man, and that ought to have presented a huge impediment. He was overweight, with skin that looked like he’d just crawled out of some meteor crater, and his puffy hands were rough and flaky with blond hair-tufts curling off his knuckles like so many gorilla warts. But somehow he had learned to present himself without the least hesitancy, as if he were as appealing as Elvis Presley himself, and I think that he might have been from Tennessee, as I recall, because he had a remnant of that sort of accent. If you can’t understand how a person who looks and acts the way he did could so easily recruit a small army of devotees, well, you would have to visit his church one Sunday and listen to his own explanation. He described himself as flawed, just the way God wanted it, just as Moses was a stutterer and Thomas was a doubter, to distract from the messenger and keep the focus on the message. He called himself a believer with a burden on his heart to spread the Word, and to spread the Word one had to “preach the Truth loud and clear, and then stand back, stand aside, and let Gawd’s grace rumble into people’s hearts, change their lives. I can’t do it, but GAWD Almighty can!”
When he got wound up tight in the middle of his sermon he shouted and ranted, “I can do nothing, NOTHING, do you hear me? I can do nothing, I am just a shamed and penitent sinner, a lowly worm. But GAAWDD, our GAAAWDD, the one true GAAAAWDD, the merciful and loving GAAAAAWDD, the same GAAAAAAWDD that saved Noah and his wife and family and all the animals in two by two from the great flood, the same GAAAAWDD who delivered His children from the bondage of Egypt, the same GAAAAAWDD who called Peter and Andrew from the lakeside into Discipleship,…” This went on for a while, recounting many Bible stories, as if the congregation had forgotten them, always building an expanding crescendo on the word GAAAAAWDD, sometimes giving it two very awkward syllables, but it always ended the same. “… the same GAAAAAAAW-ODD who changed my life and gave me peace and wealth and power to do His bidding, THIS SAME GAAAAAAAAAAAAAW-ODD is calling you to turn from your wicked ways and accept His salvation! Just… Just…”
At this point he suddenly calmed down to a whisper, curled over his podium with his head in his arms, wept a little, and said, “He just (sob) wants to hear you say (sniff) God, oh God, please God, please Jesus, oh please Jeeesus, Jeeeeesus please, please God,…” and it seemed as if he had forgotten what it was that God wanted to hear you say, then suddenly he rose to his full height, recovered apparently from his weeping, and cried out, “Come into me! Penetrate my failed and miserable soul, my soul which has denied you so many times! Come! Fill me with your surge of love, the stuff of your forgiveness and grace…” And this went on and on with sexual innuendo and passion, usually way too long, and sometimes with a relapse into a bit of weeping, and apparently always with the same sort of ending prayer— “I may be a nobody, with a red nose and a scaly complexion, a lowly servant not worthy to wash Thy feet, but Thou hast made me rich and powerful, yet humble, and for these and Thy many other blessings, I give Thee thanks. Aman and aman and aman.” And the congregation all said, “AMEN!” And he answered, “AMAN!”
Well, you might be asking yourself why in God’s unspeakable name I would want to make a connection with this oddball, having been disposed of by Young Life, and I have to say that unto this very day, after many years of introspection and retrospection, I still have no idea. He was such a weirdo. But remember, I came from gospel roots, I was heading south with no purpose, and, like a very hungry dog, anything organic is tempting.
Anyway, I rented a tiny motel room and wandered Walsenburg for a while intending to drop in on Richards to say hello and bring greetings from some Young Life folks who sent their best, even after they fired me, but it became apparent very quickly that he didn’t reside in Walsenburg proper, but in a wide-flung new subdivision a few miles up the road toward the state park, so I found a pay phone and gave him a call.
The Pastor was thrilled to hear from me, untroubled that I had been sacked from Young Life for heretical teachings, and said to come right over. I told him I was on a bike and needed to grab some supper first and he said, “Nooooo chance me and Rosáylee are going to have you eating alone and pedaling around town. I’m coming to pick you up right now. Where are you?”
So I gave him my motel address and within ten minutes he was honking in the street. He motioned for me to climb in to his empty front seat, which I did forthwith, noticing that the back seat was occupied by a large guitar case. He cast a thumb over his shoulder toward it. “That’s for you to play for us tonight at church!”
“Oh, really?” I said with surprise. “Actually I haven’t played for a while. I’ve been unemployed since Young Life sacked me.”
Richards laughed, “Well, that is just plain ridiculous, of course, a person of your talent. I got this guitar from a guy who couldn’t pay his debts and it is a beauty, a Martin D-45 dreadnaught with new D’Angelico strings. You’ll sound great on it. I put in a wide slot for you in the middle of the service.”
I said, “I doubt if I know any of the hymns you normally sing.”
He laughed again. “You don’t have to sing hymns, for the love a heaven, just sing your own stuff, like you do at Young Life. Like you did up at Frontier. That was inspired.”
“Young Life fired me for singing that stuff,” I noted.
“Well Young Life doesn’t know its eyeballs from its balls, so don’t even think about that, just sing your stuff. We start at seven bells and have to get you fed and rested before that. You’re on a bike? For the love a heaven, why? We need to get you a good car.” This was obviously going to be a very interesting evening.
Rosalía, his illegal immigrant wife who was now legal of course, being married to a US citizen, seemed more like a servant than a wife, and she was very busy in the kitchen with her apron and tortilla press. Oddly, Richards called her “Ro SAY lee”, but she called herself Rosalía. She called her husband “Pastor Richards,” which seemed a bit formal for a spouse, but I winked and called him the same thing.
Rosalía fed me to repletion with fajitas, which I had never heard of until that night, before the fajita craze began, and finished me off with sopapillas, also unheard of. I ate an astonishing amount of food, having starved all day except for the apple core and candy bars. After a few honey-laden sopapillas, I could barely walk. And now I was supposed to break out the D-45 and give them a little taste of what church would be like tonight.
I tuned the beast up and let out a wail of, “I ride on a mail train, Baby, Cain’t buy a thrill…”
Richards stopped me and said, “No, I mean seriously, man, do some of your Young Life stuff.” So I did a couple numbers that could be used to lead up to an altar call, and he was so ecstatic that he began speaking in tongues. I can’t remember what he said, of course, as I was not an interpreter of glossulalic utterances, but it sounded like “Frrrrr, fatchi cldsshhhhrrrr bedragidllldshhhhrrrr…,” like a sort of motor noise with some hissing thrown in, and I glanced over at Rosalía, who was hiding behind a couch cushion and frowning.
She looked back at me and said, “I hate when he does this. He can’t remember it and he doesn’t know what he’s saying. Diós mio. But it means he likes your singing.”
After a few minutes, Richards snapped back towards sanity, tears in his eyes, whispering, “Dear Jesus, thank you Jeeeeesus,” and suddenly it was as if nothing had happened. He stood up and said, “We have to be getting down to church. I need to be there early to be sure the flowers are up.”
That evening, following a New Testament reading and a hymn or two, Richards introduced me, calling me “a prophet without honor in his hometown of Colorado Springs, come all the way to Walsenburg by way of Toronto and Tucson and San Isabel on his bicycle to give us the blessing of his voice and musical talent.” He made it sound like I rode my bike from Canada, but I didn’t have time to correct it, and it was a pretty amazing feeling. Forget the Tour de France.
And with that I made music for the New Pentecostal Baptist Methodists, thrumming on the huge Martin dreadnaught, enjoying every pure note it produced beneath my fingers, carrying myself away into my own reverie, not too unlike a trance, actually, and having an excellent night of it. For those of you who are not acquainted with guitars, a Martin Dreadnaught-45 is the Cadillac of acoustical guitars, so far beyond my budget at the time, and still, that I had never touched one until that magical night.
Any singer will understand that there are times when you are in perfect voice, when everything is in perfect pitch and tuning, and the entrances and intervals are all exact, and sustained notes are as clear as you want them to be, and if there are tears to be shed, you’ll get them because everything is infused with the essence of perfection. That was how I sang that night, and without realizing it, I put the congregation into a wailing state of spiritual ecstasy. It seemed like ever since supper, everyone was going into trances. Richards had spent a few months warming them up, of course, and this is what they hoped would happen every Sunday night. I certainly hit their nerve just right with that big, magical D-45. It sure had the Holy Ghost in it.
But they took the show away from me after the second song, interrupting my guitar work with “Amen” and “Praise Jeeeeesus” and the service evolved from my music into a writhing fit of Pentecostal Holiness hand-waving hallelujahs that totally drowned me out. I played rhythm for a while, then finger-picked a little Donovan, then stopped playing altogether and retired to one side, placing the big guitar in its case and feeling as if I had done my job to absolute perfection, and nobody even noticed that I had stopped, as they began surrounding some sad sack who was ill with some disease or another, and most of them had their eyes closed and their hands in the air or on this victimized guy, and I slipped out a side entrance and walked out into the cool night air, past the lawns and flowering plum trees and parking lots, as their cries of healing and casting out of spirits faded behind me.
I walked the few miles back to my motel room, noticing that in this small town with poor street lighting one could still see the night sky, washed over with the great Milky Way, and I went to sleep very easily after one of the oddest days in my life, even though the enigma of the church service still rang unanswered in my ears.
Richards called me the next morning by way of the motel phone, and to my amazement, he was not at all angry with me for leaving. I don’t think he even knew, because he just started off with, “Wow, that was an amazing service last night! The Lord healed brother Dan from a muscle pain problem that he’s had for twenty years, and without your singing it never would have happened.”
“Really,” I said, nonplussed. “Well, that was my muscle-relaxing set.”
“Very funny,” said Richards, quickly adding, “Seriously, I need to see you up here at my house right away. How soon can you get here?” I told him that I was still on the bike, nobody having bought me a new car over night, and that I would need some breakfast to get me up the hills. So he said, “I’ll give you an hour. Be here sharp.”
“What are you thinking?” I asked, but the line was dead. He’d hung up on me. Why didn’t he offer me a ride, if it was so important?
So I had to decide whether or not to reappear before Pastor Richards, and it was no easy decision because he was so weird, but yet so bizarrely entertaining, and I knew there was a wild tale to tell if I went, but I needed to keep moving south. If I went back to visit, though, I might make a song of it. After a few minutes of waffling, I decided to eat a few waffles and pedal on up to meet this lunatic one last time before I headed for Texas. I left the monster pack at the motel. Already a melody was suggesting itself. “The Pastor on the phone, The Pastor on the phone…” Like the Farmer in the Dell. No, I could do better than that.
When I arrived at the Pastor’s door, it was closed, but his car was in the open garage so I knew he was home. But he didn’t answer the doorbell, so I gave the door some serious knuckles. From far in the back of the house I could hear him cry, “Come on in!” so I cracked the door and peeked inside. Rosalía was obviously gone or she would have answered the door, and I was very alone in the living room.
“Pastor Richards?” I called.
And I heard him from some back room, “Sam, good buddy, come back here. I have a deal for you.” So I wandered back to where his voice came from, beyond the hallway, beyond the master bedroom. “Sam!” he called again, “Come in here!” He was in the bathroom.
I stood perplexed. “I’ll wait for you here,” I said, retreating.
“No, come in here,” he repeated, “I have been in a spiritual vision all night and all day. It all started last night. I have a vision, and you’re part of it.”
“Good Lord,” I gasped, “How?” I peeked in the bathroom to see him standing on his knees in the bathtub with a wad of suds sticking up off his head and running down his temple. He squinted through soapy eyes. “Sit down,” he said, motioning to the toilet seat. “I have to tell you this.”
“No, it’s okay,” I said. I backed up a few feet, but still aligned with the door so I could see him. “I’ll just stand here.”
And then the fun began. He began to regale me with his memories of Billy Graham and the big tent revivals, and how powerful those were to him, and how the great baritone, George Beverly Shea, had served to warm up the crowds and get them ready for the message, and how the masterful preaching of Billy Graham had brought people to their knees, and then how George Beverly Shea had lulled them with “Just As I Am” into coming forward in droves to meet the Lord.
And Pastor Richards said that he, himself, was just like Billy Graham in his ability to preach and to reach into people’s hearts and bring them to salvation, “He has nothing on me!” and all he had ever lacked was the right singer, and last night it came to him in a vision that I was that singer, his George Beverly Shea, and that together we would make a stand for Christ that would make Billy Graham a lightweight. We would buy a huge tent, bigger than any circus, and we’d go on the road, and I would sing people into it, and he would bring God’s message of light and salvation, and we would be world famous for Christ. “Do you have any idea how much money there is in this?” he cried. “One single night in a stadium would be more cash than you’ll see in fifty years, pedaling that stupid bike around the country. Where’s my washcloth?”
And all this with soap suds running down his face and his sponge gripped fiercely in his puffy hand, flailing the air madly, and he was still on his knees, completely oblivious to being in a bathtub, waving his arms and saying, “Can you see it? Do you see it? By God Almighty, I’m going to buy that tent today, and we’ll set off down I-25. It doesn’t even matter where we go, because the whole world needs Jesus—you and me—bringing the gospel to the people. Everyone has cash to spend on eternity!” Suds had run down his body now, and his white pubic hair blended with a wad of bubbles tucked under his overhanging belly, and I had never realized that when peoples’ hair gets gray so does their pubic hair, and I said, “I really have to get out of here.”
And I heard him calling after me, “Wait, Sam, feel the vision! Sam! Listen to the Lord’s call! Sam! Sam? Come back! It’ll just be us—you and me—under the big tent. You can have the Martin! You will sing forever, Sam! Sam? I’ll get you a car!” I can still hear it.
I hurried back to the motel room by a few shortcuts across vacant lots, packed my immense backpack, checked out, and swung onto my bicycle to make a few miles before Richards could catch up to me. But I realized in an instant that I was riding on flat tires. The vacant lots teemed with old goat-head burrs, and I had a thousand punctures between me and freedom. I sat on the roadside for a while, defeated.
I walked my bicycle to a tiny shop for new tires, then sneaked into a nearby cafe for a snack while the bike shop worked. I hadn’t been there for two minutes before Pastor Richards and Rosalía walked in for lunch. I nodded to them and started to stand, but Pastor Richards just stared at me for a moment and then turned away, ordering their meals and completely ignoring me. He sat with his back to me, and never made eye contact again. He had not the slightest interest in an explanation or an excuse. I had gone my way.
I did eventually write a song about the Evangelist in the Bathtub. It goes like this. I can’t teach you the tune, but maybe try John Prine’s “Dear Abby.”
I had two chances in this life to be a celebrity praise artist. On the first, I got fired. The second, I declined. But the image of that man in his bathtub, wringing suds and fighting the air like a child in a gnat swarm, will never leave me. He is always there, however far south I go, begging me to join his soapy scrotum in the tent ministry.