I was about twenty, and living in Orange, TX. One afternoon I heard a knock, and standing on the other side of the screen door was my friend, Larry.
"Hey man, you wanna go to the beach?"
I always want to go to the beach. Larry told me to grab my guitar and enough clothes for two days, but wouldn't tell me where we were going. I assumed he'd snagged a beach cabin for the weekend, and a few minutes later the little duplex I was renting was locked up and we were on the road.
We headed east. There's a line in an old Jimmy Buffett song, "I'd never been west, to New Orleans, or east of Pensacola," and I'd never been west of Galveston, or east of Mamou, Louisiana, but I knew that was going to change on this trip. Larry's lips were sealed, and a few hours later he announced that we were going to make a stop in New Orleans. It was Larry's first time this far east as well, but we found Bourbon Street without a problem.
It was an eye opener, both of us lapsed Baptist boys in a town full of people that clearly loved to party. We made our way down the south side of the street, barkers standing near the front doors, trying to entice us to enter the various strip clubs. "Free head with every beer," one yelled. That dude's voice even sounded nasty, and we declined. We passed several street musicians. On an opposite corner two guys with guitars were playing "Dueling Banjos". We kept going until we ran out of clubs, and crossed the street to check out the other side. About twenty minutes later we passed the guitar players. They were still playing "Dueling Banjos." We noticed that they had a few bucks in bills and change in an open guitar case.
"You know more songs than that. Let's go get your guitar."
I'd been playing for about a year at this point, and had recently bragged to Larry about how good I'd gotten. I couldn't back down now, so with butterflies in my stomach I followed Larry to the car. I grabbed the guitar and we headed back to Bourbon. We set up a respectful distance from the other musicians, and I closed my eyes and began to play and sing. In those early years I squeezed my eyes shut tight whenever I performed, even if I was completely alone. I just felt too vulnerable when I sang, and had not yet learned how to disassociate myself from the emotions of the song. Now I wish I'd never learned how to disconnect.
I performed on Bourbon Street for about an hour, until Larry nudged me and said we needed to grab a beer and get back on the road. When I opened my eyes I saw several bills and a lot of change in the bottom of my guitar case. We stopped inside a bar and ordered a beer. There was a guy on stage playing John Denver songs. I love John Denver, but his music seemed strangely out of place in this party town. We heard two and a half songs before the musician took a break, and when he got off stage I asked if I could play a couple of songs. I was feeling confident from my earlier performance on the street corner.
I played the most up tempo songs I could think of, and the tip jar on the stage began to fill up with ones. After I finished the musician offered to split the tips with me, but I declined. It felt wrong to take the money, like it would have been an acknowledgement that I'd showed him up in his own town. He thanked me, and Larry and I left the bar and hit the road.
"Man, that was great! Do you know how much money you made?"
I counted the money I pulled from the guitar case, and it was almost twenty dollars. When I gave Larry the total he shook his head and laughed.
"You had your eyes closed the whole time. Whenever there started to be more than a few bills in the case I was afraid we'd get robbed, so I started taking most of them."
Larry reached into the right front pocket of his jeans and pulled out a wad of ones, with a few fives and a ten dollar bill mixed in. I'd made over two hundred bucks! I was exhilarated, thinking for the first time in my life that it was going to be easy to play music for a living.
Larry wouldn't give me any real clues as to our final destination, just that our next stop would be as far east as we would go. Before too long I heard the clicking of the turn signal on Larry's car. We were in Biloxi, Mississippi, and drove along the Gulf of Mexico until we found a cheap motel. We checked in and went up on the deck to watch the setting sun make the crests of the waves sparkle like jewels. I still had one more song in me, and as I began to sing, Larry joined in with me, both of us sporting triumphant grins:
"Juuust, sit right back and you'll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip,
That started on a tropic voyage,
Aboard this tiny ship.."
That's right, we sang the theme song to Gilligan's Island, two young men on our first road trip, exploring the world beyond our home.