Wednesday, November 12, 2014

TMFW 62 - They Wanted the Highway

On July 2, 1997, reporter Denise Gamino filed a story for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper.  Appearing on page B1 under the headline "Elderly Salado couple missing on road to nowhere," the story opened up dramatically: "Lela and Raymond Howard are on a four-day road trip into thin air. The Central Texas couple, in their 80s with diminishing health,
somehow have turned a 15-mile journey for a cup of coffee and a party into a 500-mile-plus misadventure with no known destination."

As the story went on to explain, the couple left their house four days earlier on June 29, apparently bound for a festival in the town of Temple, 17 miles straight up I-35 from Salado. Mrs. Howard was 83 and was likely suffering from Alzheimer's disease; her husband was five years older and was "impaired from brain surgery."  The couple made it to a Wal-Mart for their coffee - they were regulars there and the greeter remembered seeing them first thing that morning - but from there they kept right on going.  Headed northeast, by that night they'd made it as far as Logan County, Arkansas, (look at that gorgeous courthouse!), a not-easy-to-get-to place where they were pulled over by a sheriff's deputy for driving without headlights.

The deputy described Mrs. Howard as "polite" and "gentle," and said "she acted just like my grandmother.''  Though they were headed the wrong way when they told the deputy that they were going toward Texas, though Mrs. Howard kept driving for two miles before pulling over for the flashing lights behind her, though she could not answer a basic question about where they lived in Texas, and though they were driving at night without headlights, the deputy sent them on their way.
Not less than an hour later, the Howards were pulled over by a different sheriff's deputy in Yell County (look at that gorgeous courthouse!), the next county east.  This time, instead of no headlights Lela Howard was driving with her high beams on. Like his counterpart in Logan County, the Yell County deputy sent the Howards on their way.  Then they disappeared.
The story described how the Howards' cat Happy was waiting for them at home, and how Lela's son and daughter-in-law were looking after the house waiting hopefully for their return. They turned on the porch light at the house "so it wouldn't look so lonely over there.
Over the next two weeks, Gamino followed the story.  On July 3, she reported on page B3 that the couple had been spotted at a farmer's market in Arkansas, and that authorities in 11 states were on alert.  On the 4th, page B7 told readers that authorities had narrowed their search to a three county area in Arkansas.  By the 9th, the Howards had been missing for 11 days.  The story had been reported on CBS's morning news show, and it had made it to page A1.  Under the headline "Couple's home holds no clues," the newspaper reported that the couple had laid out several changes of clothes on the bed, and that the television had been unplugged from the wall.  It also included some sad details about the couple's mental decline: for example, one day Lela phoned her son, explaining that they had just been to Wal-Mart for their coffee and breakfast but were concerned that the sun was not yet up at 10:30.  It was 10:30 p.m.
The Howards story came to a conclusion on July 12th, when two teenagers hiking in the Ouachita Mountains just north of Hot Springs, Arkansas (look at that gorgeous courthouse!) found the Howards' car in a ravine at the bottom of a 25-foot cliff off of Arkansas State Highway 7 (a bit less than 100 miles west of Searcy (look at that gorgeous courthouse!)).  There were no skid marks at the road above, and officials estimated that the Howards had gone off the cliff at 50 miles per hour.
The details of the Howards' death were heartbreaking: Raymond's body was still in the car, while Lela's was about 20 feet away.  She was holding her purse and car keys; after the accident she had put the car in park, turned off the headlights, walked around to the passenger side and opened Raymond's door, and then had apparently crawled for a few yards before collapsing in the ravine from her injuries.  The car was in an area that had been searched by both Arkansas officials and by the Howards' family, but it was filled with lush forest and steep cliffs that obscured the vehicle.  A deputy sheriff in Yell County, in perhaps the most Arkansas quote in history, explained: "You can get lost up here mighty easy...Flying is your only chance of finding them in this terrain unless a coon hunter goes in there and finds them.'' After autopsies confirmed that their deaths were an accident, the Howards' bodies were returned to their family in Texas for burial.  
I hope that you found that interesting, but (unless you figured it out from the title or you already know today's fact) you are likely wondering where the True Music Fact is in the Howards' sad story.  Here it comes: among the people who followed Ms. Gamino's reporting in Austin was a local musician named Tony Scalzo.  Inspired by the story - and according to him before they found the missing couple's bodies - Scalzo wrote a song that imagined the couple making a choice to leave their house for the open road, where they became immortal and lived happily ever after.  His band Fastball recorded the song, called "The Way," and released it as the first single on their album All the Pain Money Can Buy.  The song reached number 1 on the Modern Rock chart, number 1 in Canada, and number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it propelled All the Pain Money Can Buy to platinum status.  Knowing the real story, the chorus of the song is bittersweet:
Anyone can see the road that they walk on is paved in gold
It's always summer, they'll never get cold
They'll never get hungry, they'll never get old and gray
You can see the shadows wandering off somewhere
They won't make it home, but they really don't care
They wanted the highway, they're happier there today
The excellent has a comprehensive write-up of today's fact, with quotes from Scalzo about the song and from Ms. Gamino about the Howards' story.  It's a nice read.
BONUS FACT: There's a reason the newspaper reports referenced above were so oddly specific (other than for some dramatic build-up): to research this story, I paid SIX BUCKS for a day pass to the archives of the Austin American-Statesman. Because that's the kind of intrepid fact gathering you've come to expect from TMFW. 
BONUS FACT 2: While researching today's TMFW , I discovered that Ms. Gamino's reporting on the Howards' disappearance also inspired a chapter in the new YA novel Evidence of Things Not Seen by Lindsey Lane.  Five stars on Amazon!
BONUS FACT 3:  "The Way" was covered by Alvin and the Chipmunks for their 2007 video game.  I am a-ok with the Chipmunks, but their version is just terrible.
BONUS FACT 4:  Inspiration for today's entry came from TMFW subscriber #1: my friend Jinx.  A couple of months ago, he posted to Facebook some lyrics to the song "You're an Ocean," from Fastball's second record The Harsh Light of Day.  That reminded me of this story and set me down the path.  There's no fact here, I guess, other than that "You're an Ocean" is a terrific song.
BONUS FACT 5:  Another great song from All the Pain Money Can Buy is "Warm Fuzzy Feeling," which starts with the lyric "I got a warm fuzzy feeling, when I saw you on TV.  You were wearing a piece of me."  When I first heard the song, I heard that last part as a mondegreen: "when I saw you on TV, you were wearing a piece of meat."  12 years and one Lady Gaga "meat dress" later, it seems that Fastball were soothsayers.
BONUS FACT 5.5: "Lady Gaga's Meat Dress" has its own Wikipedia page, with over 1500 words dedicated to the fashion statement. (It was turned into jerky afterwards so it could be preserved!) (It went on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!) (Apparently it was about gay rights?)


  1. Dear TMFW,
    I followed your link to Logan County, Arkansas and accidentally ended up adopting the county. While the courthouse there is gorgeous, I'm having a bit of buyer's remorse.
    What's your return policy?

  2. Andy - Thanks for giving it a shot, buddy. We have a 100% refund policy. Present your receipt and we'll give back your total purchase price.