We grew up with Bob Dylan. Like many, we have been listening to his records for a half-century. As his musical path meandered, our theorizing, analyzing, and surmising only intensified. A recent film about him proclaimed “I’m Not Here,” so we decided to go find him on a road trip through a broad swath of our country’s landscape, history, and culture.
Eighteen days, 16 states, and 4,700 miles later, we definitely had found some footprints and lots of adventure. We can also confirm that buddy trips — in pursuit of any passion — can still happen in your 60s.
To be sure there were doubters. Our wives and grown kids never thought we would actually pursue our decades–long dream of searching for Dylan. After all, we’re big talkers. But like a pair of Ishmaels with a terrible case of the “hypos,” we decided the time had come to ship out in pursuit of our white whale.
We left Brookline on July 11. Our ramble had a serious purpose. We wanted to understand more deeply the man who has filled our minds with music. Whence Dylan’s genius? Why the incessant morphing? How did he seem to know what our generation was thinking and feeling before we did? Our research would proceed at speeds approaching 75 miles per hour, accompanied by every Dylan CD and definitive texts for the co-pilot to read aloud.
Not everything went according to plan. But bumps in the road were generally good for a laugh. For example, there was our covert photographing of a pink house in Woodstock, N.Y., that turned out not to be the band’s celebrated Big Pink. But we also had flashes of luck. We’ll never forget the realtor in Woodstock, into whose office we wandered for directions, who proceeded to regale us with stories about the Dylan he knew well (“He was haunted by an existential gloom . . .”).
We crossed the border into the unforgettable in Ashtabula, Ohio, where hunger drove us to the eight-table Hot Rocks Grille. There our trip became the talk of the diner after we met a family of musicians who turned out to be fellow Dylan fans. Though we had expected quizzical looks from sensible Midwesterners, their shared delight in our quest proved typical. We joked that we had finally found the only place with no known Dylan connection but were corrected by a fellow diner, who cited Dylan’s “You Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”: “I’ll look for you in old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula . . .” How could we have doubted our man was everywhere? We said our farewells, inspired by the power of music to bring people together.
After checking out some Dylanobilia at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (he was inducted in 1988), we resumed our ascent to his native North Country through Chicago (he lived there in 1961) and Madison, Wis., (his secret rehearsal venue), finally crossing Lake Superior and entering the dramatic hillside environs of Duluth, Minn., where Dylan was born and spent his first six years. We visited every Dylan-related site, fastidiously searching for clues, but were more successful when we turned around to gaze into the vast lake at the end of his street and saw the swirling phantoms in its dark waters. Later we read an article in which Dylan credited the mysteries of the lake with churning his childhood imagination.
Our research continued in his hometown of Hibbing, Minn. The high school where he made his controversial talent show debut at a volume the principal found unacceptable. Check! The home where he huddled under nighttime blankets listening to his transistor radio. Check! The family store. The movie theater. The synagogue. The world’s largest pit mine, now open again in hopes of bringing Hibbing’s sad main street back from oblivion. We also met Debbie and Nick on a bench, two locals (her sister had gone to school with Dylan) who were happy to share their depressing views about the town. We couldn’t doubt the Mesabi Iron Range helped to shape Dylan’s sensibility. Debbie told us that Dylan was sensitive to the plight of mining families, but also dreamed of distant worlds.
We followed his trail to Dinkytown in Minneapolis, where the college dropout began performing in clubs, and then traveled south to Tennessee to explore his musical headwaters: blues-y Beale Street in Memphis, Elvis’s Graceland, and, later, Nashville. At that point, we knew we had to go the distance, down to the Mississippi Delta and Clarksdale, where the blues and R&B were born.
We recalled a photo at Memphis’s Civil Rights Museum of Dylan singing “Pawn in Their Game” at a 1963 civil rights rally in a Greenwood, Miss., field. We resolved to find that field and feel its historical vibration. A local policeman, swept up by the sincerity of our search, gave us a police car escort through town to someone familiar with the location. Sadly, farmer McGee had passed away and his field remains lost in an impossible tangle of roads. Call this one of our noble failures.
Then something remarkable occurred. After listening to an early Dylan song about the murder of Emmett Till, we looked up to find we had just crossed the Tallahatchie River where young Till’s body was thrown. We recovered from that shock only to find a right turn had put us on the Emmett Till Memorial Highway, and a short while later, on a dirt road in destitute Glendora. There we found ourselves staring at the spot where one of the murderer’s homes had stood. We left Mississippi, shaken by history, stopping only briefly in “Oxford Town” where a green, peaceful campus belied the rioting and deaths of a half-century ago when James Meredith integrated Ole Miss.
Driving up to Washington through the Civil War-drenched Shenandoah Valley — a conflict that also obsesses Dylan — we checked out General Robert E. Lee’s tomb and survived the silence of the Manassas Battlefield. Later, we stood on the very spot where Dylan and Joan Baez sang at the March on Washington before we headed to the demolished hotel site in Baltimore where Hattie Carroll died the lonesome death that Dylan memorialized.
The next day — our last — we walked the streets of New York’s Greenwich Village where Dylan’s star rose. We visited the sites of the old folk clubs, saving for last the apartment building on 116 West 4th St. where Dylan and his girlfriend Suze Rotolo lived from 1962-64. We dallied there, photographing the building, when a car backed up toward us. A man asked us what we were doing. We explained, sheepishly, that we had been searching for Dylan. The man told us he figured as much and that his son lived in the building — on the fourth floor, in Dylan’s old apartment.
Would he would let us in for a look around? The father, amused and interested, agreed to check. A few long minutes later, his son buzzed us in. Taking the stairs two at a time, we crossed over the threshold into Dylan’s tiny apartment, looking out the window at the back alley that Rotolo described in her 2008 memoir, “Freewheelin’ Times.” Our host, a fan himself, asked if we wanted to hear a Dylan song, and we descended into reverie — from the serendipitous to the sublime in just four flights. To our surprise, he said we were the first fanatics ever to ask to visit.
The trip was over. What of our questions? We had some “Thar she blows” moments, but won’t say more. Hitchhiker, the time has come to find your own passion – and road.
And Dylan? We finally found him just down the Pike at a September concert in Holyoke. Naturally, the astounding music left us with “No Direction Home.”
Bill Schechter is a retired high school history teacher who now volunteers in a Boston public school. Larry Seidman is a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. The full story of their road trip can be found on their blog at www.searchingforbob.wordpress.com.