It was just a short news story, but it instantly reminded me where I was 30 years ago this weekend. I was in Cleveland, on the first leg of the adventure of a lifetime.
That’s overstating it, of course, but when you’re 21 and traveling alone for the first time, it seems that way. That you’re seeing the grittier side of America from a bus certainly adds to the experience.
So as my college classes ended in May 1979, I talked my bosses at the newspaper into giving me a few days off.
I bought a sleeping bag, packed a backpack, borrowed a camera and took off.
I drove to southern Wisconsin, stayed overnight at my aunt’s house and caught a bus to Chicago. There, in a vaguely scary bus station, I caught another Greyhound and headed east.
When we reached Cleveland, a huge, double-deck headline in the Plain Dealer screamed about a plane crash in Chicago in which 273 people had been killed. It was — and still is — the worst crash involving a single plane in U.S. history. That’s why it was in the news today.
Going across New York state, I chatted with a young woman. All was well until she tried to convert me to her brand of religion. No thanks.
My plan, once I got off the bus in Cooperstown, was to camp out for a couple of nights. But it had been raining since Albany and never let up. I never saw the top of any mountain in the Catskills, thanks to the low-hanging rain clouds. So I found a room in a cheap motel and spent a couple of rain-soaked days in Cooperstown.
Of course, the sun was out as I sat outside Clancy’s Deli in Cooperstown, savoring my first New York deli sandwich and waiting for the Trailways bus on the first leg of the trip home.
Going across Ohio, I chatted with a younger guy, maybe 18 or so, who spun a breathless tale of working with or being mentored by the singer Johnny Mathis. I probably said something like “Johnny Mathis, eh?”
He misread my skepticism about his story and immediately sought to reassure me that although he had worked with the singer, he himself certainly was not gay, no sir, no way. He needn’t have worried. I was clueless. I never would have thought that had he not mentioned it.
A long, strange trip indeed.
Here’s a road song from one of the records I was listening to at the time.
“Homestead In My Heart,” the Amazing Rhythm Aces, from “The Amazing Rhythm Aces,” 1979.
It’s written and sung by Duncan Cameron, a guitarist who joined the group a year earlier. That’s Joan Baez on the background vocals. Not quite Memphis soul, not quite country, it’s still a good cut from an underrated album.