Sometimes, when contiguous dates couldn't be routed, we were forced to make a 'hop' of several hundred miles to the next engagement. These were largely done overnight so that arrival would put us in at least six or seven hours before showtime. Generally, these overnight adventures were the exception. But we were not the Rolling Stones. We couldn't pick and choose which dates we would play. We took what we were given and made the best of it.
On nights such as these we would leave directly after the show and rack up a couple hundred miles before stopping for a late snack. Of course 'Snack' was a total misnomer for what happened at the hands of the Caravan members in a diner. These guys could eat.
One night we played Marion, Il, a town situated in the southern part of the state. The following night we were playing Charlottesville, VA, some 800 miles away. Leaving Marion at about 11:00, we eventually pulled into a truck stop in northern Kentucky called the Cross Keys. It was close to 1:00 AM. The establishment lay at the branch of Interstates 24 and 64. Ten miles before we arrived, the CB in the bus crackled with female voices promising all manner of delights. Each lady had a 'handle' descriptive of the services provided and were actively soliciting congress with truckers inbound to the Cross Keys. Interest level on the bus increased with each mile.
The Cross Keys was huge. It held about four acres of 18 wheelers - parked one after the other. The whole scene was illuminated by mercury vapor lamps perched high atop poles scattered about. The air was gray with diesel exhaust. And hopping from cab to cab were the hookers.
We pulled up to the front and walked single file into the restaurant potion of the complex. Heads, covered in Peterbuilt, Mack and Freightliner hats, turned as we made our way. Conversation stopped. For a moment, I felt like we were from Mars and had just made landing on some strange, bizarre planet. Slowly, we settled into booths and tables. Conversation resumed, heads turned back to coffee, biscuits and gravy or whatever. A waitress approached, "What kin ah gitcha, hon...?" she said to Furry, sitting at the head of a table.
We ate. And ate. We drank coffee. We paid the check. We left.
Walking back to the bus, past the hookers flitting from cab to cab, I was about to board when one of the ladies hopped down from a cab-over-Pete parked next to us. As the driver closed the door, I noticed what was written on its side, "Sawyer Transport". And underneath, in italic script, "Truckin' For Jesus."
Stomachs full and back on the bus, we high-balled out of the Cross Keys, disappearing into the eastbound darkness. Our next stop would be somewhere past the Smokey Mountains in the first rays of dawn.
The post-show adrenalin had pretty much dissipated and the hearty fare began to have a sedative effect. By twos and threes, the members ambled off to their respective bunks and fell asleep. Aside from myself, Furry and Red were the last two left conscious in the forward lounge. Furry was the first to drop and announced that he's like to stretch out. I helped him back to his bunk. Red sat slumped in a Captain's Chair, his great stomach taut against his T-shirt. Coe College it read. He wore it everywhere. With his hat still on his head, he closed his eyes and snoozed quietly. It was 2:40 AM.
I climbed into the jump seat above and behind the driver. Looking down, I could see the soft green glow of the instrument lights and ahead, through the broad front window of the Silver Eagle, our headlights pushed down the Interstate. I asked the driver how he was doing. "Just fine..." Did he ever get tired on these long overnight runs? "Nope. Driving is what I do."
The radio was tuned to KAAY out of Little Rock or, alternatively, to KDKA, the nation's first commercial radio station, out of Pittsburgh. These were the days of Clear Channel AM radio and the two megawatt giants came in like a local station. As a young man in Minneapolis, driving my father home form work on winter nights, we would listen to KDKA's National News at 5:00 PM. And in the mid '50's, XERF, nominally out of Del Rio, TX (but really out of Ciudad Cohilla, Mexico) would blast 100,000 watts of Rock 'n Roll to eager young ears in the Heartland.
Music played from the radio. The driver and I listened in silence.
After a time, I slid out of the jump seat and stood in the stairwell leaning hands-on-chin against the Silver Eagle's broad, padded dashboard. Half a moon shown in the southern sky and the dark fields rolled on, reflected in a faint silver luminescence. America passed under my feet. Mile after mile. Vast, didn't come close. Years later at various times, I would tell newly arrived British musicians, as they made ready to embark on a first US tour, "Gentleman, you are about to have a new appreciation of the word 'distance.'"
The music from the radio played not just in our ears that night. It played in the ears of the thousands who listened, busy with business that kept them up as the hours passed. It was a tie that bound all; familiar, comfortable, entertaining. The music spoke to some, stirred memories or emotions in others, and assured the rest that they were not alone. American music, sailing through the night air.
And here they were - a bus-load of dinosaurs. Country Bluesmen, the last living relics and purveyors of one of America's greatest musical traditions. Shining the light, declining the bushel. On their way to the next gig, just 800 miles down the road.