Dusk on Highway 6, a crescent moon hanging over a jagged line of the Sierra Nevada, a distant set of headlights miles up the road from me. The FM choices are few, but with night comes the faraway AM stations. I have heard strange and beautiful noises on these desert nights: Paiute chants from reservations, melodic static like a chorus of goblins, and especially the mystifying rockabilly program I picked up somewhere near Cortez, Colorado, in the summer of 1983.
I was driving cross-country, in my bright orange International Harvester Scout II—a rounded 1970s tank with four-wheel drive you needed to get out and turn on, with a wrench—and there was a scary-looking thunderstorm rising up over the San Juan Mountains ahead. A hillbilly guitar line jumped out of the speakers, with impossible levels of reverb. Howls of insanity and abandon followed, an ancient sound, far more terrifying and primal than anything produced by the punk-fueled rockabilly revival of the era. Another song followed, short and brutal, this time with lyrics so unintelligible that I could never figure out if they were Spanish, English or Martian.
The DJ laughed maniacally, his voice echoing both from the modulation of the scratchy signal and whatever effect he used in his studio booth. He spoke an arcane 1950s’ style slang of Cholo Spanglish I recognized from the slick old guys with their Low Riders in San Diego and Chula Vista and El Cajon. There was an old car-hop diner called Richard’s out in then-rural Santee in San Diego County, and on Saturday nights the classic American cars and less-classic 1970s’ Low Riders would line the gravel parking lot, the proud owners hanging around and talking to their buddies, looking under the hoods at the gleaming engines beneath.
The Cortez DJ was somewhat in the style of Wolfman Jack and the other radio howlers of early rock ‘n roll, but he was also his own special kind of lunatic. The records were menacing, too: For every recognizable number by Johnny Burnette or Eddie Cochran or Wanda Jackson, there were three or four so resolutely bizarre and arcane that the DJ himself might’ve been performing them live, creating them with a Gretsch hollow body run through a theremin and bounced off Sputnik back to Earth.
Adding to this terrifying sonic mix were the lightning strikes from the thunderstorm, now right on top of me. For two or three harrowing hours, I crept southward on U.S. Highway 666 (since renamed by people scared of the Devil) toward Gallup, New Mexico, while giant white bolts exploded around me and a mix of violent rain and hail made it nearly impossible to see the road. At one point I saw what looked like a massive ocean liner (or a Jawa Sandcrawler) backlit by the blue-white glow of another crashing bolt. Only later did I learn this was the notorious “Shiprock"—the remains of an ancient volcano in the Navajo Nation. I was so was shaken and exhausted that when I finally reached a motel and got a room that I couldn’t sleep for another several hours.
I cannot be sure if this was the motel in Gallup where I finally rested so uneasily that night, but it looks right, and “Thunderbird” sounds right, too. On the corner was a phone booth, with the glass shot out, and when I walked out there to make a call home to California, I saw a knocked-over highway sign—two signs, actually, one of them a coveted U.S. Route 66 marker. Back to the Scout for my toolbox and the socket wrench set. I crouched in the highway weeds as the rain poured down, and I brought those signs home. Route 66 officially vanished a year later, but was already the subject of many nostalgic television features and newspaper articles in the early Eighties. (The signs are, I think, still at my sister’s house in Portland. She had nothing to do with that particular crime.)
Thirty years after that harrowing night, I’m driving solo from Bishop to my property up near the Nevada state line, and that music and that voice are right there with me, through the scratchy AM of a rented Hyundai hatchback. 660 AM. Twang and reverb, more country & western than full-on rockabilly, but then … yes, the alien hillbilly beat. Could it be the same lunatic? A recording, like the classic Art Bell show from 1996 I found on another station this same Labor Day Weekend night? The Internet should be a help, but it’s not: there’s a 660 AM that’s a Navajo station, but there’s nobody on the program schedule that matches “crazy reverb guy playing obscure and possibly alien rockabilly.” Mysteries of the Desert.