My wife Barb and I are on a state road somewhere between the Tetons and Riverton, Wyoming in August of 1984. There are deep woods on either side with an occasional grassy spot filled with wild flowers. Barb says the flowers are called Firewood. We are supposed to be enjoying the great outdoors because that is what Utah, where we have moved, and its neighboring states have aplenty. Things are not going so well between us, and the isolation in nature has just made our uneasiness worse.
We left our little resort this morning and are wandering around in the car before heading to Riverton to celebrate Barb’s birthday. When we move into a part of Wyoming that seems less made for the camera, we discover an Arapaho Reservation and an abandoned mining camp. Barb fell in love with the high plateaus of Wyoming on her way out, and this part of the trip brightens her spirits some.
I remain dour until we come upon what is, and will remain, my greatest discovery in the West, the ruts of the wheels the wagon trains made going west. After all these years, the residue of travelers a hundred years ago is visible in the land. I am in awe. My imagination was made by Western movies so where there are ruts I see a dangerous muddy pass to be negotiated, wheels mired down again and again, broken and stray wheels, wagons to be unloaded and then reloaded. “Ruts, ruts all the way home,” I say it to myself as if I have discovered a lost lonely line from a Zen koan. I feel certain if I could find the other line I would be able to state the puzzle that hides some ultimate truth about life.
Barb and I have been married eight years, and they have been hard years, some of it our own doing but much of it beyond our control. We came to each other with enough sorrow to fill up a jukebox with sad songs. The marriage was loaded with too many deaths and other losses that left wounds that had never healed. In our years in Milwaukee, where I had my first teaching job, there were still more losses. Only months after our first year there, my mother died a lonely death at 57. This was followed by news that we had to accept we would never get custody of Barb’s daughter, born out of a college romance and lost in a dirty legal deal and then a few months later that we could never have children of our own. We had deep sympathy for each other. That was our greatest strength. We kept going by creating new ways to hope, but we didn’t have very many visions of a shared future left.
We had come to Utah on the run from some hurts I had endured in the world of university politics. As luck would have it, we were able to run up the class scale and not down it. The University of Utah was a good school with an excellent Department of Communication that liked me for all the right reasons, supported me well financially, intellectually and professionally, and would give me early tenure while promoting me to be the editor of an important national journal.
None of that really mattered much. We left behind our last good plan. Barb would go to graduate school to get her Ph.D., we both would be professors and we would have our summers to travel. She was accepted at a number of schools near Milwaukee with offers of support at Northwestern and the University of Wisconsin and a full fellowship at the University of Michigan. I liked teaching tough urban kids in a big city, and I had helped take the department up a few levels by working hard to recruit good young faculty and developing stronger ties to the news media. We had received a provisional accreditation the previous winter, the first in the department’s history. I was next in line to be chair, and everyone expected that to happen soon.
In my tenure and promotion review, an abnormal thing happened. I was approved by department, college, and university committees, but the university president, for the first time, overturned 17 recommendations. I was one of them. It took three months to get my decision reversed, but a lot of damage was done to my feelings for the university and some members of my department. I wanted out. Utah was a way to move more than a destination. I had to look the state up on a map before leaving on the interview. Barb went along with the decision even though for us as a couple the move was the wrong thing to do.
My job was about the only thing that went right for us in Utah. Selling our house took 18 months. Barb tried to put together a Ph.D. program at the university, but it just didn’t work for her. In Wisconsin, she had felt desirable as a candidate; in Utah, she left like part of the price of getting a new professor. She had decided to drop out of school after a semester and would eventually find a new path in healthcare public relations, but we would never again share a common dream.
As evening approaches, we drive into Riverton. The town is an ink spot on the map where fine dining is scarce but honky-tonking is a way of life. We find our way to Al’s Gaslight Café out on Federal Way. It’s a big room with an electric bar sign motif, a good crowd, friendly barmaids and a big dance floor. We haven’t even heard any music yet, and I feel better.
The music at Al’s, it turns out, is better than anyone in the state of Wyoming had a right to expect. The band is called Wyld Oats and is from Chicago. There are seven of them, and they have been living in a trailer out back of Al’s for a couple of months with occasional forays to other joints in the West. We learn all this from the drummer, who went to SIU, where Barb and I met, and who introduces us to the other members of the band.
What makes this band special are the two sisters who front it. Cecily and Chris are the daughters of Chicago’s WLS Jamboree great Bob Atcher and have been performing since they were children as part of his family show. Wyld Oats is a strange hybrid created to showcase their talents. It is at once a show band that puts the women out front to do a range of great numbers that should be both seen and heard and a dance band designed to get everyone on their feet and spending money at the bar. The band is versatile. It can rock a little like Linda Ronstadt, cover what today we would call Americana (Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell), and do classic country (Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline in particular) and even some bluegrass classics (“Mule Skinner Blues”). The crowd wants the band to rock more, but Al, the owner, wants more country so there is a little tension with this gig that has risen and fallen periodically over the months. Wyld Oats tries its best to find a middle ground that will keep both the audience and Al happy. The band certainly keeps Barb and me happy, perhaps happier than we have been since she arrived eight months ago.
Wyld Oats is a wonderful find in an unexpected place, and everything about the evening is perfect. Cecily and Chris are polished enough to be on stage anywhere. Chris’s husband plays lead guitar and holds the band together. The band members are very likable too. When they aren’t on stage, we trade stories and get to know each other.
At the end of the evening, I ask them to do the Gram Parsons’ song “Wheels.” They know the song but hesitate because of the owner. They have done other songs we wanted to hear, so we give up on it easily. Then right at the end of the show, the last song is a wonderful a cappella version of “Wheels” that just knocks me out. I cannot hear the song to this day without remembering Cecily and Chris singing it.
We’ve all got wheels to take ourselves away.
We’ve got the telephones to say what we can’t say.
We all got higher and higher every day.
Come on wheels take this boy away.
We’re not afraid to ride.
We’re not afraid to die.
Come on wheels take me home today.
So, come on wheels take this boy away.
There’s another verse that ends “Come on wheels make this boy a man.” The song is probably not the right song for a couple struggling to keep their marriage alive. Still, it is the perfect song for a 42-year-old self-absorbed man, who still wants to believe that wheels can take him away but has enough experience to know there will be ruts all the way home.
(Barb in this story is Barbara Bennett of Owensboro, KY. She is the author of a poetry chapbook Sightings in the Land of the Dead (FutureCycle Press, 2013). Barb offered some helpful suggestions on the writing of this piece. Thank you.)