[Originally posted on Alaska with Attitude by Tim Jones. Republished with permission.]
Turns out, nothing really, houses and more houses and the street eventually ended in a T. I took the left option and ended up on the highway, but a sign there offered the perfect destination: Hatcher Pass. For those who don’t know the area it is a low pass in the Talkeetna Mountains between Palmer and Willow, though a little north of both. Buildings from an old mine still stand near the summit and it’s a popular skiing place in winter. But, this day all leafed out in green it seem the perfect venue for a little introspection.
So far, except for those who died unexpectedly, JJ Cale is the rock performer closest to the music that has been close to me for most of my life. That and we are also connected through two other favorites, Eric Clapton and Leon Russell. Years ago I ran a boat for a couple of summers that only had an 8-track player. Knowing I wouldn’t be using them anywhere but on the boat I only bought a handful of 8-tracks. JJ Cale was one of them.
So with Cale and sometimes Clapton rocking the Jeep we headed up the narrow road to the pass.
Clouds obscured the high peaks with shrouds of funereal whitish gray above the myriad shades of green on their slopes, interrupted only by splashes of pink-purple fireweed. The Little Susitna River rushed seaward along side the road, swollen by recent hard rains.
At one pullout, Anchorage Gen-Yers in their Tour de France clothing unloaded bicycles from their Subarus. I thought more of the early prospectors who must have hauled their gear up this trail on their backs, perhaps with horses, maybe dog teams or, later, with machinery. And, too the Natives who crossed this pass long before those miners. Doubt any of them would have thought much of spandex bicycle shorts and aerodynamic plastic helmets.
Farther on a young mother dressed more like we’d expected an Alaskan to, was lifting bicycles out of her pickup truck for herself and her two small children. That was more like it.
As the road grew steeper, I stopped at a pullout to try for a picture that would illustrate what the pass was and in that parking lot a couple had unloaded and saddled two horses and were preparing to ride somewhere. That felt more comfortable too.
The curvy road continued its steep rise into the pass until I entered the shrouds, only gray and the brush close to the road visible, climbing into the clouds. Just in time for Clapton and Cale to swing into “Danger:”
Danger she’s out into the night
Danger she’s such a pretty sight
Danger she’s out with you tonight
Danger she such a pretty sight
–JJ Cale. “Danger”
In the clouds the air turned noticeably cooler as well, a deathly chill adding to the atmosphere of mourning, the shroud hanging like the black bunting at a funeral, an armband only one that tried to smother everything.
At a high turnout I stopped and faced the Jeep where I could see down the valley once in a while as the cloud passed by sometimes opening up the view. It seemed a good place to think about things. The Little Su roared down the mountain somewhere off to the right, again every imaginable shade of green lit up when the shrouds allowed a little bit of light to intrude into the atmosphere. I sat on the hood of the Jeep, now listening to “Don’t Cry Sister:”
Don’t cry sister cry, it’ll be alright in the morning
Don’t cry sister cry, everything will be just fine
Don’t cry sister cry, it’ll be alright, I tell you no lie
Don’t cry sister cry, don’t do it, don’t do it
— JJ Cale, “Don’t Cry Sister”
No tears, though, warm memories of times when there was Cale
music. I remember we made up new words for “Cocaine.” All that comes to mind now is “Propane, it’ll take what you got, and sure make it hot, Propane.” A love interest on that 8-track boat and sitting together with a jug of wine lost in the music. And so many Clapton versions of his songs, “After Midnight,” “Cocaine.” Cale wrote Lynyrd Skynyrd’s hit “Breeze.”
Well, they call me the breeze
I keep rollin’ down the road
Yeah, they call me the breeze
I keep rollin’ down the road
I ain’t got me nobody
I ain’t carry no heavy load
JJ Cale, “They Call Me the Breeze”
Those rock musicians from my day, at least the ones who didn’t die early, unnatural deaths, are aging into their seventies now. Cale was 74 when he died. Mick Jagger turned 70 the day before, Paul McCartney is 71, as I will be in a couple of months. Keith Richards has been 70 since he was 30. Clapton is 68. So many out there, All those great musicians from the 60s, so, more of this is going to happen and we might as well get ready for it. JJ Cale is the first major one in my life, again not counting those too early tragic deaths.
I sat on the Jeep hood listening for a while, the chill dew of the cloud cooling and moistening my face while the music filled my head. In time I took the camera over to the edge and snapped a picture of the river tumbling down through the valley. Somehow a river belonged in this reverie like the clouds, the mountains, the music and I felt fulfilled and refreshed, I started up and began the long drive down off the mountain, having taken care of the melancholy brought on by the death of someone who feels like he was a friend. Rest easy, my friend, your music will carry on.
Floatin’ down that old river boy, all my worries far behind,
Floatin’ down that old river boy, leave old memories way behind,
Yesterday is slowly fadin’,
I been waitin’, now forever, for this ride
JJ Cale, “Ride the River”