Monday, May 13, 2013


Eureka, CA. Mike Mars. 2003

hey tell you not to pick up hitchhikers. They say you never know who you’re letting in your car. Why take the chance, they argue. Ted Bundy looked normal, they say.

Ah, fuck it. What do they know?

When I was young and stupid I met 33 American’s trusting enough to take a chance on my virgin thumb. Back when I was 33 and fearless. During the Great Ill-Advised Boston-to-L.A. Roadtrip of ’84. Survive such an adventure on $20 bucks and a smile and, well, you pretty much feel forever obligated to any wanderer with a clean pair of pants and an air of kindness.

So it was I came to pick up an old junkie looking for a ride home on Day 93.

Mr. Mars was like an old blues song. He told us he once was a musician in San Francisco. In his grateful sky blue eyes somewhere was a song about loss and regret. The years of playing guitar for booze and broads in smoke-filled bars left the tired man with a sad, weary gaze. I couldn’t help stealing glances of him in the rearview mirror. At first out of fear and anxiety. Then out of awe at the story he told. He kept staring out the window onto the wet Northern California morning—then glancing suspiciously at the video camera I had resting on my dashboard. It was pointed straight at him. The tiny red light letting him know I was eager to stare into the broken shards of his soul.

When he talked, the words came out in whooshes and whistles. His mouth was filled with disconcerting gaps where his pearly whites once lived. 

I had picked up the quiet stranger on a chilly October morning in Crescent City, home to one of California’s most notorious prisons. At the time, I already had one hitchhiker with me. Alfin was a chipper 21-year-old from Holland who I’d picked up in central Oregon the day before.

If Mr. Mars was like an old blues song, Alfin was like a Simon & Garfunkel tune. The gawky innocent off to look for America.

When we first spotted Mr. Mars up ahead, he was standing on the wet gravel shoulder near the black pavement trying to get dry in the morning sun. He held up a cardboard sign that looked like an oversized license plate. In black felt pen it read simply:


I turned to Alfin. “Should we pick him up?”

His face fresh with freckles and naïve late 20th century Euro  optimism, Alfin squinted through his nerdy specs as he looked up the road.

“Shooor,” he said with all the eagerness of someone who’s never seen Rutger Hauer torture poor C. Thomas Howell in The Hitcher.

From the moment Mr. Mars jumped into the back of my VW bus—climbing over the mountain bike and pushing aside the guitar—I sensed a story waiting to be told. In the next two hours it unraveled like a slow, aching song from the soul of the Delta blues men I’d heard about back in Mississippi.

Mr. Mars told us he was a junkie. He’d come up from Eureka to score some smack from a friend. He wished he could kick it, he told us in a soft, haunted voice. He didn’t look like any junkie I ever saw. He was too clean. From his stiff blue Levis. To this new white T-shirt. To his blue cotton lumberjack shirt. To his waffle-soled running shoes. Even his blue baseball cap—a walking ad for Bubba Gump shrimp—was clean as a truck stop souvenir hat.

I asked a million questions and he answered them slowly and respectfully. As if he was resigned to the fact that this was tantamount to his cab fare for the free ride to Eureka. He said he’d seen all the greats—Hendrix, Morrison, the Dead. All of ‘em at the Fillmore. He even dreamed of being a rock star way back when. Before the white teeth started falling out. He played all the bars in San Francisco. Got drunk way too much, too.

But his face was still smooth, still handsome. Like somebody’s favorite uncle. He reminded me of a tired old stuntman.

Hitchhiking to Eureka. High on heroin. Now that’s a stunt.

He said he’d been married once. Back when he was clean. Back when he gave up the music and the drink and tried to do right by his wife. The marriage lasted 10 years. Then he found out she was sleeping around while he was at his janitor job at the local high school. Scrubbing toilets while the only woman he ever loved was home fucking other men.

That’s when the drinking really kicked in. When the cirrhosis came, he moved on to the stuff that wouldn’t hurt his liver. Like speed and smack.

“But I wanna stop,” I saw him say with chilling earnestness in the rearview mirror. “I really do.”

Then I selfishly asked him to play us a song.

Mr. Mars grudgingly took out the crappy old guitar I borrowed from my friend Phil 10 years ago. Then he started playing us a blues song. Now, I’ve never really been a fan of the blues. Never been all that exposed to the blues before this trip.

But in one song I became a fan.

His voice was a low, soulful howl. His gnarled fingers got my old guitar to soar and fall with a deep molasses moan. His eyes were shut tight, like he was lost in yesterday’s misery. His fingers danced across the frets, the music an antidote to the pain. His deep, throaty voice wailed raw perfection.  The one-man show in the back of my bus nearly brought me to tears.

Back in Mississippi on Day 16 I’d met an old Jewish guy who used to manage the careers of old blues legends. On Day 73 I sat in awe watching a sinewy old virtuoso make love to his weeping Stratocaster at Kingston Mines, a legendary Chicago blues club. And on Day 86, in the small eastern Washington town of Cheney, my bus was broken into and my car stereo was stolen. Robbing me, temporarily at least, of my beloved music.

But on Day 93 the music returned. And as we sputtered and splashed through the rain on Highway 1, weaving and dipping past the mighty California redwoods, I felt blessed by this impromptu performance by a broken man who most certainly knew the blues.

An hour later, I dropped off the man who sang the blues at his apartment in a seedy section of Eureka. He invited us in and my young hitchhiker friend from Holland and I took him up on it. When we got our first look at his messy living room and his two junkie roommates—a haggard woman and her strung out son who sat watching a soap opera—Mr. Mars seemed a little embarrassed by what his life had become.

Then he shuffled off to his bedroom to get something.

While Alfin and I tried in vain to have a coherent conversation with Junkie Mom and Junkie Son, their kinder, gentler roommate soon returned from the bedroom with a token of his appreciation.

“I want you to have this,” the man with the sad blue eyes said as he handed me a small book, its cover yellowed and torn at the edges. “It’s my favorite book ever.”

I had never read The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. But on Day 54 I was in a wedding out in Vail where the minister read a passage on love from the very book I was now holding in my hands.

“I try to live my life by these words,” Mr. Mars added. “I want you to have it. For giving me a ride.”

wo months later I was back home, imploding with the madness that comes with 100 days of debauchery and unrealistic deadlines. Then one day the fog cleared. A temporary clarity came to me, thanks to a letter from my old friend Mr. Mars. It was written in pencil. Tiny, meticulous words on a beige sheet of thick paper stock­­.

He said he’d been sober for weeks. Said after I left, he’d met another man in Eureka who­­­­­­ offered him comfort and a clean place to stay. He confessed that at first he didn’t know what to make of me on that chilly October morning two months ago. I sure did ask a lotta questions. Then he went on to call me his “guardian angel sent from God.”

And in the movie screen of my mind, his song came back to me. The despair and fading hope that flowed like a river of tears through my musty old bus. The betrayals, the weakness, the rise and fall of a good man and a well-crafted tune. It all came back to me. His sad blue eyes. His clean jeans and poetic fingers. And all the rough edges smoothed into something wise, something haunting, something lyrical.

The Eureka blues.

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