I was parked on a stool at the Harvard Gardens when the kid came in. Evie, the waitress, pointed me out to him. He wandered over, picked up some beer nuts from my bowl, and whispered, “You’re a finder, and I need to find Tulia.” I squinched up, looked away, and said, ” I think there’s a Trulia, but I never heard of Tulia. I focused on the bubbles in the glass. “Look it up on a map. I don’t give directions.”

After ordering beers for us, he mentioned that he knew there wasn’t a Tulia, but he needed to find it. Shit, I let him buy me a beer, and now I’m listening to him spout about some place in NJ that doesn’t exist. Why me? Because I’ve been to Tulia and a dozen other off-the-map shithole towns you’ve never heard of. I usually try not ever to find them again.
Places like Tulia tend to look, act, smell, and work like any other place; just don’t try to find them on the map. Maybe they’d been there at one time, but they slipped off the edge at some point. Kids grew up, married, and died in places like Tulia. They worked in the mill, diner, or carwash. They went to the local schools and had never been to the state capital.

“You don’t want to go there. It’s dull, boring; you can drive through it in five minutes.” He looked at me, ” I’m from Tulia, and I want to go home.”
“Kid, you escape one of the dullest places in the lower forty-eight, and you want to return to work in the diner?” I knew there was more, and he soon said, “It’s about my girl.” Now he had my attention.

So let me tell you a bit about the spots that land off the map. There is always something a bit off about them. Roads run around in loops, so it’s hard to leave. History has slightly different twists. Odd things happen, or people are a bit weird. There are one or two of these places I’d love to revisit but know I’ll never find. Like North American Brigadoons, they are lost along faded-out bits of the Interstate system. One of those was Tulia. I’d spent over a week playing every night in a small coffeehouse, enjoying being lionized by folks who’d never been as far away as Trenton and who imagined New York City as twice as glamorous as it could ever be. Okay, it was the girls. One in particular. So when he said it was about his girl, I knew I’d try to help him. A sentimental sucker I’ve never been, but some things you never forget. I hadn’t meant to leave Tulia forever; I’d just ventured out for a fast run to Philly but found that I couldn’t get back.
” I can’t promise we’ll find it.”

You can’t leave bright in the morning for a place like Tulia. So you go in the evening, a backpack full, guitar in hand, and hat on head. Don’t worry about the route; that won’t matter if you hit it right. It depends on the rides. You won’t accept just any ride. If he’s heading for Philly, turn it down. Take it if he offers to let you off at the Black Horse rotary; take it. That rotary is a departure point for the obscure.

We hit the rotary at midnight, walked to the third exit, and started walking. I figured the kid was from there, and he’d be my compass; I wouldn’t have to decrypt any excess clues or distractions. I’d just let him be my guide back. Finally, around four AM, the right turnout appeared. It even had a sign – Entering Tulia, population 4,682. Perhaps the number was numerologically significant in some ancient Babylonian math, I wouldn’t know, but it struck me that this was strangely precise. Then the number seemed to glow, and I swore it changed, but my eyes were on the lights of a diner that appeared on the right-hand side. Breakfast.

I recalled the waitress and the cook from my last visit. She wobbled on her legs, and it was a wonder she didn’t spill my coffee. The cook hummed loudly along with the radio and chuckled, just as he had the last time. The kid was greeted by friends and hugged by the petite blonde who had missed him. I wandered out into a foggy early morning and sat on the edge of the old concrete planter, amazed that I’d returned. I was tuning my guitar when a battered old Ford pulled up, and out of it stepped Roxanne. I smiled, she smiled, and I said, ” Honey, I’ve missed you so much.” Roxanne hauled back with that big old purse and belted me a good one in the face. “Wes Carson, you lying, no good SOB…”

It was about 8 AM when I woke up in the alley behind the Harvard Gardens. My jaw ached, and my shirt had a bloodstain from where a buckle on the bag had caught my lip. Damn, that woman never forgets and never forgives.


If it’s early in the morning, I need my Java hot, with heated milk. As I prepare the brew, my supervising cat and dog stand in the doorway. I can almost hear the paws tapping out – “we are waiting! What is keeping you.”
H.I.M. Xenia and Generalissimo Samuel Tiberius Carreras crowd out onto the deck and run down the stairs into the garden. Of course, they go in different directions, ensuring that I can’t keep eyes on them from the level of the deck. So down I go sipping as I go. Back around the pond, they’ve gone looking for frogs. I have an eye on her – she can be sneaky and head towards the street. I am also checking the progress on the spring flowers. We’ve progressed from the earliest ephemerals into some of the later blooms.
Sam pretends to be occupied with a chipmunk hole on the other side of the pond but is also watching the cat. There she goes, slinking away towards the fence. Sam gives me his look that says, ” Dad, she’s bad again!” I look at her and say to Sam, ‘OK, Sam get the kitty in; she’s been bad!” Off he goes turning her, and delicately moving her in the direction of the deck and the door. Sam is in total cattle dog mode. Xenia is in full outraged kitty mode, hisses at both of us but runs in the door.
By now, I need my second cup, Sam needs his reward, and from Xenia, we both receive the particular look that royalty gives those that have disappointed.


The coffee had been cold for hours—the fourth cup from the free refill urn at the back of the counter. I’d nursed it and fantasies through the night. I took a last lingering look at her. We’d meant so much to each other, but now it was almost ended. Sometime around midnight, we had met, shyly exchanging glances across tables. The realization that we’d met in some previous existence clear to us both as we gazed anywhere except directly at each other.
There are almost meetings while refilling our cups; the shy smile while I almost touch her hand. We retreat to our tables and watch the cars on the street, listen to the sound tires make on the road when all else is silent. Somewhere nearby, the night hawk dives after dinner, and the sun hesitates to rise. As the street begins to lighten in the pre-dawn, we sit and watch the night workers straggle home, and the early risers stumble to their shifts.
We glance at our watches; I sigh; she opens a pocket compact and checks her makeup.
The sunlight is washing in through the Automats window, and it was time to go. Till tomorrow night, I whisper to her, till tomorrow night comes her soft reply.

The Great Race

We did not hop trains; it was much too dangerous. The railroads took the concept of private property to extreme levels, and the cars themselves were unsafe. Bill’s choice of travel techniques might have seemed a sort of road bum purity of method, but it was all carefully planned. It was the weekend of the Great Race. Four teams of hitchhikers set out from the Harvard Gardens’ barroom at the foot of Boston’s Beacon Hill at precisely midnight. The first team to enter the taproom of Cicero’s bar in Baltimore won. We were the defending champs two years running. 

The shun path along the tracks was our secret sauce for winning. Back in the “War Room” at the Harvard Gardens, the planning team had carefully laid out a string path between pins on gas company road maps, measured distances with calipers, and calculated mileage. The team consumed much beer planning the route. The “brain trust” said that this was the route that would get us from one not-so-good hitching spot to a perfect one. A ten-mile slog, for a hundred-mile gain. Everyone was sworn to secrecy regarding the victory plan. sitting around the barroom before the race, we’d toast – “Here’s to the secret sauce!”

On race day, we stopped at the cafe near the tracks for breakfast. We were reviewing our route and having breakfast when we noticed a uniformed gentleman overlooking our packs and my guitar. “You guys hitching through?” We smiled and replied, ” Just passing through, officer, we’ll be out of town ASAP.” He smiled at us and casually mentioned, “that’s right you will, but don’t let me catch you puttin’ a thumb out in my town.”

Having cleared the air, he sat down on the next stool and reviewed the map with us. ” The last place you want to be is on those tracks; it’s an electrified line, and those trains whip right through there. Whoever planned this route was either smokin’ funny weed, drunk, or both.” We thought back to all the beer stains on the map at the local bar during planning sessions. “No,” he said, “after you clear my town, your best bet is to jog down county 128 for two miles to here.” His substantial thumb indicated the exact spot we were headed. Unfortunately, we’d now have to walk out of town and hope that officer Blake did not feel mean enough to report us to the next town’s police. After this, he got up and left us to our breakfast.

After eating, we walked out of the cafe and began walking, officer Blake’s patrol car slowly pacing us. After a mile or so, he flashed his lights, and we walked back to the car. “Hop in the back.” Figuring we were busted, we silently put our stuff in the car and got in. Pretty soon, we were out of town in the countryside. About ten minutes later, he pulled over and told us to get out. We waited while he finished talking on the radio. Then he looked at us and said: ” This is where I turn around. That right ahead is County 128. By the way, two of your teams have already gotten stopped a few Townships over. They were hitching on the Interstate, not too bright.”

We thanked officer Blake for his kindness. He offered us a business card and said. “Now, when you get to Baltimore, call this number and tell the dispatcher the time you arrived. A bunch of us have a pool going on if and when you guys make it there this year.”

We made it. Back at the Harvard Gardens, the brain trust toasted their excellent route planning capabilities. We silently sipped our beers, except to announce that now that we were Aces, we would retire and allow others the honor of winning. We made no mention of the actual secret sauce that secured our victory.

%d bloggers like this: