The Day the Music Died

Our friend Molly recently surprised us with three CDs full of fantastic road trip music. She asked for an address a week or two ahead of where we were at the time so we knew she was mailing something but we didn’t know exactly what. When we received the package and saw what was inside we were thrilled to have new tunes to listen to. When you spend as much time on the road as we do, the larger your roadtrip music collection the better. The three CDs from Molly added to two CDs we received from Kevin’s parents back in May at our RV-warming party. Our roadtrip music collection is starting to grow!

That’s not the music we are referring to in this blog title, however. The music from Molly is alive and well and continues to enhance the beautiful scenery of America as we cruise along the highways and byways in our gypsy wagon. The title of our blog post actually refers to February 3, 1959.

Like most people, we are familiar with Don McLean’s song, “American Pie” and can sing along to many of the lyrics. What we didn’t realize, however, is that American Pie was written about the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper in a corn field in Clear Lake, Iowa In 1959. We know this now because our friend Tom  asked us as we left his house in Minnesota if we were going to visit the Surf Ballroom as we headed south through Iowa to Missouri. Our response was “The surf what? People surf in Iowa?”

It turns out that the Surf Ballroom is the last place that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper ever played. It holds a lot of other music history as well, and for many years was the place for musicians to be seen and heard, but is now most famous for its ties to this tragedy. The three musicians left the Surf Ballroom on February 2 after playing an evening show and their flight took off in snowy conditions just after midnight on February 3. It wasn’t long before their young pilot lost contact with the control tower and the plane crashed just miles away. As we started reading more and more about this event we decided we would stop in Clear Lake and find the crash site.

Fortunately for us, the directions provided at Roadside America told us exactly where to go. Even better, they included instructions like “go east on gravel road”, “just past the grain bins” and “walk along the fence row west for just under a half-mile.” We followed the instructions, parked our car at the steel black rimmed glasses (a large replica of the glasses Holly wore) and trekked the half-mile through the corn fields.

As seems to be the norm at memorial sites, previous visitors had left behind a variety of tribute items: CD cases, starfish, high school ID cards, necklaces, cans of Dr. Pepper, flowers and more. Some items seemed random, but none of it surprised us. What did surprise us, however, was that in a world where some people try to make a dollar off of anything and everything (and everyone) there was no ticket booth here, no admission fee, no one trying to hawk any trinkets. The farmer who owns this land simply plants his corn around the memorial site, leaving enough space for people to gather, and mows a path from the road out to the field so anyone can access it and pay tribute.

The next time we hear American Pie we will think of these three musicians and their pilot, four young lives that ended too soon. And as we continue on our journey and visit more sites around the country, we’ll think back to this kind farmer and the walk we took through his cornfield on a quiet Monday afternoon in July.


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