Once, a harmonica saved my life.
I was 20 years old and setting off on a voyage that would take me hitchhiking from one coast of the US to the other. Before leaving, I bought my first harmonica. It was an intuition. I just knew that for this voyage, I would need a harmonica.
One day I was stuck in the desert along Interstate 395 waiting for someone, anyone, to stop. I played around on my new harmonica, starting to get the feel of it. I had plenty of time on my hands.
Finally, I got picked up by a rancher who was returning from a hunting expedition with his buddies. We traveled for several hours together, hardly talking and then he announced that he was turning off the main road (for what it was) to go his ranch. I looked out the window but there was nothing to be seen; the land just extended outward empty and unpeopled as far as the eye could see.
I didn’t want to get out. I wanted to stay in the cab of his pick-up with the radio playing softly and the comforting vinyl accoutrements of civilization. Desperate, I suggested that I might travel to his ranch with him and hitchhike out of there in the morning, but he scoffed at that. “No cars come down that road; you have to get out here.” And so I did.
I was at the crossroads of two asphalted strips laid out in that barren desert. I waited for an hour, but only one car passed and its passengers did not even look at me as I implored them for a ride. Soon the sun set behind the clouds eliminating any chance that someone would stop – even if they could see me in their headlights. I prepared to spend the night.
I gathered brittle desert bushes to make a fire. Once it was lit, I began to feel better. I could not see beyond the small circle of red light, but within it I created my refuge.
Until they arrived. First it was a distant howl, then it was the snap of a twig in the dark. Then came the growls and yelps. I could hear them but aside from the occasional glint of the flame in their eyes, I could not see them. I was surrounded by a pack of wild dogs. I could feel them in the dark, eyeing me, evaluating me, calculating the odds. It would be a long night, staying awake to stay alive.
Two things kept me alive that night. The fire kept the dogs at bay while the music filled the dark void around me. The sound of the harmonica and the notes of a folk song handed down to me through my ancestors kept me from going crazy under the unbearable stress of their cruel gaze. It kept me from surrendering to their hungry eyes. The fire may have kept them back, but it was the sound of my harmonica that kept me sane — until the morning light dispersed them so completely that I did not know if they had ever even existed.