Sitting on a stool on the stage of the Alaskan Hotel & Bar at open mike night, a man introduced himself as Sal Paradise and took the microphone in his hand, telling the crowd that he's only been in Juneau four days. He strummed his guitar and sang his wandering songs to the receptive crowd.
To the man who knew the bottle like the back of his hand
Travel on depression all across the land
For the man whose wounded heart was scarred way too deep to heal
Ride the locomotives as they grind their steel wheels.
Paradise wrote these lyrics in a song called, "Today We'll Dress in Black," a tribute to the late singer Johnny Cash. He said the song is somewhat autobiographical.
The legend sang a sad song, he sang it from soul
The only man's music carved diamonds from lumps of coal
The legend made that radio cry, cry tears like hearts of mine
Every time I hear that radio, with you I'll walk the line.
"I don't have any one song that really sums it all down because it would take too long. That's what we call a book," Paradise said. "But I have songs that sum up certain situations in my life, sum up certain feelings that I was feeling in that moment in time."
Some may recognize the name Sal Paradise from Jack Kerouac's novel "On the Road," a book that famously extols the vagabond lifestyle.
Paradise has traveled in the U.S., Europe and Central America - hitchhiking, riding trains and playing music. He describes himself as a hobo and offers this definition:
"There's a difference between (people) who live outside. There's a hobo, a tramp and a bum. A hobo is someone who travels and works. A tramp is someone who travels and dreams. And a bum just finds somewhere comfortable and sits there. So I'm a hobo because I travel and work," he said.
Paradise plays guitar and harmonica, and sings covers and original songs. He's been busking (street performing) for about ten years and doesn't often perform in bars.
"I prefer to play amplified on a closed street corner, echoing off the concrete and the snow. It always sounds a lot better than a speaker," he said.
Living on the road forces one to develop survival skills, a lifestyle Paradise said he enjoys.
"There's nothing more satisfying than riding the rails," Paradise said. "There's nothing more therapeutic and nothing more honest. When you're on the rails no one can hear you scream, there's no one there to help you. You have to be able to take care of yourself."
"You know on a train, it doesn't really matter where you're going. After riding a long time you can read a train. If there's empty lumber cars, it's going north. If its empty steel cars, it's going east," he said.
Paradise bought a ferry ticket to Juneau thinking he would hitchhike north from here; he didn't realize there is no road out. He's found a job and is getting by until he can earn enough to move on. Since there are no trains in Juneau, he will, at least temporarily, be riding on buses and ferries to get around.
"You can get on a train with a warm sleeping bag, cardboard and a bottle of water, or a bottle of wine, and you'll end up where the grass really is greener on the other side, at least for the next few days," he said. "Eventually, the grass will die and you'll have to find that green grass again, but there's always another train yard."
Teri Tibbett is a writer, musician and photographer living in Juneau. She can be reached at www.tibbett.com.