By 1977, Elvis Presley was an afterthought for most people. His tours, when they took place, were attended mostly by middle-aged women who wished to relive their youth. Disco was mainstream, Philly soul was smoother than melted butter, Fleetwood Mac was no longer a blues band, and the Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station was a great album if not a bit over-produced by the very same producer who had turned Fleetwood Mac into a soft rock hit machine. Weed was in short supply for a good part of the season, although when I first learned that Elvis Presley had died, I had just smoked some pretty incredible Panama Red.
That day had begun with a friend and me deciding to hitch from Wheaton, MD., to West Virginia. I had heard from another friend who knew these things that the psilocybin fungi were popping up in cow turds across the state due to the right conditions of rain, temperature and natural magic that created those little mushroom caps. After cashing out unemployment checks, we stuck our thumbs out and by early afternoon, we were pretty close to Morgantown and the farm where the mushrooms were rumored to be. Our last ride—a country boy with an eight-track playing Pink Floyd—dropped us off in a little town called Bruceton Mills and wished us luck. The place we were heading to was about twenty miles further west near a lake called Cheat Lake.
Since we had been dropped off almost exactly in the middle of Bruceton Mills on the one road that comprised the center of the burg, we set down our small knapsacks and stuck our thumbs out. Soon enough, the sheriff drove by, stopped about ten feet past where were sitting and got out of his car. He sauntered over and asked us how we were doing. My friend was a bit of a paranoid type, so I stepped in quickly and told him we were doing alright.
“Where you boys headin’?” Asked the sheriff.
“To a friend’s place near Morgantown,” I told him as I lit a cigarette, trying to be cool, calm and collected.
“If y’all got any money, I’ll let you stay here until dark.” He responded. “Then you all gonna’ have to camp or somethin’ down the road at the state forest.” There was a state forest about five miles further west. “And while you’re here, I recommend you spend some of that money. Those burgers over there are mighty good.” He pointed at a small diner a couple doors down.
We nodded. He got back in his car and drove off. My traveling partner went to buy a couple burgers. They were mighty good. The sheriff knew his burgers. After eating, we went back to the business of hitchhiking. My friend fell asleep. I sat on the curb, my thumb out. No rides were forthcoming and evening was approaching.
It was probably around five o’clock when my cohort woke up. The evening sun was falling behind the mountains to the west and the shadows were growing longer. A ride did not seem likely. I was getting ready to walk the five miles into the state forest and find a place to camp. I mentioned this to my fellow traveler. In response, he walked to the other side of the road, stuck out his thumb and, within five minutes a car pulled over and offered him a ride going back towards Maryland. He motioned to me to join him. I ran over, found out the driver was going almost all the way to Wheaton, MD., said to myself what the hell and hopped into the back seat. I fell asleep and when I awoke it was time to get out of the car. The evening had turned into night. I began walking towards the apartment I shared with friends in Wheaton. My traveling companion headed in the opposite direction toward his parents’ house. His plan was to hit them up for some food and then go to sleep in his old bedroom.
As I walked down Georgia Avenue, I stuck my thumb out just in case someone felt like stopping. Someone did. I hopped in the front seat and closed the door. The driver handed me a newly lit joint. The smoke smelled extraordinarily fragrant, so I took a nice long toke. It tasted as good as it smelled. I handed the joint back. The driver smiled and said “Panama Red.” We drove around the Montgomery County suburbs for an hour or so smoking another joint. It was near the end of the second joint I noticed the radio had played nothing but Elvis Presley. I was getting ready to ask the driver if he knew why this was so when the song playing ended. I remember it was “Little Sister.” That was then the DJ said in a somber tone:
“For those of you who haven’t heard, the King of Rock and Roll is dead. Elvis Presley died this afternoon at his mansion, familiarly known as Graceland. Details are sketchy, although unnamed sources say the death was due to an accidental drug overdose. We will be playing Presley’s music for the next twenty-four hours in remembrance of the man and his meaning to our culture and our lives.”
Or something like that.
The driver finished the joint, extinguished it and handed me the roach. I took it and stuffed it in my shirt pocket. It was then I realized I was at my destination.
“I think Chuck Berry was the real king of rock and roll,” Said the driver. “Take it easy. Maybe I’ll see you around.”
I thanked him for the ride and got out of the car. Elvis was dead. That had to mean something. Some of us are still trying to figure out what.
(Presley died August 16, 1977.)