I like to play the guitar. I own a few of them, but out of fear of damage from the elements (hot truck beds, big swings in humidity, cacti), I chose not to bring any with me on our grand journey. Instead, I decided I would find a cheap but lovable acoustic guitar somewhere on the road that I wouldn’t mind treating a little rough. Bisbee is a music town, and after being here for a week and feeling like we were living in a perpetual folk festival I was itching to have my own instrument again. So I started looking.
One day after work we went into Acacia Art & Antiques, one of the several antique stores up Main Street. I was immediately drawn to a lovely blond classical guitar propped up near the entrance. It was a 3/4 size (a plus for Airstream life), in great shape, and had a rich tone. The price tag was $95, which, though affordable for a guitar, was more than I wanted to spend on impulse, so I left it there.
I decided a few days later that the the universe was speaking, that the blond guitar was meant for me. I would write songs on it about the adventures we would have on this trip and sing them to our future children, eventually passing the guitar on to them. But when I went back to buy it, it was gone. The owner of the antique store told me that a man named Mike (I’ll refer to him as Music Mike) had just bought it the day before. Music Mike was a local musician and apparently somewhat of a local celebrity in Bisbee. When I stared blankly upon hearing his unfamiliar name, the shop owner laughed and said, “you must not have been here long if you don’t know Music Mike.” He then showed me a video posted that day on Music Mike’s Instagram depicting a man strumming the very guitar that I had wanted, which made me want it even more.
Disappointed, I half-heartedly browsed the store for consolation guitars. There was another medium brown classical model in stock for $85, but it was not as nice. One of the strings was wound backward on the peg, another was steel instead of nylon. The case was the wrong size for the guitar, and had stickers on it of a mushroom, a butterfly, an ocean wave with the word Roxy, and an octagon that read, “311 Chaos Tour 02 Aftershow.” It didn’t speak to me.
In a different part of the store there was a real beat-up (but full of character) steel string guitar for $45. The tuning pegs could barely turn though, and the frets hung off the neck like thorns. It seemed like more of a decorative item than an instrument. I left empty-handed. (Later, I came back with my tuner and a set of pliers to see if the $45 beater guitar could be tuned. It couldn’t.)
I spoke to Barbara at Bisbee Books & Music, who said that they were getting in a shipment of 3/4 size classical guitars soon. I half-heartedly pinned my hopes there, but I was still attached to the old blond guitar that was now owned by Music Mike. Rather than letting it go, I decided that the best thing to do would be to find a way to meet Music Mike in person, possibly befriend him, and then ask to buy back his guitar. We had two weeks left in Bisbee, and now I had some kind of a mission.
I started following Music Mike on Instagram. One day he posted a flyer for a “Music Mike and Friends” show at the Copper Queen, so we went. We got there right as St. Cinder was packing up. Music Mike seemed to know everybody, and had a bunch of other locals in his band. They mainly did jammy covers and looked like they were just having fun. He wasn’t playing the blond classical guitar. I knew I wasn’t going to approach him about it tonight.
A week or so passed, and I tried to put the hunt for the guitar out of my mind. Another one would come to me sooner or later, and it wouldn’t kill me to be guitarless for a little longer. We went about our routine of working in town, making meals at home, planning future legs of our trip, and just living our normal lives as residents of Bisbee, Arizona.
One morning Courtney had some video calls to do, so she stayed home at the RV park while I went in to Bisbee Coffee Company to start my workday. It was the postcard of a Bisbee morning. Ray the barista poured my coffee as usual while the lead singer from St. Cinder sang songs from the 1930s on the sidewalk out front. Barbara from Bisbee Books & Music walked in to open her shop, saw me, and told me that the acoustic guitars had finally arrived, but were out of tune. She then went outside and gave the St. Cinder guy 5 bucks to come in and tune them, which he did. I followed shortly to take a look at the guitars.
They were fine, but they were new, made in China, and didn’t have the character of the vintage blond one I had wanted in the antique store. I knew I wasn’t going to buy one, and had resigned myself to not finding a guitar in Bisbee. I picked up one of the guitars to give it a courtesy test strum anyway, and it was at that moment that Music Mike walked into the store.
I did a double take but didn’t say anything. I just kept softly strumming some open chords, wondering if this was the moment when I would ask my big question. Barbara was in the middle of explaining that the guitars were having trouble staying in tune, and Music Mike (while thumbing through the vinyl collection) jumped into the conversation, remarking that that was common of nylon string guitars. “Over-tight, overnight” he said, meaning that if you overwind the strings and leave them, the next day they’ll be more properly stretched out, more able to keep their tune. He then said that he performed with classical guitars a lot (a fact I already knew), and that breaking and replacing a nylon string during a show is a nightmare.
I ached to explain to Music Mike that I was internet-stalking the guitar he had just bought, and that I wanted to buy it back from him. I said, “you probably have to retune it halfway through each song when that happens.”
Mike said, “yeah seriously,” and then left.
I wrestled with regret for half the afternoon. But later I snapped out of it, and found him on Instragram and just sent him a direct message, explaining myself and asking point blank if I could buy the guitar. He replied right away, politely, and without asking any questions about who I was or how I knew about his recent purchase, simply saying that he was sorry but he loved that guitar and was going to record with it. I told him that in that case it sounded like the guitar was in its rightful place, and I meant it. I wished him luck with recording and he said thanks. I had done all I could, and I felt immense relief.
I went back up to Acacia Art & Antiques to see if they had any other guitars in stock, and was surprised to see the old 3/4 classical in the brown case with the 311 sticker still sitting there. I had forgotten all about it. I took it out, tuned it, it felt great, and I bought it. The lady at the checkout desk said, “it’s a great travel guitar,” and I said that’s exactly right.
In celebration, I decided to drive up to The Divide and see what that was all about. I found my way up Tombstone Canyon Road to the overlook above Mule Pass Tunnel. There was nobody around and no cars parked except a conspicuous school bus with the words “ST. CINDER” painted on the side in big black letters. It felt like a good sign.
There was a gravel road called Juniper Flats that led uphill from The Divide overlook. A sign urged caution on the primitive roadway and steep grade. I turned the truck and went up the mountain.
Juniper Flats Road led to the top of a red rock ridge high above AZ 80. The only thing around were some radio towers and a few crunchy looking off-grid homesteads. I could see everything from up there. To the west across the valley was Sierra Vista, with the green Huachuca Mountains and Miller peak rising beyond. The historic district of Bisbee, its surrounding red hills, and the rim of the Lavender Pit mine were nestled down to the southeast. Due south was Mexico and the tiny border town of Naco. And to the east I could see the flats, pale and hazy, out where Double Adobe Road stretched on toward Chiricahua National Monument, and where nestled in the scrub somewhere was Desert Oasis RV Park, and our Airstream—our little home—inside which Courtney was now relaxing, done with her work for the day, unaware that I was on top of a mountain looking down at her with a new old guitar in the back seat.
I soaked it all in, took a few photos, and then drove back down to get groceries and a Redbox and to make dinner for me and my wife.
The next week I put new strings on the guitar and tuned it up (over-tight, overnight). It was a handsome guitar, I liked the rich brown color. The action was nice and it felt good to play.
The 311 concert sticker on the case had a tour date on it: April 13, 2002. I was a freshman in college then (and admittedly a 311 fan), and I was getting ready for a family vacation to the Grand Canyon, which would be my first visit to Arizona. I looked up that date online and found that it was from a concert at the Rialto Theater in Tucson, a town that now has extra personal significance to Courtney and me. I knew now that things were the way they were supposed to be. The blond was meant for Music Mike, but this little guitar was meant for me.