He called himself Cricket. It was somewhere in Wyoming. Not anywhere in Wyoming, but some town big enough to have at least one saloon, because that is where we met. Cricket was Mickey Rooney size and was carrying his life around in a knapsack on his back, just like I was. Our packs were leaning against the same wall by the door. He had a beat-up old guitar case as well.
Some little men never lose their childlike eagerness to please. A way of getting by, I guess. Cricket made me think of a ukulele. In Hawaiian, uku lele means jumping louse—something small and white that hops around. It was the natives’ nickname for the Cockney Royal Navy tar who introduced them to the instrument. You can imagine someone who would garner a nickname like that. I forget his real name.
I was hitchhiking west. I had jumped my last ride at this town. It was getting on dusk, and I had had my fill of the backs of ranch pickup trucks for that day. I must have had enough cash for a couple of beers and a burger. Cricket was on the road, too, hitchhiking in the opposite direction. We hit the saloon at about the same time and ended up on adjacent stools at the strangers’ end of the bar.
This would have been in the late ‘70s. The golden age for hitchhikers in America was vanishing, but in the west at least we were still accepted. As a mode of transportation it had its negatives, but it was free and I was mostly broke, and going cross-country I could make as good time as on Greyhound. You also got to meet people, and you got to visit places you never would have otherwise, like that Wyoming saloon.
Cricket was an entertainer. In an earlier era he would have been called a minstrel. We were sitting there on our bar stools, sipping our cold draft Coors, exchanging those little trial pleasantries like strangers do, feeling each other out, when he pulled a harmonica out of a pocket and started humming soft little rifts through it as we talked, sort of absent mindedly, really, as if it was the most natural thing to do—carry on a conversation while noodling around on a mouth organ. He was just a happy-go-lucky little guy, kicking back with a beer and his Hohner.
Cricket was also sort of warming up. He played a little blues rift that caught the attention of others at the bar. Then he stopped and drank some beer. Someone down the bar asked if he knew a certain song. Cricket smiled and nodded and played a short version. Someone else had another request, and he played that. Now everyone at the bar was paying some level of attention. The bartender put two free fresh beers in front of us. Cricket went to his guitar case and took out a guitar that had seen many years of service. He went to an empty table near the door and our packs and motioned for me to bring our new beers over. He opened the guitar case in front of the table and started to strum on his guitar.
It wasn’t like he was entertaining. It was more like he was playing just for himself, or maybe for just the two of us strangers sitting at the front table. It wasn’t loud. He didn’t sing. He would pick out the beginning of a tune, then stop to tune his guitar, sip some beer and chat. “Know this one?” he’d ask me and then play the first few bars of some old country standard or Buddy Holly song. The general conversation in the saloon resumed, but at a lower level. I am not musical. I know enough to be just an audience.
We talked about where we were coming from and where we were going. The only pointed question he asked me was whether or not I was a Vietnam vet. “You look sort of damaged,” he said. “Just wondering why.” Then he launched into a fuller version of a tune I didn’t know. He bent down over his guitar to watch his fingers, still playing softly, getting lyrical in his licks.
When he finished, the saloon was almost quiet, except back by the pool table. “Awright,” someone at the bar said. “Give us Ramblin’ Man.” And, after taking another long drink of Coors, Cricket launched into an intricate and accurate, if more ruminative version of the Allman Brothers’ classic. The applause that followed was not loud or long, but it was real. Two more gratis draft beers arrived.
“Enough suds,” Cricket told the bartender who brought them over. “Make the rest Old Grand Dad on the rocks.”
Over the next few hours the drinks did keep coming, and Cricket kept playing as he drank. Sometimes he put the guitar aside and played the harmonica. The saloon got livelier as the evening progressed. I was getting drunk, and I had only paid for that first beer. At some point, a waitress brought us two bowls of chili with crackers, and we ate. As people left, they tossed folding money into Cricket’s open guitar case.
We were both staggering a bit as we left the saloon with our packs on our backs, Cricket carrying his guitar case. Even in his cowboy boots he was a foot shorter than I was. It was well after midnight. The last saloon patrons’ cars and pickups were driving away into the night. We hiked out of town on the highway. We knew we wouldn’t be going too far—far enough out of town and far enough off the highway to find a clear place in the sage brush to throw down our sleeping bags. Beyond the lights of the town the stars came down close. It would be a clear and dry night.
“It ain’t natural, sleeping alone in the wilderness,” Cricket said, as we cut off the empty highway into the brush. There was half a moon rising, enough to walk by, I didn’t say anything. I thought the opposite was true, that the reason for being out here was to be alone. We came to a spot where previous sojourners had stopped, a circular clearing that smelled of old campfires and urine. ”Home sweet,” Cricket said, dropping his guitar case and slipping his arms out of his knapsack straps.
“I’m going on,” I said. “This space isn’t for me.”
“Suit yourself,” Cricket said, “but you’ll never stop being a lonesome loser.”
I hiked a long ways that night, trying to get lost in the high desert.