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Searching for Woody Guthrie and the perfect road trip

  • Published Sunday, July 28, 2013, at 12 a.m.

ATLANTA – Months ago, I planned a summer road trip to Oklahoma for the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. Well,“planned” is a bit of a stretch.

Although I’m a perpetual planner, a habitual list-maker, part of me reveled in the idea of just hitting the open road and going. It seemed like something Woody himself would do. Just head out to see the land, meet people and let things happen.

Woody is the godfather of American folk singers, best known for his song“This Land is Your Land.” Born in Oklahoma, he rambled around the country in railroad boxcars during the Depression, writing songs about the struggles of regular people: Oklahomans blown out of their homes by dust storms, migrant workers exploited in California, coal workers dying in the mines.

Taking to the open road also appealed to my companion for this 28-hour round-trip drive, my office buddy John Perry.“Laid back” looks frenetic, next to John. So that was the plan, or lack of a plan – pretty much just throw some clothes into a bag, fill up the tank and head out.

Then, about a week before the trip, I panicked. Who was I kidding? Post-it notes drape from all corners of my life; my computer screen sprouts them in all directions, looking like little yellow beards. So I started making lists, downloading travel apps, consulting the Internet and calling travel experts for tips.

I looked upon the journey as a dual quest: for the spirit of Woody Guthrie and the keys to a successful road trip, not the least of which, according to the experts, is making allowances for the differing styles of one’s traveling companions.

For instance, days before we left I walked up to John’s desk, armed with helpful suggestions and hepped up with questions.

“Hey John, don’t we need some maps for the trip, just in case? What if the GPS doesn’t pick up a signal in some areas? Where is this in Oklahoma, anyway?”

“I know how to get there,” he said.

Given that he once lived in Oklahoma, I was forced to concede the point. But I was just getting started.

“OK, but the woman from AAA says your car needs a 24-point inspection. We’re supposed to change the oil and filter, and check the windshield wipers and tire pressure. Have you done any of that?”

“No.” He cracked a smile.“I’m bringing a flashlight.”

How Woody-esque.

I was curious about the location of the festival, which is the small city of Okemah, Guthrie’s birthplace.

“Where are the venues? Some events are at a theater, some at a club and some at a field. Do we know how to get to them?” I asked.

John:“It’s in Okemah. If it’s not where you’re standing, it’s at the other end of the street.”

We took off in John’s green Subaru Forester after work on Monday, July 8. I, naturally, had already prepped myself on all things Woody. I watched his biography on DVD, listened to his autobiography on book-on-tape, and started learning his songs on guitar.

After much gentle prodding, I persuaded John to stop halfway to Oklahoma and overnight in Memphis. That came on the advice of Annie Fitzsimmons, a National Geographic travel expert. Don’t try to power through a long trip in one shot, she said.“Enjoy the journey, not just the destination.”

She also suggested listening to podcasts along the way.

John said he didn’t like podcasts.

I had brought along what looked like a fourth-grade textbook on the 50 states, the better to regale John with useful information on each state we passed through. When I informed him that the Arkansas River had been deepened, he added a laconic footnote:“Yeah, during the Cold War they were afraid that Soviet submarines would come up it.”

If only I could get that much information out of him on the one subject that was nagging at me: what to do with our guitars when we weren’t playing them with other Woody aficionados around the campfire at night.

“I don’t want to leave them in the car all day in the hot sun,” I insisted.“That could ruin them. Is there any place we could keep them during the day?”

“My son may be bringing an RV to the campsite. I'll call him.”

May? May? But what if he doesn’t? Are you sure he’s coming? When is he arriving? What if he’s not there on the first or second day? What will we do then?

My questions were in vain. His wall of silence was as solid as that Grand Coulee Dam that Woody had immortalized.

This was my first trip into the Southwest, unless you count Las Vegas – and I don’t. When we crossed into Oklahoma, I was in full Woody mode, thinking, as his song says, that we’d been doing some hard traveling.

Then I saw a sign for the Trail of Tears, marking the ending-point of the forced relocation of thousands of American Indians around the 1830s. There are similar signs in North Georgia, marking the starting point. That made me reassess hard traveling.

Perhaps the best trip-planning advice I got (courtesy of Fitzsimmons) proved to be this: Don’t overdo the planning. Leave space for the the people you meet, the sudden inspirations and the gifts of serendipity.

My eyes were opened to just that at one indoor performance at the festival. Several performers were starting a tribute set to one of their local music mentors, Bob Childers, when a storm blew out the lights. So they opened a side door, bringing in a shaft of light, and one by one they stepped into the light and sang acoustic versions of their songs. The crowd hushed to listen. It was a wonderful, intimate moment. And just as they finished, the lights came back on.

We did find the spirit of Woody Guthrie, singing his songs with people in the nearby campground till 4 in the morning. John’s son Gene did show up with the RV.

John Fullbright, a young, Grammy-nominated singer from the area Woody lived in, put his own 21st-century gloss on the notion of the ramblin' man.

“I never made a list in my life,” he said, leaning back in his chair, slouching a bit and looking very Woody.“I have an iPhone, so I can find whatever I need.”

When I met Annie Guthrie, Woody’s granddaughter and a performer in her own right, I got to ask the big question: How did she think Woody prepared for a road trip?

“Woody,” she said,“would just leave the house for a pack of cigarettes and come back three or four months later.”

John loved that.

Tips for your summer road trip

1. Make sure car is in sound condition, so check fluids, windshield wipers, tires, spare tire and so on.

2. Try to keep gas at a half tank or more. At around a quarter tank, gas sloshes around and hampers a smooth flow of gas into the engine, which can hurt gas mileage.

3. Make sure you carry jumper cables, flashlight, water and other just-in-case items.

4. Prepare for the environment. Pack sunscreen, hats, sunglasses.

5. Don’t drive drowsy.

6. Plan for the trip, but don’t overdo it. Leave time for unexpected things and sudden inspirations.

7. Have a paper map, just in case your cellphone or GPS loses service.

8. Be patient with your travelling companions.

Source: AAA/The Auto Club Group, National Geographic

Helpful apps:

1. Free Wi-Fi finder.

2. GasBuddy – cheap gas nearby.

3. Hotels.com.

4. AAA Mobile – roadside assistance, maps and directions.

5. iExit – tells what’s available at upcoming exits on the interstate, including food, hotels and gas.

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