Dispatch from the Edge

By Peter Anderson

What I had in mind when I set out hitching home from Cortez one morning thirty some years ago, was making it back to a girlfriend’s house in Poncha Springs. Instead, I ended up in the Saguache County Jail.

As the day began, I had every reason to believe I would ride a wave of good fortune all the way to Poncha. It was a glorious, green, early summer day on the road and I had gotten in a few quick rides to Pagosa Springs. I was watching the high waters of the San Juan roll by, when a flashy Jaguar with Arizona plates, came to a stop on the shoulder up ahead. “Where ya headed?” said a jovial fellow from Phoenix who had been driving since the early morning hours.

“Poncha Springs,” I said. 

“Hop in,” he said, and I stuffed my pack in the back of his sporty ride and off we went, chit-chatting up the switchbacks of Wolf Creek. Heading over the pass, my new friend told me that he needed to make Denver that night. Yes! I was home free. It was a shining moment in a hitchhiking career that had included some desolate hours on hot summer highways.

In South Fork, my road-weary friend asked if I would drive for a while and he took a nap while I savored my time behind the wheel. It was unlikely that I would ever again have the pleasure of driving a Jaguar up the Gunbarrel through the San Luis Valley, but since my new friend had shown such great trust in me, I was careful not to give in to high speed temptations. Not careful enough as it turned out. As I entered the Saguache city limits, I was apparently doing 37 in a 35 mile-an-hour zone when I noticed the flashing lights in the rearview. Uh-oh. But it was a minor infraction, I figured. Surely, I could get off with a warning if I played it right.

Instead, after turning over my license and waiting for the verdict, I was invited by the local authority to step out of the car and spread my hands across the roof, after which I was thoroughly frisked, handcuffed, and  – “what-did-I-do?” – escorted to the back of his car. “You’re driving with a suspended license, son,” he said.

Then I was taken to the county jail. My licence had been suspended, I later learned, because I had failed to notify my insurance agency after being involved in a fender bender. I could have sworn I’d gotten that letter in the mail. Must have been a bureaucratic snafu. Back at the jail, my shoelaces were confiscated as if a night behind bars might be reason enough to do myself in. Fingerprints were taken, as if a suspended license was a gateway crime to more heinous offenses. I was taken to my bunk where I was introduced to Joey, my cellmate, a very big man with a patch over one eye and a serious gash down the other cheek.  Everything I had heard about life behind bars, I was convinced, would soon prove true. For a moment, I wanted my shoelaces back.

As it turned out, Joey was a nice guy who had gotten thrown through a barroom window, and he was glad for a friend. Our two neighbors, who had been making themselves at home in jail for a while judging from a row of condiments  – peanut butter, jelly, hot sauce  – on a shelf by their bunks, had been hazing my cellmate relentlessly: “They never lettin’ you out of this joint, Joey.”

Joey had an eight track player and one tape  – Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits. We listened to “Take These Chains from my Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” again and again, until we had smoked our way through most of his Marlboros. Then it was lights out we were told, the jail door slammed shut, and everyone settled in for the night. “What if this place catches on fire?” I kept wondering.

The next day, after a rubbery fried egg on soggy toast with a bad cup of coffee, my boss from Buena Vista, where I had been working as a river guide, came down and bailed me out. Never was the morning air so fresh. Never had the meadowlark’s song sounded so sweet.  It was summer. I was young and free, vowing never again to get crossways with the law.

So today, as spring edges into summer, and as I recall that grace-filled morning of liberation from the Saguache County Jail, I am especially grateful for this true blue dream of San Luis Valley sky.