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Wrong Exit


Now, you know that life often doesn't provide exactly what you want on a silver platter. You got to work it. Our next story was recorded live at a storytelling gathering across the bay in San Francisco. So go ahead. Get cozy. Meet Joe Wilcox who is 19, and Joe didn't know what to do with his life. SNAP JUDGMENT.

JOE WILCOX: All right. I hit the road in an old Chevy Suburban that my godfather had loaned me. And, you know, I was basically walking in the footsteps of the beats with Kerouac and on the road and, like, really seeking the West. I grew up in North Carolina, and I took this long - I call it a driveabout, you know. You do the walkabout in Australia, and I was just on a driveabout. I had a little money saved up from my jobs as a teenager. And I was just spending and living and sleeping in the truck and seeing the West. And I was looking for, you know - I was looking for people that lived off the grid. I was looking to get as far away from society as I could really. And I wanted to find this, you know, some unseen part of the world - some, like, wild part of the world.

I wind up landing in this place called Detrital Valley, which is about as far as I could get from anywhere and still be close enough to get a cheeseburger, which is really important. And it's about 50 miles north of Kingman - about 50 miles south of the Hoover Dam - right in the middle of nowhere. And you can see the mountains on the other side of Las Vegas from it. It was just this vast, sort of alluvial plane that was incredibly beautiful. And right in the middle of it was this old cafe called Rosie's Den at the Boulder Inn. And around Rosie's Den, there was this cluster of these desert rats that lived, and somehow I had landed at this swap meet run by this somewhat mentally unstable guy.


WILCOX: We'll call him Ray - methamphetamine addict running a swap meet that he - on land that he didn't own - real sketch ball, but really fascinating. He used to rant at me about humans were the results of the interbreeding between aliens and apes and how the Chinese army was going to invade any time, and I need topographical maps to find my way back and all of this stuff. But it was exciting, you know. I didn't give [bleep].

And the rest of my friends were, you know, off at college, and I was like, man, this is the Wild West. This is where I wanted to be. And the bargain and trade economy out there and the people living, it was very interesting - a lot of old veterans, a lot of just people who were trying to get as far away from society as they could like me. So things went bad in the desert. And that sounds so cliche, but things went bad in the desert, man. They went bad, bad.


WILCOX: And - I mean, I'll just give you a quick taste of it. There was a guy. We'll call him - I haven't decided on a name for him - let's call him Jeff. And Jeff had killed the guy who had broken into his trailer. And he had a wife and kids in there, and he shot this kid and killed him. And he went to jail for 3 years. I never met this man. But somebody had cut the lock on this guy's shed, and his tools that all had his name on them wandered around the valley. And everybody - this guy was getting out in, like, a month, and so everybody's getting their tools together. And they're going to put them back in the shed and put the lock back on.


WILCOX: But, Ray, the guy who owned the swap meet or ran the swap meet - he didn't own it - he had a bunch of stuff that said Jeff, you know? And I was like, hey, man, you know, you got to get that - he's like, oh, no, I traded out for that, you know? I traded a buzz saw for that or whatever - a jackhammer. It was absurd, right?

And so I sort of was in the middle of this 'cause I was more or less this guy's errand boy, you know? I was, like, hanging out and helping him out in order to get room and, you know, some enough money to eat 'cause I'd run out of money by that point. That's sort of an underlying current to this story - I'm stuck in the desert.

So at one point, I went to this guy Billy's house, and I was answered by a sawed-off shotgun and a very angry man. And this light went on that things are going bad in the desert - things have gone bad. So I got in my truck and I drove south. And I just drove and drove and drove, and I was - I basically had a complete mental nervous breakdown. And I'm 19 years old, and I'm at the end of the road. I feel like my, you know, I gave it my best shot. I tried to find something in the Wild West, and I found more than I could handle. And I just wanted a bath, man. And I just wanted to sleep for a week.

So I was heading to my uncle's house down 93 - down in Tucson. And I was ready to land and just ready to give up. I'm done with tweekers and desert rats and all the rest. And what happened is I was going to take a different route to Tucson. I was going to go through Sequoia National Forest, and I took the wrong exit off the highway and I wounded up in a little town called Marana. And off to the right side of the road was this big-top circus, and it was about 9 at night. The sun had gone down. The sky was still a little bit dusky. And this thing was lit up like a mirage, you know? And it was beautiful. And I never had seen anything quite like it 'cause it was small. It was not like a giant, you know, giant big top. But it was, you know, a few hundred feet long. And I drove by it just thinking how beautiful it was and I was like, man I got to check it out.

So I flipped around and I drove up. And I walked up to the concession wagon, and I asked him - I asked the guy there - this big burly dude with tattoos. I was like, hey, how long are you going to be here? And he said, you want a job? And I said, no, I really don't want a job, man. I really am done with the sketchiness. I just - I want to see the circus, you know. And he's like, well, we're tearing down the tent right now. He's like, we pay $10 an hour - help us tear down the tent, you know, tomorrow we're going to be in Tucson. You can come see the show for free. It's, like, 10 bucks an hour, you know. I hadn't seen cash, like I said, in a month or so. And then he starts working me. He's like, what are you, 18, 19? He's like, this is the ideal job for a young man like you.


WILCOX: You see the country. You got cash money all the time. It's free, you know - expenses are paid. You got a place to say. You have no bills to pay. He's like, what are you living for now? He's like, what are you doing out here? And he had - he totally had my number.


WILCOX: So I agreed, at least, to help them tear down the tent. And I was very dubious because he seemed somewhat sketchy. But he did, you know, spit a good game. So tearing down that big top was like being swallowed by some crazy machine. It was like, five minutes after the show ends - the lights are down, the sidewalls dropped, guys are just filing in. There's these dudes, like, loading poles. And I'm just like swept up in it, and this guy's hollering orders at me.

So we're supposed to - we get in line and he's - this guy BJ - BJ Hebert was the tent boss at the time. Big Yogi Bear-looking guy with a ponytail. And he's giving us three poles, and we're supposed to take them to the truck. And so I'm in line with all these guys, and I take my three poles to the truck. And I load them up, and I come back. And here's this guy coming at me full bore with, like, eight poles. And he's got this cigarette that's, like, all ember, and he goes - get out of the way. And I, like, duck down.


WILCOX: And he goes over me, and I'm watching him, and comes back. And his shirt says - exercise solves everything. And I was like...


WILCOX: ...Who is that? I said to somebody, and the guy goes - that's the owner. That's the owner of the whole circus. And so I was to come to know Red Johnson, the owner of the circus, and BJ Hebert and Lester Moore and Jimmie Vaughan and whole cast of amazing characters because I joined the show the next day.

In Lulu Walker Elementary School, I saw them round-housing sledgehammers - four guys in a circle driving the stakes into the ground. And I said, I want to learn how to do that. Over the course of the next six years - so Culpepper and Merriweather Circus would go a different town every day for eight months with no days off. So 250 towns, 25 states. By the end of the week, I'd seen half of Arizona, and we were into California. I called my parents from Black Canyon City. And I was like, I joined a circus. And they...


WILCOX: And this is how traumatized my parents were; they were relieved that I joined the circus.


WILCOX: You know, they hadn't heard from me in months. I'd been jumping trains in Mexico. I'd been living in caves in Reno. It was bad, you know. So they saved the little cassette tape, and I went on to work several jobs. I was a curtain guy. I sold Cokes in addition to putting up the tent and taking it down every day. And then, for one year, I was the boss of that crew, which was tremendously stressful. And then, the last three years on the show, I was a show drummer in the live band that accompanied performances. And so all of this is from a wrong exit off a highway.

So this idea that sometimes you're driving through life, you know, and it might be a wrong exit that you take. But if you can look around, there might be a big top off to the side. And if the conditions of your life are right, and you're willing, you just might get on board. So that's my story


WASHINGTON: Now, just because Joe's not at the circus anymore doesn't mean he's not having fun. These days he pays the bills by inventing toys. And, Joe, we like your style. If you want to hear more stories just like this one, check out the podcast True Story. It's an intimate storytelling affair. We'll have a link on our website - snapjudgment.org.

It's that time. But don't fret - don't frown. No. Just subscribe to the SNAP JUDGMENT podcast and always have your stories when you need them. See what I'm saying? Get in the conversation. Got the Facebook, SNAP JUDGMENT - Twitter, Snap SNAP JUDGMENT.

Did you ever base jump off of El Capitan at moonlight? Well, neither has the Corporation for Public Broadcasting because it wouldn't be prudent, wouldn't be prudent at all. But much love for CPB. Prx.org exchanges various things for public radios. Clean - clear out your attic and let them know - prx.org. WBEZ in Chicago insists they W-B-easy in Chicago.

And even though this is not the news - no way is this the news. In fact, you could find Tupac, Biggie Smalls and Michael Jackson down at the house of pancakes playing dominoes with Willie Nelson and you would still not be as far away from the news as this is. But this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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