Bonfire of Roadmaps


Illustration by Joe Ely

“Laredo East and West”

No time to unpack, it’s off to New York
The Coast is Clear like the voice of Joan Baez
With whom I share a radio show
James McMurtry is there in all his Beatness
Singing a song about Levelland
I feel in another era, like a hillbilly, Transported
New York takes me in her arms and tells me
Close your eyes, it’ll be all right in the Morning. . .
For the next two weeks I lay down my pen
I have bounced between Oceans so quickly
That I can only observe from second to second
The colors of Autumn have set the East Coast on Fire
And set my wild mind to Reeling

We passed thru the Graffiti of Pittsburgh
The Birch Streets of Old Alexandria
And dined in the World Café in Philadelphia, PA
We shouted in the Pearl Streets of Northampton
But The Egg of Albany fried our Ass
And took a coat of paint off of the Tioga Ballroom
Up in Portland, Raoul had a fallin’ out with Charles
And he let ’em have it, drivin’ off into the Muddy Night
Mama Kin danced with Steel Shoes in Bloody Boston
And wouldn’t stop until the Cowgirls wrestled Alligators
We were pickin’ up steam in each new Joint
The Band was startin’ to Sweat,
And the Sweat was startin’ to Show

Reeling through the musical hills of sweet Vermont
All pain subsided and I was able to breathe a Slow Sigh
The flaming landscape saturated my spirit
Transforming my eyes into vast nets of ethereal mist
My journey was only beginning, I told myself
A ramblin’ man must pursue his harmony
And take refuge in beauty and balance
And when the Sap starts to Flow in the Maples
Then it’s damn well time to make Syrup. . .

Burlington is a name I know from the Railroads
I remember catching a Burlington Northern Freight
Having no Idea whether Burlington itself
Was a town, a sweater, or a mountain
The name itself had a kind of Magic,
Like Santa Fe and Rock Island of Old
Gangs of bored teenagers roamed downtown
Each armed with studied nonchalance
Feigning detachment on the Surface

Yet terrified of the Very World just below the Skin
The boys, repositories of dammed up testosterone
And the girls, secretly desperate to be Wanted
Dancing the Eternal Dance of Aggression and Indifference
Not unlike the mating ritual of the Crocodile
Maybe a bit more Dangerous and Deadly

Another drive the next day across the breathtaking hills
Zigzagging from Vermont to Connecticut
Into New London at dark, blowing another tire
Reminding us that we all were beginning to suffer
From a serious case of Severed Valve Stem

The Tioga Ballroom wobbled into Manhattan
Like a frightened Dinosaur into a Tar Pit
Knowing fool well it was eminently out of place
But sensing the presence of fellow creatures
Waded in up to its virtual neck
And shivered in the bog daring God and Good Sense

No sooner than the Sleep was scraped from our Eyes
And the spiders chased from our Brains
Did we find ourselves on Conan O’Brien
Being Irish, I’m sure he understood the concept
Of dancing a happy jig in a stadium full of Cobwebs

And so we present, on National Television,
A story of a Refugee pining for his Lover
A half a World away, in the Back Streets of Laredo
The Singer jumped bail from a Barney Fife jail
To cross the River of Tears and No Return

You don’t just leave Manhattan, you escape
Through a series of mazes and passwords
To exit through Spanish Harlem takes nerve
Many men tried and many men failed
To find the bridge to lead them from their failure
We sail out across New Jersey, where the West begins
Headed for Kentucky where they make Jim Beam
The East is heavy with many Gravities of old
Pulling against newer Gravities, Television, Film and Internet
At the Pennsylvania border the restraint is gone
As we coast through nature’s glorious labyrinth

By Ohio we are bleary and starting to unravel
Charles scours the Interstate for a place to crash
For three hours, all we see are no vacancy signs
Every motel is spilling over with refugees like us

He stops in the back of a huge truck stop
The highway ships are circling, waiting to dock
The band settles in to sleep wherever they may fall
I take my sleeping bag to the edge of the cornfield
And find a row where the light can’t find me
And fall asleep in the rustle of silk and stalks

When I awake the next morning I have to laugh
One night I have a spot on National Television
And a bed with starched sheets in a posh uptown hotel
And the next night I’m sleeping in an Ohio cornfield
With frost forming on the dirt in my hair

We drive through the sweet Kentucky forest
Through groves of hickory, ash and pine
Out to the distillery past the village of Clermont
Where whiskey has been made night and day
For longer than anyone can remember

I meet the relatives of old Jim Beam
And notice the red noses of the whole family
And they lead me into a place with a thousand people
To play them songs that I always carry with me
Under a huge tent full of whiskey drinkers
And after the music comes piles of meat
And after the meat come bottles of whiskey

And a drawing to see which employee might win
The Grand Prize of a new Harley Davidson

Everyone tries to focus on his or her stub number
As the lesser prizes are handed out one by one
And when they call out the Grand Prize winner
There is a murmur that ripples through the crowd
As if a rather large boulder had been dropped into a lake

The rumble turned to disbelief as the attention turned
To a large black woman and her whole family running
And screaming with abandon across the floor to the podium
Where the presenters looked back and forth to each other
As if to ask each other how this could have happened
The lady, wild with animated glee, sat on the Harley
And revved the engine and blew kisses to the dumbfounded
Whiskey drinkers who shook their heads in disbelief
As the woman’s husband took over the driver’s seat
They had tears in their eyes, and they held each other tightly
And cruised the Harley Davidson out into the cool night
Down the road to Old Clermont
Under moonlit Hickory, Ash and Pine.

After leaving Kentucky the road kept winding
And in my journal I tried to keep up
We detoured back through Texas
And spun a loop and were hurled up to the Midwest
Chicago, Minneapolis and Kansas City
After a figure eight back thru Dallas
We rubberbanded back to the East and Down South

We then coasted back to the Texas Hill Country
Combed the wind out of our hair
Did our laundry, had a plate of enchiladas
Then packed for part two of the Tour de la Trip

We mirrored what we had done already
Went from San Diego to Seattle and Salt Lake City
Down through Colorado and beautiful Santa Fe
I would tell you all the details
As I have told you before, I wrote it in my book
But the airplane people lost my guitars
And with them my journals gone with the wind

And so we came back for a crash landing
Back where we began, dear ol’ Texas
To hibernate through December and January
To Heal our Wounds, Patch our Gear
And to play a New Year’s Eve show so weird
That I can safely breathe easy, there will never be another
like it.

And now we rest up and save ourselves for Italy
I buy a stack of paper and get film for my brain
We must live it as it comes, catch it as it passes
The road goes on forever, but we’ll never be the same again

The music of Joe Ely combines rock, folk, and Tex-Mex. In addition to his solo work, he is a member of the Flatlanders. A native of Texas, he now lives in Austin. A longer version of “Laredo East and West,” will appear in Bonfire of Roadmaps, forthcoming from the University of Texas Press, a collection of verse passages from Ely’s road journals and his own drawings.