Here's my farewell Merle Haggard story and my favorite Merle Haggard song.
When I was a young man I once took a job on a broke-down ranch-cum-fugitive-farm (of sorts) a good distance on a dirt road outside Durango Colorado....somewhere, or other, in the national forest vicinity of Alamosa. The place was run, or rather run down, by a half-assed 'rancher' (and I use the term rancher, loosely) more accurately an out-and-out grifter named Bert.
Bert had a number of things going, in various states of the union, none of which were going particularly well, at the time. Bert’s hobby-ranch and cult-of-personality detention camp was staffed by a duke’s mixture of youngish men and women - semi-skilled cowboy-and-cowgirl-wannabe drifters - and real, down on their luck cowhands, pedophile cooks, dipsomaniac bottle-washers, self-diagnosed handy-men and women and what have you – most of whom seemed to be primarily engaged with - to the exclusion of much honest work and all else - a perpetual and mysteriously randy, game of musical bunks.
The stock was habitually hungry, and thus constantly breaking down fence to get at grass - both Bert's and the surrounding neighbors. This, and other ranch management dysfunction led to anger and conflict with the more-competent owners of neighboring spreads and recrimination, incessant grumbling, conniving, rumor mongering and dust-ups among Bert's mostly unqualified, debatably sociopathic, ranch hands.
A great many conflicts stemmed from Bert's unwillingness, or financial reluctance , to buy-in feed, the ranch's collective incompetence at growing and laying by its own hay and alfalfa stores, but more often than not overflowed from incompletely sublimated tension around, and out of, tectonic shifts in romantic alliance, schism, and rivalry.
I'd hie off, now and again, into wilder places nearby, to get far away from the ranch's daily interpersonal chaos and collapsing infrastructure ... and to try for trout in the Alamosa, the Animas & their tributaries. A time or two, on my desperate river wanderings, I'd find I had been mysteriously tracked down one river trail or another, by a canny, redheaded and determined young horse-girl. I'd get back to my camp at nightfall to find her ride tied nearby and her waiting, in the altogether, inside my tent. She got no argument from me, there on the river, although back at the ranch was another story.
Things finally came to an unhappy head, with Bert and I, late one evening. And after a marathon, and dangerously heated, argument about: whether I was really leaving, or not, whether he'd be paying me what was outstanding, or not, and if he'd willingly drive me to the train station in Gallup,New Mexico - or risk a well earned beat-down I’d been spoiling for.
Bert surprised me by capitulating and so we drove off the ranch, into the night, and on toward New Mexico, in his late model, canary yellow, Coupe de Ville. It should be noted here that Bert did not scrimp on personal comforts.
Driving, in an adrenally fatigued and grimly silent state, through the remainder of the night, we arrived. And I was unceremoniously dropped, near dawn, on the outskirts of the New Mexico Indian town of Gallup - where I'd be forced by a Southern Pacific timetable to wait most of the day for the next train to California.
Being already chronically sleep deprived - by continual ranch goings-on: jarred or kept awake, nightly, by noisy parties, serial arguments, the occasional knuckle duster and/or theatrically loud fucking sounds coming from adjacent, thin-walled, bunkhouse - I was all but asleep on my feet in a town I had no familiarity with or newfound affection for.
Gallup is, or was then, a dead, dry and dust-blown southwestern town with nothing much to recommend it - save cheap Mexican restaurants, drinking dives, and cheek-by-jowl pawn shops - pawn shops stuffed full of dead-Indian-pawn. Sad, tawdry cinder-block and stucco treasuries filled with silver and turquoise bolos, bracelets, necklaces, belt-buckles, and earrings of various vintage and craftsmanship – all democratically reduced to abandoned second-hand merchandise, to be pawed through by fat, white, American tourists weighing the dubious pros and cons of quality, price and baseline advisability of buying and taking home an authentic Native American memento of travels through the indigenous southwestern USA.
I imagined, with no little desperation, finding a lush park or municipal lawn on which to collapse and sleep. But that was a waking dream. Gallup's few public parks were treeless, sun-blasted expanses of hard dirt, dust, broken bottle glass and strategically pinched dogshit. Grass, had it once existed, was now a distant memory. I wandered the streets in a sort of nauseous haze, looking for relief.
Relief appeared, as if a mirage, in the form of an old-school movie palace. On a Deco Marquee: "Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy, featuring a cameo appearance by Merle Haggard and the Strangers". I tripped into the almost empty theater’s shady, air-conditioned interior, sat down in a plush seat, and stayed with Bronco Billy until Merle appeared - grinning and fronting his band, behind a cinematically staged barfight.
I fell asleep immediately thereafter, assured that if Merle could carry on playing in the eye of a honky tonk storm that I might, just might, sleep undisturbed, all the way to California, in a second class train coach and wake up fresh to the sunshine state. Where perhaps, with some luck, I might reclaim a little piece of the life I’d left behind.
The song Merle and the boys were playing in the movie that day was Misery and Gin – my favorite Haggard tune then and to this day. RIP Mr. Haggard. You gave as good as you got. And often better.