Yesterday Shira and I drove along the switchback road that climbs through the magnificent northern Arizona scenery from our home in Sedona up to Flagstaff. When we got there we drove for a while on the historic old Route 66 – the route that I traveled between Memphis and Hollywood over a dozen times with Elvis back in the day.
A flood of memories. Passing by motels where we stayed, now old and rundown – we were even snowed in once for several days. Driving alongside the railroad tracks. All those memories receded into the background when I thought of the life-changing experience Elvis had a few miles further along Route 66. I wrote some of this in my book “Leaves of Elvis’ Garden;” here’s more…enjoy.
One spring day in 1965 Elvis and I were upstairs at Graceland getting ready to leave for L.A. to begin production on his next movie.
“Man, I really don’t want to go back to that town,“ Elvis said wearily. “I don’t wanna do another one of those damn films they keep giving me. I wish I could stay here and relax – just read my books and go to the movies, far away from all that craziness.”
His anger and frustration were tempered with resignation. We both knew Elvis had no choice about going to Los Angeles. As usual he had procrastinated, concocting excuses to stay longer in Memphis than we should have stayed, so that by the time we finally hit the road our schedule didn’t allow for stops along the way for anything but gas and fast food.
We drove on through the Arizona desert in silence. Elvis was at the wheel, I was sitting shotgun as his Dodge motor home wound its way along old Route 66. Jerry Schilling, Red West and Billy Smith were sitting at the table behind us talking.
The distant mountains loomed in the fading light. An iridescent blue sky seemed to drape itself over the sacred mountains of the Hopi Indians.
And then it happened. Just before twilight, as we began climbing the mountain roads heading up to Flagstaff, suddenly Elvis gasped and cried out “Whoa” as he sat straight up, tightening his grip on the wheel. I followed his gaze to a solitary white mass suspended in the sky. From the cloud emerged a clear, definitive, recognizable image.
“Do you see what I see?” Elvis asked in a whisper. I looked again. “That looks like Joseph Stalin’s face up there.” Try as I might to see it any other way, there was no denying that it was Stalin’s face in the cloud.
Before I could answer, the cloud slowly turned in on itself, changing form and dimension until the image faded and gradually disappeared. I turned back to Elvis, still staring into the cloud, his eyes open wide and his face reflecting wonder.
Trying to describe and interpret the essence and meaning of an experience so utterly intimate and mystical, whose inviolable secret was revealed only to Elvis, remains virtually impossible. But I’ll do my best to convey what happened next.
With one twist of the wheel Elvis quickly swung the vehicle over to the side of the road and brought it to a screeching halt. I’ll never forget that radiant and faraway look in his crystal clear blue eyes as he said in a breaking voice, “Just follow me, Larry!” He bolted out the door. When I caught up with him we stood for a moment silently in the evening desert breeze. Suddenly Elvis began laughing and crying simultaneously. Shaken to his very core, he explained that he was mesmerized by that face of Stalin, and couldn’t understand the reason why it appeared. Its image deeply repulsed him, representing everything that he detested.
In a twinkling of an eye that afternoon in the desert something snapped within Elvis – and something else was born, enkindled forever. This indelible moment in time served him from then on as a calendar, a psychic landmark in his search for enlightenment. The event was also a marker for when he embraced his quest for a greater understanding to questions that burned in his belly since childhood. Questions about his stillborn twin brother, religion, the soul, his unparalleled career – his ultimate purpose.
For what seemed like an infinity Elvis and I stood silently, the earth reflecting the blue-tinged twilight. Cars were whizzing by on the highway, too far away to recognize one of the two lone figures standing in the desert as the greatest star in the world. If they only knew what was happening here!
Elvis looked at me with a self-conscious grin. “Can you imagine what the fans would think if they saw me like this?” “Elvis, they’d only love you more.” “Yeah? Well, I hope that’s true.”
Once back on the bus, Elvis was too exhilarated and distracted to drive and asked Red to take the wheel. He acted as if nothing unusual had occurred; Red nodded but kept staring. As if reading Red’s mind, Elvis added, “And don’t worry about me. I’ve never been better, that’s for sure.”
Elvis motioned for me to follow him to the bedroom in the back of the vehicle, where we sat for a while in silence. Then as night fell we began talking about what had just occurred, as we travelled on Route 66 through Flagstaff. Elvis looked at me seriously. “You know Larry, I don’t believe in God anymore.” After a long pause he began laughing, “I don’t have to believe, because now I know! God is real, God lives in me, in you and everyone else. God is real, God is love itself. And until you have a direct experience for yourself, the only thing you can do is use your head, think about God, read about it, believe that God exists. Hey, I think that’s what everyone is looking for, an actual, direct experience. Talking about seeing the light, that’s what really happened out there. I saw the light, it shot through me into every atom of my body.” Elvis was so elated he couldn’t stop describing the experience, what it meant to him and many other ramifications theologically and personally.
Eventually, we both nodded off – we were abruptly awakened several hours later by shouts of “We’re on fire! We’re on fire!”
We snapped to, and Red quickly pulled over to the shoulder of the road and stopped. Jerry Schilling, Red West, Billy Smith, Elvis and I jumped out to see what was happening. The back axles and the undercarriage were aflame. All of us immediately scooped up sand and gravel from the desert with our bare hands and managed to extinguish the fire. The vehicle was a total wreck and wouldn’t start. Luckily, we were only a few miles outside of Needles, California, in the Mohave Desert. The five of us pushed the RV into town, where we checked into a motel. “Let’s just get some vehicles, Larry, and go home,” Elvis said wearily. “Go hire some cars. Here’s my wallet.”
His wallet was crammed with an assortment of credit cards, but no cash; Elvis never carried cash. I started walking in search of a car rental agency. It was eight or so in the morning, I hadn’t slept and I needed a shower and shave. I must have looked pretty disreputable, an assessment confirmed by the wary look on the face of the man behind the counter. “Yes sir, I’d like to rent two cars. I’m with Elvis Presley. He’s down the road at a motel.” Thinking it would help, I handed him the wallet. Flipping through the cards, he asked, “What are you telling me? Elvis Presley?” “Yeah,” I answered. Flinging the wallet at me, he screamed, “Get the hell outta here!”
As I retreated and headed back to the motel, it occurred to me that the easiest way to get from Needles to Los Angeles would be by cab. When I got back to the room I phoned a local taxi service, and the people there were only too happy to help. Within minutes, two cabs were at the motel, and we were ready to go.
We loaded all of the luggage into one cab, then Jerry, Red, Billy, Elvis and I crawled wearily into the second. As we rode down the highway, our young driver couldn’t stop turning his head around every few minutes to stare at Elvis, or look at him in the rear view mirror. That was understandable, but when he hit a cruising speed of ninety miles an hour and still couldn’t keep his eyes off Elvis, I yelled, “Hey, man, slow down! You’re going to kill us. Yes, this is Elvis Presley. Just calm down or I’ll have to take the wheel.”
All the way back our driver was visibly nervous. When we arrived in Bel Air about four hours later, the other guys who’d lost us on the road during the drive were lined up in front of the house, waiting.
While everyone was dealing with the luggage Elvis asked me how much the fare was. I told him a hundred and sixty dollars for both cabs. He then asked how much cash I had on me. I checked my wallet. “Little over five hundred bucks.”
Elvis said, “Hey, these guys probably never even leave Needles, and they sure don’t get customers like us every day. They work hard, and could probably use a break. Just give ‘em what you have there, I’ll pay you back later.”
In a nutshell, that’s a window into Elvis’ heart and soul. After all he’d been through, a life-altering experience, he always kept his feet on the ground – and thought about others.
I may not have told this story much over the years – but I bet those two cab drivers have told it over and over to anyone who would listen. And if they’re still alive, and by some fluke should ever – which is most unlikely – happen to read this, they’ll now have the real back story.