Late at night, under the stars on a river dock at Casa Guatemala orphanage, a beautiful American volunteer introduced me to Angel From Montgomery. Her voice rang out across the water, over the muted night sounds of the jungle, and I fell in love with her and Bonnie Rait and that brilliant John Prine song.
Then she left, and took her tangled beauty and her lyrical Spanish and her song with her. I was left with the feel of her long hair on my fingertips, a mysterious address in Grinnell Iowa where her mail could be forwarded, and a fragment of the song with with a vague idea of how to play it.
For years I tentatively wrote letters of earnest friendship addressed "c/o Weirs", envisioning them arriving at a squat white clapboard farmhouse, stout midWest woman tucking crumpled, reused envelopes into her apron and wondering who this vagrant young man was, clucking at stamps from Africa and Canada and Ohio then Africa again. Then sending them on to her dear young vagrant friend to India and Australia and Amsterdam, wondering as much as I did at this tenuous connection.
If dreams were thunder, and lightning was desire
This old house would have burned down a long time ago
And for years I chased the song, singing that one tender verse about buzzing flies in youth hostels, Zaire river cargo ships, Rocky Mountain rest stops and Ohio grad school bars. Many said the song sounded familiar, but none could bring it home for me.
There's flies in the kitchen - I can hear them buzzing
And I aint done nothing since I woke up today
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
Come home in the evening and have nothing to say
Finally, an old woman in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas not only knew it, but knew the singer and the words. With trembling hands she wrote the lyrics by firelight and handed them to my equally trembling hands, about to realize one part of my quest. But as often happens, the morning after didn't live up to the night's magic. She herself was an old woman so I couldn't read her writing, and I still couldn't really remember the tune or chords. But I had learned that Bonnie Rait was the singer, so a few months later I found the scratchy record album at the Akron Ohio library (yes, this was before CD's and google searches) and finally learned it, and sing it to this day.
And years later - after a masters degree and 3 years in a Tanzanian fishing village and a civil war in Zaire - I closed the loop with my American Beauty. My despairing "I'm lonely" newsletter from Ghana went to Grinnell Iowa - the self-proclaimed "Jewel of the Prarie" - and on to dear Laura and her hubby and baby in Australia, where my Call of the Wild was heard loud and clear. "He's ready", she realized, and sent a simple "You two should meet" email to her old college roommate who now lived in Texas and was now also ready, and with whom I had 3 things in common - we both baked bread, had lived in Africa, and loved to sing Bonnie Rait. In fact, during those years I was searching for the song (and, unknowingly, her), she was in her Chicago basement dubbing herself singing that same song in 5-part harmony.
Less than 2 years later that beautiful friend came to Tatoosh Washington, at the foot of Mt. Ranier, to watch her Michigan college roommate and her Guatemalan lice-picking friend say their vows that continue to grow strong 13 years later. That night on a Guatemalan fishing dock led to a wife, a lifelong friendship, a new song deep in my heart, and many many things to believe in. Our 10-year-old chose this as his first song to learn on guitar, and all 5 kids on our land love to enthusiastically belt out:
Just give me one thing that I can hold onto
To believe in this living, it's just a hard way to go.