Next to me, having just filled a paper coffee cup, was a middle-aged man with untamed, long white hair, a white mustache and scruffy looking, well-worn clothes.
“Nice to see a fellow early riser,” I said. He laughed and said, “Yeah…I get up early, can’t help myself.”
He walked outside, sat down on a bench and lit up a cigarette.
Coffee in hand, I picked up a copy of the local paper off the front desk and took the elevator to my room.
As I waited for Elinor to finish dressing for our visit to the Painted Desert, I scanned the page listing the day’s events in Flagstaff.
“Hey, Elinor,” I called out, “Arlo Guthrie is performing in downtown Flagstaff tonight. Would you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Do you want to go?”
“Probably not,” I said. “I’m not really a fan.”
We left the room, went downstairs, walked to our car and circled in front of the lobby entrance, approaching the bench with the white-haired guy puffing away on his cigarette.
I suddenly stopped the car in front of the bench.
“Elinor,” I said, “That guy looks like Arlo Guthrie! The guy who took the coffee in the hotel lobby.”
“I’m gonna ask him,” I said.
I got out of the car.
I walked over and asked, “Are you Arlo?”
“Yeah,” he said with a smile.
We began a 10 or 15 minute conversation in which I recalled an anecdote about how he came to hear the song “City of New Orleans,” with which he’s been identified for decades.
“I read that you were playing in a club in Chicago,” I said, “and Steve Goodman came over to you and asked you to listen to a song he wrote. You didn’t want to at first, but you said if he bought you a beer and he finished the song before you finished the beer, and if you liked the song, you’d talk to him about it.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ve told that story many times.”
Elinor asked him if she could take his picture.
“Sure!” he said, and she focused her Samsung camera/phone at Guthrie, who put his arm around me like were old pals.
We assured him we’d be at the concert that night, cheering wildly. He laughed and waved us good bye as we got in the car and headed out to the Painted Desert.
That night, as promised, we showed up at the Orpheum Theater and, along with more than 400 other fans, most of whom seemed to be channeling the folk era of the ’60s, we thoroughly enjoyed and wildly cheered Guthrie’s recollections of his famous father, the music legends he grew up with, his performance at Woodstock, the creative process that drove his song writing, and his relations with his children and grandchildren.
And he sang songs—some of Woody’s, some of his friends’, and of course some of his own—one of which, predictably, was “City of New Orleans,” preceded by a retelling of the story about the bar, the beer and Steve Goodman.
The next morning, we saw him again in the hotel lobby and told him how much we enjoyed his concert. He smiled broadly and said, “Thanks.”
The Painted Desert and Petrified Forest lived up to their reputation, but for us, that day, they’d have to share a place in our memory with meeting and schmoozing with Arlo Guthrie.