An overdue pilgrimage
It was Wednesday, August 17, 1977, and I was parked at the jeweler’s bench located in the backroom of Blue Mountain Trading Post.
Craig, Barry, and I had been trained to make and repair turquoise and silver jewelry, and I was actively engaged in the trade.
My workspace had been fitted out with a full complement of grinders, polishers, stamps, torches, and other tools necessary to complete almost any silversmithing task.
As a newly minted high school graduate, I would soon be heading off to college on a meager wrestling scholarship, so savings needed to be accumulated.
The mountain of stones Duke previously purchased had to be turned into cash, and I was hard at work doing just that. It was, after all, the late 1970s, and turquoise was wildly popular.
“Best to strike while the iron’s hot,” Duke advised.
While I didn’t fully understand what he meant, I did know progress had to be made, and I was chosen to make it happen.
So far as Duke and Rose were concerned, their boys had to be continuously occupied or trouble would ensue. Recent events had proven them right.
Not long before, Barry had rolled Duke’s Dodge pickup truck, and I had been involved in a separate automobile accident as a passenger, not driver.
Fortunately, everyone had come out whole, and no blood was spilled in either incident. Both vehicles were, however, total losses, so Duke and Rose were not taking any unnecessary chances.
Craig, Barry, and I were on a short tether.
At 18 and 17 respectively, Barry and I had become competent at restoration, design, and creation of “trading post jewelry.” On the other hand, Craig, the oldest of the trio, was a true artist, exhibiting genuine talent.
His work was the equal of almost every silversmith working in the American Southwest at the time, Charles Loloma notwithstanding.
So, there I was, hammering away when the news came over the airwaves of KUTA, 790 on the AM dial. Elvis was dead!
Radio, television, and newspapers registered their suffering, and individuals of all ages were overcome with grief. Moms, dads, sisters, brothers, aunts, and uncles were all saddened.
“Was it possible the King of Rock and Roll was actually gone?” I inquired of no one in particular.
We all knew it was inevitable, but were still devastated when it happened so soon. Media outlets reported the cause of death as “heart attack,” but everyone knew the truth. Too many years of excess had finally taken their toll. Elvis had left the building.
I can’t remember when I first heard an Elvis song, but it was likely on KUTA, since that was the only radio station in my hometown of Blanding, UT. At night, KOMA, a clear channel from Tulsa, OK, could be heard, but the transmission was static-filled, spotty, and unreliable.
The canyons and mesas of southeastern Utah were just too deep and widely distributed for radio waves to reliably penetrate, so KUTA carried the load.
Whatever the date and time of my first exposure, I was immediately hooked and have remained an Elvis fan from that moment to this.
I often wondered whether I may have heard Elvis’ voice while parked in the womb and have actually been a follower from birth. No matter really, what is important is that I will go to my grave humming Kentucky Rain.
Nine years after that fateful day, too much acclaim, Paul Simon released his Graceland album.
On the title song, Simon sang, “I’m going to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee. Poor boys and pilgrims and families, and we are going to Graceland.”
That was when I knew I too would one day make the pilgrimage. Whatever the cost, whatever the commitment, I would make the journey.
Thirty-five years later, however, I was still unsuccessfully scheming to get on the bus, ride the train, or pilot an automobile to Memphis, home of my hero. My enthusiasm had not wavered.
All of the sudden, out of nowhere, my big chance arrived. Kira had been accepted into a graduate program at Vanderbilt University and would be moving to Nashville.
Looking at the map, I realized we could easily make the assist, get Kira packed in Pennsylvania, and safely transferred to Tennessee with time enough to scoot on down to Memphis for a tour of the King’s homestead.
My long-standing goal was within reach. It didn’t take much to convince Jana and Grange, and Kira was neutral, so plans were drawn.
Having already traveled through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky, we dropped Kira off at the new apartment not far from campus.
After tearful good-byes, I grew anxious to get on the road to Memphis, home of Sun Records and the Blues, and the birthplace of Rock ’n Roll. “I’m going to Graceland, Graceland...” kept ringing in my head.
Just like Paul, we were driving down the highway through the cradle of the Civil War. I was going to Graceland!
Soon I would walk in the footsteps of the King of Rock ’n Roll, stand at the gates of Graceland, see Elvis’ fabulous stage wear, experience the pink Cadillac, wonder at his wall of gold records, and maybe even get a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich at Gladys’ Grill.
Even though it had been almost 45 years since that fateful day when I heard the news on KUTA, enthusiasm for the King had clearly not waned.
When we arrived, the parking lot was full and people were jockeying to get tickets. There were more people in line then there are in all of Bluff, maybe in all of San Juan County. The air was electric.
I stood next to a 70-something-year-old woman with short shorts and a tattoo on her ankle. Without prompting, she advised me, “I would have slept with Elvis. And my mother would have, too!”
Her life-long friend confirmed the statement’s accuracy and said that, given the opportunity, she would have done the same.
I was afraid what might come next, so I asked Grange to get me a Coke.
When he was gone, I inquired whether the ladies thought I might find Elvis cologne at the gift shop. They gave me the once over and concluded that, even if available, Elvis’ perfume probably wouldn’t work for me.
Despite my lingering disappointment over cologne, we navigated through the busses, tour directors, and anxious fans to the gates of Graceland. To say I was in awe would be a gross understatement. I was overwhelmed.
There I was in the home of the greatest entertainer of the modern era, and it was everything I had imagined.
As Jana, Grange, and I stood at Elvis’s grave, I felt the power of his presence. As we exited the site, I felt the loss.
When we climbed into our van after a full day celebrating the King, my mind was in continuous loop, “I’ve been to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee. I’ve been to Graceland...” Mission accomplished.