Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Tulare Dust

The Tulare dust in a farm boy's nose
Wondering where the freight train goes
Standin' in the field by the railroad track
Cursin' this strap on my cotton sack
--Merle Haggard

Listen to Merle Haggard sing The Tulare Dust by clicking here.

I haven't thought of this song in years, and I don't think I ever heard Merle himself sing it. Back in my college days, there was a coffee house on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley called Freight and Salvage. (As you can see from the link, the Freight is still around, just not on San Pablo Avenue.) I loved going to the freight to hear such greats as Bruce U. "Utah" Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels. I still sing Phillips' "Colorado State Song" and Sorrels off-center version of "My Favorite Things," but the singer I enjoyed most at the Freight was a young man, a few years older than myself, who I swore was the reincarnation of my uncle Virgil Stephens, my mother's baby brother. Unfortunately, I no longer remember his name--but hey, this was almost 40 years ago--and boy does that make me feel old. My uncle drowned in the Ohio River in 1946, and this young singer was born that same year. According to my parents, Virgil could play any instrument he picked up, and so could the F&S singer. One evening, I took a tape recorder into the Freight, and with his permission, I recorded his entire concert. That tape is on reel-to-reel and my big Sony player has died, more's the pity. He performed at the Freight almost every month, and one of his regular songs was The Tulare Dust.

OK, that was back in the early 1970s, so why am I thinking (and singing) The Tulare Dust today? Well, due to a series of strange incidents, I find myself typing at a desk in a Super 8 motel in Visalia, California, the seat of Tulare County. I haven't been in Visalia in almost forty years either--not since I visited my best friends from college, Jim and Rosanna Brown when Rosanna was working as a librarian at the Tulare County Library.

Those of you who have read this blog from the beginning may remember the reason for the blog title, "If there were witchcraft." In case you need a reminder, there was a song that we sung at church camp when I was small, a song titled "Witchcraft" which I have subsequently taken as my own personal motto. The song goes:


If there were witchcraft, I’d make two wishes,
A winding road that beckons me to roam
And then I’d wish for a blazing campfire
To welcome me when I’m returning home.

But in this real world, there is no witchcraft
And golden wishes do not grow on trees
Our fondest daydreams must be the magic
To bring us back those golden memories.

Memories that linger, constant and true
Memories we cherish----Camping days and You

The last line is slightly different than what I remember, and a slightly different version can be heard on YouTube on a 1957 recording by Patience and Prudence. At least the melody is right, and they have most of the same lyrics--just not the one that's most important to me.

"A winding road that beckons me to roam" has always been one of my fondest wishes. That and the blazing campfire to welcome me home. With Kevin, I've finally got a partner who also likes the open road, and when he mentioned that his trip to Phoenix was going to involve a side trip to Ontario and Visalia California, I begged to go along. And here I am.

We flew into Phoenix last evening, Saturday, March 19th, and we'll fly home from Phoenix next Saturday, the 26th. Turns out the 19th was not a good day to fly into Phoenix. Oh our flight was fine--we even managed to get an exit row so I had enough room for my legs. But we flew into Mesa on Allegiant and had to pick up our rental car at Sky Harbor, some 25 miles away--or in other terms, an $80 cab ride away. Kevin had arranged things thus because Allegiant's fare was considerably less than Delta's (Delta flies into Sky Harbor), but Enterprise wants considerably more if you pick up your car at Mesa--where Allegiant is based. Kevin thought he'd worked things out with the cab company which quoted him $25 for the cross-town fare, but first, Mesa Airport doesn't allow any cab company but Yellow Cab to pick up passengers, and second, once we walked away from the airport so that our arranged ride could pick us up, the driver turned the wrong way and our fare tripled. Such fun.

Once at the rental car center at Sky Harbor, we found that most flights into Phoenix had been late--very late--and Enterprise's supply of cars was severely depleted. Kevin drives a Ford Expedition, and always requests an SUV, but in order to get the car of his choice, we would have had to wait an additional half hour, or so, and since we were offered other choices at a reduced rate, I asked if we couldn't just take a full-sized car instead. Hence we drove out of the center in a beige Ford Fusion which is supposed to be a "full-sized" car. All I can say is that "full-sized" doesn't mean what it used to. Still and all, the Fusion is a fine vehicle and it carries the two of us and all our bags in style. Plus it gets a lot better mileage than an SUV, a definite plus when driving in $4.00+ per gallon California.

I had reserved a room at the Phoenix Airport Howard Johnson's, a non-smoking room with a king-sized bed. When we checked in, we found that the room was smoke-filled and the bed was definitely not a king. The desk clerk basically said, take it or leave it, it's all I have, and you're free to complain to the manager in the morning. We left it, and I will be complaining both to the HoJo manager and to Wyndham Rewards through whose website I made the reservation. Turns out there were NO rooms available in Phoenix. Some 10,000 folk had arrived for Spring Break and Spring Training, and we headed west, knowing that we would be driving that way in the morning anyway. Now if you look at a map of Arizona, there's not much west of Phoenix--even on Interstate 10 which was our route to Ontario, California. Well, there's 155 miles from Sky Harbor to Blythe, California which is the first town across the state line. And Kevin drove those 155 miles, arriving in Blythe at 1 am, local time--the first place we found a room.

This morning, we left Blythe, and drove on into California, past Palm Springs, through San Bernardino, and up into the mountains to the city of Hesperia where my second cousin, Pat Rumsey, lives. Pat and I have corresponded and spoken on the phone for many years, but we have never met. Faithful readers may remember that I wrote Pat an apology as a blog post after writing her a very nasty e-mail. I don't want to go back into that, but suffice it to say that meeting Pat was an experience that made me feel absolutely terrible--she's such a small woman, and I'm such a big man, that it felt as if I had thrown my weight around in a completely unfair fight. I hope to never do such a thing again. Pat and her husband Larry were delightful, and Pat and I talked family while Kevin and Larry watched fishing on TV. Pat's mother and my father were first cousins, her grandfather being my grandfather's eldest brother. While we visited, the wind came up strong enough to cause a power outage. Kevin had decided that he wanted to go to Visalia first and return to Phoenix via Ontario, so we still had at least three hours of driving ahead of us. We bid Pat and Larry good-bye, and headed out.

Filling up the Fusion at the cheapest station we could find, I felt the car rocking in the wind, and was glad that we weren't in a higher profile vehicle. Driving out of town, we passed a trailer that had blown over on its side, blocking one lane of traffic. Continuing on toward Tehachapi, the rain turned to sleet, then snow, and I was forced to call Missoula to ask why I had traveled all the way to southern California, only to find myself back in the snow. I'm so sick of winter.

As we wound down the pass into Bakersfield, the snow turned back to rain, which has continued all the rest of the way. Looking out the window just now, the rain is pouring, or in the Pennsylvania Dutch locution I grew up with, "It's pouring the rain down." There won't be any Tulare Dust around for a while.

Sorry that there are no pictures with all this text. I hope you enjoy the music. The weather just didn't warrant getting the camera out so far this trip.

And here's one more Merle Haggard song that I learned from that young singer at Freight and Salvage, Mama Tried.


Lou Judson said...

I just found this from a google alert for Freight and Salvage - I am one of the sound people there. If you'd like, I can make a high quality transfer of your old tape and possibly identify the singer! I'm just curious enough to offer.

Sorry you had such a miserable trip - I don't get to travel much these days but would put up with all that if I could go in my own van, camping and driving all around the country!

Let me know if you want help with that tape.
ltj - at -


Bronzen said...

Last line, "Like A campfire and You.