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On The Road: Highway Ladies

Updated on February 21, 2015
 But in looking back at the
 places I've been
 The changes that I've left
 I look at myself to find
 I've learned the hard way
 every time.
       ~Jim Croce~


One never knows where the road will lead. There are sharp turns, dead-ends, detours, and bumpy stretches—there are also pleasant surprises to be treasured.

We have friends and family scattered all over the map—to visit or hang out with them is enjoyment personified. Sometimes to do so is the overarching motivation to pack up and go.

Whatever the impulse is that puts me behind the wheel, roadtrips are always an adventure—I look forward to them for reasons that are as complex as the DNA that makes me the way I am.

We just completed a journey that took us some 2200-odd miles in a large irregularly shaped circle through seven states and across southern Ontario in Canada. I’d pause here for a moment to unleash a scathing rant about gas prices, but what would be the point?

Resistance to venting disappeared before I could stop it—my fingers have taken off on a little keyboard dance of their own, so here goes: For more than half my life every politician has proclaimed the necessity for us to be weaned off our addiction to foreign oil, but evidently some funny business happens on the way to higher office.

To suggest that they all become enablers or bagmen for OPEC might be grossly unfair, BUT this I know: The solution will not be found in the commonplace finger wagging and shotgun bursts of hot air.

Every single elected official has the gift of talking circles around the issue without ever implementing policy or change. I’m entirely sickened by the roaring echoes of neverending rhetoric that reverberate nowhere and result in nothing—the news simply keeps repeating itself.

Nixon was president and Trudeau prime minister when the first energy crisis struck the West. Both leaders were influential movers and shakers on the world stage, but their delusions of grandeur have faded into the obscurity of textbooks, while we remain hostage to desert potentates sitting on top of lakes of black gold.

The bad news is that the situation isn’t going to get any better any time soon—the good news is that despite soaring costs at the pump, we are blessed and far more fortunate than the majority of the world.

Another sliver of good news is this: Music has charms to soothe, inspire, and cause us to reflect on what really matters in life—songs can speak to our heart in ways that grip and hold us tight.

On Pandora Radio I have a station entitled Highway Ladies—it’s a collection of brilliant women whose lyrical stories and voices cut through the crud. I’ve never met them, but certainly regard each one with admiration for their poetry often accompanies me on the road.

Here are selections by Highway Ladies. They’re a small glimpse of rambling songs that dig deep into my soul and have often taken me to higher ground where the grungy junk of life—like arm and leg gas prices—gets put in proper perspective.

 I'm the mirror in the hall
 From your empty room I can
 hear it fall
 Now that we must live apart
 I have a lock of hair and
 one-half of my heart.
    ~Rosanne Cash~

   So I will look for you
   Between the grooves of
   songs we sing
   Westward leading, still
   To the world unseen.
     ~Rosanne Cash~

The World Unseen

My connection to Rosanne Cash’s music came about naturally. In 1982 her second album Seven Year Ache caught my ear—I’ve never stopped listening.

The fact that her father was Big John Cash intrigued me—she was born in 1955, the same year as me, which also piqued my curiosity. However, it’s her gifts as a songwriter that keeps me tuning in—her insightful explorations of the emotional landscape are often compelling and sometimes downright heart-wrenching.

The World Unseen can be found on Black Cadillac. It was released in 2006, and is stark and emotional—a stunning reflection of the grieving process. Written and recorded in the wake of sorrow—her mother, stepmother, and father had all died within a two-year period—the album is a collection of cathartic gems that ought to be among the tools put to use by bereavement counselors.

The World Unseen expresses the emptiness we feel when a loved one dies—the helplessness that relentlessly ensnares us. We miss those who pass over to the other side, and in our longing to remember we inevitably evaluate memories in the context of figuring out our lives. Here’s a piece of reality that many attempt to deny: We NEVER stop missing those we’ve loved—as days, weeks, months, and years fill the rearview mirror we seek deeply personal links to them. We stoke a desire to find meaning by delving into the mystery of the great beyond.

Questions about the afterlife lurk in everyday shadows. With the tires turning somewhere halfway across Michigan The World Unseen crept into my consciousness—westward leading, still proceeding to the world unseen.

My imagination leapt. I considered mortality and faith, and in the midst of existential angst some words penned by a part-time tentmaker and fulltime thinker blanketed my brain: Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

Steam Train Maury died last
His wife Wanda by his side
Caught the Westbound out of
here, hopped the high irons
to the by and by
They say he jumped ten 
thousand trains
Rode a million miles for free
Helped out at VA hospitals 
and penitentiary's
Dandy Dave, Rusty Nails and 
Sweet Lady Sugar Cane
Dead Eye Kate and the Baloney
Kid raise their cups tonight 
in Steam Train's name
Senators, congressmen, puppets
on a string
Among the windswept vagabonds
Steam Train was the king
The last of the hobo kings
The last of the hobo kings.
     ~Mary Gauthier~

Last Of The Hobo Kings

Mary Gauthier became known to me through Pandora Radio. It was her song Mercy Now that arrested my attention—goosepimples chased down my spine because in one of those quirks of circumstance I first heard it on the morning my mother died.

It didn’t take long for Gauthier's music to make inroads into my life—Amazon makes it far too easy to collect CDs. Last Of The Hobo Kings is on Between Daylight and Dark which came out in September 2007.

Its snapshots of a life lived on the fringe of respectability immediately appealed to me. Initially I thought that it was merely a product of her creativity, but then discovered that it was based on the life and death of Maury Graham, who was born in Ohio on June 3, 1917 and caught the Westbound out of here on November 18, 2006. His early life was marred by brokenness and being shuffled from one relative to another. In 1931, as the Great Depression spread its economic distress far and wide, Maury Graham started riding the rails as a hobo—he was fourteen years old.

He learned a trade and held a variety of different jobs, but Graham embraced a niche lifestyle largely unknown to mainstream America. A five-time holder of the title King Of The Hobos, he took on the nickname Steam Train Maury in 1969. He didn’t retire from the hobo life until 1980.

Gauthier is an exceptional storyteller—her vivid characters are living and breathing.This song makes me want to jump in a boxcar and join all the other windswept vagabonds to pay respect to Steam Train Murray.

Last Of The Hobo Kings never fails to arouse empathy and compassion in me. It’s an essential reminder that every life has intrinsic significance—no one is disposable. Everyone has a story to tell, and a community is a multitude of diverse stories gathered together.

We’d do well to comprehend that even the tangle-haired lady mumbling at Dunkin’ Donuts or the grizzled old rubby-dub aimlessly shuffling along the sidewalk are important pieces in the mosaic jigsaw of humanity. They are valued by their Maker—they should be valued by us.

The green rolling hills of
West Virginia are the nearest
thing to heaven that I know
Though the times are sad and 
drear and I cannot linger
here they'll keep me and
never let me go. . .

 But someday I'll go back to
 West Virginia to the green
 rolling hills I love so well
 Yes someday I'll go home and
 I know I'll right the wrong
 These trouble times will 
 follow me no more.

The Green Rolling Hills

On the last leg of our recent journey we sliced through a section of West Virginia. With all the rain this spring the greenness surrounding us was a wave of artistry, which reminded me of The Green Rolling Hills.

Anita dug a box set of Emmylou Harris out of the glove compartment and keyed up the song—it had become special to us on a previous sojourn in the Mountain State, where mountaineers are always free.

On that occasion, in the summer of 2002, we drove the north-south corridor through West Virginia on I-79. We were heading to Savannah, GA to reconnect with Fire In The Eyes and to finally meet his lovely bride and their growing passel of daughters.

We had planned our time so that we weren’t in any kind of rush, which allowed us to poke along and stop whenever the urge struck us. Cars and transport trucks raced past as we kept well below the speed limit.

We were on a sightseeing cruise and enjoying it immensely—every ten miles or so we pulled over, got out and took pictures. Beautiful falls short of describing the wondrous scenery.

Thoughts of the hereafter came to mind—exactly what lies beyond the blue sky? My Grandma Major was one of the finest weavers of words I’ve ever known—plus her grasp of spiritual topics had homespun wisdom. Though it may not be theologically sound, the picture she painted of heaven excites my imaginings—it features sloping green hills and a gentle river lined by groves of willow trees.

Standing at a fence overlooking a gash of a valley in West Virginia, my grandmother’s vision came alive—peace settled over me. Life is hectic and loaded with difficulties and heartaches of one kind or another. Having a clear recognition that hard trails are transitory is healthy and comforting.

Whether the songwriters intended it or not, The Green Rolling Hills helps me refocus this truth—the phrasing and melody evokes a sense of being homeward bound to where these trouble times will follow me no more.


Two of my favorite fictional characters, Woodrow F. Call and Gus McCrae, of Lonesome Dove fame routinely come to mind, especially when I get into an introspective mood on the road. There is a cantankerous tenderness between them that is endearing.

One scene in particular never strays too far away from me. In it, Woodrow and Gus—retired Texas Rangers—are embarking on a cattle drive to Montana. While on horseback they engage in a dialog about life and death.

It gets initiated as a challenge to the stoic, emotionally stunted choices Woodrow has made in his relationships—a woman named Maggie loved him and he flat-out refused her. She died all alone in a little fart of a town in Texas. Gus rails at him for this, which results in the following sharp exchange.

Woodrow, narrow-eyed and jaw set tight, said, “She could’ve died anywhere. She just happened to die in Lonesome Dove.”

Gus is exasperated. “It’s not dying I’m talking about, it’s living.”

That’s what these three songs say to me—we possess the knowledge that one day the sweetness and sourness of this world will be gone. While we’re here we are to enjoy all the wonders planet earth has to offer—we stay buoyed up and balanced against the hardships by understanding that eternity beckons.

It’s not dying I’m talking about, it’s living.


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    • Ken R. Abell profile imageAUTHOR

      Ken R. Abell 

      7 years ago from ON THE ROAD

      GrantGMcgowan - Thanks for stopping in. I'm glad you enjoyed the visit.

    • GrantGMcgowan profile image


      7 years ago

      I really enjoyed to read this articles.

    • Ken R. Abell profile imageAUTHOR

      Ken R. Abell 

      7 years ago from ON THE ROAD

      Saundra - Glad you enjoyed the roadtrip vicariously. We may have a real long one coming just around the corner. I'm sure I'll write about, since that's what I do. Blessings.

    • RevLady profile image


      7 years ago from Lantana, Florida

      On the Road reminded me of the days when I could afford to be on the road (smile). But, I can be on the road vicariously through you so keep the hubs coming.

      Forever His

    • Ken R. Abell profile imageAUTHOR

      Ken R. Abell 

      7 years ago from ON THE ROAD

      TFP - Thank you. Those games we played on roadtrips spurred our imaginations, which is always good. You're exactly right about not knowing what we're missing until its gone.

    • The Frog Prince profile image

      The Frog Prince 

      7 years ago from Arlington, TX

      Excellent Ken. Road trips when I was growing up were marvelous. We'd invent games to play about passing cars and it was always an adventure to cross another state line.

      With the price of gasoline now, they will go the way of the dinosaur. You don't know what you're missing until its gone.

      The Frog

    • Ken R. Abell profile imageAUTHOR

      Ken R. Abell 

      7 years ago from ON THE ROAD

      Jennifer - A roadtrip coming my way would be great. . .wherever I happen to be at the time. I'll key up Harry Manx on Pandora & give him a listen. Doing so now. First song up is "Roses Given" featuring bluesy harmonica riffs, which instantly like the guy. Thanks for the head's up.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Hey, big brother I was going to say you should be coming up for Mariposa, Pat, Indiana and I will be going again, however Susan beat me to it. I think you would love the line up. New Mexico, in the summer, welcome to warmth. Hmmmmmmmmmm, one of the states I always wanted to go to. Maybe this family should hit the road on a road trip your way....they say once you speand time in New Mexico you will not wish to leave....great piece however perhaps just perhaps we could get you to listen to something new, try Harry Manx. Love ya, Jennifer

    • Ken R. Abell profile imageAUTHOR

      Ken R. Abell 

      7 years ago from ON THE ROAD

      Dave - Thanks. Yes, I know we paid well over $5.00 per gallon in Ontario last week. So far, I haven't seen $4.00 a gallon here, BUT am sure it's right around the corner.

    • Dave Mathews profile image

      Dave Mathews 

      7 years ago from NORTH YORK,ONTARIO,CANADA

      Ken I too have always loved being on the open road, off to visit friends and relative. There is much joy in this.

      I caught site of the prices on your EXXON sign and envy leapt into my heart. $5.00/gal for gasoline wow!

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 

      7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      New Mexico sounds wonderful.

      I sure will let you know when I post the story.

    • Ken R. Abell profile imageAUTHOR

      Ken R. Abell 

      7 years ago from ON THE ROAD

      Thanks for the invite, Susan. I'd love to accept it, meet you & hang out with my sister, BUT if things go as we are presently planning we'll be in New Mexico then--hoping to be there for six months working with the Navajo.

      Do me a favor--shoot me an e-mail when you post your Mariposa Hub so I don't miss it. Thanks.

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 

      7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      You should come up for it. It is in July on the 8th, 9th and 10th. I am going to be doing a hub about it shortly :)

    • Ken R. Abell profile imageAUTHOR

      Ken R. Abell 

      7 years ago from ON THE ROAD

      Just Ask Susan - Wow. I have a sister who has attended the Mariposa Folk Festival for the last number of years. Thanks for stopping in & sharing, though now I'm kind of jealous. :>)

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 

      7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Ken I so enjoyed reading your hub. Rosanne Cash is one of my favorites. I saw her at the Mariposa Folk Festival here in Orillia, as well as Mary Gauthier and this year I am looking forward to seeing Emmylou Harris at the festival.

    • Ken R. Abell profile imageAUTHOR

      Ken R. Abell 

      7 years ago from ON THE ROAD

      Thank you, breakfastpop. Your visits & words are ALWAYS much appreciated. Blessings.

    • breakfastpop profile image


      7 years ago

      Thank you for this awesome piece of writing that has lifted my spirits this morning, I feel like I was in that car with you, the wind blowing my hair and the music filling my soul. Voted up awesome and definitely beautiful.


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